Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project – Round 3

My prior post about the bottling of a Single Oak group buy was all you needed to know that a review of Single Oak Round 3 was coming soon.

Without rehashing history too much, the Single Oak Project is Buffalo Trace’s multi-year project to experiment with seven key variables to see how they affect the profile of a bourbon. At times it’s been called the quest for “the perfect bourbon” – a point that many have correctly noted will not be the end result of this project. I haven’t taken it too literally but have chosen to view this as an in-depth education on these things. However, there are some points to consider – we’ll discuss them later.

The seven variables that are being examined are, once again,

  • Warehouse (modern concrete vs. traditional wood)
  • Barrel char (#3 lighter char; #4 heavier char)
  • Grain tightness (tight, average, wide)
  • Entry proof (125, 105)
  • Recipe (wheat, rye)
  • Stave seasoning time (6 months, 12 months)
  • Stave location (top of tree, bottom of tree)

Round 3 one again carries through with the usual wheat and rye and grain coarseness variables. This time the other isolated variable is the entry proof – the proof that the spirit is at when it goes into barrels. All barrels in this round were bottom cut, concrete floor, #4 char, 6 month seasoned bottles. As always, the final product is bottled at 90 proof and is 8 years old.

As to the primary experiment of 125 vs 105 entry proof, results were inconclusive. I had a marked preference for the higher entry proof on the tight grained bourbons. I preferred the lower entry proof rye and wheat was a split on the average grain, and on the coarse grain it was split – preferring the higher proof rye and the lower proof wheat. If anything this may indicate a slight preference for higher proof ryes and lower proof wheaters, but there’s a lot of experiments left that will reinforce that or negate the assumption.

Wheaters were slightly my preference this time by average grade, though I thought the best barrel this time out was a rye recipe. Once again, the grain coarseness is also relatively inconclusive, though average grain fared the best overall this time. As more experiments are tried, perhaps some clear preferences may emerge. For now, though, it’s 36 bourbons into a 192 bourbon project – many, many more to go.

So what are the highlights?

Barrel 136: The best of round 3

I thought Barrel 136 was the best of Round 3. This was a 125-proof entry, coarse grained rye recipe. This had sweetness up front with peaches in the mix, gained heat on the palate and had lots of dimension, but then went surprisingly into tannic territory on the finish with black tea and red wine playing against the caramel and wood. It was complex and interesting.

Barrel 120: The best wheater

The best wheater in my opinion was Barrel 120 – a low-proof entry that is primarily a big, sweet bourbon that gets some balance and character from some black cherry notes which shine in the finish, balancing black cherry and maple syrup in a really nice combination.

Barrel 56: At least it looks nice

What ones should be avoided this time out? I thought Barrel 56 was a disorganized, incoherent mess. Drink enough of Barrel 56 and you probably will be too. Barrel 167 wasn’t bad, but again didn’t hold together coherently – sour, earthy, tannic, a little sweet, a little dry. I couldn’t put my finger on anything I distinctly didn’t like (again, nothing near as awful as Release 1′s barrels 3 & 4) but it was completely forgettable and disorganized.

Now, before going on to the full paste of tasting notes, a word about the project. As I was entering my reviews on the Single Oak Project website, I started to notice what I think might be a problem for the experiment’s dataset. Apparently in past reviews I’d been stingy with my scores on their site – I just don’t score whiskies the way they do and a 10-point scale is hard for me to reconcile on things like “color”. For me the score is the sum of its parts and saying something has a 9-point finish is hard to do since it’s part of the whole experience. Anyway, my scores seemed to come in consistently higher than previously – but I will say that I still think Release 2′s Barrel 61 is the best of the bunch. However, my scores on the Single Oak Project website doubtless put several ahead of 61 at this point.

Given that these are spaced out every quarter over 4 years, I’m not sure how accurate the final result will be, especially if people suffer grade inflation like I did this time around. That’s a long time to remain 100% consistent in your scoring of profiles for people who don’t do this for a living.

Overall, Release 3 was agreeable but didn’t have a lot of stand-outs. That’s good in the case of the standouts of Release 1 (mostly bad) but unfortunate compared to Release 2 which I thought was fairly strong. On average though, most of these were decent enough and at least worth a try.

Once again, Drinkhacker has a different take on things. That’s the only set of full notes I’ve found for Release 3.

And now, the tasting notes and ratings for this set of 12 whiskies.

Want to see all the scores so far? Check the Single Oak Scorecard.

Full Tasting Notes For Round Three

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 8, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Floral. Slight caramel. A little cinnamon, some orange, vanilla. Rather light on the nose. A bit of corn and general grain.
Palate: 
Mouth-coating and rich. Big push of caramel initially, followed by vanilla, cinnamon, light orange and a bit of black cherry. Starts a gentle warming. 
Finish: 
Strong, big black cherry note at first, heat not present on palate and finish is assertive. White pepper, a bit of marshmallow, light hay. Moderately woody. Nice and long-lasting. 
Comment: 
Really enjoyable finish. This one builds and builds. 
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 24, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Caramel and vanilla; maple syrup; thin and lightly solvent in nature. Medium wood. Slightly piney.
Palate: 
Slightly thin. Bitter wood initially, followed by black cherries and a bit of marshmallows. A light orange note, a touch of maple syrup. Gains heat; somewhat dogged by the bitterness though throughout.
Finish: 
Hot and dry. Bitter wood and a hint of vegetables (celery root; romaine), a fair amount of cherry, some black pepper. 
Comment:  This is kind of a strange mix of bitterness and heat. Doesn’t work for me. 
Rating:
C+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 40, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Moderate corn sweetness and a gentle grainy aroma. Maple syrup, light caramel. Very faint white pepper. A bit of blackberry and pomegranate juice on the nose. 
Palate: 
Moderately light mouthfeel, sweet initially with corn notes and some faint maple syrup, a bit of caramel. Gently warming pepperiness. Very mellow. A bit of bitterness that takes a vegetable and greens character. Moderate wood. 
Finish: 
Pepper from the palate and some wood, with a little of the grain from the nose. Some cherry tartness. 
Comment: 
Uncomplicated but pretty enjoyable.
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 56, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Slightly sharp and spirity. Moderate bananas and a bit of marzipan. Red wine. Light grains, faint marshmallow note. 
Palate: 
Thin. Mildly astringent yet oddly buttery. Somewhat woody. Szechuan pepper. Light maple syrup. Moderately warming. Black cherry undertone. 
Finish: 
Hot and initially dry. Maple syrup continues. Slightly medicinal. More straightforward pepper notes; black cherry. Dry in the mouth. Some dry wood. 
Comment: 
Interesting for the assemblage of flavors, but it doesn’t hang together coherently. It’s kind of all over the place. 
Rating:
C

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 72, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Woody, musty, with a slight pine note. Butterscotch and some caramel. Light vanilla. There’s a slightly roasted, nutty note – peanuts and cashews. 
Palate: 
Moderately thick. Slowly warming. Bitter wood. Some caramel notes. Light cherries. Very very faint dusting of pepper.
Finish: 
Caramel, light vanilla, medium wood. Some pepper. Rye spice with some floral notes. A bit of black tea tannins.
Comment: 
A bit harsh – kind of unpleasant. 
Rating:
C+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 88, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Lightly piney, with moderate wood. Maple syrup, black pepper. Some faint caramel. 
Palate:   
Initially slightly sour; with wood present. Some maple syrup. Sugary notes present as well. Extremely faint vanilla. Light caramel. Some black cherries.
Finish: 
Warming slightly. Wood carries through, a bit of the sweetness plays counterpoint to the wood. Pepper goes more in the white pepper direction. Vanilla and light marshmallow notes are present. A little black cherry and black tea.
Comment: 
It’s not bad. It’s a little hotter on the palate than I’d normally like but it’s pretty decent. The dark fruit notes are a touch too dark. 
Rating:
B-

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 104, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Caramel and grain, with some wood. A bit of yeasty, fresh-baked bread. A bit sharp on the nose.
Palate:  
Somewhat thick mouthfeel; pleasant grains, gentle caramel and light maple syrup sweetness. A dusting of powdered sugar and a hint of fresh doughnuts. Building heat; marshmallow and cherry notes show up. Medium wood
Finish: 
Black tea tannins initially. Sweet but with some heat. Heavier maple syrup, powdered sugar. Raspberry jam and a bit of wood.
Comment: 
Sweet with some interesting depth. Not bad at all. 
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 120, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Medium wood, caramel, fairly upfront pepper across the nose. Extremely faint black cherry; some dusty grain. 
Palate: 
Sweet caramel, maple syrup in abundance, vanilla and leaning toward marshmallow. Faintly earthy like clay; gentle warmth. 
Finish: 
Caramel and vanilla come through; black cherry starts to build on the finish and has maple syrup as a counterpoint. Nice, gentle grain. Pleasantly lasting. 
Comment: 
Lightly nuanced; primarily a big, sweet bourbon. The finish is really a nice counterpoint on this one, giving some more dark fruit tartness. 
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 136, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Sweet on the nose – maple syrup; medium wood presence; white pepper with a dash of cinnamon; a faint touch of peach.
Palate: 
Warming but sweet – a slight dab of chili oil with caramel; rich mouthfeel. Plenty of vanilla and a faintly earthy touch. Light grains, rye, and becoming slightly dry with a hint of bitter wood. 
Finish: 
Warmth recedes beyond what’s left on the tongue – black tea tannins and a hint of red wine. Some light caramel, wood notes heavy as well as grain.
Comment: 
Some interesting heat and spice presence here. The nose hides a lot on this one; the palate has heat but not too much, and then the finish goes more tannic. Pretty interesting. 
Rating:
B+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 152, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Dry on the nose, with an even mix of pepper and wood.Fairly sharp; a bit of prickling. Very dry rye notes with a faint hint of black pepper. A touch of red wine as well.
Palate:  Caramel, sweet but with a slightly sour edge to it. Plenty of heat on the palate. A bit of maple syrup and cinnamon. A slight bit of black cherry that’s just a touch syrupy and sweet too.
Finish: 
Drying off again – rye, pepper, a hint of celery root. A bit of orange and cinnamon as well. Moderately long finish. 
Comment: 
Too dry on the nose and on the finish for me to really like this one much. Not bad; just personal taste. 
Rating:
C+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 167, 45% ABV
Nose:
Somewhat dry. Cinnamon. some corn providing sweetness, caramel and a little toffee. A hint of vanilla. A bit of soft wheat grain. 
Palate:
Vanilla; caramel and some toffee. A bit of earthiness. A bit of orange underneath everything. Faint grain. Slight sourness.
Finish: 
Drying slightly, with some light grains evident. Vague sourness and some corn notes. A bit of black tea tannins. 
Comment: 
This one is a bit hard to pin down in terms of a distinct identity. It doesn’t really seem to have a coherent identity. It doesn’t taste bad but I’d never remember this one. 
Rating:
C

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 184, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Sweet notes of caramel and maple syrup balanced by wood and white pepper. Some black cherry provides depth on the nose. Some lightly dusty notes and a bit of corn and some soft grain notes. 
Palate: 
Sweet initially, warm on the palate. Gentle heat. Light presence of black cherries; some caramel. Vanilla present but not a strong note. A bit of wheat, a bit of corn, and moderate wood that’s well integrated. 
Finish: 
Sweetness, with black cherries, white pepper, a touch of chili oil, some moderate wood and some light corn providing a bit of a sour note. The finish eventually goes just a touch more sour with wood and a light young vegetal note. Black cherries eventually emerge after that – a nice, long finish.
Comment: 
This has some good nuance and tastes like a younger Weller. The finish is just a touch off of where I’d like but this could age out into a great whiskey. 
Rating:
B

 

Bulleit Bourbon (45% ABV)

Nose:  Light notes of caramel and white pepper. A slight undertone of celery root. Light cinnamon, a trace of brown sugar and nutmeg. Very low level vanilla; an element of the nose sits on the cusp of piney young rye and mere solvent.
Palate: 
Light, a bit of vanilla. Some astringent wood. A bit of caramel. Faint orange and cinnamon.
Finish: 
Cinnamon up front with a bit of rye. Vanilla and citrus after, with white pepper asserting itself later on. 
Comment:
It lacks cohesiveness on the palate. The nose is pleasant enough aside from the funky earthy bitter note. Beyond that it’s quite light and forgettable. Not bad, not particularly good. Very middle of the road. There’s nothing bad about this one, there’s nothing that really draws me to it. It doesn’t have much to say. 
Rating:
C+

A Group Buy In Action (or: Behind The Scenes of a BTSO Blog Post)

Buffalo Trace Single Oak 3 landed a week ago, and in my original plan, I would have had a blog post up tonight discussing the ins and outs of release 3. Unfortunately, things transpired differently and I spent the better part of the last week with a cold that required acetaminophen (a terrible mixer with alcohol) and also killed my palate.

However, in my downtime I prepared the Buffalo Trace Single Oaks to split among our group buy. I thought since I’ve written about group buys before, I’d take the opportunity to show you what goes into one like this. I should also say this is, in my opinion, the very best way to do the Single Oak Project, given that there are 192 375mL bottles being released over a four year span.

Last fall I got a lead on a full case of the first release of the Single Oak Project. I contacted some of my friends – former coworkers who had some cash to burn and an adventurous spirit, as well as a couple guys in LAWS including (as always) Sku, who has been writing about this project as well over at Recent Eats. We did the math and figured that splitting a case 6 ways gave everybody just over 2 ounces per bottle, just enough to fit in the usual 2oz bottle you can get from Specialty.

From that point on it’s become a quarterly routine which should continue through until summer 2015 if my math is right. Twelve bottles become 72 sample bottles which are boxed up and handed out.

One of these boxes arrives every quarter and it’s hard to keep it closed for long. There’s something about the process of preparation that, while time-consuming, is an enjoyable ritual.

The bottles are numbered on the exterior and accompanied by a release number sticker. It seems that they planned to release them quicker initially than they have been doing. All of these have had release dates that are much earlier than they’ve actually been coming out.

Twelve bottles just waiting to be opened... the anticipation is overwhelming.

The bottles, unsurprisingly, come in standard Buffalo Trace fancy-bourbon-bottle tissue paper, which seems to only serve the purpose of obscuring barrel number (on BTSOs) or hiding valuable proof/release info (on BTACs).

Each bottle, as you’ve likely seen by now, is screened with the Single Oak Project logo and has a sticker with the barrel number.

The back label is the same for all bottles and has some information about the project. It’s worth noting that none of the Single Oak Project bottles contain any reference to the variables present on any given bottle. The intent is for you to taste them blind and learn about them on the Single Oak Project website.

Once they’re all removed from the package and paper, I then move onto the next step – photographing the bottles. I like doing this so I can have my own photographs of the bottles. Product photography is something I’ve never worked with (I studied photojournalism) so it’s an interesting challenge. Every time I set up, I tweak something different.

By real standards my approach is hopelessly low-fi. A few 200w balanced fluorescent lights, an off-camera flash, and some posterboard to provide a backdrop. I’m tolerant of some flaws in the photograph given that I also worked as a production artist for a while, so I have plenty of tricks to get the photos where I want in a matter of minutes.

A small piece of paper acts as a reflector to help pick up color.

It’s not much but there’s satisfaction in having the ability to shoot without taking up much space storing the gear in our apartment, and without having spent much money. (I think the bulbs were the single most expensive cost in the shooting setup).

I usually take the opportunity to shoot a couple other bottles that I may have soon so I can include them in posts. All in all it’s a fun diversion but it moves quickly. For the technically minded, I’ve been shooting on a Nikon D40 (due to the fact that it’s small and light) with an older 85mm f/1.4 lens which has been one of my favorites for a long time.

After the fun of photography comes the part that is both exciting and nerve-wracking: filling 72 small bottles. Making sure there are enough bottles, caps and labels on hand is important. I usually do a quick inventory beforehand. One thing that some guys are doing in our group buy is recycling their bottles. It helps, especially if they return them as I sent them, as there’s less prep work. Plus, less bottles equal less wasted cash and space – at least to my mind. I’m also not one to keep these lingering around for a long time.

The filling station, where the next two hours will be spent.

Filling is an interesting balancing act. You need to quiet the part of your mind that says “what if I spill this?” – a voice that is very loud when you know every drop is accounted for and finding these bottles is not exactly easy. If you don’t spill something with a missed pour, maybe you’ll knock over a sample bottle – or worse yet – THE bottle. I’ve found the best thing for me is to just breathe slowly and evenly, move very deliberately and not let go until I know things are stable and flat on a surface. Moving without hesitation on a pour also helps.

This is probably the most nerve wracking process and the best thing to do, at least for me, is to try and remain present and focused strictly on the mechanics of what’s going on. Tracking your progress on the bottle or the set of bottles can cause you to lose focus and make mistakes. It’s this exercise in grounding yourself and being present that is the most difficult part but simultaneously one of the most rewarding.

This would be a hell of a time to get the yips.

After two ounces have been poured in, the remainder of the bottle is poured in in small measures using a plastic 5mL pipette that came with some whisky glass order. I don’t think I’ve ever used it for the intended purpose of painstakingly measuring artisan waters flown in from the north of Scotland, but it’s useful here to get everybody full and even.

After filling, bottles are capped and labeled.

After about six bottles I need to stop and clear my head and get a breath. I take the opportunity to clean up the counter where I’m working and wash out the bottles so the bourbon smell isn’t too overpowering in the kitchen. Sometimes I get clear notes off of the bourbons (release 2), sometimes I don’t get much unique from bourbon to bourbon (release 3 didn’t have an overwhelming character aside from one bottle that smelled great). I usually will take a break at this point because it’s been about an hour – each bottle takes roughly 10 minutes to fill, counting cleanup time after each bottle.

Using the whole buffalo: Box parts are used as dividers.

After pouring and cleaning up, the next step is to parcel each set of 12 bottles into a box that will be given to each of the six guys. To protect the bottles, I cut up pieces of the box that the bottles shipped in to act as dividers among the smaller bottles.

Heat shrink wraps are used to further protect the contents as well. After all of that, it’s basically done aside from the delivery of bottles to their recipients.

I hope you enjoyed the opportunity to see a bit of an unboxing and some of what goes into these BTSO releases. It’s a few hours of work but it’s a really enjoyable process and heightens my anticipation as I go through it. I’m sure in a year or two I’ll be singing a different tune, but for now it’s a very exciting point on my calendar.

I’ll be back soon with reviews of Round 3 as well as other whiskies. Until then, after all this work (and now getting over the cold) – it’s time for a drink.

Don't forget to recycle!

Whiskey’s Other Stag

Any cursory glance of the bourbon shelves these days will reveal a growing selection of flavored whiskeys. Some of these are below 40% and are actually liqueurs – Evan Williams Honey, Southern Comfort, Wild Turkey American Honey. However, there’s one of these flavored whiskeys that actually can bear the name “whiskey” – Red Stag by Jim Beam. And just like the other Stagg – George T., to be exact – it’s got an amazingly huge presence on the palate.

Unfortunately, that was one of the negatives of this tasting.

Red Stag is labeled as a “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Infused With Natural Flavors” – black cherry in this case. The presentation of this and its heritage unfortunately tip that this is not going to be a high-road approach that perhaps mimics some of the extra-aged bourbons that can show beautiful black cherry flavors that develop with some age.

There’s a profile in bourbon that I’m a huge fan of – it’s one that’s more woody, with light vanilla notes, perhaps some pepper, occasionally a marshmallow flavor or some light clay earthiness, with a bold black cherry note as the clear central note. Executed right, these are rich and nuanced bourbons that show how absolutely incredible it can be – especially if you’re of the school that tends to write off bourbon as little more than undrinkable fire-water. I’ll place some of the finer expressions of that against virtually anything. (One really quick way to experience this flavor is to pick up a bottle of Noah’s Mill. The last couple times I’ve had it, it was right down this line with some nice sweetness to complement it).

Given that I’m not generally a fan of Jim Beam due to its tendency to have some very strident sweetness, I had two expectations of this. The first was that it would be heavy-handed and vulgar, with an incredible artificiality. The other possibility which made me chuckle was that they would do it in moderation, and I would find a really interesting if artificially created bourbon that was very close to my favorite profile at a reasonable cost. The idea of having a hoard of Red Stag was endlessly amusing.

When you open up Red Stag, there’s nothing even slightly subtle about it. Even at arm’s length I got a massive and immediate hit of a strong cherry note instead of the faintly sour sweetness you’ll smell from other bottles when you pour from them. I even held the glass above my nose and at arms length and clouds of this smell were pouring from my glass, as if it was some sort of presence that had to fill the room.

I knew immediately which way this was going so I did the only thing I could do: I hid in the armor of cold, emotionless and rational analysis, undertaking this tasting for pure science.

The nose was repellent. Artificial aromas overpower in a huge way. Cherry cough syrup is the first and most immediate scent. Hawaiian Punch and tropical tea can be made out. There’s an artificial “fruit punch” flavor. Oddly, after a moment or two I could catch the faintest glimpse of the signature Beam corn sweetness and turbinado sugar/new make as well a faint bit of graininess. This was after some real digging and intense smelling though; it’s like trying to make out a conversation at an AC/DC concert.

Great. Time for the first sip. Immediately, my panic and flight reaction kicked in. It’s immediately and completely unapologetically syrupy with fruit punch, fake cherry and tropical tea. It’s unbelievably syrupy and fake – there was almost like a liquid Jolly Rancher mouthfeel. Also curiously there was a bit of grape to the flavor. Somewhat less surprisingly, there was some maple syrup notes and overall quality to it. It’s unbelievably sugary, just not in the usual Beam way – unless you usually have your Beam with a couple packets of Kool-Aid dumped in it.

The finish, true to Jim Beam form is light. The syrupy notes persist, with grape Jolly Rancher, fruit punch and cherry cough syrup. There’s also a fleeting dry bourbon note with the Jim Beam new-make sweetness and a touch of rye, but the syrup comes back to dominate again.

I registered my disgust on Twitter and Sku responded, saying “You can’t drink it neat. Throw it on ice with soda…then it actually does taste like Cherry Coke.

Armed with 50 additional mL of Red Stag (50mL more than anyone on this world should drink, and certainly twice my actual requested lifetime allotment), some ice and some Coca-Cola, I began the quest to find the proper dilution of Red Stag to Coke to hit the Cherry Coke note.

The earliest sips at about 1:1 still were overwhelmed by the syrup notes. I tried more, adding a little coke after each sip. Somewhere north of 2:1 (by my estimation) it got in the ballpark but not quite the same. Close enough. Still awful.

There was a moment where I thought this was Jim Beam without the painful new-make notes. Unfortunately, I was overwhelmed by the syrupy cloying sweetness. If you’ve ever wanted to experience getting completely drunk from cough syrup but didn’t want to risk liver damage or the dextromethorphan high, Red Stag is your drink – no question.

In a way, this is a somewhat towering achievement. I used to think Woodford Reserve’s Sonoma-Cutrer finished bourbon was the absolute worst bourbon drink in the world based on its intense fake-grape note. It turns out Red Stag’s jolly rancher taste easily unseated that (this should not even be a category of bourbon, let alone have multiple entrants).

Needless to say, I thought this was terrible. It was one of the worst I’ve ever had, and I’m charitably calling it a whiskey. On that basis, it rocketed straight to the bottom 5 whiskeys I’ve had in my life.

If anyone ever buys this for me I will unfriend them on Facebook.

At a glance:

Red Stag by Jim Beam – 40% ABV
Nose: 
Oh hell no. Artificial aromas overpower in a big way right out of the gate. Cherry cough syrup. Hawaiian punch. Tropical tea. Fruit punch. Underneath that syrup is the signature Jim Beam corn sweetness and turbinado sugar/new make kind of notes. Just the faintest touch of graininess underneath it.
Palate:  AW HELL NAW. Punches in the face immediately with big syrup, fruit punch and fake cherry and some tropical tea. Syrupy, fake, kind of a liquid jolly rancher thing happening with just a faint bit of grape. There’s a maple syrup quality to it as well. Sugary as hell but not in the usual Beam way – more Kool-Aid. 
Finish: 
Very light. The syrupy notes persist, with grape jolly rancher, fruit punch, a bit of cherry cough syrup, and oddly enough there’s a distinct dry bourbon note momentarily with some more raw new-make sweetness and a bit of rye.
Comment: 
For the briefest moment I thought, “Wow, it’s a Jim Beam without the usual new-make agony.” And then I realized it was achieved in the most awful way ever. If you’ve ever wanted to get drunk off of cough syrup but you were afraid of liver damage, your whiskey has arrived. Take a bow, Beam, you guys have managed to easily and handily dethrone Woodford’s deplorable Sonoma Cutrer finish as the most objectionable fake-grape whiskey known to man. (This should not even be a category, let alone have multiple entrants!!) Horrid. Never again. If you buy this for me I will unfriend you on Facebook. 
Rating:
D-

Octomore 02.2 Orpheus

I recently posted a fairly unflattering account of the Chenin Blanc finished Bruichladdich, which will go down in memory as one of the more peculiar bottles of whiskey I’ve had in my life. Well before having that adventure, I’d planned on opening a bottle of Octomore early in the new year. I’ve had the bottle open for a while now and let it develop as I’ve gotten to know it, and I think it’s safe to confirm that the Chenin Blanc just had something weird going on. Bruichladdich (and Jim McEwan) can make a great whiskey, no doubt about it.

Octomore, for those who aren’t following the intricacies of whiskey nerd-dom, is a whisky produced by Bruichladdich. Unlike Bruichladdich, though, Octomore is heavily peated. If you’re thinking Ardbeg peatiness, think again. Ardbeg measures 24ppm (ppm is a measure of the phenols from peat smoke). Octomore Orpheus? Oh, not much – just 140ppm. Yes, it’s a little crazy and extreme – but there’s nothing wrong with that. Beer drinkers have their IBU wars with hops; why can’t whiskey go extreme with ppm?

Orpheus actually is my first encounter with a super-peated whiskey. Though it had gotten good reviews, I half-expected it to have the nose and palate of a raging inferno at a tannery. Unlike the mainline Octomore releases, Orpheus is finished in Chateau Petrus casks. Sometimes wine finishes can be a little gimmicky or overpower the underlying spirit. In this case, the spirit is so intense that I wondered if the wine finish would have much influence.

As expected, the nose initially had a strong kick of intense peat – an earthy richness with a faint rubber note. Underneath the peat were some grains – barley and a hint of popcorn (of all things). Not unexpectedly for a Bruichladdich, it was lightly briny and had just a slight bit of perfume. After this initial show, the nose started to reveal the fruit – hints of cara cara oranges, lemons, and after some time, a touch of grilled pineapple and apricot. There’s also the faintest hint of buttercream vanilla as well. Despite the high ABV it wasn’t initially strong on the nose (though subsequent pours have occasionally been a bit sharp).

The palate is rich and coating, and low heat despite the proof. Obviously there’s plenty of peat influence – tar, rubber, and some smoke. Underneath the peat on the palate, citrus fruit notes come through again – orange and lemon. There’s some slight brine and faint fennel; hay and gentle malt provide a foundation for it all.

The finish is as long as you’d expect – eternally long. It’s more reminiscent of a cookout than a campfire. Again, on the finish, the fruit notes pop up a bit – lemon and orange, but they fade relatively quickly. There’s a rubbery note again, and the grilled pineapple from the nose makes an appearance again, as does a bit of banana.

At 61%, I thought I’d check to see what happens when a little water is added. It simplifies things in a fairly pleasing way, but it does cost some of the more unusual fruit notes. The nose focuses on barley and lemon, with the peat providing a foundation for everything. The palate is similarly changed – barley comes through in a big way and subdues the fruit influence overall. A bit of white pepper creeps in too. Finally, the finish becomes more generally sweet, but has a more pronounced kick of fennel.

Overall, Orpheus is a richly nuanced whisky. Despite the massive peat, it’s still fruity and light. In fact, I’ve had pours where the peat recedes quite dramatically and you’re mainly left with the fruit notes. I tend to think of Orpheus as a December cookout just off the Pacific Coast Highway. Despite the high ABV and intense peat, it can have a light character.

It’s a pretty interesting whisky – I’ll be interested in trying more Octomores in the future. It’s possible that without the wine finish they’re much more one-dimensional. However, this is a great one to start with.

At a glance:

Octomore 02.2 Orpheus 5y (61% ABV) – 140ppm
Nose: 
An initial strong kick of intense peat – earthy and rich, with a faintly rubbery tone. Underneath, some grains – barley and a hint of popcorn. Slightly briny tone, lightly perfumey. There’s a lot of fruitiness – slight hint of cars cars oranges, a little lemon, and a touch of grilled pineapple with some apricots. There’s the faintest, faintest buttercream vanilla as well. Water focuses the nose more on barley and lemon with the peat. 
Palate: 
Rich and coating, low heat despite the high proof. Plenty of peat – tar, rubber, smoke. Some orange underpins it and lemon too. Slight brine, faint fennel, some hay and gentle malt flavors. Water brings up more barley notes, subdues the fruit influence and adds a bit of white pepper. 
Finish: 
Eternally long smoke and peat. Cookout versus campfire. The fruit notes pop up a bit – lemon and orange fade. Hints of rubber, some grilled pineapple, and a touch of banana. Water makes the finish sweet but with a pronounced fennel kick.
Comment: 
Richly nuanced. Fruity and light around all the massive peat – it’s like a December cookout with fruits and veggies off of PCH. Despite the intense ABV it still has a light nature.
Rating:  
B+