High West Campfire Whiskey

I started Scotch & Ice Cream last year, roughly around the time I started showing up at LAWS meetings. It really was not designed to be anything other than a regular writing exercise and a way to share some of my tasting notes with my friends. The fact that it’s found any audience at all has been a pleasant surprise. If that audience vanished, though, I’d still be writing this for myself and a handful of people I know in person.

One of the weird things about being part of the teeming horde of whisky bloggers is that people have an almost irresistible urge to put you into the appropriate boxes. “Primarily American”; “Scotch”; “That guy who does the Canadian whiskeys” and so on. There’s also this back-and-forth about your supposed integrity, largely based on if you’ve received any free samples from distillers or people on their behalf. It seems it’s a Norquist-like purity test designed to sort whisky bloggers in general.

Well, count me as a horrible sell-out officially with this review, but not in the way you might think. I’m not about to start writing conciliatory, florid puff pieces or regurgitating press releases, highlighting the whisky du jour as probably the greatest thing ever. Nope, S&I will stay firmly in the realm of marginally introspective self-indulgent writings that frame a discussion of a whisky, with strained setups to questionable jokes and general jackassery.

Last year, I met David Perkins of High West at a LAWS tasting. Before continuing, I must say that you should take the opportunity to attend any tasting he ever conducts. It was fascinating and loaded with tons of information, which unfortunately didn’t stick because the tasting was also loaded with TONS of samples. Sixteen to eighteen samples, if memory serves (and I’m not sure it does).

In my brazen and certainly inebriated state I started talking with David at that meeting and picking his brain about various whiskeys. I shot him a few samples (including some Woodfords I was only too glad to part with which apparently agreed more with his palate) and have stayed in semi-regular correspondence with him.

Earlier this year he hinted that he was working on Campfire Whiskey, which was going to be American whiskey with a peated Scotch component – either other whiskey or whiskey barrels. Little details would come up every so often as he hunted for the right ingredients (and even the final choices are not known to me). It was a new-to-me opportunity to see things develop over the course of several months and was very interesting.

In April I received a trio of small bottles, labeled “Campfire A”, “Campfire B”, and “Campfire C” – the contenders to wear the Campfire Whiskey label. These samples put the component rye, bourbon and Scotch whiskeys in different proportions, all at 100 proof. All that was sought was my opinion and answers to a few questions. A few of my friends also were included in the roundup.

It was an interesting to see the experiment coming closer. I have to admit though, even the best of the samples seemed like it might be too strange for those but the more adventurous drinkers. The peated component was considerable on some, manifesting as a big smoky blast on some, and an earthy, organic kick elsewhere, and even a medicinal tang in one case (thus knocking down my attempts to guess the source). Even the more heavily peated sample had a distinct kick of rye. It seemed that it might appeal only to the most open-minded of whiskey drinkers who jumped between sweet bourbons, spicy ryes and Scotch of all varieties. I had my preference and noted it to David (sample “A” for what it’s worth, though I preferred it with a little water which seemed to get things in check).

A short while later, David emailed us to tell us about what he ended up doing – Sample A, more or less, and at 92 proof. Apparently he also mentioned a bottle was coming our way, but I missed that entirely. So, when a bottle of Campfire Whiskey showed up, direct from Park City, I was completely surprised.

I even had reservations about blogging this one, not wanting to give the appearance that I was of questionable fairness. However, I feel like I’ve been forthcoming: I consider David to be a friend, and yes, this whisky was provided to me after trying some prerelease samples.

Enough hemming and hawing. Let’s get down to it – Campfire is supposed to be one for the cowboys, and I haven’t seen any good westerns where Eastwood has a soliloquy worrying about how his intentions might be perceived.

The nose on Campfire threw me initially – it’s sweet with corn, toffee and maple upfront. Rye first shows up with a lightly floral presence initially. Then there’s a nice but not overwhelming dose of smoke. There’s a slightly organic character to it that is also woody – honestly, yes, with the name, it does evoke a campfire. Traces of black cherry, a note I get off a lot of High West whiskey, is there as well.

The palate brings some heat and has some nice weight in the mouth, but doesn’t feel overly viscous or oily. It’s slightly earthy at first, which gives way to corn and maple syrup, with cinnamon and black pepper for heat. Light earthiness and faint wood continues, and there’s a little black cherry and vanilla at the edges of the palate, with some smoke on the roof of the mouth.

The whiskey finishes nicely – a sweet start with caramel and a lingering black cherry and vanilla creaminess. There’s a nice dose of smoke as you exhale, which is also slightly organic and earthy.

The name might suggest a smoke bomb, but it’s not. It’s got enough smoke to add an unexpected dimension, but it doesn’t really scream “Peated scotch” to me. You could have told me something was smoked in a finishing process and I’d probably believe you. It’s a great mix of sweet and smoky, but enough rye in the mix to add more dimension and keep it interesting.

Black cherry is a note I get on a lot of High West stuff as I mentioned earlier, and it’s one that I catch here. It’s a note that I’m a sucker for as you might have determined from prior entries. The peating I’m sure is a red flag for some guys, but it really doesn’t come across as that band-aidy or bicycle inner tube note that may scare them off. Honestly, I kind of think of Campfire as Bourye’s well-traveled cousin. It’s got a lot in common with it, and to my palate at least, this is dominated by the bourbon notes with rye and peat adding dimension.

David’s serving suggestion is with a s’more. I don’t feel like that’s right for me right now as the LA summer rolls around, but no worry: I will have more bottles on hand to test that suggestion in the future, though.

At a glance:

High West Campfire Whiskey (Batch 1) 46% ABV
Nose: 
Nice sweetness on the nose, very smooth corn notes, mellow toffee, a touch of maple syrup. Light rye floral notes and a nice but not overwhelming dose of smoke. Slightly organic with a wooden tone to it. Traces of black cherry. 
Palate: 
Warming initially, with some weight to the mouthfeel but not oily. Slightly earthy early, then showing a nice corn and maple syrup presence, a bit of cinnamon and black pepper to heat things up. Lightly earthy notes continue, a faint trace of wood at moments, and a bit of black cherry and vanilla. There’s a bit of smoke on the roof of the mouth.
Finish: 
Sweet with caramel and some lingering black cherry and vanilla creaminess. A nice dose of smoke on the exhale, slightly organic and earthy. 
Comment: 
The name might suggest a smoke bomb, but it’s not. It’s got enough to add a very unexpected dimension, but it’s not immediately identifiable as peated scotch, and I think it works to the favor of this. It’s a nice mix of sweet and smoky, but with enough rye in the mix to keep it interesting. 
Rating:  
B+

Nihon Dreamin’: Suntory Yamazaki 12y

I’d been wanting to review Suntory’s 12 year old Yamazaki expression for a while but never got around to it. Today, Josh over at The Coopered Tot reviewed Yamazaki 12 and reminded me of how much I love this one.

Most Americans seem to be unaware of Japanese whisky production (usually the follow-up question is “is it any good?“, as if it would be some sort of horribly-assembled okonomiyaki with a huge slather of mayonnaise) which is a shame. We’re starting to see more whiskies from Japan and they’re an excellent slightly different take on Scotch-style whisky. I honestly think Yamazaki 12 is one of the best value propositions among the imports – nicely developed flavor at a reasonable price.

Yamazaki is a special one for me. I’d been aware of it notionally for a while, but I’d never had it until I was – where else? – Japan. We were staying in Shinjuku, not far from Shinjuku station and looking at the absolutely stunning Mode Gakuen Coccoon Tower.

Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower (Yes, it's real)

Like a lot of US to Japan travelers, I found myself able to wake up around 4 AM, but staying up late was a real trick. We explored the various locales of Tokyo, starting early. Our fractured and basic Pimsleur-taught Japanese helped greatly and over the course of the week we got more confident exploring. However, I found myself absolutely exhausted by the end of the day, and usually dinner was only a short while before finally crashing for the evening.

One night, my wife convinced me to go to the skybar in our hotel at Keio Plaza. I grumbled about how tired I was but I conceded. We hurtled up to the 45th floor, entered Polestar, and grabbed a seat by the window. I ordered a Yamazaki 12 and took in the view of Shinjuku. Right in front of me was the Cocoon tower. I still remember taking in the view, the detached quietness that comes with being high off the ground, and the beauty of Tokyo at night. It’s one of those memories I can pull back with perfect clarity years later.

The moral of this story? Listen to your wife and hit the skybar after dark. You won’t regret it and you’ll never forget it.

Another major memory for me was a year ago when I left my job at the time. Several of my friends and I went to Nihon in San Francisco, a decent-to-good Japanese joint with a pretty ridiculous whisky selection. Since it was my sending-off and we had a large group, we decided to order a bottle of Yamazaki 12y for the table. This outing was memorable, filled with laughs and stories and tinged with that bittersweet feeling that comes with moving on. It was at that outing that I really had a strong impression of the taste of Yamazaki left on me and it became a favorite.

Yamazaki, as I said, is a Japanese whisky that owes a huge debt to the whiskies of Scotland in terms of taste and execution. The nose has a light vanilla influence with a pleasing, gentle maltiness, which is reminiscent of some older Scotch whiskies I’ve had. There were some hints of pineapple at the edges as well as a gentle citrus influence. There’s also considerable but controlled wood influence, at a level of intensity not common in 12 year old whiskies.

The mouthfeel is slightly oily and has an immediate heat on the palate – it’s much like a strong dose of white pepper. There’s abundant maltiness, with the perceptible vanilla influence and a gentler, slightly spicy wood influence. The finish continues with sweetness and maltiness, and the wood seems bit drier and dustier. There’s more light vanilla and a mouth-feel not unlike Sichuan pepper. There’s also a slight vegetal note, like celery root.

Yamazaki is not one of the most showstopping, dramatic whiskies out there. It’s pleasingly sweet but with some spice to go along with it. It’s one I like to have on hand both for variety and for its easy introduction to Japanese whiskies.

Beyond that, it’s capable of taking me back to some special times and places. And it’s not a bad whisky to have mizuwari style sometimes.

Thanks for the reminder to hit memory lane, Josh.

At a glance:

Suntory Yamazaki 12y (43% ABV)
Nose: 
Light vanilla influence with a pleasing, gentle maltiness. Hints of some pineapple at the edges as well as a gentle citrus. Considerable but even-tempered wood influence for a 12y whisky. 
Palate: 
Slightly oily mouthfeel with immediate heat – a good dose of white pepper. Maltiness in abundance, the vanilla influence perceptible and some gentle but slightly spicy wood.
Finish: 
Sweetness and some maltiness; a little bit of a dusty wood character. More light vanilla influence and some light hints of sichuan pepper. A vague, slightly vegetal note – a touch of celery root. 
Comment: 
A nice, even-tempered, gentle malt. Worth having around any time.
Rating: B

Woodford Reserve: The Ugly (Part III & Conclusion)

In the first two installments of this survey of the whiskeys Woodford Reserve has produced over the years, I looked at the standard Woodford Reserve expression, the oak variants (Seasoned Oak and Double Oaked), the sweet experiments (Maple Wood and Sweet Mash) and the Four Grain idea. None of them managed to connect in a big way for me. All that remains in the Woodford universe are three substantial deviations from normal Woodford: the Sonoma-Cutrer finished bourbon and the two rye whiskey experiments.

This may seem like an obsessive length to go to – both writing about and experimenting endlessly with – for a whiskey I’ve already admitted I don’t like. This reveals a character flaw of mine: I don’t like to admit that I can’t do something. In this case, I don’t like to find food or drink that I can’t enjoy in some manner. A similar struggle for me for a long time was eggplant. I’ve tried eggplant a million different ways over the years, and I just can never like it. I finally threw in the towel and had to admit I couldn’t find something that worked for me after trying every conceivable preparation.

I think it’s a broader desire for me to understand and appreciate that drives this. Sometimes our first exposures to new things are so strongly colored by how different they are compared to the things we like. If I don’t respond well to something it’s almost a red flag for me to dig deeper and try and find what people like about it. Usually a few variants will get me there and give me a broader appreciation. Woodford seems to strike the same nerve: Yes, it’s bourbon, but it’s just sticky and thick and sweet in a way I find hard to like. Clearly, my reasoning goes, I must be missing something that has drawn people to it.

I get why people like it and as I’ve said, I think it’s a great thing for bourbon in a broader market sense. At the same time, it does absolutely nothing for me. It’s this desire to understand it that leads me to these least-likely expressions.

The Sonoma-Cutrer experiment was one of the earlier bourbon-finished-in-wine experiments. These have been of mixed success — Hooker’s House finished in pinot noir and it was great. Angel’s Envy was masked by the port influence, and so on. Sonoma-Cutrer eschews the conventional approach of a red wine and instead used a California chardonnay cask for additional aging. If nothing else, this change of pace could be interesting.

The nose did not go as expected. It immediately had a very funky fake grape note – like grape Kool-Aid. There was a strong prickle to the nose even though it was only 43%. There were some dusty, farmy notes and a light wood influence. The palate had a hint of marzipan as would be expected, and a hint of toffee, but it ran up against a heavy, syrupy, fake grape note. There was a chocolatey note vaguely present, some light wood, and a lot of heat for the ABV. Trying to get past the grape note was a challenge but it was unacceptably sweet. The finish continued with the syrup and alcohol notes, was still quite warm. The wood was bitter and drying, tending toward astringency. The finish lasted longer than was welcome and had the fake grape note coming on strong.

I really didn’t enjoy anything about the Sonoma-Cutrer. In fact, I think it’s in my bottom five whiskeys of all time. It seemed young, impossibly sweet, and dominated by a fake grape note. It made me think of grape Kool-Aid mixed with vodka. I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say I would probably rather have Loch Dhu given the choice.

So, the inescapable conclusion: Woodford doesn’t have a bourbon I like. But the last Master’s Collection was a pair of ryes – perhaps they had something to offer? The Master’s Collection ryes were two variations on a theme: a new cask rye (an unused cask) and an aged cask rye (basically, a refill cask). Both came in at 46.2% ABV.

The new cask rye was darker, due to the wood influence the new cask was able to impart.  It had a thin, piney and slightly resinous nose, and some prickle from the alcohol. A little white pepper and cinnamon completed the nose. The palate was thin and bitter, with a pretty heavy wood influence. The rye had some light floral notes, but the heat was picking up and there was a slightly metallic taste. The finish was dry, slightly bitter, with light cinnamon and faint cherries. The wood toned down and wasn’t overpowering. Unfortunately overall, the wood was out of balance and fought the good rye tastes. The metallic notes weren’t overpowering but really tainted the experience.

The aged cask rye, conventional wisdom would state, would have a less pronounced wood influence and let the spirit shine through more. It was a touch medicinal and generally estery on the nose, with some light floral notes. Rye started to peek out a bit and was accompanied by a vanilla note. The palate was surprisingly sharp with a bitter wood presence. There was some vague rye notes but the wood killed it. It was highly medicinal, with a menthol kick to it. There was also a metallic tang to the palate. The finish was sharp and alcoholic, with a faint hit of rye, but mostly a medicinal and grainy tone. It was just objectionably bitter. While the nose opened up, I just kept thinking that this was something that should be rubbed in a cut, not drank.

With that, I’ve surveyed pretty much every offering that bears the Woodford Reserve name. Unfortunately, none of them really did it for me – some disastrously bad in the case of the Sonoma, some just off-balance like Double Oaked.

At this point, I realize it’s a fruitless pursuit for me to try further with Woodford. I’ve tried every major version of their whiskey they’ve released, and nothing has really come close to the mark for me. While I would have been happy to find a Woodford that I liked, it just didn’t happen. And I’m alright with that.

One of the odd things about this whole experience was researching other peoples’ take on Woodford. I noticed one blogger who talked about going to the distillery and making bread with Woodford’s master distiller, as part of a class that showed the contribution of grains to the flavor of whiskey. Remember, the grains in whiskey are the same grains used in most of our breads.

This ended up being an experiment that I wanted to try. I ended up baking the Woodford beer bread, which combined rye, barley and corn with some beer. Unfortunately, like the Woodfords, this ended up not being a hit for me either. To me it tasted like a slightly yeasty cornbread (which it was, in effect). What I took away from it though was an ever-growing love for baking bread that has been a big hobby lately.

And I think that’s why I say Woodford is a great thing. While I don’t like it per se, I think it has a great ability to enlighten the bourbon drinker who’s never had a premium bourbon. Subjectively I think there are better bourbons in the price range, but if Woodford is the whiskey that leads people to a broader enjoyment of bourbon then I think it’s done a great thing. Maybe Woodford will be the one for some of those people.

For me, as much as I didn’t like the whiskey, it did provide for me a connection to my past – bread baking. I used to love making bread with my dad at home when I was younger. It’s something I hadn’t done in probably close to 25 years at this point. And Woodford has reignited that passion and perhaps made it something I will share with my son in time. So while I never enjoyed the whiskey itself, the whiskey has led me to a broader appreciation of something else in my life.

I think that’s a great thing.

At a glance:

Woodford Reserve Sonoma-Cutrer Finish 43.2% ABV
Nose: 
Funky – grapey (like grape kool-aid, not actual grapes) and kind of sour. Strong alcohol prickle even though it’s not particularly strong. Dusty, farmy notes. Light wood.
Palate: 
Syrupy. Fake-grape. Quite hot for the ABV. Some wood. Sweet. Hint of marzipan. Distant hint of toffee which collides horribly with the fake grape. Vaguely chocolatey note. Unacceptably sweet once you get past the weird grape note.
Finish: 
Alcohol – tastes like cough syrup. Wood. Bitter and drying, slightly astringent. Still quite warm. Lasts longer than is welcome and manages to bring the awful grape note to the fore.
Comment: 
This is terrible. It’s impossibly sweet and yet has a high alcohol burn – must be fairly young. There is nothing to like about this unless you are tired of mixing grape kool-aid with vodka. I would rather drink Loch Dhu and that’s not hyperbole.
Rating:
D

Woodford Reserve New Cask Rye 46.2% ABV
Nose: 
A bit thin, piney and slightly resinous on the nose. Some prickle from the alcohol. White pepper and cinnamon.
Palate: 
Thin. Initially bitter. Wood is pretty strong on this one. The rye comes up with some light floral notes after a few seconds. The heat keeps picking up too. Faintly metallic.
Finish: 
Dry, slightly bitter. Light cinnamon, faint hint of cherries. Woody but not overpowering. 
Comment: 
The wood is out of balance on this one and really pushes against the better parts of a rye whiskey.
Rating:
C

Woodford Reserve Aged Cask Rye 46.2% ABV
Nose: 
A touch medicinal and generally estery. Lightly floral nose. Some rye peeks out and there’s a slightly vanilla note to it as well. 
Palate: 
Sharp, bitter wood. There’s something vaguely rye there but the wood kills it. Medicinal, menthol. The ever-familiar woodford metallic notes.
Finish:  Sharp and alcoholic. A faint hit of rye on the finish but it’s medicinal again. 
Comment: 
Objectionably bitter on the palate. The nose opens up after a bit but this just tastes and smells like something I should rub in a cut, not drink. 
Rating:  
C-

Woodford Reserve: The Bad (Part II)

In part one of this Woodford Reserve overview, I focused on my attempts with the standard Woodford Reserve, and my hopes that Seasoned Oak or Double Oaked may hold the key to a Woodford I liked. It was not to be, unfortunately.

Maybe this was, again, my misguided attempt to force something into being something it wasn’t. Woodford is a sweeter bourbon; perhaps I needed to see if they could dial up the sweetness in a way that agreed with me.

I don’t know what it is about sweet bourbons that fail to be more than a ground rule double for me. They’re nice; they frequently have a great mouthfeel. Some even get amazing notes that remind me of decadent desserts or sweet syrupy breakfasts. I think it’s because the taste tends to be fairly simple and doesn’t have a lot of intrigue beyond the first impression. And, as I said last time, as I’ve gotten older I’ve lost a little more of my taste for sweet things. They’re nice, but they need to be balanced by something to keep it interesting – bitterness, sourness, perhaps even extreme spice. Sweet on top of sweet is something I overindulged in back in my trick-or-treating days. I’ve had plenty that I’d drink at length, but they just never get into “wow” territory for me.

However, I was willing to concede that I should see if sweetness, which is more part of the core Woodford character, could be coaxed into something I liked in the Master’s collection. This led to a pair of interesting sweet experiments: Maple Wood and Sweet Mash.

Maple Wood was an interesting one. Bourbon barrels, as we recall, are made out of white oak. Woodford’s Maple Wood expression took the aged bourbon and then finished it in a toasted maple barrel. Maple has a higher amount of sugar in it, so the theory goes, it should be noticeably sweeter. The nose didn’t betray a lot of difference – there were the expected notes of banana and marzipan, with a touch of maple syrup. I also noticed some vegetal corn and raw sugar notes. The palate was unexpectedly light and sweet, with turbinado sugar and corn, and settling down with some toffee. There was grain and earthiness, but it was also slightly bitter and astringent. There was also a medicinal note on the palate (more Robitussin than, say, the Chloraseptic of Laphroaig). The finish was light with butterscotch, earthiness and the medicinality again. There was a little maraschino cherry and some turbinado sugar throughout the whole finish.

I was kind of surprised. It was sweet but not overtly so. I didn’t find myself having a huge preference on taste versus the standard Woodford profile, so on price alone, you’ve got to go with the standard version.

Another opinion on the Maple Wood was offered by David Perkins, proprietor of High West. We were talking about the various Woodfords at one point last fall, and I mentioned the Maple. He responded, “My favorite was the maple barrel whiskey!  There’s no accounting for taste.  I lived in New Hampshire a couple years and developed a fondness for maple syrup and can’t get enough in my diet nowadays.  Maybe that’s why.” So, there’s another take on Maple Wood.

So, with Maple Wood being largely same-ish, the next option was the Sweet Mash. Now, to review, virtually every bourbon produced is using the sour mash process. What it means is that when a distillation batch is run, some of the spent mash is retained for the next batch. This helps control the pH of the mash and results in a more consistent product from batch to batch. The press release from Brown Forman on Sweet Mash said that the sweet mash process resulted in a higher pH on the mash (expected) and that it revealed “a layer of aromas and flavors which aren’t commonly found in sour mash bourbons”. Seems like a reasonable claim.

The nose bore this out – it was intensely sweet with a slightly vegetal undertone, some turbinado sugar, toffee, maple syrup, and a low-level wood influence. A little time and air coaxed a little vanilla out, but this was unmistakably sugary and sweet. The palate was again somewhat thin, with a strong alcohol presence, syrupy sweetness, and maple syrup. Again, Sweet Mash had a bit of a medicinal note, and some distant notes of plum. Despite all the sweetness, it was still sort of bland. The finish had a huge alcohol kick at first, but was not nuanced – just toffee, raw sugar and corn. The real surprise was that each subsequent sip seemed sweeter than the one before, to the point that I was hoping it would end.

Those two were disappointments. There was one left that I thought could be interesting as a slight variation on a theme – the Four Grain. Unlike most bourbons which are three-grain recipes (corn, barley, wheat or rye), Four Grain uses both wheat and rye. There were two releases of Four Grain: a Kentucky-only release and a wider release a year later. I managed to try the Kentucky-only release. Again, it had the very distinctive Woodford nose – thick with marzipan and banana. It was also a little sour and grainy, with some oiliness. There was also a solventy, cleaning product, Pine-Sol smell happening – perhaps some young rye? I also noticed something metallic on the nose. The palate was again thin, with oiliness and solvent notes; pine and funky rye. There was a little vanilla and toffee, but they were struggling to be tasted. There were some late marzipan flavors, and it seemed to move towards sweetness but it was too all over the place. The finish dried out and showed some wood and a bit of caramel; it was bitter and had some turbinado sugar.

I thought the four grain was absolute chaos on the palate. The nose was too sour and seemed young between the turbinado sugar notes and the piney, solventy rye aspects. The nose seemed like a step down from the standard Woodford, unfocused and sloppy.

I had hoped that following the sweet side of Woodford to an extreme might yield something I liked. Unfortunately that was not the case. All that remained to try were a pair of deep-end experiments: a bourbon finished in Sonoma-Cutrer casks, and the two rye experiments released last fall. Maybe one of those would connect.

We’ll look at those whiskies tomorrow and wrap up the survey of Woodford Reserve as well.

At a glance:

Woodford Reserve Maple Wood Finish 47.2% ABV
Nose: 
Close to the regular Woodford – definite banana and marzipan notes, some maple syrup. A lightly vegetal, corn and raw sugar note.
Palate: 
Light mouthfeel – very sweet, bringing up turbinado sugar and corn, settling down with some toffee notes. Fairly warm, some grain and earth notes, light wood but slight bitterness and astringency. Moderately drying, with a medicinal note (Robitussin to Laphroaig’s Chloraseptic).
Finish: 
Reasonably light, alcohol, butterscotch, slight earthiness, and a low-grade medicinal note. Some maraschino cherry early. Turbinado sugar throughout.
Comment: 
Of all the Master’s Collection, this one shows the least influence on taste. It’s fine, slightly sweeter, but not overtly objectionable in that direction. Since I don’t have a strong preference on taste vs the standard Woodford, it comes to price, and that’s pretty clear-cut – just go with the regular Woodford.
Rating:
C+

Woodford Reserve 1838 Sweet Mash 43.2% ABV
Nose: 
Sweet – corn note in abundance, a slightly vegetal undertone, turbinado sugar, toffee, maple syrup sweetness, some light wood. With a little time in the glass and some air it opens to give a little more traditional vanilla note.
Palate: 
Thin-ish, surprisingly strong alcohol note, syrupy sweetness, medium heat, some slightly bitter wood. Maple syrup, almost a medicinal hint. Some very far off notes of plum. Despite the sweetness it’s still kind of bland.
Finish: 
Big alcohol flush, not particularly nuanced. Toffee, raw sugar, corn.
Comment:  This is one-dimensional and tastes young. There’s not a lot of complexity to the whiskey. There is an odd bitterness that clashes with the strong sweetness. It just doesn’t hang together coherently. Thank god for the sour mash process. The longer you drink this, the sweeter each subsequent sip tastes.
Rating:
C-

Woodford Reserve Four Grain (KY Only release) 46.2% ABV
Nose: 
There’s the distinctive thick nose which has the expected elements of marzipan and a hint of banana. It’s a little sour and grainy, with an oily smell. There’s a solventy, cleaner smelling thing happening too – a little Pine-Sol. It’s kind of like a recently emptied grain elevator – definitely something metallic in the background.
Palate: 
Surprisingly a little thin on the palate. Again there’s the oil and solvent, a little pine, funky rye note. Way in the back is a little vanilla, a little toffee, both trying to peek out. Not particularly warm and late there’s a note of marzipan. It wants to settle on a little sweet note but there’s too much to distract.
Finish: 
Dries out, shows a little wood and lasts reasonably long. There’s some hints of caramel. It’s also a little bitter. Some turbinado sugar for good measure.
Comment:  The palate is completely chaotic to me. The sour nose and unrefined sugar makes it seem relatively young. The nose is a really unfocused, sloppy Woodford nose. As with the vast majority of the Masters Series, this is not an improvement.
Rating:
C

Woodford Reserve: The Good (Part I)

Woodford Reserve is great for the bourbon market and one of my least favorite bourbons ever.

I note my opinion upfront so that I can’t be accused of not disclosing a deep personal bias. It’s not that it’s undrinkable – it’s certainly better than most Beam products I’ve tried – it just has that generally disappointing profile I get from virtually every Brown-Forman product I’ve tried.

I’ve admitted recently that I was perhaps not as enlightened a whiskey connoisseur as I might hope to be. I don’t think that this is what drives my distaste for Brown-Forman whiskeys. Yes, there’s a chance I might be enthralled by crazy, one-off strange whisky experiments. Perhaps that colors my bias – but even then, with its Master’s Collection, in theory, Brown-Forman would have me covered. I wonder if an astute observation by Josh at Sipology isn’t on point here: “I think the people running Brown-Forman really just don’t care about enthusiasts. Buffalo Trace maybe cares too much.”

It’s certainly not price snobbery. I think Evan Williams at $9 is a solid bourbon and the $12 Very Old Barton (100 proof please) is a heck of a great one too. I certainly don’t need to be seen only quaffing rare Glendronachs or Pappys. I just care about what’s in the bottle.

Nope, this is all about the whiskey for me. And no matter how many variations I’ve tried, I just find that I cannot get into Woodford Reserve in any of its forms to save my life. It’s not for lack of trying, as you’re going to see. The profile is too strange with its occasional syrupy sweetness (different, of course, than the beautiful caramel sweetness of some whiskeys), marred by flashes of banana, marzipan and sometimes a little peanut flavor.

I said Woodford was a good thing. I think it’s an excellent gateway product to a better appreciation of bourbon. Most people have an initial encounter with bourbon in their young, “get drunk as cheap as possible” days. Bourbon certainly provides a hell of a value in that category. Over time though, and as the wallet gets a little fatter, some people start going upmarket and trying things that aren’t just paint stripper with caramel coloring. Others don’t, and they end up like some of my college friends who still see the 30 pack of Miller Lite as the apex of the beer drinking experience: enough to get you wasted but not enough to cut into your lotto and smokes budget.

For those who trade up, Woodford can be an a-ha moment. This stuff has taste! I can actually enjoy it! Suddenly paying $35 for a bottle of liquor doesn’t seem like it’s ridiculous because the value is there. Combine that with it being the house bourbon on some cooking shows, and it’s easy to see Woodford being in the vanguard of bourbons that show America that our local spirit can be worthy of standing in the company of high-quality food and drink.

However, I hope they make the jump to other bottles – Four Roses Single Barrel for instance – to see that not only can bourbon be good, it can be really, really good. Woodford just manages to fall short.

For a while, I thought it was the sweeter profile that wasn’t doing it for me. Generally I find really sweet bourbons to be good but never great. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found I like sweet flavors less and less. But Woodford, strictly speaking, isn’t “just a sweet bourbon”. Woodford’s nose is sweet, but has some rye spice on it and vanilla. It also has a marzipan note that dominates, but I find it becomes waxy in the glass after a while, and not in that great apple skin, old wood and wax way some whiskeys get. The palate is sweet but with a rye kick and some wood, comes in syrupy but goes strangely thin. It’s got the marzipan thickness, a little vanilla, a little toffee, and a flash of black cherries, but it’s just not particularly impressive. The finish goes sweeter – brown sugar and creme brûlée, and it lasts and lasts, but then it dries off strange and bitter. It’s not that kind of straightforward sweetness that I found in spades in BTSO 4 which I enjoyed but didn’t love.

Fair enough – this one just isn’t for me. But as I looked around, I found they had a bunch of premium-price, “small run” (15,000 bottles does kind of test that a bit for me) experiments released as the Master’s Collection. Well then – maybe I’d find my particular slice of heaven here. The Master’s comes out yearly, and has generally been a bourbon, though the last release was a pair of ryes. The one that was of immediate interest? Certainly it had to be the Seasoned Oak, which would right the wrongs of a sweet palate and bring a stronger oak note into the mix.

Seasoned Oak had immediate wood presence on the nose with rye; molasses and maple syrup rounded it out, and it smelled like it had a little more age and less youthful fire on it. The palate was syrupy as usual, and a bit sweet with some of the waxiness of Woodford. It also had toffee, brown sugar, molasses, and wood (which wasn’t overpowering), rye, and later on some cereal and grain notes. It finished big and strong like the regular Woodford, with apples and black cherry notes, but it had a strangely medicinal tang. There was some orange and cinnamon, but the wood caused it to dry pretty heavily. At the time I first opened it I thought this bottle was better than the standard Woodford, but the wood was definitely starting to push into being too overbearing. With several months in the bottle and some oxidation, I found it had gone firmly into the “too much wood” column unfortunately. Yet another reminder to enjoy those whiskies when they’re good.

Had Woodford not announced the Double Oaked line extension this spring, I would have posted this pan-Woodford discussion much sooner. However, the announcement stalled me until I could try it and see if, indeed, Woodford had heard the call for more wood and nailed it. For an additional $15, I was hoping they would, because $50 for a mediocre bourbon just pushed into depressing territory.

Double Oaked was hailed as being inspired by the Seasoned Oak, but its production differed. Seasoned Oak was standard Woodford finished in barrels that had been seasoned (left to dry and weather) outside for three to five years. Double Oaked changed this formula by “deeply toasting and then lightly charring” the wood for the finishing barrel. A slight change of recipe, then, but maybe it was a more cost-effective without sacrificing quality.

The nose led with a bouquet of spices – pepper and cinnamon and some allspice, as well as a lot of wood. There was darkness provided by black cherry that was on the cusp of being syrupy and artificial. The wood had moments of seeming green and popsicle-sticky but never quite went all the way. There was orange and vanilla present as well. The palate had a slightly charred character and a very strong wood presence, again with pepper and cinnamon. Light orange zest and heavy black cherries filled it out, but the wood presence was again right at the edge of being too bitter and too overpowering. The finish was black cherry and more oak – lots and lots of oak. It settled into a weird taste combination of tart, bitter and sweet.

Overall, it was noticeably different than Seasoned Oak, flirting openly with Woodford’s tendency to get too sweet. While I rate this the same as standard Woodford, I think I’d take Double Oaked given the choice.

While this was the latest Woodford bourbon I’ve tried, it certainly isn’t the whole story. The Master’s Collection has other profiles to look into, including ones that took the sweetness a step further. I will be exploring those and elaborate more on Woodford Reserve with those whiskeys in Part II.

At a glance:

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select 45.2% ABV (Batch 532, Bottle 02688)
Nose: 
Very sweet. Rye is evident on the nose, as well as vanilla. There’s a low hint of marzipan and vanilla as well. Becomes waxy with a few minutes exposure to air.
Palate: 
Sweet, with wood evident and rye as well, initially syrupy and thick on the palate but then feels watery and starts to warm. The thicker marzipan style note is evident; a little vanilla, some very faint hints of toffee. There are early faint notes of black cherry but they tone down quickly.
Finish: 
Sweet again, more brown sugar/creme brulee type sweetness. Quite a big, lasting finish. It dries off strange and slightly bitter.
Comment: 
It’s fine but I don’t know that I’d go out of my way to recommend this to anyone. Kind of pushes the sweet and syrupy direction. The marzipan is fairly pronounced which gives it a weightier sweet flavor and I see how this is agreeable. However, this isn’t one that I think you’re worse off for not having tried.
Rating:  
C+

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Seasoned Oak Finish 50.2% ABV
Nose: 
Wood evident immediately, some rye on the nose. A bit of a prickle but not out of line with the ABV. Smells older. Light molasses and maple syrup notes.
Palate: 
Syrupy mouthfeel. A bit sweet on the palate, revealing some waxy notes, a hint of apple, some toffee, brown sugar, molasses, definite wood influence but not overpowering, some rye, warming slightly. Later notes of cereal and grain.
Finish: 
Big and strong, revealing more fruit notes – apples, black cherry. There’s something vaguely medicinal on the finish. Lasting. A flash of orange and cinnamon. Definite drying from the wood on the finish, where the wood notes are most prominent.
Comment: 
This is really not bad despite the Master’s Collection reviews. It’s certainly better than stock Woodford to me, favoring a darker, spicier profile than Woodford which is rather sweet to me. That said the wood does start to push into the “too much” territory and can be a very mood-driven choice.
Rating:
B-

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked 45% ABV
Nose: 
Pepper and cinnamon, a touch of allspice and a lot of wood. A black cherry darkness that is just on the right side of syrupy. The wood flirts slightly with becoming green and popsicle-sticky for a moment but doesn’t really go there. Some orange and a touch of vanilla. 
Palate: 
A lightly charred note, very strong wood presence. Pepper, light cinnamon. Some light orange and heavier black cherry presence. The wood is right up at the line of being bitter and too strong. 
Finish: 
Black cherry leads and is followed by oak. Lots and lots of oak. After a while this starts to sit on an uncomfortable triad of tart, bitter and sweet. 
Comment: 
It’s less aggressively woody than the Seasoned Oak, but the sweetness seems to almost get away from it a little too often. Somewhat better than regular Woodford.
Rating:
C+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project – Round 4

It’s been about three months since the last visit to Single Oak territory, so it’s time to look at the the latest round of Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak Project. At this point, 48 barrels have been released, leaving 144 barrels to be opened over the next three years.

Round four focuses on three variables. As usual, wheat and rye recipes are being tested. Also as usual, there are three grain patterns – tight, average and coarse. The new variable this time is wood vs concrete warehouse floors. At first glance, that sounds like a ridiculous  variable, but that essentially means modern warehouses versus traditional warehouses, which have different temperature characteristics – which means different interactions with the wood (presumably).

Right off the top, I will say that release four, to my taste, proved to be not only the best overall so far, but the most consistent. There was only one C-grade whisky and it was a C+. Everything else was B-range. That’s quite a respectable showing and it’s come a long way from the first release, which had some harsh and unbalanced whiskeys.

This is the first showing where I had anything resembling a clear preference on grain tightness – the tightest grain patterns scored slightly higher on average than the average and coarse grains. Coarse was second in line. Looking back on previous releases, a slight distaste for average grain tightness is starting to show up. The highest rated bottles to date have also been tight grain bottles.

On the whole, a slight preference for wheaters this round; again, the highest rated bottle was a rye recipe which seems to be the case lately. Finally, as to the main experiment of wood versus concrete, there was a slight preference for wood warehouses – but due to the overall consistency of this round it’s not a major difference.

So let’s get into specifics, as always.

Barrel 14: The best of Round 4

My personal favorite for Round 4 was Barrel 14: a tight-grained rye recipe from a concrete floor (again, the exceptional case). Barrel 14 executes a nice sweet palate with a big, rich mouthfeel – maple syrup, caramel, toffee, oak; cinnamon and powdered sugar on the palate. However, it had a little more to give – the nose had some black cherries and cinnamon and spicy rye in addition to maple, wood, and corn sweetness as well as some caramel. The finish was nice, warm, big and full, sweet but with a faint astringency to balance it. Oranges, caramel and a little maple dominated.

Barrel 14 has the kind of complexity I find lacking in a lot of sweeter bourbons, which made it enjoyable. I generally find syrupy and sweet bourbons a little hard to love because they tend to have a simplified palate and not a lot of nuance. I can enjoy when they’re done well but it’s not a profile that really blows me away. In fact, that profile dominates Round 4, I think owing to the #3 char used throughout. (All bottles in Round 4 also had 12 month stave seasoning, 125 entry proof and were bottom cuts).

The best wheater?

The Best Wheater: Barrel 174

For me this had to be Barrel 174, which edged out 42 by a nose. Barrel 174 has a nice maple syrup nose with some woody balanced astringency. There’s a hint of apple cider, but the whole thing gets a little more creamy with some cherries in the mix after a while. The palate similarly gets a little more dense; it’s got light cinnamon, caramel and toffee, as well as maple syrup, powdered sugar and a bit of a bready quality. However, it picks up on the finish – it starts with cinnamon and drying wood, but it gets a nice tannic kick with some red wine influence, and a bit of dark chocolate. Let 174 breathe for a couple minutes; it helps the nose and the tannins in the finish become a little more developed.

As usual, the other question worth asking: are there any to avoid?

Well, for the first time I don’t think there’s anything that’s really awful. My least favorite was Barrel 74 (Rye recipe, average grain, wood floor) – it had a nice peppery quality to it, with plenty of heat and dark fruit notes. However, it seemed kind of closed off and underdeveloped. It just didn’t come together coherently for me. It wasn’t bad, per se, it just was the one weak link in a remarkably consistent Round 4.

25% Done: What Do The Bourbons Tell Us?

As I noted earlier, some basic trends in my scoring are starting to emerge. I see a clear preference for longer seasoning times; the highest a 6 month seasoning has rated is B-. If this is the case, there will be some unpleasant rounds ahead as there are a lot of 6 month seasonings to get through. I’m seeing that I have a slight distaste for average grain tightness recipes. By strict grades, rye recipes have scored higher but not by much. Bottom cuts still rate higher; entry proof still looks inconclusive. Wood versus concrete on a macro level still seems to be inconclusive as well.

Thoughts On The Project Itself

A year in, Single Oak seems to be a divisive project. Our tasting group lost a participant with Round 4, and it was surprisingly difficult to find a replacement despite knowing a lot of bourbon fans. Some expressed distaste for the idea that they were “paying to do Buffalo Trace’s research”. Others derided the project as a gimmick. It’s possible on both counts.

First, regarding the “gimmick” angle – certainly, 192 bourbons released in flights of 12 every three months for four years with minute variations is a gimmick. It absolutely is. You’d be nuts to claim otherwise. However, I would argue that the majority of bourbon producers have some sort of gimmick to drive sales – be it recipes unchanged for decades; filtration processes for smoothness; new and improved recipes; Stitzel-Weller distillate (how many times is something “…maybe the last chance you’ll ever have to drink anything from Stitzel-Weller”); finished in something exotic; released at a new proof for either uncut glory or smooth, easy drinking; and so on. I think we choose our gimmicks based on our interests and tastes and go with them. I happen to enjoy trying new things on a more or less constant basis, so BTSO scratches an itch.

Regarding “paying to do Buffalo Trace’s research” – I remain unconvinced that the deck might not be slightly stacked and that there’s very little original research being done. I’ve long since abandoned the idea that this project will result in one clear-cut, almighty A-grade whiskey that is universally beloved. It just isn’t realistic. Where I like spicy, dark, fruity whiskies with a floral kick, some will love the caramel, sweet and syrupy flavors you see from releases like Round 4. I think it’s likely a few broad trends will be seen and perhaps the project will result in not one release, but a couple whiskeys that stand as examples of a particular style. It’s hard to believe that this wasn’t anticipated. I also am sure my scoring on the Single Oak Project website has become wildly inconsistent.

I think the worst case of this is that a B-to-B-minus grade whiskey that has kind of been focus-grouped will be the result. If this gets a B+ I’ll be happy; an A- or above is always the dream.

But to the “paying to do the research” point… I can’t help but suspect a lot of this stuff has been fairly well understood at Buffalo Trace for a long time. I don’t think I believe that in years of making bourbon, certain trends in entry proof or warehouse location haven’t come up multiple times. Sure, the grain and cut may be new, but otherwise, this stuff had to have been examined.

In a broader sense, we’re paying to do research with  every purchase. If a competitor’s rye-based bourbon with some exotic finish takes off, you can bet Buffalo Trace will be trying to one-up that release in a relatively short period of time. I feel like that the paid research happens more with the Experimentals than BTSO, which really just seems like the most audacious single barrel project in ages. Yeah, the price is high. I still don’t think you should be buying bottles solo. This project screams for group purchases.

In fact, if my group falls apart it’s entirely likely that I will discontinue coverage of the project on that basis – it’s too expensive and would be a storage burden if I tried to tackle this alone. I also wonder how casual purchases have worked for Buffalo Trace. I’ve seen many disgusted reactions, largely based on some of the many clunkers from the first release. That alone might be enough to permanently put people off the line. I know that there’s a lot more Single Oak on the shelves, which could be a bad sign for the continuation of things. I hope not, and I hope to be able to see the project through to its completion.

My bottom line: Do you like sweet and syrupy bourbons? It’s hard to go wrong with Round 4 if you do.

As usual, a different take is available at Drinkhacker.

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

Full Tasting Notes for Round Four

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 10, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Slightly dry with a gentle white pepper lead on the nose. A good amount of corn, light toffee and caramel. Some light oak as well. Slightly maple. There’s a slight sourness on the nose but it’s a sourness that is integrated and works for me. 
Palate: 
Rich mouthfeel, sweet with corn upfront and a nice dose of caramel behind it. Mildly tannic with reasonable wood presence but it enhances the character of the bourbon. Some light maple notes; a very faint hint of cinnamon; a faint hint of orange. Slight wood presence. A faint hint of cherry. 
Finish: 
Warmer than the palate, a bit more dry and dark fruits emerge for a second. A little black cherry. A touch of marshmallow even. Quite dry though – this doesn’t linger in the mouth; it’s more back of the palate. 
Comment: 
This is not bad. It’s sweet and I don’t think the tannins quite sit with this one just right. This is one of those BTSO barrels that I’d be interested to try at a couple different ages. 
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 14, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Nice, black cherries initially and a good dose of rye spice alongside some cinnamon. Light maple, plenty of wood, a good dose of corn. Slight caramel. Slight dry woodiness. 
Palate: 
Rich mouthfeel. Moderate sweetness; maple syrup, light oak. Caramel and toffee. A faint sprinkle of cinnamon. A little touch of powdered sugar. 
Finish: 
Nice, warm mouthfeel, very big and present finish. Sweet but ever so slightly astringent. Oranges, a little caramel, some maple. 
Comment: 
This is a nice, sweet, caramel bourbon. This sort of profile is hard for me to love, but it’s equally hard not to really like when it’s very well executed like this one. 
Rating:
B+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 42, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Dark initially with some black cherry, but lightens with corn apparent. Maple syrup in abundance, toffee, light marshmallowy notes. Nice grains, light sweet hints of caramel. Nice oak after a minute giving it a big, strong balanced nose.
Palate: 
Rich mouthfeel; sweet with caramel and toffee and tons of maple syrup. Gentle heat leaning towards pepper. Light orange notes.
Finish: 
Warming more; cinnamon. Lasting. A little black tea, a little orange notes, some wood; slightly tannic. A faint musty melon rind note.
Comment:  
This is pretty good. Sweet but with a little oakiness to balance it. 
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 46, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Light spice on the nose – a mix of cinnamon and pepper with a little undertone of nutmeg. Clay earthiness. Slightly spirity. Light pine, a touch of mint. Faint hint of cherries & oranges. 
Palate: 
Rich mouthfeel but a little dry. A little heat; some light pepper notes as well as a hint of cinnamon. Light cherry. Slight earthiness. Very light sourness in the form of slight corn.
Finish: 
Somewhat short. Oranges and cherries fade into black tea tannins; there’s a faint celery root quality. Dries slightly but not quite to the point of astringency. 
Comment:  
This has some nice nuance to it. The nose is enjoyable. It’s a little more aggressive but not harsh. 
Rating:
B

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 74, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Dry and with some pepper and oak. Slightly piney. A little maple develops but it’s somewhat faint. 
Palate: 
Moderately mouth-coating. Heat – white pepper, cinnamon, a very slight dash of cayenne. Some light maple and caramel. A bit of toffee develops. A touch of orange; a little bit of plum for a second. Some cherry. 
Finish: 
Warm with pepper and cinnamon; drying quickly. Oak shows up towards the end. Moderately astringent. 
Comment:   
There’s something about this bourbon that’s a little closed off and it doesn’t quite show its colors. It doesn’t quite hang together for me. 
Rating:
C+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 78, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Sharp with pepper and spice. Lightly orange and caramel. A little black cherry. Slightly harsh. Light black tea. 
Palate: 
Slightly thin, light oranges, a bit of caramel, some oakiness. Slightly warming – light white pepper. Very slight sourness.
Finish: 
Big and bold. A nice heat – black tea tannins initially, a little cherry. Some light marshmallow notes for a second. Dries slightly but not much – a little light oak but still retains some orange and caramel. Very faint mint aromas.
Comment: 
This benefits from a little time in the glass. It’s an interesting focus – orange, caramel and a little black tea. I don’t think it quite works for me but it’s an unusual profile. 
Rating:
B-

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 106, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Light hints of dried apple and some orange; a bit of light toffee; maple syrup, light powdering of sugar; sweet woody notes. Slightly bready; makes me think of French toast. Light cinnamon. Slight clay earthiness.
Palate: 
Sweet; big rich mouthfeel with a slight cinnamon tingle. Maple syrup, some medium wood presence that’s slightly dusty and aged. Slight vegetal character. 
Finish: 
Light vegetal notes; slight vibe of boozy fruits (plum, apple, a bit of peach?), a little cinnamon. Some wood but not much. Somewhat drying on the finish. Fruity and sweet still though. 
Comment: 
This is kind of an unusual one for the Single Oaks. I kind of like it because it’s a bit unusual. It’s got aspects that make me think of and older whiskey, which is always great – it’s got that apple skin and wood profile that can be a real treat. Interestingly, despite this and the classic bourbon notes as seen, this also has a certain “scotchiness” to it. I’m not sure it’s a winner but it strikes me different than any Single Oak I can remember. Worth a try.
Rating:
B-

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 110, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Dark fruits – plums, blackberries, a bit of black cherry. Some light earthiness, a touch of vanilla. Oak, a little pepper. Slight corn sweetness; light grains. Light cinnamon.
Palate: 
Slightly thin mouthfeel; light cinnamon. Faint sourness. Dark fruits again – plums and a bit of cherry. Some maple syrup. Sweetens gradually. A momentary tang of Juicy Fruit gum. 
Finish: 
Warm and a bit more dry. Pepper, drying wood. Slightly sugary in an unrefined but not overbearing way.
Comment: 
This one has a nice nose and is fine enough to drink but doesn’t have much in the way of complexity (beyond the nose) or interest.
Rating:
B-

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 138, 45% ABV
Nose: 
Moderate corn sweetness. Light orange notes; some light caramel, moderate but not harsh pine and rye notes. Some light overall graininess.
Palate: 
Rich mouthfeel. Corn sweetness leads; a little caramel and some maple syrup behind it. A bit of orange brightness at the top of the palate. Some light oak. Generally sweet.
Finish: 
Light finish – some apple cider, a little light maple and some light oranges. Some cinnamon warmth to it as well as a dash of white pepper. Focused heavily on the fruit.
Comment: 
A nice, sweet and fruity whisky. It’s not particularly remarkable due to the closed off nose but the finish is actually different and pretty nice.
Rating:
B-

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 142, 45% ABV
Nose: 
A little bit of pepper, some oak; slight earthiness. Some rye spice on the nose; somewhat dry. Light apples and cinnamon. Some light peaches and a hint of apricot.
Palate: 
Rich in the mouth. Fruitiness continues; some apples and light apricots. Very juicy. A bit of vanilla providing some depth but it’s not strong. Very gentle heat. Generally sweet and agreeable. 
Finish: 
Warming substantially from the palate. More light vanilla and lighter fruits – more peach and apricot type notes. Light cinnamon, a distinct black cherry kick initially.
Comment: 
The nose and the finish are nice enough but the palate is somewhat muted and keeps this from a higher score. It’s quite nice though. 
Rating:
B-

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 170, 45% ABV
Nose:  Sweet corn prominent initially. Some light grain; maple syrup up front; light hint of black cherries. Gentle wood influence.
Palate:  Sweet – dominated again by corn and maple syrup. Full mouthfeel. Light hint of oranges; a touch of cinnamon. Slight pepper, slight dry wood and a faint celery root note.
Finish:  Vanilla, black cherry, slight earthiness. Warms up nicely. A little oak and root vegetable note on the tail end.
Comment:  Not bad. The finish is a touch harsh and it’s a little simplistic on the palate.
Rating: B-

Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 174, 45% ABV
Nose:  Sweet with maple syrup, but with a slightly astringent, woody kind of balance to it. Slight apple cider note. Lightly hit with a dash of black pepper. Evolves to be more creamy with a vanilla note. Gentle cherry.
Palate:  Slightly thin initially; becomes creamier with a bit of time in the glass. Light cinnamon, some caramel and toffee. Maple syrup, a touch of powdered sugar, and slight breadiness.
Finish:  Cinnamon, slightly drying wood; a dusty tone to it. Some light red wine, a touch of dark chocolate.
Comment:  This benefits from a bit in the glass to develop the nose (and the finish seems to be aided by it too). A little more interesting with the sweet nose and slightly tannic finish.
Rating:  B

 

Two Cleverly Named Bourbons

A while back I wrote about Angel’s Envy, the highest profile American whisky to be finished in a separate cask. In the comments, I was urged to check out the Big Bottom Port Cask. Well, I did – and I also have the recently released Hooker’s House pinot finished bourbon.

Both of these are sourced bourbons – essentially the American equivalent of Scottish independent bottlers. Hooker’s House is a Kentucky product with a high rye mashbill, so it’s hard to say where it’s from. Big Bottom is a product of Indiana, so you can make a pretty safe bet that it came out of LDI.

Normally I’d feel a slight compulsion to craft a link between this stuff and my life observations, but there’s nothing to be had this time around. These are two I’d been meaning to get to to round out the recent spate of finished bourbons (Parker’s Cognac still is in the queue – the four word review is “I really like it”) so I’m not going to pretend I had a deep philosophical insight while drinking these.

The origins are also discussed elsewhere. I’m not going to dig into these and give the backstory. We’re going to take these at face value and let them succeed or fail on their own merits. As American indies, the odds of failure are high. Hopefully we’ll come out of this with one good result.

Hooker’s House has the more provocative name. I’m sure there’s some Restoration-era origin of the name, but everyone is finding obscure early distillers to base their brand name on. Clearly, a scan of history was done and the almost-mildly-risque name “Hooker” was found in whisky history. “That’ll be great on a label!” shouted some marketing wag. And thus was born Hooker’s House – all that was needed was a three-color label with some woman’s legs, a few stars and some strange claims (“General’s Strength” and “Sonoma-Style American Bourbon”). Fine – everything’s got an angle. I generally will bite on new and interesting angles and the risque-for-eighth-graders angle isn’t doing it for me. This will live and die on what’s in the glass.

The nose – wow, unexpected depth. Black cherry sits against a distinctly fruity, slightly fumey red wine note. There’s some vanilla and oak, faint toffee and a faint hint of corn. Honestly, it’s darker and fruitier than I would expect, but it’s not bad at all. It’s a bit straightforward but this is very close to the bourbon nose I idealize.

The palate follows the nose very closely: massively fruity with cherries, grapes, plums and more. It’s initially a little dry and oaky with some black cherries become much more focused on the fruits, wearing its pinot noir influence on its sleeve. It’s surprisingly dry and light, but has a very grippy, chewy mouthfeel. At some points, this one almost goes tart with all the fruit on the palate.

The finish shows some heat and the massive fruit comes through again. There’s a little more bourbon present as well as some dry oak; the finish remains grippy and chewy; some oranges and cherries peek out as well as a flash of blueberry.

I was really surprised by this one. Despite the name and the finish, this is a specialty bourbon that is actually pretty good. I wouldn’t always be in the mood for this one but it definitely strikes a chord for me. I’d be interested to see less wine influence – maybe half as much or 3/4 as much aging, but that’s armchair quarterbacking.

So, one down and it’s a good one. On the flip side, there’s Big Bottom whiskey. The name here has the very obvious influence and origin. It’s a bit more cartoonishly middle-school-risque in its name, but I’m not afraid to admit I’m OK with that. I’ll cut it some slack, even though it’s driven by the same impulse as Hooker’s House. Once again, this is going to live and die by what’s in the glass. A clever name and a nice label are worthless if the whiskey sucks.

The nose… oh no, what happened? The nose is young (not surprising; it’s been aged 2 years). It’s got a rye prickle and a green pine aroma. At moments there’s a little corn, but mostly this is very woody. It’s also got a very plain jane, unadorned, unflavored alcohol kick. After a while this has some port sweetness with some faint grape and cherry aromas as well as a generally sugary note.

The palate is distressingly similar – moderate weight in the mouth but not much flair. It’s got an alcohol burn, a faint sweetness. After a minute the green woody notes and slight port sweetness come through, but in no coherent way. It’s just bitter with a slight sour kick.

The finish is bland. Heat, a little sweetness, a touch of sour new-make and wood. It’s disorganized, has no coherent statement and is all over the place.

This is one of those whiskies that’s a real disappointment and makes you wonder about the longer term success of American craft distillers. It’s enough to make me run back to the known brands and not grab new craft bottles without several people to split it with. (I’m sure I will).

Now, a note on the names which I threw a flag on earlier. I say we abandon the casual innuendoes, the allusion to whores and derrieres and just go ultra-lowbrow. I know from past experience there’s something fun about outrageously inappropriate, wildly self-deprecating (to an uncomfortable level) product claims and identity. It’s the sort of un-campaign and un-branding every marketer loves to do. With that said, two suggestions:

Schidface. Because the letter “T” is too hard to pronounce, and some people don’t like swear words sticking out on labels. But near misses are OK. So the rallying cry for this (presumably downmarket) spirit? “HEY EVERYBODY! LET’S GO GET SCHIDFACE!”

And, you know, then they do. 45% ABV.

Bad Decision. This is probably best as a vodka or a flavored whiskey (Hey Beam, if you want to rename Red Stag, feel free to use this). You could maybe use it for a really questionable wine too. You know, one of those table wines served at super cheap Italian restaurants out of repurposed machines that formerly stirred cold drinks to keep from freezing, which taste somewhere between gasoline, prison hooch and paint thinner. If it’s a flavored whisky, the name also should breeze through COLA because it’s a highly accurate naming. Plus, you’ve got the easy line for a commercial: “If you make only one decision tonight, make it a Bad Decision.”

ABV varies by category.

In all seriousness though, a quick recommendation on finished bourbons. The absolute best bet, in my opinion, is Parker’s Heritage Cognac finish. Great. Perfect dessert bourbon. Hooker’s House comes next for its bright fruitiness and interesting flavor. Unfortunately it’s probably not easy to find. Next up is Angel’s Envy, which I reviewed last year. It’s good but gets muddled. And as a novelty value only – Big Bottom Port Finish.

Update 5-4-2012

I received an email from Ted Pappas, founder of Big Bottom who pointed out that the second batch of Big Bottom (mentioned below in the comments by Jordan) was much better received, including at some spirits competitions. I will give the benefit of the doubt to that and may hunt down a taste at some point in the future. Two things that I will tack on here because I wasn’t aware at the time of writing which are of interest:

Big Bottom’s stated operating plan currently is to act as a scottish-style independent, with eventual plans to have their own distillate made to their specs (and eventually on site) while maintaining existing relationships. Interesting to see; perhaps some refinement to make that clearer could help them stake out some unclaimed turf (especially if they don’t have a faux-distillery label for every bourbon they source).

Also, the origins are depressingly not of Spinal Tap origin. Big Bottom is a federally protected wilderness which was granted that status thanks to some hard work on behalf of one of Ted’s friends. I think that’s as good as anything to name a whisky after.

So there you go: Ted’s side of the story, and a little more clarification. I’m not above undermining my own snark with some truth.

At a glance:

Hooker’s House Sonoma Style Bourbon 50% ABV
Nose: 
Black cherry sits against a slightly fumey, distinctly red wine note. There’s some vanilla and oak, a very faint shade of toffee. A faint hint of corn as well. 
Palate: 
A bit dry and oaky initially; black cherry but a more straightforward fruity presence. This runs borderline tart for moments. Cherries, a little grape, a little plum, definite red wine tannins, again. Abundantly fruity. Light mouthfeel but dry and grippy. Chewy. 
Finish: 
A little heat, that strong fruity presence with a little more bourbon on the palate. Some dry oak, very grippy & chewy mouthfeel even on the finish. Light hint of oranges; cherries in abundance. A hint of blueberry as well. 
Comment: 
If this had a little more bourbon and a little less red wine fruit on the palate & finish, this would be dangerously great. As it is, it’s pretty enjoyable. 
Rating:
B

Big Bottom 2y Straight Bourbon – Port Finished 45.5% ABV
Nose: 
Youngish on the nose – rye prickle and a slightly green pine aroma. Corn here and there, but it’s just very woody. Low grade, plain jane alcohol kick too. Light port sweetness; faint grape and cherry aromas.
Palate:  Moderate mouthfeel, not a lot of flavor to it. Alcohol burn, slight sweetness. After a minute the green woody notes and a slightly sweet port note come through. Overall bitter with a slight sour back.
Finish:  Not much. Heat, a little sweetness, a touch of sour new-make note, and some wood. Very disorganized and all over the place.
Comment:  American craft distillers have a long way to go.
Rating: C-