Technology. Huh.

Apparently something went sideways with S&I in the last 24 hours. My apologies to anyone who tried to reach it and had no luck. As penance, quick tasting notes on one of the 2012 exclusives….

Parker’s Heritage 2012 – Blend of Mashbills (65.8% ABV)
Nose:  Nice wood on the nose with some gentle peppery spice, caramel. Has a stronger dark fruit character that grows and presents some rye spice. A little bit of coffee beans. Toffee after a bit.
Palate:
Thick mouthfeel, quite warm. Cinnamon briefly, an odd mix of toffee, black cherries, a liberal dose of black pepper, some red wine.
Finish: 
Wood and black fruit, with a slight note of juicy fruit gum. A little pepper as it dries, faintly hinting at bitter roots. A touch of peanuts. 
Comment: 
Hot as hell on the finish, warm on the palate. A muddy mess of indistinct flavors. I didn’t like it when Woodford did it, I don’t like it much more when Parker’s does it.  
Rating:
B-

Once again, we learn that the Four Roses Small Batch 2012 is the preferred special release of the year. A rare disappointment from Parker’s.

Finding The Heir To Pappy

Everyone’s Van Winkled out this year, and it’s not likely to get any better. What options do we have out there?

To be clear, this isn’t a search for the next best wheated bourbon. I’m simply trying to get to the bottom of the question of what we should turn our focus to in the absence of any sort of reasonable shot of finding Pappy Van Winkle. What’s the absolute best bourbon out there on the shelves that you have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding?

To make sure one particular tasting session doesn’t sway the results, there are a few criteria we’re going to be judging this one on.

Appropriately “Bourbon-y” Name: “Pappy Van Winkle” is practically the picture of southern bonhomie. “Pappy” as a word alone just works. Append it to anything and you’d swear it was from south of the Mason-Dixon line. For example, “Pappy’s Village Vanguard.” Holy crap, hard swinging bebop in an Atlanta speakeasy. Done deal.

Availability: If it’s as hard to find as Pappy, then just buy Pappy.

Rugged, Cool Persona: Look, you may love Evan Williams Wild Honey. Fact is, it’s just not going to pass muster. Honey undermines the entire thing. Whiskey is as much the wild west as it is the deep south, and Lee Van Cleef would have shot Blondie dead if he found out he was sucking down some artificial-cherry-flavored monstrosity. And rightfully so.

Smooth, Easy Drinking Character: While I’m not a fan of lionizing “smoothness” as the end-all, be-all desirable trait in a bourbon, the simple fact is that Van Winkle is tremendously easy drinking. If it’s not agreeably drinkable all night either neat or on the rocks, it’s just not going to be a worthy heir.

Unlikely To Be Usurped By Foodies: I love a good meal as much as the next guy. But let’s not kid ourselves, the celeb chefs helped drive the mystique of Pappy, which got zillions of foodies interested, which no doubt got the New York Post writing about it. Ideally this will either fly under the radar or just not work for that crowd.

Finally, we will of course score with an eye to taste because that can’t be ignored.

Our whiskeys of choice:

George T. Stagg – We’ll use the 2012 edition of this perennial favorite for this article. The 70-something-percent bruiser routinely tops aficionados’ lists of best whiskeys of the year. Is it time to trade wheat in for rye?

Rock Hill Farms – A 100 proof rye recipe bourbon made by Buffalo Trace. Maybe you’ve tried it. Maybe not. We’ll see how it stacks up.

Baker’s – Not rare by any stretch, a 107 proof rye recipe from Beam.

Basil Hayden’s - Relatively easy to find, one of the lesser-heralded Beam small batch whiskeys at 80 proof.

Elmer T. Lee – a beloved (by those in the know) 90 proof Buffalo Trace sipper.

Old Weller Antique 107 – Another 107 proof entry, from Buffalo Trace and a wheater. If you aged this, theoretically it could become Pappy.

Jim Beam White Label - Utterly available. Maybe the love of our lives has been right in front of our eyes in this 80 proofer.

That’s more than enough entries. Let’s begin the competition!

Appropriately Bourbon-y Name

We’re looking for a certain rustic charm, something that suggests classic Americana, southern tradition, but a certain aged wisdom. By the numbers:

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Middle of the road. I don’t know Baker, but it does make you think of apple pie, which is pretty darned American. However, there’s no big Southern call to arms. 6
Basil Hayden’s Not quite there. It evokes Basil Rathbone, who is certainly old-timey but decidedly not American. If you don’t think of him, then you’re probably thinking of Italian herbs, which clearly means this is a miss.  4
Elmer T. Lee Now we’re getting somewhere. Elmer probably word-associates to “Fudd” for many of us, that works. Lee, of course – the General Lee or Robert E. Lee – if your mind goes to Hazzard County or history class, we’re in the deep south. High marks. 7
Jim Beam White Label  It’s hard to dock the name “Beam” any points, and Kid Rock’s recent association has certainly bolstered attempts to reclaim the South, but – wait a minute — Kid Rock is from Michigan! This really is like “Johnnie Walker”: A lot of people don’t even know it’s scotch. Middle of the road.  6
George T. Stagg (2012) An undeniable, huntin’ kind of name, this brings to mind camping, deers, elaborate outdoorsy designs burned into leather belts, and so on. What goes better with cowboys than whiskey? I don’t know what.  9
Old Weller Antique This isn’t bad. “Old Weller” both sounds old and has history; you might also mishear it as Old Yeller. It could be improved by dropping the “d” (“Ol’ Weller”) or getting a little more colloquial – “Ol’ Timey” – or moonshiney-misspelled (“Anteek”). “Weller’s Ol’ Timey Whiskey” would have scored higher. 8
Rock Hill Farms Sounds like a premium lunchmeat. “Rock Hill Farms Black Forest Ham” sounds more accurate than “Rock Hill Farms Kentucky Straight Bourbon”.  2

AVAILABILITY

What good is the heir to Pappy if it’s just as hard to find as Pappy?

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Reasonably easy; you won’t necessarily find this at a convenience store but certainly anything decently stocked (BevMo, BevWa, K&L, Wally’s, Wine House, etc) is going to have it.  7
Basil Hayden’s A little less common than Baker’s but still roughly as available. Rumor has it that this may be dropping the age statement which could contribute to the mid-grade challenge of finding it.  6
Elmer T. Lee Slightly less common than Basil Hayden’s and occasionally off the shelves; mentioned as a shortage possibility by David Driscoll earlier this year. Perhaps the word of this one is getting out there. 5
Jim Beam White Label  I think McDonald’s and Starbucks now sells this stuff. Ubiquitous.  10
George T. Stagg (2012) I’ll trade you 180 hen’s teeth for your Stagg. 1
Old Weller Antique Again, reasonably common anywhere Buffalo Trace is sold. This would generally be in the class of a Baker’s.   7
Rock Hill Farms Roughly as common as Elmer T. Lee – one of those secondary brands that is available when there’s shelf space to spare. Frequently crowded out by an undistinguished, overpriced micro.  5

Rugged, cool persona

Them good ol’ boys drank whiskey and rye. They didn’t have themselves none of those city-slicker artisan whiskeys with labels designed by guys in San Francisco who were busy checking Twitter. We may love SoMa, but Pappy can’t be replaced by some dude giving you an elevator pitch for his startup before he hops on his bike to go back to the Mission.

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Familiar. “Who brought this whiskey?” “Oh, it’s Baker’s – you should ask him where he got it.” Also, baking is a hands-on job, so I’ll give it that. However, the name doesn’t involve cowboys, meat, fistfights, wranglin’ cattle, or anything like that.  6
Basil Hayden’s Too busy playing the grand piano to be evaluated.  2
Elmer T. Lee He may be an older dude, but ol’ Elmer could have kicked your ass back in his day. This is spiritual kin to Pappy. Old Grand-Dad would have scored similarly but that particular old dude’s deeds weren’t heroic enough for us to remember his name. Now Elmer just hangs out on the porch, tells you stories about the war, and makes cultural references that predate you by a couple decades. Southern cool. 8
Jim Beam White Label Rugged for sure; Jim Beam would fistfight a riding lawnmower and win. However, Jim Beam is a kissing cousin of tequila: things might just get a little out of control when he shows up to the party. Rugged, yes. Cool in the Paul Newman sense? Maybe not so much. 7
George T. Stagg (2012) With a name like George T. Stagg you’re pretty much destined to win any “rugged, cool” competition.  9
Old Weller Antique Not bad. This is what the younger guys go for when they want to seem older, but not disrespectful to tradition. Rough and tumble but with some refinement – that’s what we’re looking for.  6
Rock Hill Farms Bristol Farms, Rock Hill Farms. Overpriced, slightly upscale grocery stores with small selections and smaller parking lots. About as ruggedly cool as an NPR pledge drive. 2

SMOOTH, EASY DRINKING CHARACTER

Again, the hunt is for something that’s as easily quaffable as Pappy. Ultra high proof may be enjoyable on its own, but it’s not something that fits the Pappy mold. Which of our bourbons scratches that itch?

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Runs a bit hot. If you’ve developed your manly bourbon drinking skills, this should be no real challenge though. Impress your friends as they choke on their weak 80 proof drinks.  5
Basil Hayden’s  More “watery” than “smooth”. Has that kind of weird disagreeable character that ruins Irish whisky as well.  6
Elmer T. Lee  Sweet and rich. This is right down the line of “easy drinking”. However, as a single barrel with no real information on the label, you might get stung by an odd barrel.  8
Jim Beam White Label  The secret weapon of drinkability. Identifiably bourbon, no strange grain, massive batches for consistency, but low proof enough that you can drink all night. It may not taste like much, but it’s easy to drink.   7
George T. Stagg (2012) About as “smooth and easy drinking” as a salad of cinnamon and fire ants. Hellaciously good but even the most hardcore of bourbon lovers will admit to giving this one a splash of water.  4
Old Weller Antique  Given that this stuff eventually becomes Pappy, it should be no surprise that it’s an easy sipper. Like Baker’s, can run a touch warm.  7
Rock Hill Farms No! At least the barrel I tried was harsh and tannic – barrel variance here may kill you if you’re trying to look cool and get a mouth full of black tea and wood shavings.  4

UNLIKELY TO BE USURPED BY FOODIES

There’s no doubt that the shortage of Pappy has been in part driven by the embrace it’s received from celebrity chefs and foodies outside of the bourbon circle. More buyers on rare stuff means less to go around, which potentially puts any of these in the same crunch as Pappy. Let’s check.

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Second fiddle to Booker’s, lacks glamour in its price tier – outgunned by the more popular Woodford and Maker’s options. Probably safe for some time.  6
Basil Hayden’s Mentioned in passing in a food diary by Alton Brown, though not praised or reviled. Uncomfortably close but safe. Seems to have more traction among the cocktails crowd than epicures.  5
Elmer T. Lee Quietly under-appreciated though spoken of highly when mentioned in foodie contexts.  7
Jim Beam White Label Broadly safe. Yes, a likely pick for more honest-to-god homestyle cooking when making bbq, but when elevated to higher cuisine, Jim stays home and his older brother Knob Creek or that Woodford guy gets the call.  8
George T. Stagg (2012)  Clearly the next big thing.  3
Old Weller Antique DISQUALIFIED.
Mentioned by David Chang in the Fallon video. Technically he’s holding a W.L. Weller, but he’s talking Old Weller. Having made the cut to be in the video, it’s already in dangerous territory.
 0
Rock Hill Farms Tumbleweed. Maybe safer than even Jim Beam white.  9


TASTING

This is where the rubber meets the road. While we may be tired of the Pappy hype, it’s undeniable that its reputation has been earned thanks to the consistently great taste it delivers. In this set, we will assign numeric scores to the letter grades – F is 0, D- is one, and so on, up to A+ being worth 12 points.

Baker’s 7y 53.5% ABV
Nose:
  A light sweetness, with a good hearty dose of wood, some caramel and a touch of vanilla. Familiar beam sugary notes come through after a minute. Gets a bit thin and slightly peppery. Softens with a bit of time in the glass.
Palate:  A little cinnamon up front, some heat on the lips. Lots of caramel, some wood, a very little bit of dried orange. Slightly leathery and a hint of tobacco.
Finish:  A little kick of black cherries upfront, some vanilla behind and then a little light pepper.
Comment: This drinks a little hotter than it should, but it’s one of the best Beam products I’ve had. Nice caramel body.
Rating: B-

Basil Hayden’s 8y 40% ABV
Nose:
  Slightly watery and thin upfront; caramel and a reasonable amount of wood. Lightly peppery, a touch of orange. A fair amount of vanilla.
Palate:  Thin on the palate, leads slightly sweet with a little bit of caramel and sugar; a little hint of orange. A little slight sour corn note that is more classic bourbon than new make. A little wood but it’s kind of a waterlogged oaky note. Vanilla fairly abundant.
Finish:  Thin, a little cinnamon heat but it’s kind of quick. Surprising heat given the mellowness of the rest of it. A slightly nutty note late. A touch of vanilla, the faintest hint of black cherry.
Comment:  This is just kind of bland and OK. Decent if you’re maybe trying to graduate to bolder bourbons and you’ve been drowning bottom-shelf stuff in cola.
Rating: C+

Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel 45% ABV
Nose: 
Light and sweet. Caramel upfront with a faintly floral and piney rye presence. a very faint touch of black cherries, lightly dry tobacco, a touch of black pepper. 
Palate: 
Light but not entirely thin. Caramel and vanilla lead with some gentle wood influence behind; a light dose of oranges and a faint touch of orange zest. Suggestions of cinnamon, a hint of black cherry and a faint bubblegum.
Finish: 
Black cherry surprisingly leads with an unexpected heat. Goes back towards caramel and vanilla with a faint hint of pineapple (pushing slightly towards Juicy Fruit gum). Gentle wood influence. 
Comment: 
A nice easy sipper. Very well done with some good dimension. It’s possible that if some of the edges were sanded down this could be a B+. 
Rating:  
B

Jim Beam White Label 40% ABV
Nose: 
Lightly spiced with a very faint touch of nutmeg, pepper, mainly a light bit of rye. Some caramel. Thin, a bit watery, some more straight alcohol notes on the nose.
Palate:  A light trace of wood, corn sweetness, slightly vegetal. Caramel creeping in at the edges. A bit of the Beam raw sugar taste and some building heat. Watery and light.
Finish:  A bit hot, slightly peppery, with a little show of wood. Again a slightly sour presence. Faintly doughy.
Comment:  Watery and unremarkable. Fine for mixing, mostly unobjectionable neat but an awful boring pour.
Rating: C+

George T. Stagg 2012
Nose: 
Familiar Stagg nose – tons of caramel and a good bit of wood with a very heavy dose of cinnamon on top. Black cherries,  some toffee. 
Palate: 
Rich mouthfeel, fairly caramel heavy with a touch of corn sweetness, seasoned wood, cinnamon, and chili oil. Plenty of heat!
Finish: 
Black cherries and black tea lead, wood right behind. Quite woody and a touch tannic. Caramel and corn. Lasts and lasts. 
Comment: 
Sweeter than some previous Staggs with lots of caramel, but an unexpected tannic element this year. Good but not as gloriously complex as in the past. Water, unlike the past, does this no favors at all. 
Rating:
B+

Old Weller Antique (Private Barrel Selection) 53.5%
Nose:
Slightly dry with wood and black pepper; a light but dry hint of black cherries on the back end. Almost medicinal, like a Luden’s cough drop. Lightly vegetal – slight corn husks and turbinado; a hint of romaine heart and celery root. Light cinnamon.
Palate:  Light in the mouth, leading immediately with the black cherry note but then the cinnamon takes over with some heat which increases. Some light corn; a boozy buttercream character balanced with some raw sugar.
Finish:  Black cherry, dry wood. Corn sweetness. Lasting and resolves to wood.
Comment:  This is just a touch drier than I prefer but nice. An interesting nose – though it’s got a strongly vegetal component, it’s not necessarily new-makey or funky… it just has that character.
Rating: B

Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel 50% ABV
Nose:
  Dry and slightly piney, lightly peppery, heavy rye influence. Woody and slightly funky. Dark, dark, dark black cherry note. After a bit, a slightly caramel top note but it’s watery and blown out by the tannin bomb.
Palate:  Mouth coating, a little vanilla upfront but then dominated by that almost oppressive wood and rye note with a piney kick. Fairly tannic.
Finish:  Warm upfront, fades – black tea in huge measure initially, then wood, pepper, rye, a touch of black cherry. Slightly astringent.
Comment:  I’ve seen more positive reviews elsewhere and since this is a single barrel product there will obviously be a large amount of variation. However, this one absolutely doesn’t do it for me.
Rating: C-

 

Name Available Rugged? Smooth Foodies Taste Total
Bakers 6 7 6 5 6 7 37
Basil Hayden’s 4 6 2 6 5 6 29
Elmer T. Lee 7 5 8 8 7 8 43
Jim Beam White Label 6 10 7 7 8 6 44
George T. Stagg 9 1 9 4 3 9 35
Old Weller Antique 8 7 6 7 0 8 36
Rock Hill Farms 2 5 2 4 9 4 26

As we can see, Rock Hill Farms shouldn’t have been in this race. Basil Hayden’s also didn’t really know what it was doing with itself. Old Weller and Baker’s made respectable showings, and George T. Stagg was right there with them (and likely could have won had it been an overall bourbon excellence comparison). That left us with two to battle it out for the top spot. Elmer T. Lee made a respectable showing, but we’re clearly left with one conclusion:

If you like Pappy Van Winkle but don’t want to deal with the cost or hassle, the next bourbon you should be drinking, without a doubt, is Jim Beam White Label.

0

And on that bombshell, goodnight!

 

Thanks to Josh Feldman for the RHF sample!

Whiskey Is For The People: Evan Williams 1783

Over on the K&L Spirits Journal, David Driscoll has spent the last several days discussing the parallel between whiskey and Bordeaux. His opinion, for those of you that haven’t been reading it, is that the price increases we’re seeing in whiskey are inevitable and irrevocable. Sku at Sku’s Recent Eats believes a “Silver Age” of whiskey is coming a few years after the current bubble pops. Reddit is predictably split on the issue.

Time will prove one of these two gents right. I consider both to be friends so I’m certainly not writing this for the purpose of taking sides, but it’s too tantalizing of an issue to let slide.

To cut to the chase, I disagree with David. And more importantly I believe we as enthusiasts have the opportunity to make the world we would like to inhabit to a certain extent.

We’ve seen an interesting pullback from the exuberance recently. While I don’t think it signals an end of the bubble, there’s a definite market resistance lately. Dalmore’s Constellation Collection was rightly mocked among enthusiasts, and the 1957 Bowmore failed to make its lofty goal of about $160,000 at auction.  While it’s possible in these cases that “the skill and patience that has gone into the production [...] has not ben appreciated by the market“, it’s also possible there’s a reaction to this trend of style over substance, and price dictating quality.

Van Winkle is the topic du jour among bourbon enthusiasts. This is partially natural – it’s fall, which is traditionally the limited and expensive release season; and partly because there’s no shortage of disgust at the additional hype the New York Post’s recent article on Van Winkle bourbons has engendered. Van Winkle happens to be an extremely interesting case study of this phenomenon.

For the five of you who aren’t aware of the lore, Pappy Van Winkle is the name that a very limited range of bourbons is marketed under. Historically, Van Winkle was the product of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, which closed over a decade ago. The Stitzel-Weller profile is a really nice one, though having tasted several old Stitzel-Wellers, I would not say the Stitzel-Weller profile is too dissimilar to the profile that Buffalo Trace’s wheated bourbons have. This is fortunate, because as the Stitzel-Weller bourbon is getting older and no more is being produced, the younger expressions are made up more and more of Buffalo Trace whiskey. Buffalo Trace tends to be a bit more wood-forward and not as overtly caramel sweet as Stitzel, but it’s still within range.

Van Winkle’s profile has been raising in recent years, buoyed heavily by mentions from celebrity chefs (Bourdain, Chang and Ripert among many others). Rising faster than its profile, however, is its price.

It’s no secret that the kitchen is big business, and we have a tendency to want to follow and emulate the recommendations of those we look up to. However, in a nod to David Driscoll, I’ve got to say that you should try and find what you like personally. I personally found in an extensive blind tasting of wheated bourbon this summer that I have a real soft spot for a beautifully crafted 90-proof wheater. Not all 90 proofers, but there are some out there that really kill it with an unbelievably balanced profile. To take this in a different direction, as a musician – we’re different physiologically than our heroes and teachers. I’ve never once used the same drumstick as my teachers – my hands are a bit smaller; I like something that’s lighter in my hand. If I was following my teachers or heroes, I’d be struggling with an uncomfortable 747, 777, 85A or SD1. Instead, I like the plain old boring 5A – the 90 proof bourbon of drumsticks. I’d never reach these conclusions without the willingness to toss aside the bourbon gospel of barrel proof uber alles.

I don’t have the depth of market history or insight that David does. I don’t know the ins and outs of the wine market or the whiskey market (except as an enthusiast and member of the chattering class). However, my experience with whiskey says that it – even scotch – is a different beast than wine. Whiskey is a drink of the people. Whiskey is a drink for the everyman. I just feel in my gut that whiskey is heavily riding the wave of a slightly tongue-in-cheek and superficial desire to reconnect to the rugged personalities we like to imagine existed in the 60s and before. I can’t help but feel like this will all be passé in a few years – which is then followed by a price collapse.

Maybe I’m wrong, which is also entirely possible. Maybe some whiskeys are going in the direction of Bordeaux and In five years I’ll never taste another Macallan again. If that’s truly the case, it’s a shame. I think we have the opportunity to fight against an elitist, collecting, hoarding and status-seeking mentality that only helps drive prices explosively higher.

People like to imagine scotch as a marker of high status, that you’ve really arrived when you’re drinking scotch. It’s a drink of the rich and powerful, and is best enjoyed in tweed jackets, in old leather chairs in a study. Hey, that’s a hell of a setting, but let me paint a separate picture, one of the Los Angeles Whisk(e)y Society.

LAWS is a group of guys who are by most any measure a fairly successful and sharp group of guys. Certainly there’s some socioeconomic advantages enjoyed among the group; you won’t see some of those ridiculous whiskies posted on the site if not. It’s nothing if not an intensely passionate group of whisky enthusiasts, so there’s definitely some nerdy discussions that are overheard – “I’m getting a real rancio note on this”; “This is a lot different than later Stitzel-Wellers”, and so on. However, the night drags on and what you have is a very boisterous room of friends reconnecting after a month(ish), talking about family, movies, music, random blogs and online stuff, work, and so on. That’s right: it’s not a quietly reverential, cold and analytical group that is some sort of whisky version of Inside The Actor’s Studio. It’s loud, it’s funny, the people are smart as it gets, but it’s never too serious. I hope I haven’t spoiled any illusions you may have.

Even when we’re tasting Strathislas pushing 50 years old, or incredible oloroso-matured Glendronachs, there’s always a grounded, earthy, joking presence. That, to me, is what is the core of the whisky experience. That, to me, is what we as a community (speaking much more broadly) need to foster.

Maybe we’re all going to be priced out and remembering the heyday when we could afford a 40 year old Glendronach split 15 ways. But even if we can’t, we can keep the spirit alive. This is what I mean when I say whisky is for the people: it’s the drink of tailgate parties at your college. It’s the drink your friends buy to wreck you after you’ve gotten blind drunk on your birthday. It’s a little more grown-up, but it hasn’t forgotten how to have fun. Your grandfather didn’t drink bourbon because he was old, he drank it because he enjoyed it. (And he remembers when Old Grand-Dad used to be great stuff).

Let’s not be afraid to visit the bottom shelf. Let’s not forget we’ve got friends to share and split with. And for crying out loud, after you’ve finished taking your tasting notes, tell your friends that story where you looked like a complete idiot this last month. It’s so much more fun when you’re sharing it over a glass of whiskey. Along with the experiences, whiskey is better when it’s shared – it’s scientifically proven to taste better. (Maybe not, but if you share your rare Brora, someone else might share their rare Glenugie…)

In this spirit of whiskey for the everyman, a quick peek at Evan Williams 1783, as requested earlier this year.

The nose on 1783 has a heavy caramel presence, a touch of wood with some furniture polish, a very faint hint of sourness that provides a nice counterpoint to the sweetness, and some vanilla creaminess, with a more grainy turbinado sugar sweetness also.

The palate starts light, but gains a little weight. It leads with some slightly bitter wood, but it’s nicely mixed with some big caramel notes and some toffee. It’s got some light sugar, but it becomes more vanilla-creamy, which sits nicely in complement to the caramel. There’s a light hint of citrus and some very slight black pepper. There’s also a late hint of black tea tannins.

The finish is sweet, dominated by caramel, turbinado sugar and buttercream vanilla with some light cinnamon and pepper heat. A faint sourness keeps the sweet in check, and it’s also got some faint black cherries.

1783 is a slightly more grown-up take on the standard black label Evan Williams. It mies well; it’s also great straight. For me, it might supplant black label as a worthy low-price bourbon to keep on hand.

As my friend Adam says:

Drink whiskey!

At a glance:

Evan Williams 1783 43% ABV
Nose:
  Heavy caramel presence, a touch of wood with some furniture polish; a very faint hint of sourness in the nose in a way that provides a nice counterpoint to the sweetness; vanilla creaminess. Some turbinado sugar.
Palate:  Light. Slightly bitter wood up front, mixed well with caramel with some light toffee. More light sugar hints but it’s becoming a little more vanilla-creamy in nature which sits nicely against the caramel. A light citrus hint, and a very very slight dusting of black pepper. Hints of black tea.
Finish:  Sweet on exit, caramel, turbinado sugar, some buttercream vanilla with some light cinnamon and pepper heat. Faint sourness and faint black cherries.
Comment: A slightly more grown-up take on standard black label Evan Williams. A superb mixer, solid to enjoy straight. This might supplant black label as a worthy low-price bourbon to keep on hand.
Rating: B-

Corn Whiskey Done Right – Balcones vs Preconceptions (Part 2)

Previously, I discussed the young corn whiskeys that Balcones have released and how they surprised me with their depth. By this point in my tasting (again, samples provided courtesy Balcones as part of a larger tasting), I was looking at the darker colored spirits. Now I was getting interested.

The next whiskey up was the “1″ Texas Single Malt, an ex-bourbon finished whiskey. In the past I’ve said I thought single malt was an exceedingly difficult for small distilleries to get right. Single malts seem to just need a long time in wood to settle down and develop a coherent profile. The nose on this one was unsurprisingly sweet, with orange zest and a bit of caramel. White pepper and a little wood provided some dimension. There was a nice maltiness with some light floral notes and a pleasing light touch of honeysuckle. Some cinnamon and a classic malt note of buttercream vanilla also came through.

The palate was malty, but slightly bitter with an upfront wood influence. It had a moderately full mouthfeel. The whisky had a lightly floral, almost bubblegum note to it. Heat started to gradually build with some cinnamon which stood as a contrast to the light honey also on the palate.

The finish was reasonably long and warm, with a rich honey note and malt. It dried slightly but had moments of bitterness. It’s got a nice malt foundation, though seems a touch estery and unfocused, but I think it could be really interesting with more time in wood. It’s right on the verge of being a massively drinkable whiskey.

At this point, I was looking at the Brimstone sample. Brimstone has gone on to be one of this year’s most acclaimed whiskeys, but fortunately I had this one without a lot of heat building up around it yet. All I knew was that this was smoked with Texas scrub oak – an interesting change from the usual peat or mesquite.

The nose was slightly rubbery at first, which settled to reveal a slightly campfire-like smoke that has a more distinctly woody smell than more organic peat smoke. It was lightly malty with a touch of orange. There was a sweet side as well – chocolate and a bit of raisin.

The palate was oily and malty at first, with a rubbery kick at the front end. The smoke is relatively subdued otherwise. It reveals a taste of buttermilk biscuits with honey, a little orange liqueur at the top end, with some dark chocolate and raisins alongside cherry.

The finish was nicely smoky and seasoned, with a great barbecue sauce aftertaste (more sweet barbecue sauce, not a vinegar-based sauce). There were hints of apple skin, reasonable but not overpowering wood presence, and the light honey from the palate. Again, a malty and biscuity base sat under everything.

The result? The best corn whiskey I’ve ever had. Tons of dimension. It’s a good, worthwhile whiskey even outside the “corn whiskey” ghetto I described in my first post. This is simply a good whiskey – that sweet barbecue sauce against honeyed sweetness is a kind of balance that only a handful of really stellar Islay malts (usually over $250) can pull off and Brimstone does it with aplomb. It’s not an everyday choice for me, but it’s a worthy bar resident.

Brimstone absolutely lives up to the hype it’s gotten this year. Since it’s smoky it’s not going to be for everyone, but if that’s your thing, you owe it to yourself to check this out.

The craft distillery movement has a bright, shining star and Brimstone is it for now.

Two other fun spirits I got to try didn’t meet the definition of whiskey, but whiskey lovers might enjoy them: Rumble and Rumble Cask Reserve. These are not whiskeys by the legal definitions, but as a whiskey drinker it’s quite likely you’d find something enjoyable in these. Instead of a usual mashbill of corn, barley, wheat and/or rye, this is made from figs, honey, and turbinado sugar.

The nose on Rumble was young, and initially vegetal, lightly sour. The sweetness common to this younger spirit nose almost went in the direction of fresh masa. There was light earthiness and some cinnamon.

I thought the mouthfeel was nice and lightly oily, with a gentle sweetness. There were hints of toffee, very, very light vanilla, and an overall nice, syrupy quality. Wood was minimal aside from providing some gentle spice and dimension. A little light cinnamon added; a little light green note slightly detracted.

The finish started a little warm, but not out of control. It was a little sweet but a generally quick finish. It dried and got woody and bitter, but not overly objectionable.

I thought it was good – it’s a different new make sweetness, less bracing. It’s interesting, enjoyable, and worth a taste should you find it.

The other sample I had was a cask strength version of Rumble, Rumble Cask Reserve.

The nose on Rumble Reserve was strong, but with a definite honey sweetness note. A light earthiness that I detected on the Rumble was present here, but unique to Reserve was a light, dry hoppy quality.

The palate was warm and rich – wood was abundant and the whiskey had plenty of heat. A gentle sweetness was underneath it; black pepper and cinnamon provided heat. It was slightly musty but agreeably so – kind of like an old study. The finish dried and left woody notes, a little flash of hops again, and some sweetness.

The Rumble Cask reminded me of the original release of Charbay’s hopped whiskey. It’s unusual, not for everyone, but very enjoyable.

The two Balcones whiskeys – Brimstone in particular – are great stuff. Brimstone has been hyped this year but certainly not overhyped. It’s not for everyone but if smoke is your thing, it’s worth checking out.

I’ve written a lot about my hopes for craft distillers this year as well as my wish that there would be less of a focus on shortcuts and more of a focus on quality. It’s hard, it’s expensive, it demands attention to your craft, and generally it doesn’t allow a producer to hide behind a cute story. I recognize from all my endeavors that this asks a lot before putting yourself out there. However, it’s a lot more satisfying to have put in the blood, sweat and tears and  approach from a position of confidence than knowing everything is in a house of cards.

This is all a hell of a lot better than I ever imagined corn whiskey could be.

At a glance:

Balcones “1″ Texas Single Malt – Ex-Bourbon finish 53% ABV
Nose: 
Sweet; orange zest and a light bit of caramel. White pepper, a little bit of wood. Malty, with some light floral notes, a touch of honeysuckle. A bit of cinnamon and some buttercream vanilla. 
Palate: 
Malty but slightly bitter with a wood influence upfront. Moderate mouthfeel; lightly floral, an almost bubblegum note to it. Heat starts to build after a minute with light cinnamon. Lightly honeyed. 
Finish: 
Warm; again rich with a honey note and some malt; drying slightly and a little bitter at points. Moderate length.
Comment: 
The malt foundation to this is nice. I think the esters are a little unfocused but this could be interesting with more time in the wood. This is right on the verge of a massively drinkable whisky.
Rating:
B- 

Balcones Brimstone (Batch BRM 12-2) 53% ABV
Nose: 
Slightly rubbery at first smell; a slightly campfire-like smoke that has a more distinctly woody smell than the organic peat smoke. Light malt, a touch of orange. There’s a sweet side to this; a little chocolate and maybe a raisin note. 
Palate: 
Oily and malty at first; a little rubbery kick at the front end of the smoke. Smoke is relatively subdued otherwise; giving a lightly honeyed note, buttermilk biscuits, again, a little orange (liqueur) at the top end, very faint. A slight hint of dark chocolate as well. Raisins, a touch of cherry. 
Finish: 
Nicely smokey, very seasoned and tastes like a nice barbecue sauce aftertaste (sweet sauce, not a vinegar mop). Slight hints of apple skin, a reasonable amount of wood but not overpowering; the lightly honeyed note shows up here as well. Malty and biscuity again as well as a baseline. 
Comment: 
This is the best corn whiskey I’ve ever had. Tons of dimension to this.  I don’t know that I’d reach for this constantly but I might be persuaded to keep some around. 
Rating:
 B 

Balcones Rumble (Batch R11-11)
Not Whiskey
Nose:  Young, vegetal initially. Lightly sour. Sweetness that almost goes in a fresh masa direction. Lightly earthy, some cinnamon.
Palate:  Nice mouthfeel – slightly oily. Gentle sweetness – some light toffee hints; some very very light vanilla; nice and syrupy. Wood presence on this is minimal but gives some gentle spicing and dimension. A little light cinnamon. A faintly green note.
Finish:  Warm but not bad. A little sweetness; generally a quick finish. Dries a bit and gets slightly woody and bitter, but not at all objectionable.
Comment: Not at all bad. Something is different about this one compared to the others (post-tasting note: made from sugar, honey & figs. Huh.) and it’s got a little less bracing new make sweetness to it. Interesting and enjoyable enough.
Rating: B-

Rumble Cask Reserve (Barrel 1597)
Not Whiskey
Nose:
  Strong initially. Somewhat sweet on the nose, definitely getting a honey note. Lightly earthy; almost has flashes of a dry hoppy quality.
Palate:  Warm and rich. Wood in abundance; plenty of heat. Gentle sweetness; some black pepper and cinnamon. Slightly musty but in an agreeable way.
Finish:  Drying but leaves some wood, that hoppy flash, and some sweetness.
Comment:  This reminds me of Charbay’s first release. It’s certainly unusual but it’s pretty enjoyable.
Rating: B