Category Archives: Bourbon

Give Thanks! Caol Ila and Dusty Bourbons

This is a quick update – I’m busy getting ready for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving feast. However, a quick pause is in order to give a little more color to a whisky I recommended in the Haphazard Whiskey Holiday Gift Guide. I’ve gotten a bunch of questions about the $130 sherried Caol Ila I mentioned in the import section.

It’s true, this is a really fun whisky and I’m kind of stunned it’s still available. I perhaps overstated the sherry influence; it’s there but it just adds dimension that might otherwise be lacking. The nose on it has a light smoke influence, nice orchard aromas with ripe Fuji apples, some denser red fruity notes, a little prune, some waxiness and some buttery richness.

The palate is light initially but gets that familiar oily, weighty Caol Ila presence. Some light, dry smokiness is balanced with waxy apples and gentle wood. Light, gentle peppery spice is there as is some pleasing lightly tart apple flavor.

The finish is the best part of this one. A little smokiness, slightly drying, and some nice rich fruitiness. Apple cider and some pepper zip give this heat and it’s got a lightly medicinal presence too.

It’s an immensely drinkable Caol Ila, a great show of age and a decent price.

Now, for the Dusty Bourbons. LAWS recently had a great bourbon meeting featuring all kinds of mostly dusty (really) old bourbons. Sku is covering this periodically for Dusty Thursdays and providing some more color on them. I don’t have a lot of insight to add to this one but thought I’d give general impressions. Full tasting notes on this are up at LAWS and you can compare the different opinions, which is what makes meetings like that fun.

Old Grand Dad reminded me of modern Four Roses – spicy, nicely woody but with a hint of that vanilla creaminess. Fairfax County seemed a bit marred by green woody notes. Very Old Fitzgerald – I’ve detailed a VVOF from the ’70s here. This was the weirdest SW I’ve had. A good deal darker in flavor, a little more nuance. Very interesting. As Adam says, I think Stitzel Weller dusties are a touch overrated but it was a lot of fun.

For me, the highlight was the President’s Choice, the first Brown Forman I’ve loved. I’m coming to peace with my love for easy-drinking 90 proof bourbons and this was right up that alley. Eagle Rare 101 from ’79 followed, and it was modern in profile by comparison, but just a bit dry.

Kentucky Vintage was an oddball wreck and I thought it was overoaked. It had so much wood on it that it started to almost seem peated at times – exceedingly weird. I’ve discussed Jefferson’s Ocean Aged earlier here.

There’s not much more to add; it was a fun night and worth sharing.

Update: Apparently there is something to add. David OG from K&L posted his recap of the night at the K&L Spirits Journal today. 

At a glance:

Caol Ila 1984 27y (Distilled 1-1984, Bottled 6-2011) 52.4% ABV Exclusive (Bottled by Douglas Laing)
Light influence of smoke, a nice orchard aroma with ripe Fuji apples, a little bit of denser red fruity notes, a touch of prune, lightly waxy and a touch buttery. 
Light initially but gaining some oily weight. Light dry smokiness balances with some waxy apple notes, a gentle wood influence. Light gentle peppery spice. Some pleasing light apple tartness as well. 
Immensely drinkable, a great aged Caol Ila. The finish is really enjoyable. I wasn’t initially blown away by it, but the lighter cider notes just killed me and made me keep wanting more. That said, just a touch short of my personal A-range.  

Overhyped & Underrated

This weekend I finally had the opportunity to taste the single most hyped American whiskey of 2012 – the Jefferson’s Ocean Aged bourbon. This whiskey was immediately notorious among whiskey fans for its backstory, which was either a clever idea or the dumbest ploy to date to separate people from their money. The story, in brief, was that a few barrels of bourbon were placed on a research ship and were aged at sea. If you believe the story, the elements encouraged greater wood interaction and gave it a profile of an older whiskey.

Oddly, this all sounds like a familiar version of the usual refrain from microdistilleries (which Jefferson’s/McLain & Kyne are not, they’re an independent bottler) which is some variant of “we have found a way to cheat time by altering some variable regarding the aging process”. Such claims should be regarded with the same suspicion you should have when you hear about cold fusion or perpetual motion. That’s not to say that larger climate differences don’t play a role – bourbons are pushing into greatness in the 8-12 year range and are dangerously woody in the 15-17 year old range, while Scotch whisky is really great at 15-18 and tends to get oakier in its 20s. However, Kentucky and Scotland have definite differences in climate.

If that was all there was to Jefferson’s, it would have just been ignored. This bourbon, however, was limited. Like 250 bottles limited, which is a pretty shockingly small run for a bourbon batch – closer to a single cask scotch release, honestly. And the price tag? It hovered around $200 - if you could find it. Most people couldn’t. The hype naturally blew up on Twitter, and reached fever pitch when K&L had a spirits auction for it. I personally set my over/under line at $750, thinking it’d just barely crest that number given the level of the hype and how crazy people were getting (not to mention the “whisky bubble” factor this year).

I was wrong – dead wrong. It broke the $1000 mark. K&L did a good thing and donated $900 to charity (so don’t crucify them, they just held the auction – your fellow spirits aficionados are the knuckleheads who bid it up that high). Jefferson’s Ocean officially crossed into “bizarre curiosity” territory for me, but with that kind of value on it I didn’t have much thought of ever trying it. Until, as I said, this weekend rolled around.

The actual Jefferson’s bottle we had – photo by Bino Gopal.

So what does aging at sea do? As best I could tell, not a lot. There were light rye notes initially, but then I got a very standard modern bourbon profile with sour, somewhat vegetal aromas on the nose and some lightly woody undertones. There were light hints of raw sugar as well.

The palate was light and a little thin, with faint wood notes, again the slightly vegetal sourness, a bit of corn sweetness, some turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and a touch of cinnamon. The finish opened up a bit and had some light black cherries, more turbinado sugar, a more straightforward cherry note (verging momentarily on Luden’s cough drops), and had an even later faint hint of peanuts.

Jefferson’s Ocean Aged was, to put it simply, very unremarkable.

For me, that’s a very unsurprising result to this ultra-hyped whisky. To be totally frank, it tastes like a very anonymous younger bourbon. I’ll give some benefit of the doubt to the micro-climate-aging and say the Evan Williams Single Barrel was what jumped to mind on when I had this. Good but by no means great – and absolutely NOT worth a thousand dollars.

So, on one hand there’s that, which blew the whiskey world up. On the other hand, we’re in the fall which is traditionally Pappy-and-Buffalo-Trace time. Already my traffic is spiking with searches about Pappy availability. If you hit this post wondering if Pappy or Stagg or Weller or any of the others are available near you, I don’t know. Make friends with your local liquor merchant, they’ll know better and it’s a relationship worth having if you are tracking hyped and limited releases.

But seemingly under the radar and ignored by the mass audience is the absolute best bourbon of 2012 – the Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition for 2012. I’m going to make this hard for me to find any future bottles, but it’s worth spreading the gospel: this is hands-down the best bourbon of 2012.

Start your spending.

This version of Four Roses is a mixture of four whiskies – the 17 year old OBSV that I loved so much earlier this year, an 11 year old OBSV, a 12 year old OBSK (also a great, spicy recipe) and a 12 year old OESK (a higher-corn mashbill). It’s about $75 though some people will no doubt gouge a bit on it. Unlike the boat bourbon, this is worth it.

The nose on the Four Roses has nice spices up front – fresh black pepper, a little cinnamon, some nutmeg in the background. There’s some clay earthiness but it’s balanced by some prominent wood. Caramel, a little fudge, and some molasses add a nice sticky depth. Mint and cedar give some top notes and there’s some corn at the center of it.

The palate has a wonderfully thick, almost syrupy mouthfeel, leading with wood and then building. A sweet, lightly vegetal (in an entirely pleasing way) corn body with accents of cherry and hints of oranges. It’s momentarily a touch salty, balanced with caramel sweetness and a little hint of apples hiding in the back.

The finish leads with wood, unsurprising with the 17 year old bourbon in the mix, black cherries and cinnamon, and it lasts and lasts. It’s a rich, strong finish with a vegetal hint to it that really works well when held as a counterpoint to the sweetness and wood. A little waxy apple emerges as it dries.

The Four Roses Small Batch 2012 LE is everything you’d want in a premium-priced bourbon: ridiculously complex yet totally accessible, full bodied and not overproofed, sweet but not cloying.

And in spite of all of this, everyone’s going to be freaking out about Pappy as usual this year. It’s a shame, because they’re missing out on one of the best.

At a glance:

Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Bourbon 41.15% ABV
Nose: Light rye notes initially, but then a very standard modern bourbon profile with sour, somewhat vegetal aromas and some lightly woody undertones. Light hints of raw sugar as well.
Palate: Light and a little thin, with faint wood notes, again the slightly vegetal sourness, a bit of corn sweetness, some turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and a touch of cinnamon later in the palate.
Finish: Opens up a bit with a light dose of black cherries, more turbinado sugar, a more straightforward cherry note (verging on Luden’s cough drops). Later faint hint of peanuts.
Comment: Very unremarkable.
Rating: C+

Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition – 2012 55.7% ABV
Nose:  Nice spices up front – fresh black pepper, a little cinnamon, some background nutmeg. A little mix of clay earthiness, but there’s some prominent wood. Caramel, a little fudge, some molasses. A little mint and a cedar aroma too. Corn at the heart.
Palate:  Thick and syrupy mouthfeel, a little wood leads and then continues to build. Sweet, lightly vegetal (in an entirely pleasing way) corn body with a little cherry accents, some hints of oranges; slightly salty for a moment; caramel sweetness and a little hint of apples hiding.
Finish:  Leads with wood, black cherries and cinnamon, lasts and lasts. Very rich and strong finish; a hint of vegetal character that really works well when held as a counterpoint to the sweetness and wood quality. A little hint of waxy apple as it dries faintly.
Comment:  Ridiculously complex but totally accessible, full bodied and not overproofed, sweet but not cloying, probably the best bourbon all year.
Rating: A-

The Haphazard Whiskey Holiday Gift Guide

This week while running errands, I saw plenty of stores with Christmas decorations already up and checkout stands looking more harvest-inspired than a week go. Unsurprisingly with Halloween now past, all eyes focus on the end of the year. As I think about making the wish list for my son, I recall the conversations I had with several friends this summer about a simple bottle buying guide.

Instead of mining the ever-more-ridiculous topic of overpriced official and independent bottlings, I thought I’d take some time and lay out a few whiskey buying suggestions. Hopefully those of you who have whiskey lovers in your life (or just like it yourself) will find this guide helpful.

Generally speaking, I’m staying within the realm of “should be available at a good liquor store” and not trying to stack up a year-end-best list with all kinds of bottles that everyone is going to be fighting for.

American Whiskeys
For many, this is the alpha and omega category of whiskey. Others believe that American whiskey is inferior to Scotch for any number of reasons, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re stylistically quite different, but premium bourbons can stand alongside any premium whiskey in the world. Here are a few worth checking out:

Affordable Pick ($25 and under): Old Weller 107. A wheated bourbon, Old Weller 107 can show a lot of classic sweet flavors of caramel, maple syrup, light wood influence, traces of orange and some light pepper. A great sipper and mixes well too. Usually about $25.

Upmarket Pick ($50 and under):
Four Roses Single Barrel
. This is commonly available in a gift pack around this time of year with two glasses and a 750mL bottle. There’s no reason not to get it – it’s the same phenomenal 100 proof OBSV recipe that’s in the usual single barrel bottle. This recipe of Four Roses is a little more spicy than some bourbons, though not enough to be too extreme. Four Roses seems to be able to balance spice with an incredible creamy, vanilla taste and texture, and I’ve always thought this standard Single Barrel does it extremely well.

For those who aren’t fans of spicier bourbons, Woodford Reserve can be a winner (I’m not particularly fond of it) but the consensus pick still seems to be standard Woodford and not the Double Oaked – I’d agree with that as well.

I also think Blanton’s Single Barrel is great in this category. All of these are within 10 bucks of $50.

Other Options:
High West Rendezvous Rye - one of High West’s very best offerings, a mix of an old rye and a slightly younger rye, this brings a good dose of rye flavor with some wood and a floral characteristic as well.

Balcones Brimstone
– Corn whiskey that’s been smoked and aged in full-size barrels. Quite possibly the best whiskey produced by a smaller American producer. It’s very smoky (very smoky!) so it’s not for everyone. However, it’s a great mix of smoke and chocolatey flavors. Both around $50.

Scotch Whisky

Affordable Pick ($50 and under)
Glenlivet 15 year French Oak – a very nice, vanilla sweet Glenlivet single malt. Miles better than the 12 year old option, the 15 is a perfect companion to desserts or just for relaxed sipping by the fireplace. I wouldn’t use the word “challenging” to describe it, but I would say “really enjoyable”. (about $40)

Clynelish 14 – A terrific, bold and character-heavy single malt, with a pleasingly waxy character that comes to dominate older Clynelishes. Underrated and a great value in the ever-more-expensive single malt category. (about $50)

Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend – A waxy profile on this blend (likely from Clynelish), with a lighter character and some fruitiness that you get from blends. One of the very best blends of the last couple years. (about $40)

Upmarket Pick ($125 and under)
Glenfarclas 21 - A great single malt with plenty of age on it, while not feeling tired or overoaked. A little pleasing spicy tingle; again, a whisky that could be sold for much more than they’re asking for it. ($120)

Ardbeg Corryvreckan – For smoke and peat lovers, this is one of the greats of Ardbeg’s range. Plenty of smoke and tar, with a little bit of malty and vanilla sweetness behind it. Frequently overlooked in favor of Uigeadail or the latest limited release, Corryvreckan is still a treat. ($90)

Rest Of The World
Yamazaki 12, from Suntory, is a fairly reasonably-priced Japanese single malt that’s a reliable crowd-pleaser. A nice mix of white pepper and tons of vanilla, it’s got body, complexity, a little sweetness and a character that’s just a bit different than your standard pick. (about $45)

Redbreast 12 Year Old – beloved by many fans of Irish whiskey, with a more oily, substantial presence and more developed flavors than your average bottle of Jameson or Bushmill’s. Among Irish whiskey aficionados it’s a recent favorite.

Off The Beaten Path: Import Choices
If you want to get something for a US drinker that’s not available here, you can get some interesting picks from the UK. Generally speaking, The Whisky Exchange, The Whisky Barrel and Master Of Malt are my favorite dealers.

These are sold in pounds so the prices may fluctuate, and be sure to budget for shipping. That said, I’ve never had any problems with any of the three.

Yellow Spot Irish WhiskeyMy favorite Irish whiskey to date. A mix of three casks types and twelve years of maturation. A great, honeyed, well-developed Irish whiskey. Limited run, available overseas only, and a real special treat. (about $80)

Caol Ila 27 Year Old For The Whisky Barrel - a sherry-matured Caol Ila. This is again for the lover of smoky whisky, though in this case it’s mixed with some sweetness and fig flavors courtesy of the sherry. Bargains like this don’t come around often and it’s a limited run. (about $130).

The Whisky Advent Calendar – Who knows what’s in here? Hard to say. 24 individual 30ml pours (slightly less than an airline bottle), which is about as much as a standard bottle of whisky. Master Of Malt says one of the pours is a 50 year old single malt that normally sells for about $550. Not bad! The set sells for about $240 and is one of the most fun ideas I’ve seen.

Everything Else: Decadent Splurges And Fun Gifts

My list begins with Macallan 18 – practically shorthand for the midlevel premium single malt. While this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how expensive single malts, this is the black tie malt. It’s timeless, always appropriate, and will be appreciated by the recipient. Aficionados will doubtless argue the relative merits of this compared to previous years, but let’s be honest: Receiving a $140+ dollar bottle of whisky as a gift is a rare occasion. Perfect for a loved family member, a boss who you want to impress, a hardworking employee, or just a quiet no-pressure gift for yourself.

Glenfarclas 40y is the most expensive item on this list, coming in in the neighborhood of $450. Yes – it’s a LOT to pay! There’s no question. But perhaps for the right person, or if you simply have plenty of disposable income, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime gift. It’s the most reasonably priced, high-quality official bottling from a major distillery.

On the other end of the spectrum, Old Pulteney again has a neat holiday gift. Last year they were packing their 12y offering with two Glencairn glasses for less than they would cost to acquire individually. This year they’ve got two small bottles packed together with their 12y and 17y whiskies. This is about $40 in Southern California.

Finally, though this is not as common, it can still be found. Compass Box has a five-whisky tasting set of their blends packaged in a neat wood presentation box. The whiskies are individually bottled in long tubular vials – it kind of looks like a chemistry set! It has the five core whiskies of Compass Box’s range of blends: Oak Cross, Spice Tree, The Peat Monster, Hedonism and Asyla. This is a fun way to let someone taste multiple whiskies without committing to a full bottle, and as I said, the sampler set has a really cool presentation. This is fairly variable in price, but I’ve seen it for as low as $40 and as high as $75 so we’ll split the difference and call this one roughly $60.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if I were to shop for someone or if I were looking for suggestions when I was starting out, this would be what I’d wished someone had led me towards.

Happy holidays! Remember, there’s more to holidays than the Pappy Hunt or the Diageo Chase. Enjoy the time with friends or family!

Whoever Makes The Juice, I Like It: Pappy Van Winkle 15

I’ve had a bottle of Pappy 15 that I’ve been nursing for ages. As it recently passed the halfway mark, it’s on the list to go finish sooner than later. I can’t lie: I definitely love Pappy. I just don’t love the hype and hysteria around it.

I’d been on the fence writing about this one for ages. I loathe the idea of contributing to any more hype around it, especially since the fall release is drawing ever nearer. Given that we’re near the point where the Stitzel-Weller distillate is going to be depleted, there’s also an unending amount of tiresome speculation and parsing of what Buffalo Trace and the Van Winkles have to say about what’s in the bottle. I’ve heard so many different versions at this point that I really assume it’s all bullshit and am not concerned particularly.

After all, I have been known to enjoy the occasional KBD product, and they play it pretty close to the vest about what goes into a given bottle. If it’s good, it doesn’t matter too much to me.

It should be said, this is not a review of the current releases that have been flagged as being the Buffalo Trace Pappy. This bottle was from a 2010 release, but has a 2009 bottling date on it. I will leave it to those who parse the words of the Van Winkles, Harlan Wheatley, and bottling codes to say definitively what is in this one. The last I’d checked, an ’09 bottling code was generally an indicator of Stitzel-Weller juice, but for all I know, it’s Evan Williams, a dash of Kool-Aid and a splash of V8.

As we all know by now, Pappy has a reputation of being the creme de la creme of bourbons. Surprisingly, it remains reasonably priced – no $200, aged at sea, stored in warehouses damaged by extreme climate, sprinkled with moon dust backstory on this one. It’s a 15 year old wheated bourbon made by the people whose name is synonymous with long-aged wheated bourbon.

There’s tons of wheated bourbon out there. There’s tons of old bourbon out there. Why should you try and get a pour of Pappy at some point?

Regardless of what its provenance is, Pappy is a bottle that has a phenomenally well-executed bourbon in it.  While I prefer the 20, which to me may be the best wheater ever produced, the 15 is ridiculously good. If you’re not familiar with wheaters, you’ll note a lack of the more peppery spice. That doesn’t mean it’s just flabby caramel notes; the wood can impart spice of its own (as Scotch & Ice Cream’s sadly now-defunct Single Oak Project coverage discovered with the #3/#4 char experiment). Rye has a distinct spice to it, and wheat has been described as not being uniquely spiced on its own, but rather being notable for its absence of spice.

The extra age ensures that everything the wood has to offer is on display. Past this point and it becomes distinctly woody. The 20 is not to everyone’s taste; as a fan of tannic flavors and its unique spice, I prefer it. However, after 15 years you definitely move into a distinct style regardless of the mashbill.

The nose on this Pappy is delightfully sweet, revealing maple syrup and a light oakiness, with a hint of warm brown sugar (think of brown sugar on oatmeal). There’s a light hint of nutmeg and some cinnamon, as well as some pleasing black tea tannins.

The palate is great. A rich, almost syrupy mouthfeel; sweet from the start and with a nice wood influence. I tasted a little corn, but that was against the major notes of maple syrup and brown sugar, again with some cinnamon heat in the background.

The finish is initially warm with black tea tannins, but it cools to leave a more flavorful cinnamon note, gentle oak influence, more maple and brown sugar. There’s some light black cherry on the finish, but it’s fairly tucked away.

There really is nothing not to like about Pappy 15, unless you recoil in horror at woody notes in your whiskey or you’re not a fan of tannic wines or black tea. Fortunately, if that’s your preference, the pressure on stocks is towards ever younger releases currently and you might not have a problem.

For those who covet a taste of Pappy Van Winkle, my best advice is to try and get to a solid club or restaurant that isn’t necessarily known as a “whisky spot” (I wouldn’t even waste the time asking at The Daily Pint in LA). I’ve had more regular encounters with Pappy at places like Son of a Gun near the Beverly Center, the Soho House in West Hollywood, and (of all places) Crossroads BBQ/Bubba Diego’s on Sepulveda. Basically, look for newer restaurants where there’s a definite desire to get the right credibility with a spirits list, or money’s-no-object gathering places.

You can get this if you cultivate a relationship with your local spirits buyer; even then, there is likely a waiting list that’s got dozens of names ahead. You might get lucky and find it on a shelf (but that’s incredibly unlikely) – if you do, don’t debate yourself, just buy a bottle. $70 may be more than you spend, but it’s only on shelves for a short while at this point.

There’s not a lot like this particular wheater. Buffalo Trace’s offerings are a little more overtly woody and have a more prominent black cherry note to them. Maker’s is much younger; Jefferson’s 17/18 taste more woody to me, and Rebel Yell is garbage.

It’s worth a try, but as I say and continue to believe: A-level whiskies are always coming. Don’t fret if you can’t find this.

At a glance:

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, 15y, 53.5% ABV
Delightfully sweet – maple syrup, light oakiness, a hint of warm brown sugar. Light hint of nutmeg and some cinnamon. Pleasing black tea tannins.
Palate:  Rich, syrupy mouthfeel. Sweet at entry with some nice wood; a little gentle corn, tons of maple syrup, brown sugar, and a little cinnamon heat in the background.
Finish:  Warm initially with some black tea tannins, cooling leaving cinnamon, nice gentle oak influence, and more maple syrup and brown sugar. A hint of black cherry on the finish but tucked away.
Comment:  There’s nothing not to like here.
Rating: A-

Canadian Rye, Three Ways

There are a number of whiskies out there that sit in the “American”/”Bourbon” section of your local liquor store that should more appropriately be sitting in the Canadian section. Three highly-regarded ryes – WhistlePig, Masterson’s, and Jefferson’s, despite hanging out next to Rittenhouse, Jim Beam Rye, Sazerac and others, are actually produced in Canada. You’ll see this usually acknowledged in teeny type on the label somewhere.

My interest in looking at these a while back was spurred by seeing a bottle of WhistlePig in one of my local haunts that had a store-made shelf talker which loudly announced WhistlePig as being made in Vermont.

That seemed odd to me – rye is in short supply these days and it’s not one of those things that a lot of people are producing. It’s a ridiculously tough grain to work with when compared to the other options out there, and has a tendency to get really sticky. (Don’t believe me? Try making some rye bread – even if rye is only 30-40% of the total flour weight, you will quickly see how much stickier rye is than wheat).

I looked on the back and saw the “Produced in Canada” label. Ah yes. It’s as American as William Shatner, poutine and ice hockey. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I love Star Trek as much as the next guy.

Digging some more, I saw two other ryes were noted as sharing some similarities with WhistlePig: Masterson’s and Jefferson’s. All three are 10 year old straight ryes, just at differing proofs. Clearly the best thing to do is have a shootout.

Starting at the top is the most expensive and probably most well known rye, WhistlePig. It’s garnered some awards and has developed a pretty good reputation. Its following is maybe not the most fervent out there, but that’s because it’s pricing itself into the premium end of North American whiskies.

WhistlePig’s nose is initially dry and slightly spicy, with a fairly hefty dose of wood. There’s a trace of black pepper, some oranges providing some zesty top-end to the nose, and a gentle caramel influence. Confectioner’s sugar, gentle cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg and faint clove rounded out the nose.

The palate started woody initially, with a slightly dry and light mouthfeel, but that opened up. It started to get more sweet, and cinnamon also added some heat to the palate. It was lightly floral as I commonly find ryes to be, and there was a slight caramel tone to the sweetness.

The finish was initially warm, but the heat faded, and left a slightly caramel sweetness with a good dose of rye and gentle spices. White pepper heat contrasted with nutmeg, and it all resolved to a wood finish.

Does WhistlePig live up to the hype? It’s a pretty good nose for a rye, with tons of baking spices competing for your attention. A little sweetness helps round out the palate and provides nice contrast with the spice and wood. It’s got tons of character and at 10 years, the really piney notes you get from a lot of ryes have been tamed.

That’s a promising start for this whiskey. The next up was Masterson’s, which came in at 45% ABV (compared to WhistlePig’s 50%).

Masterson’s nose was spicy and initially sharp, with white and black pepper abundant. It opened up to the familiar note of confectioner’s sugar and some sweet toffee. There was definitely wood again on the nose, but overall the nose was predominantly sweet with spice as a shading. I couldn’t help but shake the image of a fresh beignet when nosing this.

The palate entered with a light to moderate weight, with wood and a slow, spicy heat initially – again in the form of cinnamon. There was a very agreeable mellow sweetness permeating everything, with confectioner’s sugar giving some direct sweetness. It was gently sweet and had some faint piney notes, and again reminded me of a pastry.

The finish was sweet and agreeable with gentle toffee, but a more pronounced caramel character and a touch of maple syrup. There’s a light wood influence that was obvious, and it even had a slightly vanilla character to me.

Masterson’s had an undeniable similarity to WhistlePig, though at the lower proof, the sweetness shone through. It lacked some of the complexity on the nose, but had a more easygoing sweetness not found in the WhistlePig. Overall, I thought it was really nice.

Finally, the last option was Jefferson’s Rye, also 10 years old, and splitting the proof difference at 47%.

The nose on Jefferson’s was lightly woody and had traces of pine. Sweetness with the expected confectioner’s sugar, as well as some caramel led on the nose, with gentle cinnamon and a touch of anise to add a little more dimension.

The whisky had a medium mouthfeel, fairly rich and again led with wood and built heat slowly with cinnamon. The woody character lightened but remained present. Toffee and maple syrup developed in the background. Overall, the palate seemed to have a nice gentle heat and an agreeable balance between wood and sweetness. Again, like the Masterson’s, I thought the palate was slightly bready like a fresh doughnut. (Actually, it reminded me most of a malasada).

The finish was sweet and slightly minty at first, but then was dominated by wood with a little cinnamon and rye. It was slightly bitter, and a little nutmeg went along with the wood.

Again, I found Jefferson’s a pretty good whisky. Given that it runs a little cheaper it might be the best buy of the bunch. Tasting in this sequence though, I thought it lacked a clear identity when compared to the spice cabinet of WhistlePig or the decadent pastry sweetness of Masterson’s.

So that leads us to the obvious conclusion: Which of these straight ryes is worth buying?

Well, truthfully, I wouldn’t be ashamed to have any of these on my bar. They’re all good, but they do something slightly different.

If you’re a spice fan and don’t mind a little heat and slight dryness, you should check out WhistlePig. I really enjoyed the nose on this one, and every aroma was distinct and clear.

If you’re a sweet tooth, head straight for Masterson’s. In retrospect I think I might prefer Masterson’s to the WhistlePig; a little extra water seemed to get this one sorted in the right direction for me. Don’t expect this to be as totally creamy sweet as an E yeast Four Roses, we’re still talking about a 100% rye mashbill.

If you can’t decide, are a newcomer to 100% rye whiskies, or your budget is tighter? Jefferson’s. If you want something a little sweeter, you should go with Masterson’s, and if you want a little spicier, WhistlePig is your ticket. While I’d say this was my least favorite of the three, it’s only because the other two had clearer identities in a 3-way tasting. I still have this as my bottle on the bar and will enjoy every drop that I don’t share out as a sample.

Honestly, of these three, I don’t think there’s a bad choice. And that’s great for all of us.

At a glance:

WhistlePig 10y Straight Rye 50% ABV
A dry, slightly spicy nose with a solid wood influence, light black pepper, light oranges, a gentle caramel body, light powdered sugar, gentle cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg and a faint touch of clove.
Palate:  Initially dry and light and slightly woody; sweetness starts to show as the cinnamon heats up the palate. Lightly floral and again a slight caramel body to the sweetness.
Finish:  Warm initially, but the heat fades and leaves a lightly caramel sweetness with a good dose of rye and gentle spices on top. White pepper provides the heat with a shade of nutmeg. Resolves to wood.
Comment:  A nicely aged rye with balance, spice, and character. Tons of interest and the age does a lot to tame any overly piney characteristics that you get in too many ryes these days.
Rating: B+

Masterson’s Rye 45% ABV
Spicy and sharp initially, white and black pepper in abundance. Opens up with some confectioner’s sugar and a sweet toffee note. Wood is evident but the nose is predominantly sweet with spice. Smells slightly like a fresh beignet. 
Light-to-moderate body, enters a little woody and a slow spicy heat – gentle cinnamon. Mellow sweetness all around. Confectioner’s sugar again. Gentle spice, very faintly piney. Faint pastry sweetness.
Sweet and agreeable; gentle toffee but more light caramel and a touch of maple syrup. Light wood influence is obvious on this, even a touch of vanilla. 
Quite similar to WhistlePig, but a little sweeter. 

Jefferson’s Rye 10y 47% ABV
Lightly woody and with traces of pine. Sweet with caramel, a light touch of confectioner’s sugar, some gentle cinnamon and a touch of anise. 
Medium richness, wood at the entry and a gentle cinnamon build. Wood lightens but remains present, more toffee and a touch of maple syrup in the background. Gentle heat, and a reasonable balance between wood and sweetness. Slightly bready, like a fresh doughnut. 
Sweet with a slightly minty note for a second, but then predominantly on wood with a little cinnamon and rye. Ever so slightly bitter; a little nutmeg goes along with the wood. 
Pretty good. Not a bad rye for the price, in fact. 



Going To The Wrong Side Of The Tracks

For some reason unknown to me in the last few months, I’ve been browsing reddit’s various whisky subreddits. It’s not quite the pace or depth of discussion I like to browse at (lots of repeats, too much Aberlour), but for a quick fix of some sort of banter, it’s not an awful spot to check on.

However, one thing that always makes me laugh is the level of derision heaped upon Johnnie Walker Red (I haven’t reviewed it yet but it will certainly get its time in the hot seat). If reddit is your only source of information, you’d probably come away thinking not only is no whisky worse than Red, it’s virtually impossible to imagine anything worse than Red (as I saw one redditor comment recently).

That’s one of the craziest things I’ve read. I can think of a dozen whiskies almost immediately that are so much worse than Red it’d make your face melt off like the guy in the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

French Corpse Bowmore 21? NOOOO

In terms of whisky, I’ve been a believer that it’s worth searching out experiences good and bad. I think it’s really easy to get attached to the good side of things – hey, it tastes good! – and ignore everything that’s less than, say, a C+ by my reckoning. After all, why spend your money on crap?

However, as the more experienced drinkers know, sometimes your curiosity about a bottle that’s not being talked about is punished with the most vile and horrific stuff imaginable. After all, you might reason, how bad can a Sonoma Cutrer casked bourbon REALLY be (see above illustration for answer)? I saw a Macallan 19y bottling from Rattray at one point and picked it up. It turned out to be pretty bad. At the time, I said I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. It was, at worst, a C- by my reckoning these days. So what do you do with these godawful bottles?

Well, in my circle of friends, you publicize the awfulness and curiosity tends to get the better of people. So you arrange a bad-sample-swap. (Or, as I did last summer, you timidly ask your host if you might try that one whisky he gave a super-low grade to).

This all easily avoids the point: WHY subject yourself to the unpleasantness of something that tastes like burning garbage and pleather?

The answer lies in palate and nose development for me. One whisky I’d inquired about was later characterized as having the most clear-cut case of a butyric acid contamination that person had ever encountered. Butyric acid, you might know, is one of the more foul off-notes whisky can develop. Its presence as a dominant note in this particular whisky helped me spot it a little more readily.

Similarly, I’ve had ones attune me to feinty notes of leather, plastic, and so on. Having whiskies that are flawed in some way tend to help develop my palate or help me better understand what a certain note is. I’ve been able to pin down more concretely some notes that were defying description previously. It also provides a nice contrast to the great whiskies so those are savored.

One of the red flags this year that was waved in front of me was John Hansell’s review of the most recent Buffalo Trace Experimental collection releases. John’s reviews are generally pretty positive and friendly, and any sort of negative aspect or flaw is generally addressed in a pretty even-handed manner.

However, John led with “Don’t buy this whiskey!” in his review of the Oat & Rice bourbons. One of the choice lines from the review was that the whiskies were “borderline unpleasant!” This, coming from John, seemed to me to be the rough equivalent of “This tasted like a dead cat that had been left in the sun for six weeks” from anyone else I knew. I was on the hook almost immediately for these.

The two whiskies are the Buffalo Trace “Bourbon Made With Rice” and “Bourbon Made With Oats” experimental releases. The name gives the details of the experiment away: these trade the traditional flavor grains of wheat and rye for rice and oats. Both sounded like worthwhile experiments.

The rice bourbon was more immediately interesting to me – rice is a pretty benign thing, flavor-wise, and I couldn’t see how that would result in a whiskey that got such negative notes from John.

The nose was lightly sweet, and had some grain and definite corn upfront; maple syrup and butterscotch also were present. There was a very little bit of black pepper, and some very faint cherry and clay notes. Pleasant so far.

The palate was extremely light, and almost watery. It didn’t make a huge statement at all. The flavors developed gradually, with sweetness leading in the form of maple syrup, with a little clay and cherry to balance it. White pepper showed up with a faint hint of cinnamon. There was a moderate wood note which did almost go towards being too bitter. The corn from the nose picked up at the end but it wasn’t very bold.

The finish was hot and dry, with cinnamon, black cherry, a dry and odd grain note which was hard to describe – I guess that’s the rice – overall a bit funky but still clean. It was more textural than taste. The finish was reasonably lasting, and sits on the cusp of bitter and sweet.

That grain note in the finish was distinctive and unlike anything I’d had in a whisky. It seemed to me to be slightly reminiscent of the aftertaste you get on a slightly warm Sapporo. It’s an interesting whisky with a light nose, but it’s more a curiosity than something to keep on the shelf. Ultimately, not really that bad – I’d even say it’s worth a try.

If the rice was OK, that must mean the oat bourbon was the real mess. I put off tasting it for a couple days and came to it with a clean palate.

The nose on the oat bourbon was sharply woody and had a heavily “toasted” character. There was some vegetal sourness peeking out, and some black cherries which initially seem to temper the bitterness, but ultimately started to reinforce it. A little corn and toffee made themselves known, and there was a definite oaty presence after a moment (more Cheerios than oatmeal). The nose stayed dry though it softened a bit and got the caramel sweetness and a light marshmallow note.

The palate was medium-bodied, though woody initially. That toasted aroma from the nose came through on the palate, and it was intensely woody. Dark fruits from the nose were all over the palate – black cherries, plums, and slightly overripe berries. It had a light fruit-derived sweetness that was also syrupy. Faint vanilla sat beside a moderately earthy taste, but it was all blunted by the wood.

The finish was very woody and got dry, and had the toasted flavor. It was slightly bitter, with some corn, vegetal sourness, and pepper. As it goes on it went more vegetal and bitter.

There’s no question the rice was the better experiment; the oat bourbon was closed off on the nose and everything seemed blunted by the wood. The only thing that was at a similar intensity was the dark fruit, but those tastes seemed to reinforce the woodiness, and it was left wanting for something brighter. Even with substantial time in the glass, it opens up a bit but never goes towards balance.

I’m not sure that it was the oats in the mashbill that made this one what it was. It’s entirely possible; High West’s Silver Oat whiskey is a white whiskey but unusually flavorful (in my opinion) for a white whiskey. Maybe it’s a grain that intensifies too much in wood? I’m not sure, but between the wood and the vegetal hints, it seemed more like a questionable cask to me.

In any case, it was an interesting experiment and I’d love to see any future experiments like these from other distillers. The rice has definite potential in a lighter style.

I can’t say I agreed with John’s strongly negative take on these, but as usual with the strong negative reaction, they tend to be quite informative – sometimes even if it’s just about the original source’s personal preferences.

At a glance:

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection: Bourbon Made With Rice 45% ABV
Lightly sweet – grainy notes and some definite corn upfront; butterscotch and maple syrup. A very little bit of pepper to it, extremely faint cherry and clay notes.
Palate:  Light mouthfeel; almost watery initially. Doesn’t make a huge statement. Sweetness slowly comes in; maple syrup with a little clay and cherry to balance it. White pepper on the palate; a faint hint of cinnamon. Moderate wood which is right on the edge of becoming a bit too bitter. Corn perks up near the end but the palate isn’t very bold.
Finish:   Heat and dryness initially, with a bit of cinnamon, some black cherry, a slightly dry and kind of odd grain note (which must be the rice but is hard to describe) – a little bit funky but still clean. It is almost more of a mouthfeel and texture than a taste. Finish is reasonably lasting and sits on the cusp of sweet and bitter.
Comment:  The finish grain note is really unlike anything else I’ve had. I’m fairly sure it’s the rice making itself known; the only thing that I’ve had that reminds me of that note is Sapporo. This is a pretty interesting whiskey but I think it’s more interesting as a curiosity than something you’d really want to settle down with.
Rating: B-

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection: Bourbon Made With Oats 45% ABV
Sharply woody initially with a heavily toasted character. There’s a bit of vegetal sourness peeking out against it. Some black cherries temper the wood a bit, but still feed into it. A little bit of corn. Some light toffee and a definite light oat presence – more cheerios than oatmeal. Somewhat dry. Eventually softens and gains some light caramel and some marshmallow as well.
Medium thickness, woody entrance on the palate. Toasted flavor again, intensely woody. Dark fruits in abundance – black cherries, plums, slightly overripe berries. Very light fruit-derived sweetness that’s a bit syrupy. Faint vanilla, moderate earthiness that is blunted a bit by the wood. 
Very woody, drying, toasted. Slight bitterness on the finish. A little corn, a little vegetal sourness, a dash of pepper. A slightly more bitter vegetal note as it lasts. 
Interesting experiment. Rice is the better of the two. The nose is just a little too closed off and everything gets blunted by the wood. The only thing that can really hang with that – the fruit notes – are very dark and it all cries out for something brighter to balance it. Even letting it sit, it opens up a bit but not enough to pull it into balance. 



Four Roses OBSV Part Two: Extra-Aged Bourbon

Earlier this week, I wrote about the standard off the shelf 50 proof Four Roses Single Barrel (OBSV). I said it was a great value for the price and one of the best bourbons in its class. It’s time to take this opportunity to see what happens to that recipe when you age it up a bit.

Four Roses’ big push is on their ten recipes, highlighting the role of mashbill and yeast which do definitely play a big role in determining the flavor of a bourbon. However, most whisky aficionados know, the time in oak changes the spirit dramatically. The vegetal notes of new spirit fade away in favor of the tannins and spicy body that wood imparts; the turbinado sugar flavors mixes with the wood influence and becomes more like maple syrup, toffee and caramel. Too little time in the wood and you might as well be riding shotgun with Popcorn Sutton. Too much time and you’d be better off brewing a tea with pencil shavings. Bad wood will take you in the direction of popsicle sticks and napkins. There’s a lot of room to go wrong.

Due to the climate in the midwestern US, which was far too extreme for me (hot summers and cold winters drove me from southern Illinois to southern California), bourbon is ready for prime time in anywhere from four to eight years. Twelve years can be pushing it but some bourbons wear the age well. For the most part, the old-age crown is worn most readily by the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, effortlessly holding up to 15 and 20 years of age. Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig also manages 12 and 18 20 years (but at $150 I don’t expect to have a judgement on the 20 soon). What then of the other distilleries? There’s a lot that can go wrong in over a decade.

I was excited when I heard about the Four Roses Gift Shop exclusive, a 17 year old OBSV recipe. While I’m a big fan of OBSK, OBSV is a reliable favorite. Getting the chance to try an extra-aged version was a rare treat. Unfortunately, one problem: my wife wasn’t about to sign off on me jetting to Kentucky to pick up a bottle of bourbon.

Fortunately, a good friend offered to pick up a bottle for me and ship it back. I took him up on his offer, sending him a couple bottles of Southern Californian microbrew in exchange. Soon, the whiskey was in my hands. I could hardly wait to see what would happen with this one. Would it show too much oak? Would it be the greatest thing ever? Perhaps worst of all, might it be a very middle of the road and safe barrel pick?

The nose on this one is great – warm and woody, with dark fruits prominent up front. Plums and black cherries compete against very creamy vanilla; deep wood notes provide a bed for everything. Rye spiciness is evident and even slightly aggressive, but not to the extent that it’s disagreeable or too harsh.

The palate starts dry with plenty of wood. Cinnamon, black cherries and vanilla take over, moving the palate away from dry astringency. Toffee and maple syrup pick up, and then rye comes storming in again, providing a nice kick and a slightly floral quality. With a little more time the wood comes into focus but it’s not so dry, and it’s nicely balanced by light orange zest.

The finish, much like on the standard OBSV, is drier than the palate. Black pepper and oak lead; cinnamon and black cherries come side by side behind it. Finally, rye spice and a hint of nutmeg are the last flavors standing.

I was really surprised by the 17 year old version of this whisky. I certainly expected an uptick in dryness, black pepper, cinnamon, and wood, but the creaminess on the 17 is much more pronounced to me than it is on the younger standard version. There’s a strong wood influence to be sure, but it’s not in the least bit tired. It’s full of life and flavor, but with a weight and deliberation that you’d hope for in a bourbon of this age.

Quality-wise, I have to say that this particular barrel (78-30, Warehouse QS), honestly stands shoulder to shoulder with other highly regarded bourbons like those found in the Buffalo Trace Anniversary Collection; Pappy Van Winkle, or the Parker’s Heritage collection. Honestly, I think if Four Roses could find the right push for this one, they could release these in limited quantities to a broader market and have a serious contender for the Van Winkles of the world, which are becoming a chore to find anymore.

Four Roses Single Barrel (Private Selection – Four Roses Gift Shop) OBSV 17y 53.3%  ABV
Warm and woody, with dark fruits – plums, black cherries – jostling for attention against creamy vanilla aroma while deep wood notes provide a bed. Rye spiciness is evident and slightly aggressive but not disagreeably so.
Palate:  Dry on the palate initially with plenty of wood; giving way to cinnamon and black cherries with a light bit of vanilla, slight toffee and faint maple syrup. Rye picks up right behind this, giving a nice kick and slightly floral note. Light orange balances the wood which starts to come to the forefront again.
Finish:  Finishes dry with black pepper and oak, a little cinnamon and black cherries; rye spiciness and a hint of nutmeg.
Comment:  Interestingly, I think the creaminess is better developed in the 17y version of OBSV than the 10y. The barrel notes give a strong influence to this and it’s quite powerful, but not at all tired. Full of life and flavor, but moving deliberately according to its age. If Four Roses released this wide they might have a contender to the Pappy throne.
Rating: A-