Category Archives: Bourbon

Fourth Of July: Four Roses Single Barrel

A while back in my extensive discussion of Woodford Reserve, I mentioned that I thought a similarly priced bottle which was a far better value in terms of quality and taste was the Four Roses Single Barrel bottling. I’ve come back to it time and time again and find it’s one of my all time favorites.

If you’re not familiar with Four Roses, it’s an interesting operation. Their Four Roses (“Yellow Label”) bourbon is a mix of their ten recipes that they produce. Yes, ten recipes. Four Roses essentially makes ten separate bourbons which vary by mashbill and by yeast strain.

Mashbill is not a surprising way to vary character – it can have a huge effect. Their two mashbills are “B” and “E”. E is a 75% corn, 20% rye mashbill; B is a 60% corn, 35% mashbill. There are also five yeast strains used with both of the mashbills – these combinations produce the ten bourbons.

If you’ve never managed to have a tasting where yeast was the variable, I highly recommend it. Retailers like Binnys and The Party Source both have all ten recipes available, and it exposes huge differences in the bourbons. I had my first education on the role of yeast strains on mashbills with High West’s David Perkins during a marathon tasting. We had four extremely different whiskeys at one point – the only difference between them was the yeast used. No one in the room guessed that as the variable.

The recipe used by Four Roses in the standard widely-available single barrel bottling is the OBSV recipe. This means the “B” mashbill (35% rye) and the V yeast, which Four Roses describes as having a “delicate fruit, spicy and creamy” character. This combination happens to be one of my very favorite – everything is in exquisite balance.

This is a great bourbon for the fourth of July. I think it does everything with a touch of class. It’s phenomenal when drunk neat; it takes ice and mixers well (if you’re a mixer guy). I’ve used it for phenomenal mint juleps and this afternoon it’s going to be a part of my bourbon and vanilla ice cream milkshake. The spice adds so much character but it doesn’t live exclusively in the domain of aggressively spicy and hot whiskeys. It’s accessible and refined – a perfect model American.

The nose has nice, well-developed notes of rye which have deep nuance. It’s almost reminiscent of a super-fresh deli rye bread (a favorite!). There’s wood which gives depth and almost has a light cedar quality to it. There’s some floral hints as well as some light black pepper on the nose. Black cherries, a faint touch of maple syrup and a hint of orange round out the nose with some nice top notes.

The palate is great and continues where the nose left off: It’s nice and sweet initially but the darker fruit tartness moves in. Rye spice and creamy vanilla are in balance; light cinnamon and white pepper add a gentle but not overwhelming heat. It’s a perfectly balanced set of textures and flavors.

The finish is a little interesting but works nicely in my opinion. It starts dry with wood, but then cherry and vanilla pick up. Cinnamon heat is present, but then it dries and goes bitter but in a more vegetal direction than wood – endive and romaine hearts are present. After a while some corn sweetness comes out and you can almost imagine the character of the new make underneath all of this.

This Four Roses is one of the best bottles sitting on your liquor store’s shelf that doesn’t require you to have the determination of a bounty hunter or a close relationship with your spirits buyer to find. It’s got a much more complex set of flavors and aromas that it draws from when compared to most bourbons out there. It’s really enjoyable, a permanent fixture in my bar and in my opinion, a can’t-fail classic. If you’re looking for a great bourbon to celebrate the Fourth – look no further.

At a glance:

Four Roses Single Barrel – 50% ABV
Nose:  Nice, well developed notes of rye which have a great, deep nuance. Almost reminiscent of super-fresh deli rye bread. Nice wood with it, giving depth. Almost a light cedar quality to it. Lightly floral; a hint of black pepper. Black cherries, a faint touch of maple syrup and a hint of orange.
Palate:  Nice and sweet initially with a bit of darker fruit tartness. Creamy vanilla, nice gentle rye spiciness, light cinnamon and again a very faint touch of white pepper. Wood adds some depth again to the palate but it’s not bitter. A little gentle heat but it’s very even-tempered.
Finish:  Slightly dry at first and opening on wood, picking up the cherry notes and a bit of the vanilla. Cinnamon adds a bit of heat for a moment as it dries and goes a touch bitter with a light hint of endive or romaine heart. Settles more on the vegetal notes and a bit of corn sweetness comes out.
Comment:  Four Roses has a better than average track record for me. This standard OBSV recipe single barrel bottling is just a time-honored classic in my opinion. I love it, it’s got sweetness and creaminess but it’s nicely balanced with some spice and heat with tartness as well. It doesn’t get cloying and while the finish is a bit dry, it works very well in my opinion. For the price it’s one of the most consistently solid bourbons you can find regularly.
Rating: B+

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project: The Unceremonious End

Over the last year, I’ve been reviewing the rounds of the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project. While many have been skeptical of this project, I have defended it as I didn’t see it as any more or less crassly commercial than the rest of the industry’s various projects and exclusives. I still think it’s a long way from collections that are as vulgar as the Dalmore Constellation collection, for that matter.

However, over the last few months, my tasting group has had participants drop out. I didn’t think this was a problem at the time – I know tons and ton of whiskey aficionados, surely replacing the drop-outs wouldn’t be a huge effort. And yet it was. For every replacement seat secured, another participant dropped out. While most of it was covered, it ended up being one short on a rolling basis.

Unfortunately, that’s where I have to know when to fold my hand.

Even if I did secure every seat, that’s for one round. The most die-hard whiskey fans I know couldn’t sustain interest past four releases. The prospect of chasing down willing participants seemingly endlessly for three years on a quarterly basis doesn’t sound like a fun time to me.

So, I am forced to revisit the question of the Single Oak Project. Yes, it’s interesting. Yes, it’s audacious. But if it’s not possible to drum up sustained interest among the nerdiest and most passionate of bourbon lovers, how will the project sustain interest for the next three years? As a casual consumer, you’re picking blind. The only guy who seems to be continuing to have coverage is Christopher Null over at Drinkhacker - and that’s just one opinion out there. I know I will not be buying individual bottles blind; it misses the point of the project.

So the project adds one more unaccounted-for variable: inconsistency among palates. Maybe Buffalo Trace thought this through and there will be separate cohorts analyzed, but I doubt it. Maybe Buffalo Trace is happy to roll the dice based on near-random consumer input with very little control data, but a one in 192 shot is utterly awful odds at finding “The Perfect Bourbon”. It’s better than the lottery by a fair shot, but it’s about 6 times worse odds than roulette tables.

For me, this seems to be the end of the project. I would have been interested to follow it through, but the economics are prohibitive – $600 a case every four months? I’m not going to pay close to $2500 a year for bourbon I only need about 60mL of to understand in the context of SIngle Oak, and I don’t have the space to store such a huge amount of whiskey for such an ongoing time. 54 liters of bourbon remaining in 3 years is too tall an order – to say nothing of the $7500 buy-in it would require.

So, unfortunately, this is the end for the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project coverage here, as far as I can see it. Managing a group buy and filling minis, photographing bottles and so on – I’m not going to miss that one bit. I will miss the bit-by-bit experimentation, but $100 a quarter was as high as I would go on it.

Your best bet for future coverage is at Drinkhacker as linked above, and it seems like a few liquor store owners are quietly making their way through the flights.

Good luck, Buffalo Trace. If a release for the aficionados can’t generate and sustain aficionado interest, those three years of remaining inventory have to be looking slightly larger.

Col. E.H. Taylor Old Fashioned Sour Mash

Today I’m turning my sights to a release from last year – E.H. Taylor’s Old Fashioned Sour Mash. The Taylor name – you might remember it as Old Taylor – was bought from Beam a few years back. For a while it looked like this might be a less-experimental series of releases than the Experimental Collection. There have been a few releases to day:

  • Old Fashioned Sour Mash
  • Single Barrel
  • Tornado Surviving (aka Kentucky Phoenix)
  • Barrel Proof
  • COLA nerds know a Straight Rye label exists. (there’s also a label for Small Batch, so who knows what the Taylor line holds)

Today we’re talking about the first release: Old Fashioned Sour Mash. Now, I know 99.999% of the readers here understand the sour mash process. It’s not a unique thing in American whisky – it’s extremely common, if not the overall norm. Without getting too deep into distillation minutia: some of the spent grain used from a prior distillation batch is retained for the next batch. This has the effect of lowering the pH for the next batch, which allows the fermentation to be yeast-driven versus bacterial. (For the real nerds, Scotch whiskies allow for a second bacterial fermentation as they’ve frequently got open-top washbacks – honestly, the best explanation I’ve ever read of the whisky making process is in Charles MacLean’s Malt Whisky which is one of the most lucid explanations I’ve encountered)

So, the difference between the sour mash process as it exists today and the “Old Fashioned” process is one of time. Buffalo Trace allowed the mash to sit for a while before entering the fermenters and the pH slowly dropped into the range that would be expected to be seen in the modern version of the sour mash process. This natural process that resulted in a lower pH is what they’re calling Old Fashioned, versus the modern spent-grain method.

OK, enough nerdosity. Let’s talk about the whisky. This stuff was mocked almost immediately upon release because of its $75 price tag. The scotch guys will pay this without blinking an eye, but $75 puts you within a stone’s throw of Buffalo Trace’s Anniversary Collection or Parker’s Heritage, so the final result better be great.

Unfortunately, if you subtract out the economics of a small run, I’m not sure that it lives up to the $75 price tag, and that seems to be the general consensus on this release.

The nose is warm and spicy, with evidence of rye almost immediately. It’s got strong but not overbearing wood influence; vanilla, corn and general grainy notes. There’s a slight hint of brown sugar and maple syrup.

The palate is lightly sour on first entry – think of a more refined version of the sourness you get off of an Evan Williams sometimes. It warms gently; has a nice woody sweetness and is mildly astringent. There’s rye, toffee, and it’s lightly vegetal. It’s nowhere near as young and green as, say, a Beam.

The finish dries quickly and leaves behind vanilla, some slightly sour new-make notes, more wood and is lightly warming with a moderate length finish.

It’s not the most amazing whisky I’ve had and I think the $75 price tag would be out of line if this were a regular production item. It’s nice with its heat and has some nuance, and the slight presence of sourness isn’t overbearingly “green” nor does it make the whole thing a mess. It serves as a nice balance to the sweetness evident elsewhere.

Honestly, I think this is a good whisky. It’s not going to be common on the shelves at this point; if you find a bottle it’s worth picking up. It’s definitely worth trying in a bar. I’d love to see something like this become a regular offering.

At a glance:

Col. E.H. Taylor Old Fashioned Sour Mash (50% ABV)
  Warm and spicy, with rye evident immediately. Strong but not overbearing wood, vanilla. Corn and grainy notes, and a slight hint of brown sugar. Some maple syrup as well.
Palate:  Lightly sour on first entry, warming gently. Woody sweetness with mild astringency. Rye, light toffee, slightly vegetal notes.
Finish:  Drying quickly, leaving behind vanilla, slightly sour new-make notes like the Buffalo Trace White Dog, more wood, lightly warming. Moderate finish.
Comment:  This isn’t a world-beater, but it’s different than most people are making today and a nice change. It’s not overbearingly hot, has some good complexity and is overall enjoyable. This has a slight sourness throughout that works nicely to provide some balance to to the sweetness.
Rating: B

Collabo-Review #3: Noah’s Mill

A while back, Sku, Jason and I did our second collaborative review. When we picked Wild Turkey Rye, we did so not knowing what was going to happen to it in the marketplace. It was a bit of dumb luck that made it a timely review. Unfortunately, by the time the review ran, stocks of the rye were quite low and it was hard to find. Even at this point, the new lower proof rye has not shown up with any regularity on the west coast.

Fortunately, today’s group-reviewed whiskey is much more easily available: Noah’s Mill. Virtually any store with a halfway decent selection will have a bottle of Noah’s Mill on hand. If you’ve been wondering about this one, wonder no more. (Or keep wondering, as I am…)

Noah’s Mill is a Kentucky Bourbon Distillers bottling, meaning that it’s sourced from an unknown distillery and bottled by KBD. There’s no indication that it’s distilled elsewhere than Kentucky, but beyond that, the origin distillery is unknown.

This is not actually my first brush with Noah’s Mill, and I held a previous encounter as a pivotal moment for me. In all honesty, I was not a big fan of bourbon prior to an encounter with Noah’s Mill; I tended to view it as a bottom shelf offering and saw Scotch whisky as the real, genuine deal. Noah’s Mill turned all that on its head. It had a ton of oak and a very strong note of black cherry and a certain candied sweetness. It was unlike anything I’d ever had, and it opened the door to American whiskeys for me. Since then it’s been an obsession, but you never forget the one that changed you.

However, Noah’s Mill has been a batched release, so those batches are subject to some variance. I was hoping this had a very consistent profile batch to batch, even in spite of the fact that Noah’s Mill lost its 15 year old age statement a while back. It’s always hard to tell, but I was optimistic that perhaps this batch would live up to the past memory.

The bottle we’re reviewing today is from batch 11-121, and weighs in at a respectable 57.15% ABV.

The nose is woody up front, in a very strong and prominent way. There’s light toffee and a strong black cherry presence. Some earthy clay and vanilla are there, and there’s also a light hint of a more raw sugar sweetness.

The whisky is mouth-coating and almost immediately brings considerable heat. Cinnamon and a dash of cayenne drive the heat. There’s some maple syrup as a base note and lots and lots of wood. Honestly, I think it moves in the direction of being over-oaked. Black cherry and vanilla give some dimension and there’s a raw sugar note that starts to develop and seems somewhat out of place against the oak.

The finish is very hot initially, but quickly cools and leaves tons of oak and goes slightly bitter. There’s a bit of orange zest but the finish is mostly heat, pepper and wood.

Even adding water didn’t do a lot for this – the nose became more musty; the palate’s heat was tamed but it felt over-oaked still, and the finish was not measurably changed.

I have to say I was really disappointed by my return to the bourbon that lit my fire for the stuff. It’s either a change in my palate or this batch, but in either case, I don’t know that I’ll be coming back for more. It’s a shame – I used to love the stuff.

I hope the other guys liked this one more than I did.

Read the review of Noah’s Mill at Sour Mash Manifesto.

Read the review of Noah’s Mill at Sku’s Recent Eats.

At a glance: 

Noah’s Mill (Batch 11-121) 57.15% ABV
Nose: Woody up front, quite prominently so. Light notes of toffee lie under stronger notes of black cherry. A little bit of earthy clay and some vanilla. Water doesn’t do this much favor and it’s sort of malty and musty. There’s a light hint of sugary sweetness in the back. 
Quite mouth-coating, it’s almost immediately off to the races and starts heating up. Cinnamon, cayenne pepper in a small dose. Behind that there’s some maple syrup and plenty of wood and it’s pushing into over-oaked. A little black cherry, a little vanilla. Light sugary note on the palate as well. Water tames the heat considerably but it’s still all about the wood. 
Very hot initially on the finish, recedes leaving tons of oak and leaning slightly bitter. A little whisper of orange zest but it’s mostly heat, pepper and wood. Again, water does this no favors. 
This is either a measure of the change in my palate or this batch (I have no concept of how consistent Noah’s Mill may be or the overall batching approach – go for something unique or maintain a profile). I remember Noah’s Mill being much sweeter, with and verging on being almost candied. This one feels overoaked to me and off kilter.

Bonus notes: Last tasting of Noah’s Mill, circa late 2010

Noah’s Mill, Batch 10-57, 57.15% ABV
Vanilla, caramel, cherries, wood and a bit of cotton candy. Diluted to 40% the vanilla, wood and cherry merge a little more cleanly.
Moderate spice, sweet, dark fruit – plum and black cherry, wood on the back of the palate, heating continously. Diluted subdues the heat, the wood takes on kind of a varnished quality and the cherry intensifies but stays dark.
Warming, remains with the dark fruit notes and some sweetness but not cloying. Some light toffee.

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
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.
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.
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.
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.

Woodford Reserve New Cask Rye 46.2% ABV
A bit thin, piney and slightly resinous on the nose. Some prickle from the alcohol. White pepper and cinnamon.
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.
Dry, slightly bitter. Light cinnamon, faint hint of cherries. Woody but not overpowering. 
The wood is out of balance on this one and really pushes against the better parts of a rye whiskey.

Woodford Reserve Aged Cask Rye 46.2% ABV
A touch medicinal and generally estery. Lightly floral nose. Some rye peeks out and there’s a slightly vanilla note to it as well. 
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. 
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. 

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
Close to the regular Woodford – definite banana and marzipan notes, some maple syrup. A lightly vegetal, corn and raw sugar note.
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).
Reasonably light, alcohol, butterscotch, slight earthiness, and a low-grade medicinal note. Some maraschino cherry early. Turbinado sugar throughout.
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.

Woodford Reserve 1838 Sweet Mash 43.2% ABV
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.
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.
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.

Woodford Reserve Four Grain (KY Only release) 46.2% ABV
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.
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.
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.

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)
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.
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.
Sweet again, more brown sugar/creme brulee type sweetness. Quite a big, lasting finish. It dries off strange and slightly bitter.
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.

Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Seasoned Oak Finish 50.2% ABV
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.
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.
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.
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.

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked 45% ABV
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. 
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. 
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. 
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.