Category Archives: Bourbon

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project – Round 4

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s get into specifics, as always.

Barrel 14: The best of Round 4

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

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

The best wheater?

The Best Wheater: Barrel 174

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

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

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

25% Done: What Do The Bourbons Tell Us?

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

Thoughts On The Project Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As usual, a different take is available at Drinkhacker.

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

Full Tasting Notes for Round Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Two Cleverly Named Bourbons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABV varies by category.

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

Update 5-4-2012

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

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

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

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

At a glance:

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

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

Rebel Yell (40% ABV)

A couple weeks back, Jason of Sour Mash Manifesto, Sku of Recent Eats and I had a discussion on Twitter about Rebel Yell – one we’d all considered buying strictly for the purposes of blogging about. (That surely an placed us all in undocumented subtype of Sku’s Field Guide to Whiskey Collectors) This shared realization led us to one simple conclusion: we should all buy some Rebel Yell and then blog about it. Yep, pretty outrageous and edgy stuff. In fact, this is a coordinated Rebel Yell blog post – you can read Jason’s review of Rebel Yell and Sku’s review as well on their sites.

So, what of Rebel Yell? I’m sure you’ve seen it on the shelf and it’s one of those also-ran whiskies you always pass on, like Ten High and Kessler. Is Rebel Yell the great undiscovered value whiskey gem? Is it the spirit of a Confederate battle cry somehow embodied in a whiskey (warning: loud and weird)? It’s not a nod to Billy Idol, however: Idol credits the name of his song to a meeting with the Rolling Stones where they drank this bourbon, according to Wikipedia.

Rebel Yell is a wheated bourbon and the Rebel Yell site makes efforts to attach itself to the  Weller name, though it’s not part of the Buffalo Trace stable. The label says it’s a straight bourbon but provides no age statement, so we know it’s at least four years old and meets the requirements to be called a bourbon (new charred oak casks; has had at least one bar patron speak about it and then go on to claim that “all bourbons must be distilled in Bourbon county”; has caused no less than ten college freshman to swear off the stuff, etc).

So what’s it like? To be completely honest, not much. And that’s not in the way that Levon Helm is not like many others. The nose is unremarkable with some light alcoholic, solventy and spirity notes. There’s a slightly dry and faint grainy note, paired with a little white pepper. There’s also a strange fruity note that shows up as a little bit of pear. Beyond that, it’s a little bit musty. From the nose, I’d almost expect this to be a young Glenfiddich aged in a tired, fifteenth-refill bourbon cask.

The palate has the light sugary notes – somewhere between raw sugar and table sugar. It’s not quite like the really aggressive sugar notes you get off of some Beam products or the Buffalo Trace white dogs, but it again suggests that Rebel Yell doesn’t have a lot of cask influence. There’s a little slight sourness, and a bit of dry wood – but it also has hints of napkins and popsicle sticks, kind of a raw, papery, fibrous wood influence. There’s also a hint of pepper. This really doesn’t seem to show a lot of cask influence. I can only assume that they have a crack team that stands ready to drain a cask the very nanosecond it turns four years old, with a warehouse foreman screaming at the top of his lungs, “WE’RE LOSING MONEY EVERY SECOND THAT WHISKEY IS IN A CASK! GET IT OUT!”

The finish, as is utterly unsurprising with something so new-makey, is relatively quick and sweet. The sugar from the palate is there, but it leans toward canned fruit as well – a touch of peaches and pears.

All things considered, it’s pretty bizarre in my opinion when you consider this is a bourbon. Even Beam, which I clearly don’t have a lot of love for, has more wood influence (it’s just unable to overcome the sweetness of the spirit). This is just light, light, light, with strangely fruity notes that almost take it in a light Scotch direction. Despite the uniqueness – which I can’t lie, unique is a selling point for me – there’s just nothing at all here for me to really care about. There’s nothing to hate, there’s nothing to love. In the end, Rebel Yell, unlike its Confederate battle cry namesake or the undeniably catchy Billy Idol tune, is just forgettable and boring. That’s about the worst thing I can think of to say of about any whiskey.

Read the review at Sour Mash Manifesto

Read the review at Sku’s Recent Eats

At a glance:

Rebel Yell 40% ABV
Nose:
Mostly alcoholic and with hints of solvent or spirit. Slightly dry notes of faint grain. A bit of white pepper, a bit of white wine – very faint. Somewhat musty. Faint fruit notes, primarily pear, emerge after a bit of time. 
Palate:
Slightly sugary like raw sugar, but not overt like Beam. A bit of table sugar. Slight sourness, a bit of dry wood. Slight papery, fibrous notes – unbleached napkins or popsicle sticks. A bit of pepper but not much. 
Finish:
Quick, a bit of sweetness. The slight raw sugar notes persist, but also go slightly fruity – a bit of canned peach and a bit of pear.
Comment: 
This is one of those whiskeys that shows a reasonably strong new make character. It’s quite light and doesn’t have a lot of presence on the palate or a lot of character overall. It’s odd to get these light fruity notes that I’d almost associate with a Glenfiddich. Not much to really care about here. 
Rating: 
C

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project – Round 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what are the highlights?

Barrel 136: The best of round 3

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

Barrel 120: The best wheater

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

Barrel 56: At least it looks nice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full Tasting Notes For Round Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bulleit Bourbon (45% ABV)

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

Tales From The Bottom Shelf: Evan Williams

Last month I featured some pricey bottles. I could continue raiding the more exciting corners of my collection and give the impression that I’m loaded beyond imagination (rather, wealthy – loaded in the other sense might at times be accurate). Heck, I guess I could just write a series of wholly fictitious tasting notes just to add to the illusion — perhaps that will become an occasional feature at some point in the future. After all, who’s going to open all those Dalmores that sell for $25,000 and up? Might as well have some additional notes on them. Right: It’s a plan.

But, I’m not loaded (in either sense) right now, so balance is called for. Today we journey from the glass cases of December to the bottom shelf. This isn’t done in some sad attempt to claim legitimacy and relevance (I attempt to avoid both), but rather for the simple purpose of balance. You can’t eat coq au vin and wild game constantly; it’ll get stale and boring. Sometimes you just need a Pink’s chili dog. And in that spirit, we go from bottles with three figures left of the decimal to bottles with three figures, decimal included.

Today’s whisky is Evan Williams. That’s it. Plain, standard Evan Williams, stalwart resident of the bottom shelf of my local BevMo. You could argue that this is a position of shame, but I prefer to see Evan Williams as one of the foundations of the selection available. It’s not glamorous like the latest trendy bottle with a special label, nor does it necessarily occupy the same spot in the mind as, say, Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam. Evan is a little more low key and anonymous, an everyman in the bourbon aisle.

I must admit before going further, I previously ran afoul of Evan Williams. In my college days, Evan was the first beverage that got me REALLY drunk. It became a staple of our movie nights, with a 1.75 being squirreled out and poured into a styrofoam cup and then mixed with Coke. The resulting hangovers were the stuff of legend and caused me to give Evan a wide berth in later years. (We also discovered one hung-over football morning that you could sing “Evan Williams Whiskey” in time with the chorus of Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It“.

That was then… this is several years later. I approached this with a bit of hesitation, figuring that at $9 this was probably about the same level as what powers my car and it was going to hurt going down. After all, those college diets and drinking habits aren’t chosen on taste…

The nose had more going on than I remembered – obvious corn upfront with a little tail end of new-makey vegetal sourness. Some moderate wood influence was there and a bit of varnish and paint thinner. Yeah, yeah, sounds great. But also in the nose were light bits of black cherry, caramel and faint vanilla, with a bit of cinnamon. All the elements for a decent bourbon (except maybe some age) are in place.

The mouthfeel is medium-light and gains some weight. The palate comes with plenty of toffee and caramel upfront with corn right behind. There’s some faint woodiness on the palate and a hint of raw sugar that echoes the new-make notes from the nose. There’s a distinct black cherry note very late in the palate.

The finish is probably the biggest stumbling point for Evan Williams – it’s vanishingly quick. There’s a bit of black pepper, some caramel and more corn; and then a quick hint of vanilla and some slight wood notes.

It turns out that Evan Williams is a pretty decent whiskey – especially considering the price. It’s not fully developed and would benefit from some age, but there are good elements in place. Compared to, say, Jim Beam, it’s miles ahead. Beam products to my palate have a much more sharp sugary sweetness that really makes it objectionable. Evan Williams to me is far more balanced, but would just benefit from some age.

Let this be a reminder to us all – those bottles at your feet may be worth reexamining. They’re likely not going to break the bank and they’ll generally be more satisfying than that white whiskey you were about to pay 30 bucks for. Put it back. Put it back! Just grab the Evan Williams. You can even let your friends mix it and you don’t have to get all uptight and fussy like whiskey drinkers are supposed to. (They’ll probably even appreciate that you haven’t stocked your bar with something that has a five minute long backstory detailing the more obscure points of cooperage.)

At a glance:

Evan Williams 43% ABV
Nose:
Notes of corn (and faintest new-make vegetal leafiness) and some moderate wood influence. Light cinnamon, very light black cherry. A slightly varnishy/thinner note. Light caramel and very faint vanilla.
Palate:  Medium-light on the palate but becoming heavier. Caramel and toffee are forefront with caramel dominant; corn notes are right behind it. Very faint wood, and a hint of raw sugar that is again an echo of the new make notes from the nose. Very late black cherries.
Finish: 
Vanishingly quick. A bit of pepper, a bit of caramel and corn. Hints of vanilla and mild wood. 
Comment: 
It’s not fully developed and would benefit from a little more time in wood, but the elements I like are there. This is way better than your average Jim Beam buy – by a longshot. Totally drinkable, totally mixable. 
Rating:
B-

Single Oak Project – Quick Notes

As some people have found, I’ve added a condensed scorecard page with the ratings of all Single Oak bottlings I’ve had to date. If you are trying to figure out if the bottle on the shelf is any good (at least, according to me), I hope it’s useful.

Also a note for my LA based friends – The Wine House has a large selection of the Single Oaks on their shelves right now. I’ve seen a mix of release one and release two. If you’ve wanted to try one – or better still to split one among friends (they can be odd) – this is an easy time to pick one up. If you’re not in LA, unfortunately Wine House doesn’t ship spirits.

Single Oak Project release 3 will be reviewed shortly after I receive it. Stay tuned, as always.