Category Archives: Bourbon

Eagle Rare 17y (Fall 2010) – 45%

Nose:  Vanilla, wood, light caramel, a definite solvent edge to the alcohol, a little light apple and faint apricot. Some molasses and dust.
Palate:  Wood intially, mildly bitter and astringent, medium-heavy mouthfeel, virtually no burn, a vaguely salty sweetness, some later vanilla and fruit. Light rye spice.
Finish:  Light, somewhat spirity, medium finish, bringing the fruit up. A little rye.
Comment:  It doesn’t stack up nor really rate against the rest of 2010′s BTAC. It’s a fine whiskey, doesn’t really merit the price . Unfocused and lacking real complexity. Thin and a bit of a mess.
Rating: C+

Rather than integrating this into the 2011 post, I wanted to provide these notes for reference on the 2010 whiskey which was markedly inferior.

Eagle Rare 17y (Fall 2011) – The Rebuttal

In previous posts on this year’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, I haven’t hesitated to poke fun at Eagle Rare as not deserving to be part of the collection. After last year’s collection I felt rather confident in my assertion that the Antique Collection consisted of four great whiskies and Eagle Rare 17.

When the opportunity presented itself to try this year’s Eagle Rare, I figured it was only fair to give it a taste. If it was underwhelming again, I’d feel confident in all future write-offs of Eagle Rare.

I poured the Eagle Rare into my glass this evening ready to be underwhelmed – what’s to like? – and prepared to nose it in all of its 45% ABV glory. After a summer of high-proof bourbons, a bourbon under 100 proof seemed like a painfully unfunny punchline.

Immediately I was surprised by this year’s nose. There are sweet notes of corn in abundance and a slightly floral rye note. That is a promising start for me. Wood was certainly present as you’d expect with a 17 year old whiskey, but not out of balance or overoaked. A slight hint of white pepper provided a faint prickle. Black cherries gave some depth and darkness to the flavor, and there was a faint marshmallow hint. This was starting to hit all of my buttons. A little maple syrup could be detected at the edges, as well as some fresh cedar and pine on the nose.

To my personal taste, this had a nose that was dangerously close to being in line with my preferred profile. `Maybe not turned up to eleven and rocking out, but balanced nicely.

The palate entry was very light. Extremely light – my first impression was that it was almost watery. I thought this was where it would all fall apart. Much to my surprise the white pepper notes were the underpinning for some faint and agreeable warming. The corn sweetness was at the center, balanced by a moderate note of oak. For a fleeting second, a faint vegetal corn note could be perceived, reminding me of the youth and fire this once had. The floral bloom of rye was again evident as well.

It wasn’t the most impressive palate, but far from the worst. Drinkable in the extreme. My personal preferences run towards a weightier and bolder palate, but it was hard to deny the overall balance and well-constructed nature of this whiskey. My only quibble really was the mouthfeel which struck me as thin.

Unsurprisingly, this carried into the finish. Being a lighter whiskey, it didn’t have a long-lasting finish, nor was it particularly bold. The sweetness was again the center of attention. Wood was present as was the pepper note. After a moment or two, there were some black tea-like tannins. For the most part, this finish was OK.

As I continued to sip I was forced to really examine this whiskey. Was my negative impression of Eagle Rare a sign of my own biases? Was I perhaps more strongly prejudiced towards bruising, 65%+ cask-strength whiskies despite my protestations to the contrary? Honestly, I concluded, I was (and I am).

The fact is that I would pour this Eagle Rare for virtually any bourbon aficionado and it would do well. It’s not going to knock over the most die-hard, extreme taste adventurer (which I’m forced to admit includes my personal preference). However, it is utterly agreeable and easy-drinking.

What would I change? Well, I think it would benefit somewhat from a slightly thicker mouthfeel. The sweetness feels somewhat detached – for some reason, sweetness works better for me when it’s a full, mouth-coating bourbon. I also think a slight tweak of the ABV – perhaps to 100 proof – would help bring things into clearer focus.

All this is a long way of saying that I’m forced to admit that I’ve been unfair to Eagle Rare and that it doesn’t necessarily deserve to be a whipping boy. I do think it has a tenuous claim to being part of the BTAC – it’s less dynamic than powerhouses like the Weller or the Handy. But perhaps it’s there because it’s a very well executed, easy-drinking bourbon for the average joe. I can’t really see what would be objectionable to the average palate on this one, unless you simply didn’t like whiskey.

At a glance:

Eagle Rare 17y (Fall 2011) 45% ABV
A rather pleasant nose – sweet notes of corn and a slightly floral note of rye. Reasonable wood balance, certainly not overoaked. Slight hint of white pepper; slight hint of black cherries and the faintest whisper of marshmallow. Maple syrup is lightly present. A bit of cedar and pine.
Palate: Light on the palate. Gradually warming. Nice corn sweetness. A moderate oak note; the faintest hint of a vegetal corn note. A bit of floral rye. Faint dusting of white pepper.
Finish: Short-ish. Not very bold, not very lasting. The sweetness takes the forefront. Wood present; the pepper is there. A little bit of black tea tannins.
Comment: The nose is great. The palate and finish are a little lightweight for me with this profile. I honestly wonder if this might sing at 100 proof. This is better than last year’s for sure.
Rating:  B

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20y

It’s currently Van Winkle season in bourbon land. That means that grown men are hunting for bottles of whiskey and doing everything they can to get them. In many ways, it’s like the Cabbage Patch craze of the early 80s – except it’s a longer-lasting craze at this point. Instead of downplaying things and telling everyone to be calm, I figured I’d just pour some gasoline on the fire. After all, if I say they aren’t that great, people will cynically assume I’m just trying to downplay interest so I can find some for myself.

The Van Winkle bourbons are some of the most sought-after bourbons on the market. They’ve rightfully gotten a collective reputation as some of the most consistently excellent bourbons on the market. Add to that reputation some extremely tight allocations (stores in California don’t get more than a handful of bottles, and some charge ridiculous prices) and you have the right elements for retail insanity.

Recently, the Van Winkle bourbons have been some of the most visible remaining sources of whiskey distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery. Stitzel-Weller ceased production in the early ’90s and now, 20 years later, some of their last remaining bourbon is being bottled as Pappy Van Winkle.

The Van Winkle bourbons are a wheat recipe, meaning they use wheat as the flavor grain instead of rye. They can have a more soft, less spicy quality than rye-recipe bourbons. The marquee expressions of Van Winkle are aged to 15 years and 20 years; there are also 10, 12 and 23 year old expressions.

Today I’m looking at the 20 year old expression, for no other reason than it was the first Van Winkle expression I ever tasted. Perhaps for that reason – or perhaps by its character – it’s remained my favorite.

The nose on the 20 year old is initially sweet, but presents some wood that is good and not overbearing. Then the clay and earthy notes pop up and dominate – this is a note very similar to the notes I’ve found on the bottom cut barrels of the Buffalo Trace Single Oak experimental releases. Providing some brightness on the nose, a faint trace of orange and cinnamon, as well as a faint dusting of white pepper.

The palate is all cherries initially. The earthiness and clay continues, as well as a hint of marshmallow. Some light maple syrup is in there, and even a touch of bubblegum – think soft Bazooka bubblegum. There’s a gentle grainy character to it, and a medium wood presence that isn’t overbearing. A dash of white pepper on the palate provides a reasonable heat.

The finish is great – it’s light and smooth and lasting. There’s wood initially but the earthy notes dominate. Some brightness is again provided by oranges, and it’s all tied together with a bit of black cherry and bubblegum.

Pappy 20 is a great bourbon. I prefer it to other Van Winkles (and many bourbons) because everything tucks together nicely. Everything is in balance and it just works perfectly in unison. I often think bourbons of this character (earthy, bubblegummy, with cherries and wood) need to have something turned up. In this case, it’s so perfectly balanced that I don’t think I’d change a thing. Everything is well worn but not tired.

Now, all this said: is Pappy the perfect whiskey? No, I’ve liked others more. I admit they could be stunt bourbons or one-trick ponies. Pappy 20 is a refined southern gentleman, with polite manners and reminding you of a bygone era. That said, he’ll talk your ear off with some great stories. The mania surrounding Pappy can be off-putting (even I am less interested this year), but when you put it all aside and pour a glass, it’s hard to deny the greatness of this bourbon. It’s an easy A- for me.

At a glance:

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20y – 45.2% ABV
 Initially sweet; some good, aged wood. Faint hint of clay and other earthiness. The faintest trace of oranges and cinnamon. A bit of white pepper – the faintest dusting.
Palate: A fair amount of cherries; the clay earthiness continues with a hint of marshmallow. Some light maple syrup as well, and a touch of bubblegum. Gentle grains. Medium wood – present but not overbearing at all. A dash of white pepper heats things up gently.
Finish: Light and smooth; a bit of wood shows up here as the earthy notes dominate. The orange notes are nicely present on the high end, providing some brightness. The black cherry lies underneath it all, tying it together.
Comment: This is a great bourbon, of course. I personally prefer it to other Van Winkles because everything tucks together nicely. I often think bourbons need to have this profile turned up. In this case, this one is at the perfect intensity – everything’s got the edges rounded off, well worn but not tired, and in great proportions.
Rating: A-

Tasting With Your Mouth (For A Change)

“But I always taste with my mouth!”

Me too.

My brain can play an unfortunate role sometimes. I’ve wondered if I’m liking a whiskey because it’s, say, a Port Ellen, or if I actually liked it. As you build up some experience and taste preferences, you’ll start to wonder about your objectivity when you start having new expressions. I try not to be swayed by fancy packaging, old age statements or auspicious provenance. But I’m only human – it’s hard not to think that stuff may be playing a role.

The best way to nullify that concern is to conduct blind tastings occasionally. This is absolutely great with friends, but it can be done on your own (ideally with the help of someone to ensure that it’s truly blind). I can’t recommend enough that you try this with some like-minded friends; the discussion and experience is just vastly better. I wouldn’t however, waste time on blind tastings until you’ve got some experience under your belt. Get to a point of comfort with your palate so you’re confident in your ability to taste and identify. (Or, just jump right in…)

Recently I was at a tasting of six old bourbons and ryes that are no longer available.  It was a great model of how to conduct a blind tasting. All six whiskeys were decanted into unlabeled, empty bottles. If you’ve got a particularly favorite whiskey you regularly consume, you might want to save a few empties for this purpose. The bottles were simply labeled with numbers – one through six – and we tasted them in sequence. Only after everyone had tasted and formed their impressions (and graded if applicable) were the details revealed.

To help the nose, tastes common to ryes and bourbon were laid out in bowls – apple slices, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and so on. I personally used these more than a few times as I’d started to wonder if it was an off night for my palate. It turned out that I was just detecting the apple skin note really prominently on most whiskeys. However, this sort of thing is great to have around, especially if you have an idea of what might be encountered. In moderation it can also be a nice palate cleanser.

Blind Sample #1 had a nice nose. Light spice, cinnamon, light vanilla, a hint of coconut and some mild wood. On the palate it had a light mouthfeel, was bitter, woody, with a prominent apple skin note, light cinnamon, a bit of turbinado sugar, dust, and concrete (with two question marks in my original notes). The finish was short with the fruit skin notes and bitter wood. I thought this was unusual tasting. It wasn’t bad but bitter to my palate – worth a try though. I rated it a B- as it was an interesting bourbon that was certainly worth trying, but not something I’d probably buy a bottle of. It ended up being Black Maple Hill 21 year old, Cask #5.

Blind Sample #2 was sharper on the nose with some prickle. It had a slight solvent note, some orange, slight molasses. After a few moments it became a little more creamy with vanilla notes showing up. The palate was a treat: very smooth with a great wood influence. It started to sweeten with some moderate warmth, some vanilla, light apple and a touch of pepper. The finish was dry and fruity with a hint of orange. I thought it was pretty decent overall and would definitely consider buying a bottle (if it was still available – which it wasn’t). It got a straight B from me – a very worthwhile bourbon. It ended up being W. L. Weller Centennial - discontinued about 5 years ago. This was where I felt like things were on track for me: I like wheat recipe bourbons and Weller in particular, so a B was about where I would expect things to land. (And this is a great bourbon – if you see it, do pick it up.)

Blind Sample #3 poured with little ceremony. I was starting to feel like it was a good night for tasting. This one garnered the initial note of “Nice!” on the nose. Cinnamon, red hots, spice and pepper, with oranges and light cherry. This was a nose I liked – deep and rich with that fruit and cherry note. The palate continued with pepper, warmth and really perfectly balanced wood, light black cherry, creamy vanilla. There were some slightly earthy notes like clay – a sign I’m starting to believe means lower-cut barrel staves based on the experience so far with the Single Oak Project. There was a hint of caramel and bubblegum. The finish was nearly ideal – slow, lasting, slightly grainy, with black cherry and some vanilla. This was very close to my ideal bourbon profile. I ended up rating it as an A- because I’d have it pretty much any day (if it was available). I only wished the flavors had a slight bit more intensity. This whiskey was revealed to be the highly sought-after late 70′s/early 80′s Very Very Old Fitzgerald (12 Years). This meant the whiskey was distilled at the Stitzel-Weller distillery, which has become a major cult distillery among bourbon fans. I personally can’t recommend this one enough, but it’s unlikely you’ll find it without paying a pretty penny — bottles go for $400 and up on eBay these days. (This is why group buys are so great).

I wasn’t expecting much out of Blind Sample #4 given what we’d just had. The nose was nice and slightly prickly with some definite rye notes. It was slightly creamy and I just noted it as “interesting”. The palate was smooth and slightly warm, but a bitter wood influence was evident, as were apple skins and a dusty note. I was pretty sure this was an older whiskey at this point based on my experience. The finish carried through some of the rye spice notes and it was dry. At this point the dry and bitter notes went off for me and it had a slightly vinyl taste. This was an unfortunate sample for me – one that started good but went off the more I had. My comment at the time was “I’m forgainst it.” I rated it a B- because again, it was worth trying. Sample #4 ended up being Vintage Rye 23 which is an independent bottling of rye from an unknown distillery.

Blind Sample #5 had a phenomenal nose. Dark red fruits like plums and black cherries; slight bubblegum and light cinnamon. It was nicely spicy in general with some maple syrup as well. The palate was warm and kept getting warmer. It was spicy, with slight wood and lots of heat. It was also lightly bitter. The finish was still hot and had caramel and spice. It was really evident from the nose that this was going to be very high proof – potentially into George T. Stagg territory. However, it managed to be quite good and have some nice flavor to it. I gave this a B+ because I liked it a lot but didn’t get a ton of nuance. It turned out to be Willett Rye, 1984, Barrel 618. It weighed in at a hefty 68.35% ABV, confirming my suspicion.

At this point we were looking at our last sample: Blind Sample #6. There were some strange glances going around the room between the guys running the tasting who knew what it was. This was very strange tasting and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it initially. It had a light, cookie dough and baked good scent on the nose, and was generally sugary and sweet. This to me seemed like notes I’ve gotten off of new-make ryes in the past so I was wondering if it was a very young rye whiskey. The palate was kind of dry, but then took a very strange turn into being slightly farmy, slightly musty and earthy, with bitter wood, apple skin and a note of caraway seed. The finish was apple skin, pepper, wood, cookie dough and caraway seed. I couldn’t make any sense out of this one and gave it a B-. The strange looks continued – I was pretty sure it was either a young rye or maybe urine laced with multivitamins given the strange looks floating around. Blind Sample #6 ended up being Old Potrero Hotaling’s Whiskey – 11 years. This was unique because it was a single malt rye – meaning that the rye was actually malted, which is extremely uncommon.

This was an interesting night and it’s an interesting experience. This can be especially fun if you find some odd bottlings – but it can be just as good to revisit whiskeys that you might be biased against because they’re produced in huge quantities. Sometimes you will get the results you expect – but be prepared to find out you like something more than you would have thought. (And don’t be surprised if you don’t like something that other people liked! My grades for the Vintage Rye and the Willett were lower than other peoples’)

At a glance:

Black Maple Hill, 21y, Cask #5. 47.5% ABV
Light spice, cinnamon, light vanilla. Coconut. Mild wood.
Palate: Light, bitter, woody. Fruits – apple skin; light cinnamon, turbinado sugar, dust, concrete (??).
Finish: Short, fruit skin notes continue, slightly bitter wood.
Comment: Unusual. Not bad at all but a bit bitter to my palate. Definitely worth a try though.
Rating: B-

W.L. Weller Centennial, 10y. 50% ABV
Sharper, some prickle on the nose, slightly solvent. After a moment there’s some orange notes, slight molasses. Creamy with light vanilla.
Palate: Smooth, good wood influence. Sweetening; moderate warmth, some vanilla, light apple, and some pepper.
Finish: Slightly dry, fruity, and a hint of orange.
Comment: Pretty decent.
Rating: B

Very Very Old Fitzgerald, 12y. 50% ABV
Nice! Cinnamon, red hots, spice, pepper, orange, and light cherry.
Palate: Pepper, warmth, great wood influence, light black cherry, creamy vanilla; clay & slightly earthy. Slight caramel and bubblegum.
Finish: Slow, lasting, grainy, black cherries and some vanilla.
Comment: Yeah, any day. Solidly in the alley I like. I’d like the flavors up a bit though.
Rating: A-

Vintage Rye, 23y. 47% ABV
Nice, slight prickle. Pretty sure it’s rye, kind of an interesting nose overall and slightly creamy.
Palate: Smooth on the palate, slightly warm, slightly bitter wood. Apple skin. Somewhat dusty.
Finish: Spice notes continue, dry. It starts to get a slightly vinyl note.
Comment:  I’m forgainst it.
Rating: B-

Willett Rye, 22y. Barrel 216 selected by Doug Phillips of Ledger’s Liquor.
 Dark, red fruits, slight bubblegum, light cinnamon. Nicely spicy, maple syrup.
Palate: Warm and continues to get warmer. Medium mouthfeel, spicy, slight wood, lots of heat. Lightly bitter.
Finish: Heat, caramel and some spice.
Comment: Hot but so good. Really nice upfront.
Rating: B+

Old Potrero Hotaling’s Whiskey, 11y. 50% ABV
Light, cookie dough. Baked goods, sugary and sweet.
Palate: Kind of dry, farmy, bitter wood, musty, earthy, apple skin and caraway seeds.
Finish: Apple skin, pepper, wood, cookie dough, caraway.
Comment: The nose does not have anything to do with the rest of this whiskey.
Rating: B-

William Larue Weller: 2009 • 2010 • 2011

As I noted recently, it’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection season, which means that the utter insanity surrounding a few great bourbons and ryes (and Eagle Rare 17) is in full swing. Friday morning I received an email from K&L letting me know my pick in their raffle had arrived. Yes, this is how sad and over the top the mania is: they have to raffle off spots for whiskey. I told you this was impossibly nerdy.

Having found by chance the George T. Stagg, I had one other high in my sights: The 2011 release of William Larue Weller. More people seem to prefer the completely massive, totally over the top profile of the George T. Stagg, but I have a definite preference for the William Larue Weller. It’s a wheat recipe bourbon (versus the rye recipe of Stagg) and it’s everything I like about wheaters.

The 2010 release is still high on my list of favorite whiskeys around; it’s just totally stunning. I’d also done a trade recently and got a sample of the 2009, which is great but definitely different from the 2010. I was looking forward to the 2011 release.

Now that it’s here, I decided to take the opportunity to taste it against the last two years’ releases to see how they stack up and to provide some context. William Larue Weller happens to be one of my absolute favorite whiskeys ever, so this had a very lofty heritage to live up to.

The 2010 Weller was actually the first I’d tasted and remains one of my absolutely favorite whiskeys, despite its somewhat extreme profile. The 2009 was acquired via a sample swap with Sku and the ’11′s provenance has been discussed.

The 2010 Weller is an absolutely ridiculous whiskey. It’s one of the most woody bourbons I’ve ever had, but surprisingly it doesn’t go over the line into being too bitter. It’s not like sucking on a cheap pencil… it’s more like being in an old wood-paneled study where the wood and furniture polish smell just permeates the room. It’s rather warm on the nose, which is to be expected given its strength. The wood and furniture polish are rounded out by a slight hint of toffee and just the faintest hint of apples. The palate continues with the warmth, but it’s not overpowering. It’s spiced with cinnamon and star anise; grain and corn are also predominant as well as the wood notes. It’s syrupy and rich and has just a hint of molasses. The finish is grainy and warm and dries ever so slightly. There’s some corn sweetness as things taper off as well.

While the 2010 is all about wood, I found the 2009 to be a showcase of grain. The nose has corn, caramel and toffee in abundance. There are light hints of cinnamon and clove and it seems less hot on the nose. However, the palate is where things heat up quickly. Wood is noticeable, as you’d expect on a Weller, and there are dark fruits – plums, black cherries – as well. There’s some corn sweetness as well. The palate is a little lighter and not as syrupy, with some general grainy notes (no doubt the wheat). The finish is long, rich, full, and lasting, but slightly dry. It’s a great whiskey overall and I think it’s a little more lively than the ’10.

Which brings us to 2011′s entry. This year is notable for the increased ABV – Weller is now 66% ABV which puts it ever closer to George T. Stagg territory. The nose immediately presents huge toffee notes with some caramel; it’s buttery and has a definite pecan note. Maple syrup is in abundance; wood is present but not overbearing. There’s some white pepper and cinnamon as well as some black cherries at the edges of this one. The palate continues the rich, buttery experience of the nose – it’s sweet as well with toffee in abundance again, some wood and some vanilla. There’s molasses, oranges and pepper to be found as well. As it finishes, the cherry moves center stage initially, and there’s wood at the forefront for the first time as well. There’s vanilla, a faint hint of corn sweetness and some slight hints of marshmallow.

Another way the 2011 Weller shines is with water. It simplifies its character – much more caramel and corn on the nose; on the palate it’s all caramel and toffee with a buttery mouthfeel and a hint of cherries. With water it’s insanely smooth.

To be honest, I think the 2011 Weller is superior to 2010 and 2009. 2009 is good but is a bit fiery and hot. 2010 can be overly bitter and a little closed off. The 2011 is warm, open and inviting, very balanced in flavor and with a lot more going on in the nose. It is extremely enjoyable neat; it’s also phenomenal with a bit of water. Really, you can’t go wrong with it unless you decide to mix it with Coke.

These bourbons can be costly and an extreme style exercise. However, they stand up to the price tag in my opinion. It’s not an everyday sipper, it’s a great one for a special occasion – just don’t let those occasions be too far apart!

At a glance:

William Larue Weller 2009 62.4% ABV
Nose: Corn, caramel and toffee in abundance. Lightly dusty with some woody notes. Mild burn given the ABV. Light hints of cinnamon and clove.
Palate: Much warmer and bold on the palate. Strong burn, wood notable, some dark fruit notes like plum and light hint of black cherry, definite corn sweetness, mildly syrupy, some general grainy notes (no doubt the wheat).
Finish: Strong, a moderate heat, lasting, but somewhat dryer than the palate. Warm, rich, full, syrupy.
Comment: This is much, much livelier and does not have the deep hints of age that I think the 2010 had. Very heavy, pleasant and notable grain and corn notes. Really solid and a heavy hitter. Pleasant nose.
Rating: A-


William Larue Weller 2010 63.3% ABV
Nose: Quite hot on the nose. Less corn evident, more wheat. A smoothly integrated wood note with kind of a dusty, polished furniture note. Smells like an old study. A somewhat bright sweetness that brings some toffee notes with it.
Palate: Warm but not overpowering. Lightly spicy – some cinnamon, hints of star anise, some grain and some corn, medium wood notes, syrupy with the slightest hint of molasses. Ever so slightly salty.
Finish: Grain and warmth which give way to wood, which dries slightly on the palate. It also has a slight corn sweetness to it.
Comment: This is really good. Less grainy than the ’09, more woody and dusty, it’s old and sedate. Of the two this wins by a whisker but I wouldn’t turn either down.
Rating: A-


William Larue Weller 2011 66.75% ABV
  Big toffee notes initially with some caramel beneath. Slightly buttery; hints of pecan. Maple syrup in abundance; wood is present but not overbearing. Some cherry notes hanging out in the background as well. White pepper and cinnamon. Water opens up more of the caramel notes and brings some corn and grain to the front. 
  Warm and rich; slightly buttery. Sweet with toffee; some wood present; maple syrup; some vanilla. Light molasses and a hint of oranges. A light dusting of pepper. Water makes this ridiculously smooth and buttery, there are some cherry notes but it’s dominated by toffee and caramel. Insanely smooth. 
Finish:  Black cherry and wood in abundance, some vanilla at the edges; slightly bitter; the slightest trace of corn sweetness. Some slight hints of marshmallow. 
This is easily the best Weller of the last three, in my opinion; balanced and clean. However, where that would make it an A based on the previous years, it just feels slightly restrained. Water makes this an absurdly syrupy, buttery, rich whiskey – I don’t know if I prefer it more with or without the water. Dealer’s choice.
Rating: A-

A Tip Of The Hat…

My friend Sku so graciously linked my blog the other day that I have to take a moment to return the favor, and not out a sense of obligation.

Sku’s Recent Eats is a regular stop for me, and an instant click in my RSS feed. I’ve broken bread with Sku at a number of local Los Angeles restaurants (all his choices, and all wonderful), and had an opportunity to connect with someone whose perspective on local food and drink that I value tremendously.

I realize the vast majority of readers have come to me via Sku, but for the dozen or so who haven’t, you absolutely need to add him to your readers. Yes, he’s got an incredibly deep knowledge of whiskey, but he’s also got a ton of great spots to hit in the K-town area. (Timon, you’ve experienced the greatness of Papa Cristos and I will attest for the greatest of Jeon Ju). He’s also a big coffee fan and travel’s enough that it’s not just a sad, locals-only LA blog.

Though we differ from time to time on our notes, his opinion and perspective is one that I always respect. And most importantly, he has been my Obi-Wan Kenobi as I’ve gotten much more deep into whiskies and bourbons. The knowledge I pass along, I’ve learned from him.

In honor of someone whose opinion I respect, here are notes on a whisky which actually supplants the George T Stagg as the highest rated whisky on this blog. I dislike rating a limited-release so highly, but it’s so tremendous that I had to share.

Bottom line: There are some amazing old Willetts out there. Go split a bottle with some friends. If they’re like this one, you’ll go be done before the night is over.

Willett 17yo Barrel L10-7389. Reid & Emerald XVII-3, Distilled 4/6/93, Bottle 48 of 126, 72% ABV
Nose:  Nice wood and pepper, a very pleasant mix of sweet and spicy. Some cherries and cinnamon. Slight hint of bubblegum and marshmallow.
Palate:  Thick and mouthcoating, rich and bold. Cherries, cinnamon, pepper. Warming nicely. Oak in the background, toffee, slightest caramel; bubblegum. Sweet.
Finish:  Hot, drying, becomes somewhat bitter on the finish with some early vegetables – romaine, endive, a bit of celery root. Then a huge, absolutely massive cherry blast, followed by dry wood.
Comment:  Stunning. Immense. Massive. Easy drinking. This one is near perfection. The slight bitterness is just a nice interlude.
Rating: A

Developing Your Palate

In recent weeks, perhaps in response to my constant blogging, I’ve found myself in more regular conversations about whiskey. One of the most common things that I hear is, “Oh, my palate just isn’t that good, I can’t really taste anything.” Close behind that is, “I would love to try insert whiskey here, but I just feel like it’s beyond my ability to appreciate.”

The truth is, there’s no superpower involved, and there’s nothing that isn’t beyond the average person’s ability to pick up – especially not among a lot of my friends who have an incredible ability to describe their food at any of the great restaurants here in LA. In my opinion, it’s largely the ability to make associations with things you’ve had before, and it’s something that gets easier the more you do it. There’s certainly no reason to be intimidated or to assume something is “beyond you”. (Beyond the range of the wallet? That’s a different story. In that regard, Glenmorangie Pride will forever be “beyond me”.)

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to taste a sample of a bourbon that was part of a group buy with some like-minded friends. We each walked away with about 6 ounces, which is a good split  of a bottle – enough to have room to do tasting notes, but plenty to enjoy.

The first thing I use is a good glass. I alternate between two primary glasses for tasting: a Crate and Barrel Sipping Glass, which is a nice all-around glass for spirits, or the whiskey nerd standard Glencairn Whisky Glass. To be honest, I prefer the Glencairn glass because it feels slightly more durable and substantial, but the C&B glass is just fine. They’re slightly different in the aroma that they present, but it’s a relatively minor variation. To my nose (I tested blind), the Glencairn Glass presents with a little more sharpness to the nose that helps make some notes a little more clear. Notable whiskey personality (right, right, “Whyte & Mackay Master Blender”) Richard Paterson favors a copita glass like you’d use for sherry. Glencairn also makes a nice one but for whatever reason I prefer the version without the stem. (Richard, on the extremely remote chance you read this via ping back, I simply think “Master Blender” is inadequate to contain the sheer force of your personality. I hope you’ll forgive me). Try to avoid the traditional “rocks” or “old fashioned” glass as they don’t help. It turns out that your ears are not an important part in the process of tasting a whiskey.

Truth is, over time you’ll break glasses anyway so you can always try something until the next one breaks. My hard-won advice is that a bottle of Auchentoshan will beat the Crate & Barrel glass when they collide 10 times out of 10.

Next, we pour a reasonable amount in. I go for a standard 1.5 oz. It’s a reasonable amount of whiskey to start with.

The first thing to do is move in for a couple sniffs. Be mindful of the strength – something like the George T Stagg can easily numb your sense of smell for a moment. Even whiskies in the upper 40s can be a bit much, especially if you’re new, so let your nose be a guide. You might need to let it sit a minute. No problem.

When you sniff it, yes, you’re going to smell “whiskey”. But this is where the exercise begins… what IS the smell of whiskey? It’s actually quite different from whiskey to whiskey. This is where the process gets fun. Try to decipher what you smell. Don’t worry about “right” notes or not – everyone’s nose and palate is different, and we all have different sensitivities. The whiskey I’m drinking, an 18 year old wheat recipe Willett, is an absolute treat on the nose. I smell pepper, wood (like an old study or library), and wheat. It’s kind of earthy – think of that wet forest and damp, heavy clay soil. It’s sweet with some flavors of a creamy vanilla, like homemade ice cream. There’s also a hint of toffee in the background.

There you have it – two major “not food” notes. But they’re absolutely part of how I’ll describe it. OK, proceeding on to the enjoyable part, the drink.

You’ve got about an ounce and a half in your glass. Resist the urge to slug it back and grimace like you’re in a John Ford western. Take a small sip and let it move over your mouth. You might not even want to worry about what you taste. Just enjoy it… if anything jumps out at you, make a note of it. Take it through your mouth – the front of your tongue, the middle of your tongue, the very back. Let it get underneath your tongue and let it sit in your mouth. Paterson suggests holding it in your mouth a second for each year. I don’t disagree at all.

On the whiskey I’m having, I get some good spice – cinnamon and pepper again. It’s subtly sweet again, with notes of toffee and caramel immediately present, but some more rich maple syrup notes and a bit of molasses in the mix too. The earthy notes for the nose are there, as is the oak – it’s ever so slightly bitter. After a few seconds, there’s a definite hint of orange.

Some whiskies are absolutely going to burn out your tastebuds, especially initially. It’s OK to dilute with water. Just be aware that older whiskies fall apart quickly – for a 20+ year old whiskey you should proceed very slowly and literally add a drop or two at most initially. If you drown it, it’ll just be kind of a bland, watery whiskey-like substance and you’ll feel disappointed in what remains in your glass.

Water can and will change the flavor of the whiskey as you taste it, which is part of the fun of getting to know a whiskey over the course of the bottle. Some whiskies become more clearly focused with water. Others open up new dimensions entirely. I actually am a fan of a couple drops of water in Macallan’s 18 year old sherry oak expression, which adds a nice wet straw and grass note that takes the drink in an entirely different direction. You’ll never know unless you try.

So, down the hatch. Let it sit and observe what happens. This whiskey I’m having dries out substantially and the orange note from late in the palate comes to the forefront. There’s an earthy sweetness to it, and the bold oak notes and pepper continue.

Don’t sit too long before having your next sip – that first sip sometimes just helps get the system primed. The second sip can be even more revelatory than the first.

As you’re doing this, pay attention to what you’re tasting. There will be all kinds of things that as you dig into them, may surprise you. If you have a hard time describing things initially, try going with the basic tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. I’ve tasted all of these on different whiskies, so nothing is “wrong” – whiskies absolutely can be salty. Write down your impressions. Ask yourself what it resembles. Sour can be sour in a distinctly vegetal manner, for instance, and I notice a lot of young whiskies smell like corn husks on a hot, humid day. Sweet is an easy one to dissect and we’ve all had plenty of junk food to base our tastes on. Write all your impressions down and remember, there are no wrong impressions! We’re all different, and our palates can differ greatly from day to day.

Of course, this entry is called “Developing” your palate, and I’ve taken you through a straightforward tasting. So how do you develop further?


No, really. Practice. Write things down. Try and dig deeper when you’re specifically tasting to develop your palate. Take your time, go slow, and realize it will come easier with experience.

Pay attention to EVERYTHING you eat. Smell it, savor it, remember the nuances. Fruit can be a huge part of spirits (apples come up frequently and Balblair has a distinctly pineapple note to me) and you’d be amazed how close these taste sensations can be.

This is also a recipe for a great way to live and eat, because you will enjoy and be aware of what you’re tasting more often. I believe strongly that food can be one of the great joys of our lives, and if you really savor it you will appreciate it that much more. Plus, if you take your time, you might find yourself getting full and eating less. Not a bad thing! This approach will serve you well when you go to a good restaurant and try and pick apart the sauces and seasonings. It can also help your cooking immeasurably as you learn how to balance flavors in different ways.

Ultimately, this all ends up with an ability to quickly pull things apart as it becomes a more reflexive approach to eating and drinking. It’s fun to be able to pull something apart and understand it, and then shut off the analytical mind and simply enjoy.

That’s the most important part of all of this: enjoyment. This is yet another avenue to appreciating whiskey (actually, all food and drink) even more. I encourage you to try this so you can understand more accurately what you like.

And, as spirits sensei David Driscoll would note, sometimes you need to just forget all of that crap and just enjoy. Because that is the single reason to be consuming whiskey or any good spirit – enjoyment and community. Getting knotted up in the tasting note cleverness battle is ultimately a weird construct on top of what’s supposed to be an enjoyable activity. Going too far down that path makes you one of those tiresome bores who corrects endlessly about when to use an e in whiskey and when it’s just whisky, or who obsesses to no end over the legal definitions of what a bourbon is and if Angel’s Envy actually qualifies because it’s been finished…

Don’t be that guy.

But I do encourage you to try and be mindful of what you’re having and explore everything. You may not be able to detect some obscure note that someone else can. Don’t worry, that’s not the point. The point is to help deepen your enjoyment of a good thing, and enjoy the dividends that pays in the rest of your life.

At a glance:

Willett 18yo Barrel 12A Paws & Claws. Barrel 56 of 96. October 2010, 66.4% ABV
Nice and woody with some good, gentle spice – white pepper. Subtly earthy, slightly sweet – wheat notes peeking out a bit of gentle toffee. Some subtle creamy vanilla. 
Nice, even, moderate mouthfeel, good spice upfront with some pepper. Subtly sweet, toffee, caramel and a bit of vanilla, with some maple syrup and a touch of molasses. Some good earthy notes and oak. A hint of orange late in the palate. 
Drying, with orange and the earthy sweetness above some big, bold oak and pepper. 
This is great. The wood’s a bit heavy in the balance overall but it’s a very, very solid old wheater. There’s nice nuance to the sweetness on the palate, and the finish is great.