Category Archives: Drinks

2013 World Tour: South Africa Via Florida

Like many whiskey lovers, I’m always looking for something new and interesting on the shelf. I always am looking for an unusual bottle shape or a label I don’t recognize so that I can find something new and different.

Last fall, I was in in one of my local stores in the early holiday shopping season, and was scanning past a lot of noise – “festive” crap mostly targeted at wine drinkers but cross-marketed to festoon your whisky bottle with some sort of dopey flair. Who doesn’t need a mistletoe charm to slip around the neck of their bottle of Jack Daniel’s, anyway?

As I was scanning, something caught my eye – a plastic pouch. I moved in to look, and was revolted and enchanted at the same time. I had in my hand a “Porta Shots” pack of Kings Crown Whiskey, with the absolute most generic artwork ever. For a moment, I’ll retract my criticism of silly bottles like Thor that are a little too art-directed. Let’s just agree categorically that your packaging artwork should not be done in CorelDraw.

The treasure, in all its glory.

The treasure, in all its glory.

What the hell is King’s Crown? I figured, since this was precariously occupying the tense border between bourbon and, uh.. artistan… moonshine… that it was probably some sort of low-rent, ultra-reject whisky from Indiana, or maybe a head-heavy cut of something unremarkable out of Heaven Hill that they figured they could make a few bucks off of.

ps_2

More detail photos than anything else on this site.

I flipped the pouch over to divine the provenance of this and was immediately taken aback. This “Straight Whiskey” hails from South Africa, specifically the North West province. Apparently the climate is such that you can grow “some of the worlds’ best corn (Maize)”. I’m sure it’s nice, but as a midwestern boy, I’m going to say that you’ll be hard pressed to beat midwestern sweet corn in the summer. That is another debate entirely.

Seems legit.

Seems legit.

Since Bain’s and Three Ships aren’t commonly stocked where I shop, this would be my first African whiskey. This isn’t necessarily the ambassador the local industry might like, I’m sure, but it’s the one I found. For what it’s worth, we have a Tampa-based importer (and PortaShots themselves in Ocala, FL) to thank for bringing us this bounty.

A small amount of the bounty contained within.

A small amount of the bounty contained within.

The Porta Shots package is pretty bizarre and sets expectations appropriately. It’s a large resealable plastic outer pouch with 25 individually sealed pouches of whiskey. The layout on the pouch itself is a little more, shall we say, traditional, but still declasse enough to make most generic mystery-blend bottom-shelfers look like luxurious and grand whiskies. Also of note was a faint hint of corn whiskey when the package was opened. Hmmm.

OK, OK, maybe a LITTLE art direction for whisky packaging is OK.

OK, OK, maybe a LITTLE art direction for whisky packaging is OK.

Each packet contains 30mL and is roughly about twice as big as a regular Heinz Ketchup packet. It’s plastic instead of some sort of foil like those Heinz packets though. I anticipated this would be a tough one to open, despite a helpful “tear here” label, and this was confirmed. No easy tear was available, so I grabbed a pair of scissors, snipped the corner and poured it into a glencairn to give it a fair shot. It poured surprisingly dark.

Government warning, continued: you probably ought to consider not opening this.

Government warning, continued: you probably ought to consider not opening this.

I held the glass up to my nose and sniffed. I was immediately overcome by a reflexive central nervous system response that was somewhere between involuntary twitching and a panic response to get away from toxic chemicals. Despite the color, this was all clearly very, very young whiskey – bearing an incredibly aggressive punch upfront of raw alcohol notes, acetone, low-quality corn whiskey, raw sugar and a general newmake sweetness. Except that it’s not like your average newmake, this is bad. From the nose, I’d guess the color to be completely artificial because this bears virtually no cask influence on the nose.

The palate is similarly young – completely dominated by sugary notes and an undeniable white dog character. It doesn’t have the heat of any of the uncut white dogs you might have tried (owing no doubt to its strength), but it has that rawness. It lacks the sweet corn notes you’ll taste in Buffalo Trace’s white dog, and rests almost entirely on a bland sweetness.

The finish, which I expected to be vanishingly quick and unpleasant was actually the most nuanced part of this whiskey. The corn presence seemed most pronounced here, and even had a slight bubblegum sweetness for a second before returning to corn and newmake notes.

The bag says “Straight Whiskey”, and I don’t buy it in terms of adherence to the US definition (4 years minimum to avoid age statement). As an imported product this likely avoids that regulation, but this was either the most mysterious cask ever – imparting color but zero flavor, or it was aged briefly and colored. My bet is heavily on the latter.

It’s unfortunate to see whiskey of this quality on the shelf; obviously this is not one geared for the connoisseur. Even casual drinkers would not have a lot to love in this one. This unfortunately helps push forward an alternate image of whiskey as low-quality rotgut.

Clearly, the Porta Shots packaging says “party”, and this is a whiskey that demands to be mixed if only to cover up the taste. There’s a part of me that looks at this with the eyes of my college-age self and thinks, “this is a genius way to sneak alcohol into places that I couldn’t have carried it” – but then I am reminded I would have had to take up the unenviable task of actually drinking the stuff that I’d gone to all the trouble to sneak in.

The Porta Shots range consists of several products – three rums, two vodkas and this whiskey. A little sleuthing revealed these to be products of South Africa as well – my guess is this comes out of a contract distillery that produces pretty much anything. I didn’t see any smoking guns in my search. This being from the North West province, according to my limited understanding of South African geography, safely exempts the James Sedgwick distillery as a potential guilty party.

This is an interesting curiosity or a good way to prank your friends. I can’t recommend trying this in any serious context, unless you’re wanting to plumb the depths.

At a glance:

King’s Crown Whiskey 40% (Porta Shots packaging)
Nose:  Oh god. A really aggressive punch of low-grade corn whiskey, acetone, raw alcohol, raw sugar, and a very strong new make character – vegetal undertones. It’s so young and newmakey that I have to wonder if the color isn’t completely artificial.
Palate:  Thin, completely sugary – totally white dog. Not hot, but just raw.
Finish:  Corn, a little bubblegum sweetness for a second. Back to corn and raw new make.
Comment:  Tastes completely unaged. Atrocious.
Rating: D-

Trader Joe’s Speyside & Highland – Any Winners?

Last year on St. Pat’s, I obligatorily took a look at some Irish whiskey. My favorite at the time was Trader Joe’s brand – and in subsequent encounters I’ve still found a lot to like.

If you’ve been browsing the various discussion forums or are a redditor, you’ll have doubtless seen mention of the new Trader Joe’s offerings, a 10 year Highland and an 18 year Speyside. Could Trader Joe’s repeat their Irish coup? Sku of Sku’s Recent Eats and I decided to split the pair of bottles to see. We’ve got a joint review going!

These bottles, it’s worth mentioning, are cheap. Ridiculously cheap. 10 year old Highlander for $20? Yes, please. 18 year old Speyside for 26 bucks!?  Since these were Speyside & Highland, we ran a pretty solid chance of not encountering remnant stock of the old FWP-infested Bowmore.

It’s kind of amazing how these can be offered at this price when all we read about from producers and bloggers (myself included) is the ever-increasing price train thanks to those hobgoblins of increased demand, tightening stocks and rising price of materials. However, if that distillery name is off the label, suddenly the price is screamingly reasonable… curious. I won’t call bullshit on anyone yet, but I definitely am more curious about the emperor’s clothes now…

Age before beauty: Let’s shake thing up and start with what might be the deal of the (young) decade – the 18y Speyside.

The nose is fruity and rich, with a light waxy quality. It’s got apples, light pears, a slight dusting of sugar, gentle malt, faint white pepper. It’s really vibrant and rich. The palate starts out unexpectedly woody; there’s a light earthiness and some fruity sweetness opening up. It’s slightly dry on balance with a light apple skin, but it’s dominated in large part by the lightly bitter wood.

The finish is malt-forward, followed by some dry wood, but with plenty of fruit – it’s long on apples and pears. It’s an enjoyable enough malt – a gorgeous nose to be sure – but the bitterness really mars it. It’s got a very rich flavor and is surprisingly robust for 40%, but the dry bitterness just doesn’t work for me.

OK, not bad for a whiskey that costs about 70 cents per year it was aged. What about the 10y Highland?

The 10y Highland starts with a bit of doughiness upfront, and is slightly thin and sweet. Some acetone notes flutter in and out on the nose; light maltiness fills it out. It’s slightly young, but not offensively so. The palate is watery, but sweet with some gently insistent malt. There’s a slight pleasing spicy tingle on the tip of the tongue and a light touch of wood.

The Highlander finishes malty, with cookie dough and heavy brown sugar. Apple skin and faint earthiness with a touch of pear round it out. It’s not bad for a 20 buck single malt, but it doesn’t do it for me – it lacks a certain focus on the palate and the nose is a bit young.

This may not seem like a ringing endorsement, but let’s step back and have a brief sanity check. These are both less than 30 bucks. They’re totally drinkable. No distillery is going to let its best product get out super cheaply under a store brand, so we should temper our expectations. I like the richness and clarity of the 18 and if I personally was restricted to a $30-and-less bottle, I personally would choose the 18y Speyside. I can see a very good argument for the 10y Highlander, but it reminds me a little too much of some underdeveloped, underaged whiskies I haven’t enjoyed. I’d imagine it’s a product of a third-fill or so cask; it’s got no clear off notes but it’s just a not my personal style.

However, if you’re in the TJ’s whisky selection, I think the clear winner is the Irish to this day. But after you’ve picked it up, go to the freezer section and buy some of their mini-pot-pies… enjoyable!

Read the review at Sku’s Recent Eats

 

At a glance:

Trader Joe’s Highland Single Malt Scotch 10y 40% ABV
Nose:  A little doughy upfront, slightly thin and sweet. A bit of nail polish remover, a hint of acetone. Lightly malty.
Palate:  Watery but sweet, with gently insistent malt and a slight pleasing tingle of spiciness on the tip of the tongue. Slight wood touch.
Finish:  Malty to finish with a bit of cookie dough and brown sugar. Some apple skin and a faint touch of earthiness; some pear.
Comment:  Given a 10y single malt for $20, it’s not bad. In absolute terms though it doesn’t do much for me.
Rating: C+

Trader Joe’s Speyside Single Malt Scotch 18y 40% ABV
Nose:  Fruity and rich; a little light waxy quality; apples, light pears, slight dusting of sugar, gentle malt, faint white pepper.
Palate:  Woody upfront initially, slightly earthy, with some fruit-based sweetness opening up after a minute. Leaning towards a slight dryness. Slight apple skin.
Finish:  Malt comes forward a bit more on the finish, still some slightly dry wood, and plenty of fruit – long again on apples and pears.
Comment:  The nose is enjoyable enough but the bitterness mars this. I think the flavor is richer than the 10y and it’s robust, but that dry bitterness doesn’t work.
Rating: B-

Stitzel-Weller Rides Again: A Boon For… Rye?

This weekend, the diehard bourbon enthusiast/nerd community had a collective freakout when John Hansell broke the news that the Stitzel-Weller distillery was going to begin producing again. For those who don’t track this stuff in depth, Stitzel-Weller is the distillery that was run for a time by none other than Pappy Van Winkle himself. Stitzel-Weller was notably the producer of some really great whisky under the Very Old Fitzgerald and Very Very Old Fitzgerald labels. I’ve had the privilege of trying both; they’re quite good. As with all things, they perhaps don’t live up to the hype, high prices and general hysteria that accompany them these days, but they’re quite good.

Stitzel-Weller stopped distilling in the early ’90s. Much of what remains has made it to market in the form of the white-hot and truly overhyped Pappy Van Winkle line – though it’s been said lately that the contents of Van Winkle aren’t 100% Stitzel-Weller. More Stitzel-Weller whiskey has been bottled at times under the Jefferson’s Presidential Select label; the rumor mill says this may not be entirely Stitzel-Weller anymore either.

This is not another puff piece inflating the legacy of Stitzel-Weller. I’ve said before like others that I think it’s a bit overrated – and let’s not forget that Stitzel was perfectly capable of producing mediocre whiskey.

There were several reactions to be seen in response to this news. It was most fun to see the unbridled optimism of those who were convinced that this meant it was only a handful of years until we lived in a land of milk and honey, where the high-quality wheated bourbon was plentiful and we’d all be drinking Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon (the “real” Van Winkle) at low cost. Perhaps the ghost of Pappy would smile down on Kentucky and a permanent beam of sunlight would shine on the distillery and there’d always be a hint of cigar smoke lingering in the air.

Unfortunately, it’s misplaced optimism. Stitzel-Weller is owned by Diageo, the massive multinational who owns something like fourteen thousand whisky distilleries in Scotland.

This is not a “hate on Diageo” piece, for that matter.

Diageo, through the merger-and-acquisition route, had a toehold in the American market in the form of George Dickel, the lesser known (but arguably better) competitor to Jack Daniel’s. American whiskey enthusiasts have long lamented Diageo’s seeming indifference to the Dickel brand, and it certainly has not shown a lot of imagination or attention in dealing with the brand. Interestingly, there are some ultra-aged Dickel barrels out there. I recently had the privilege of trying a 25 year old sample provided by a friend – certainly too old to be bottled on its own, but potentially a foundation for something special. The biggest news to come out of Dickel territory was the addition of a rye to the lineup late last year – though that was merely another sourced whiskey from Indiana.

Diageo’s attention and distribution has seemed to focus on getting more traction for the Bulleit label. Bulleit was another acquisition, though one that has been the beneficiary of more attention – I’ve certainly seen Bulleit in most bars whose bourbon selection go beyond the usual Jim & Jack options. Bulleit is distilled in large part (if not in totality) by Four Roses under contract. The usual industry mystery wraps the details of Bulleit – sometimes a “proprietary yeast strain” is mentioned, the mash bill has been claimed to be 68% corn, 28% rye and 4% barley (which would put it at about 50% “B” high-rye and 50% “E” low-rye Four Roses variants). Recently, Bulleit saw expansion with a 95% MGP (LDI) rye marketed as Bulleit Rye, and more recently, a 10 Year variant of Bulleit. Clearly Diageo has seen profitability and interest in the brand.

It’s my belief that the Bulleit Bourbon will eventually become 100% Stitzel-Weller distillate from the new era. Perhaps Diageo has old Stitzel stocks – if so, they may move to release them in some sort of special “Augustus Bulleit” edition while they’re still good (and to start using the Stitzel name on labels). With The Bulleit Experience also located at Stitzel-Weller, clearly the ties are being drawn ever tighter to associate “Stitzel-Weller” and “Bulleit” in the minds of the average consumer.

Realistically, Diageo has to move at a measured pace – in four years they can’t just switch over to the new whiskey cold turkey and expect customers to come along for the ride. However, Diageo does know a thing or two about blending whisky. It seems like the most rational path forward would be a ten-year plan – four years of relative silence from the new distillery as stocks age out, with the first new era whisky coming online somewhere around late 2017 (assuming a mid-2013 start).  I’d expect the S-W portion to be small initially, to both introduce change gradually as well as to support aging stocks to 10 years (2023) to support the 10 Year label in-house. Assuming batched releases they could could gradually work up to 100% Diageo-produced whiskey within a few years – maybe two or three on an aggressive timescale, or 5-6 on a more gradual shift. I’ve noticed drastic shifts in single malts in the course of a decade – a six year plan could be very achievable and beneath the radar for most. A 6 year schedule for cutover would put 2023-2024 as the time where you would expect 100% SW Bulleit and 100% SW Bulleit 10 Year, ostensibly with excess capacity to support both and some limited annual releases (a la the Distiller’s Editions and year-end exclusives from their Scottish holdings).

The smart money is on using some near match of the existing mashbill, which means a high-rye bourbon.

At no point has wheated bourbon even entered the discussion – the style that Stitzel has been synonymous with in the past. I suspect examining Diageo’s large-scale industrial approach holds some clues to what may be in store for US operations as a whole. As noted upthread, Diageo is the force behind Bulleit and Dickel. These two brands both have a rye whiskey released under their respective names, which means that Diageo is a firm believer in the potential for rye whiskey going forward. There’s a clear economy to be had here if operations at Stitzel are to grow or, indeed, expand.

If the new Stitzel has a large capacity, they may dedicate some of it towards producing rye. Rye is in low supply in the US – Rittenhouse comes and goes, Sazerac is even more transient, and Wild Turkey has had to cut proof to keep up with demand. MGP (LDI) seems to be the only reliable producer, and it’s conceivable in the medium term that Diageo may start producing rye in-house if all goes well. They could simply produce for both Bulleit and Dickel, do the extra filtering for Dickel and then label and bottle it appropriately. This would allow Diageo to control their own destiny and keep costs down in a segment they clearly value which still has tight stocks. Conceivably Diageo could also do contract distilling and compete with MGP on a limited basis. Is this pointing to a huge capacity? Quite possibly. However, Diageo has no problem thinking and executing on a huge scale. The Roseisle distillery is massive – 10 million liters a year – and they’re considering building another one. Not to mention, Diageo has been expanding capacity in a big way in many of their existing distilleries. Whisky is in a growth business for Diageo.

One might reason that Diageo would clearly see the value of a longer-term investment in wheated bourbon and start production. It seems that Diageo is patient to play a long game. Conceivably if they massively expanded Stitzel-Weller they could lay down stocks. If you think strategically though, Diageo waited quite a while to start producing its star product itself – it may yet wait to see how well the transition works before it tries to broaden and diversify. As a betting man, I’d expect that you’d be more likely to see an unaged Bulleit (call it “Bullet Raw”) before a wheated bourbon. Thinking in a production sense, if they did occasional rye runs they may also occasionally do a corn run and make that hypothetical “Bulleit Raw” as a corn whiskey. Balcones has shown that corn whiskey can be done right, and the unaged whiskey market continues to be inexplicably hot.

Finally, there is one potential upside to this in any case – more jobs for the local markets. Diageo’s focus is on their bottom line (– photo from K&L Spirits Journal) and automation whenever possible, though you can’t (yet) run a distillery without people. That is perhaps one of the best pieces of news. Any real judgement on this can’t be complete for several more years until the first whiskey comes out.

In the spirit of “This could be good news for rye whiskey” (and since I’ve already reviewed Bulleit Bourbon), here’s  look at their other bottle currently available on California shelves – Bulleit Rye.

As said before, Bulleit Rye is a product of the LDI distillery owned by MGP in Indiana. LDI rye drives a lot of designer labels (including Templeton), so it’s not an unknown experience. However, for the sake of completeness, it’s worth tasting.

At a glance:

Bulleit “95″ Rye 45% ABV
Nose:
  Gently minty with a pine body upfront, a lightly bready body underneath. Gentle, lightly caramel sweetness through the middle, but it’s primarily dominated by the thinner notes (without being thin per se). Settles down a bit with air.
Palate:  Moderate mouthfeel, noticeable wood and a thin, piney, faintly sticky taste. A light bit of young wood and some faint sweetness, but this is fairly dry. A little cinnamon and a pinch of pepper.
Finish:  Warm at first – cinnamon and some breadiness. A little more pine that’s slightly sticky and a little greener; lightly floral and aromatic.
Comment:  A youngish but agreeable rye. Worth checking out.
Rating: B-

New Year, Old Distilleries

With the holiday season behind us and my apartment building’s entry way with a thick layer of the debris of abandoned Christmas trees, it’s time to turn our eyes to a new year. For some, this is a time of reflection, a time of anticipation, vows for self-improvement and so forth. I don’t have any blog resolutions, per se, other than a promise to continue my low-grade jackassery and witless, incurious observations that firmly mark me as a member of whisky blogging’s chattering class. In other words, expect very little to change.

This year is going to be one of exploration, in part. Isn’t it always? Yes, but we’re enjoying some new opportunities here in the US. New Japanese whiskies are landing on our shores – the new Nikkas most notably – and I’ve managed to secure some other samples for this year, not to mention the flight of limited edition Yamazakis. From my discussions with David Driscoll and David Girard, it’s clear what a mess getting Japanese whiskies are into the US. Apparently the trade agreements aren’t in place with Japan as they are with other nations, which require a ton of lab analysis to approve a new whisky for import. This is a real shame: Japan has some absolutely top-notch whiskies that would be sure to please the palate of almost any aficionado of Scotch whisky. With the rising prices of Scotch whisky, it’s certainly worth a re-examination of the options available to see if there are substitutes available elsewhere. Beyond that, a little palate globetrotting is always a fun experience.

Anyone who has talked with me in person knows that closed distilleries are a passing passion for me. There’s something exciting about the opportunity to try something that may never be available again. My last year of extensive introspection, exhaustively woven into many blog posts, has only reaffirmed my interest in that experience. So what better to kick of 2013 than a closed Japanese distillery?

We’re talking, of course, about the Karuizawa distillery. I make no attempt to sound like an expert about Japanese whisky; aside from what’s crossed my palate, it’s much more of an unknown quantity to me than, say, Scotland or the United States. From what’s available out there, it’s apparent that Karuizawa stopped distilling in 2001 and closed ten years later. Now, Karuizawas are reasonably easy to find (for Japanese whiskies, meaning you have to import them from Scotland*), but they frequently command £200 and more, meaning you’re looking at $350 for some of those single cask offerings after shipment. Certainly nothing outlandish, but just as certainly part of the price tier where some way to mitigate the risk is appreciate. I’ve had a couple Karuizawas in the past and while I liked them, I wasn’t necessary blown away by them, and not enough to risk $300 on them.  

Fast forward to late 2012: The Whisky Exchange tweets about the availability of the Karuizawa Spirit of Asama bottles. I check the link out, expecting no doubt to find another bottle above my personal threshold in this case, and am stunned. £45 and £50 after VAT is subtracted. I can’t believe it: an affordable Karuizawa. Spirit of Asama is a vatting of 77 casks, at about 12-13 years old (the casks were filled in ’99 and ’00). Though I’ve already got a checkmark by Karuizawa on my “closed distilleries to taste” list (cue the sound of David Driscoll harrumphing at my closed distillery scorekeeping. Sorry, David, I’m gonna do it), a reasonably priced expression is always worth checking out.

Several weeks ago, Serge reviewed these and gave them an 87 (48% ABV bottling) and 85 (55% ABV bottling). Expectations set: these are good but not legendary bottles. After wrestling with the corks – seriously, the corks on these are awful – I finally get the bottles open. My 48% bottle had a fragmenting cork – fortunately, I was splitting this bottle with a friend, so it was going to be decanted anyway.

I finally sat down to taste these recently after the holidays, curious to see what they had in common and what might be different.

The 55% was my baseline, being closer to a natural cask strength for the many casks involved. The nose on it immediately revealed thick sherry with an accompanying slight sherry funk to it. There was some underlying wood but it didn’t overpower – though it did show some age and seemed fairly tame. The top end had orange zest; it was slightly figgy with some red fruit and leather.

The palate was very leathery with tons of sherry. It had a fairly good dose of white pepper, some moderate heat as well. A little fig and plum gave some depth to the body and some thick molasses stickiness filled out the bottom end. A nice, rich palate (though I confess of late I find that heavy leathery note a little less alluring than the incredible nutty flavors you get from some sherry-matured whisky).

The 55% Asama finished warm, and had a bourbony, slightly citric top note that leaned towards orange zest. It gave way to a big sherry and fig combo, with a familiar musty, woody finish I’ve seen on previous Karuizawas (at times, I’ve thought this to be not too dissimilar from what a slightly dusty melon rind would taste like). Not bitter at all, but just a bit old.

The 55% Asama bears a massive sherry influence, and is certainly one of the least expensive Karuizawas I’ve seen, while still having something in common with the pricier versions.

The reduced bottling appears to have come from the same batch of casks. How does it compare?

The nose is slightly musty sherry, with an unfortunate straight alcohol/solvent note. It’s got light wood, a touch of oranges, and some dried fruit.

The palate is leathery again, with sherry, a very mild dose of white pepper (this has almost none of the heat of the 55%), and gentle heat. It’s slightly figgy with a far off molasses quality to add some depth, as well as a little light wood.

The finish is led by wood, and starts slightly warm like its higher proof brother, with a clean sherry note and a touch of citrus zest. Unlike the 55% which goes a bit more musty and dusty on the finish, the 48% settles on dried fruit.

The 48% is a little gentler, but to my palate by comparison it almost seems timid and somewhat flat. It’s not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination, but it just seems to need a little more life to it.

Of the two, I prefer the 55%. You can reduce it to 48% if you’re so inclined (Serge was successful in this experiment), or you can have it at full strength and enjoy a little more zip. The 48% is unquestionably more restrained and easy-drinking, but I just prefer the 55%.

Fortunately, both of these whiskies are still available at The Whisky Exchange for the reasonable prices mentioned above – the 48% is £45 ex VAT and the 55% is £51 ex VAT (I don’t get any affiliate money for those links, so click and enjoy and don’t worry about putting any of your hard earned money in my pockets – your hard earned money solely goes to TWE on these).

* From above: A note popped into my mailbox this past week from Royal Mile Whiskies noting that they will be unable to ship to the US. Apparently the UK’s CAA has reclassified alcohol and as of today, RMW will be unable to ship to the US. This is a shame as Royal Mile has had some superlative single cask releases, most notably a stellar ’87 Glengoyne. Here’s hoping this is a misinterpretation and things will proceed as normal. Tim and Billy of TWE seem cautiously optimistic in this thread at the WWW forums - we in the US can only hope their interpretation is correct and we will soon see a return to normalcy. Otherwise, a major source of excellent whisky will be closed off to the US in short order.

Once again, here’s wishing you a happy new year. I have enjoyed the comments and interactions that Scotch & Ice Cream brought in 2012, and I hope to continue to entertain and interest in my own peculiar way again through 2013. Won’t you join me?

At a glance:

Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama” 55% ABV
Nose: 
Thick sherry presence upfront that’s ever so slightly funky. Wood beneath it but it’s not overpowering, just a bit old and tame. A light orange zest hint on the top end. Slightly figgy with some traces of red fruit, a touch of leather.
Palate: 
Leathery upfront, tons of sherry. A fairly good dose of white pepper, moderate heat. A little fig, a touch of plum. Just a slight hint of thick molasses. 
Finish: 
Warm at first, with a little bourbony, slightly citric top note reminiscent of orange zest again. A big sherry/fig combo, giving way to a fairly familiar musty, woody finish I’ve gotten off previous Karuizawas. 
Comment:   
Very heavily sherry-influenced. It’s one of the less expensive Karuizawas you’ll find and still has something in common with more expensive versions. 
Rating:
B

Karuizawa “Spirit of Asama” 48% ABV
Nose: 
Slightly musty sherry, a touch of a straight alcohol/solvent note. Light wood, a touch of oranges, some dried fruit. 
Palate: 
Leathery with sherry, very mild dose of white pepper, light heat. Slightly figgy and with a far-off hint of molasses. Light wood creeping in. 
Finish: 
Wood leads, slightly warm at first with a clean sherry note and a touch of citrus zest. Settles in on dried fruit.
Comment: 
A little gentler, seems a little timid and flat. A good whisky; just needs a little more life. 
Rating:
B-

Technology. Huh.

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

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

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

Finding The Heir To Pappy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our whiskeys of choice:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appropriately Bourbon-y Name

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

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

AVAILABILITY

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

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

Rugged, cool persona

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

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

SMOOTH, EASY DRINKING CHARACTER

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

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

UNLIKELY TO BE USURPED BY FOODIES

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

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


TASTING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

0

And on that bombshell, goodnight!

 

Thanks to Josh Feldman for the RHF sample!

Whiskey Is For The People: Evan Williams 1783

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As my friend Adam says:

Drink whiskey!

At a glance:

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