Category Archives: Misc American Whiskey

Corn Whiskey Done Right – Balcones vs Preconceptions (Part 2)

Previously, I discussed the young corn whiskeys that Balcones have released and how they surprised me with their depth. By this point in my tasting (again, samples provided courtesy Balcones as part of a larger tasting), I was looking at the darker colored spirits. Now I was getting interested.

The next whiskey up was the “1″ Texas Single Malt, an ex-bourbon finished whiskey. In the past I’ve said I thought single malt was an exceedingly difficult for small distilleries to get right. Single malts seem to just need a long time in wood to settle down and develop a coherent profile. The nose on this one was unsurprisingly sweet, with orange zest and a bit of caramel. White pepper and a little wood provided some dimension. There was a nice maltiness with some light floral notes and a pleasing light touch of honeysuckle. Some cinnamon and a classic malt note of buttercream vanilla also came through.

The palate was malty, but slightly bitter with an upfront wood influence. It had a moderately full mouthfeel. The whisky had a lightly floral, almost bubblegum note to it. Heat started to gradually build with some cinnamon which stood as a contrast to the light honey also on the palate.

The finish was reasonably long and warm, with a rich honey note and malt. It dried slightly but had moments of bitterness. It’s got a nice malt foundation, though seems a touch estery and unfocused, but I think it could be really interesting with more time in wood. It’s right on the verge of being a massively drinkable whiskey.

At this point, I was looking at the Brimstone sample. Brimstone has gone on to be one of this year’s most acclaimed whiskeys, but fortunately I had this one without a lot of heat building up around it yet. All I knew was that this was smoked with Texas scrub oak – an interesting change from the usual peat or mesquite.

The nose was slightly rubbery at first, which settled to reveal a slightly campfire-like smoke that has a more distinctly woody smell than more organic peat smoke. It was lightly malty with a touch of orange. There was a sweet side as well – chocolate and a bit of raisin.

The palate was oily and malty at first, with a rubbery kick at the front end. The smoke is relatively subdued otherwise. It reveals a taste of buttermilk biscuits with honey, a little orange liqueur at the top end, with some dark chocolate and raisins alongside cherry.

The finish was nicely smoky and seasoned, with a great barbecue sauce aftertaste (more sweet barbecue sauce, not a vinegar-based sauce). There were hints of apple skin, reasonable but not overpowering wood presence, and the light honey from the palate. Again, a malty and biscuity base sat under everything.

The result? The best corn whiskey I’ve ever had. Tons of dimension. It’s a good, worthwhile whiskey even outside the “corn whiskey” ghetto I described in my first post. This is simply a good whiskey – that sweet barbecue sauce against honeyed sweetness is a kind of balance that only a handful of really stellar Islay malts (usually over $250) can pull off and Brimstone does it with aplomb. It’s not an everyday choice for me, but it’s a worthy bar resident.

Brimstone absolutely lives up to the hype it’s gotten this year. Since it’s smoky it’s not going to be for everyone, but if that’s your thing, you owe it to yourself to check this out.

The craft distillery movement has a bright, shining star and Brimstone is it for now.

Two other fun spirits I got to try didn’t meet the definition of whiskey, but whiskey lovers might enjoy them: Rumble and Rumble Cask Reserve. These are not whiskeys by the legal definitions, but as a whiskey drinker it’s quite likely you’d find something enjoyable in these. Instead of a usual mashbill of corn, barley, wheat and/or rye, this is made from figs, honey, and turbinado sugar.

The nose on Rumble was young, and initially vegetal, lightly sour. The sweetness common to this younger spirit nose almost went in the direction of fresh masa. There was light earthiness and some cinnamon.

I thought the mouthfeel was nice and lightly oily, with a gentle sweetness. There were hints of toffee, very, very light vanilla, and an overall nice, syrupy quality. Wood was minimal aside from providing some gentle spice and dimension. A little light cinnamon added; a little light green note slightly detracted.

The finish started a little warm, but not out of control. It was a little sweet but a generally quick finish. It dried and got woody and bitter, but not overly objectionable.

I thought it was good – it’s a different new make sweetness, less bracing. It’s interesting, enjoyable, and worth a taste should you find it.

The other sample I had was a cask strength version of Rumble, Rumble Cask Reserve.

The nose on Rumble Reserve was strong, but with a definite honey sweetness note. A light earthiness that I detected on the Rumble was present here, but unique to Reserve was a light, dry hoppy quality.

The palate was warm and rich – wood was abundant and the whiskey had plenty of heat. A gentle sweetness was underneath it; black pepper and cinnamon provided heat. It was slightly musty but agreeably so – kind of like an old study. The finish dried and left woody notes, a little flash of hops again, and some sweetness.

The Rumble Cask reminded me of the original release of Charbay’s hopped whiskey. It’s unusual, not for everyone, but very enjoyable.

The two Balcones whiskeys – Brimstone in particular – are great stuff. Brimstone has been hyped this year but certainly not overhyped. It’s not for everyone but if smoke is your thing, it’s worth checking out.

I’ve written a lot about my hopes for craft distillers this year as well as my wish that there would be less of a focus on shortcuts and more of a focus on quality. It’s hard, it’s expensive, it demands attention to your craft, and generally it doesn’t allow a producer to hide behind a cute story. I recognize from all my endeavors that this asks a lot before putting yourself out there. However, it’s a lot more satisfying to have put in the blood, sweat and tears and  approach from a position of confidence than knowing everything is in a house of cards.

This is all a hell of a lot better than I ever imagined corn whiskey could be.

At a glance:

Balcones “1″ Texas Single Malt – Ex-Bourbon finish 53% ABV
Sweet; orange zest and a light bit of caramel. White pepper, a little bit of wood. Malty, with some light floral notes, a touch of honeysuckle. A bit of cinnamon and some buttercream vanilla. 
Malty but slightly bitter with a wood influence upfront. Moderate mouthfeel; lightly floral, an almost bubblegum note to it. Heat starts to build after a minute with light cinnamon. Lightly honeyed. 
Warm; again rich with a honey note and some malt; drying slightly and a little bitter at points. Moderate length.
The malt foundation to this is nice. I think the esters are a little unfocused but this could be interesting with more time in the wood. This is right on the verge of a massively drinkable whisky.

Balcones Brimstone (Batch BRM 12-2) 53% ABV
Slightly rubbery at first smell; a slightly campfire-like smoke that has a more distinctly woody smell than the organic peat smoke. Light malt, a touch of orange. There’s a sweet side to this; a little chocolate and maybe a raisin note. 
Oily and malty at first; a little rubbery kick at the front end of the smoke. Smoke is relatively subdued otherwise; giving a lightly honeyed note, buttermilk biscuits, again, a little orange (liqueur) at the top end, very faint. A slight hint of dark chocolate as well. Raisins, a touch of cherry. 
Nicely smokey, very seasoned and tastes like a nice barbecue sauce aftertaste (sweet sauce, not a vinegar mop). Slight hints of apple skin, a reasonable amount of wood but not overpowering; the lightly honeyed note shows up here as well. Malty and biscuity again as well as a baseline. 
This is the best corn whiskey I’ve ever had. Tons of dimension to this.  I don’t know that I’d reach for this constantly but I might be persuaded to keep some around. 

Balcones Rumble (Batch R11-11)
Not Whiskey
Nose:  Young, vegetal initially. Lightly sour. Sweetness that almost goes in a fresh masa direction. Lightly earthy, some cinnamon.
Palate:  Nice mouthfeel – slightly oily. Gentle sweetness – some light toffee hints; some very very light vanilla; nice and syrupy. Wood presence on this is minimal but gives some gentle spicing and dimension. A little light cinnamon. A faintly green note.
Finish:  Warm but not bad. A little sweetness; generally a quick finish. Dries a bit and gets slightly woody and bitter, but not at all objectionable.
Comment: Not at all bad. Something is different about this one compared to the others (post-tasting note: made from sugar, honey & figs. Huh.) and it’s got a little less bracing new make sweetness to it. Interesting and enjoyable enough.
Rating: B-

Rumble Cask Reserve (Barrel 1597)
Not Whiskey
  Strong initially. Somewhat sweet on the nose, definitely getting a honey note. Lightly earthy; almost has flashes of a dry hoppy quality.
Palate:  Warm and rich. Wood in abundance; plenty of heat. Gentle sweetness; some black pepper and cinnamon. Slightly musty but in an agreeable way.
Finish:  Drying but leaves some wood, that hoppy flash, and some sweetness.
Comment:  This reminds me of Charbay’s first release. It’s certainly unusual but it’s pretty enjoyable.
Rating: B

Corn Whiskey Done Right – Balcones vs. Preconceptions (Part 1)

For a long time, corn whiskey has been one of the least interesting forms of whiskey to me, being closest to the new makes and usually used to crudely approximate some sort of notion of moonshine. I don’t know that there’s much out there that’s quite as lame as an officially approved fake bootleg of something. Corn whiskey long was in this mental ghetto for me.

The most premium corn whiskey I’d had, if you could call it that, was Mellow Corn. Perhaps you’ve seen it staring out from the pages of one of those “n Whiskies You Need To Drink” books. It’s got an almost unnatural yellow hue to it, as if to scream, “I’M MADE OF CORN AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT!”


Don’t be misled – Mellow Corn is not a bad whiskey, it’s squarely in my “not to my taste” window, but almost pushing into the level of things I’d like to have on hand. It’s got a very light nose, hints of corn, a general strong and sweet presence – like what you’d get from white dog, but not quite as sugary and raw. There’s some white pepper on the nose and some wood, which gains strength and has a vaguely floral component.

The mouthfeel is thin and lightly woody; it becomes more thick after a moment. It’s lightly sweet, vaguely caramel-toned, but dominated by heavy sugar with a sprinkle of white pepper. The finish again has some wood and black cherry. The palate shows some white pepper and some heat, and is slightly vegetal, which is unsurprising.

Like I said: it’s not bad and it has more nuance than one might expect, but it’s still young and unrefined.

And I was content to leave corn whiskey in that spot for the longest time, until this summer I had an opportunity to sample a huge range of Balcones whiskey, courtesy of the distillery. This included the new make, Baby Blue, True Blue, Brimstone, and the TX Single Malt, in addition to some non-whiskey offerings – Rumble and Rumble Cask Reserve. I remember receiving all the whiskey and seeing a whole lot of very light whiskey. I was fairly unimpressed and thought I was in for yet another run of overpriced, underaged, substance-free craft whiskeys.

I’ve gotten away from reading whisky backstories anymore. I feel like they can taint a pure tasting experience or lead to preconceived notions. If I hadn’t read all the information about Glenmorangie Signet, would I have picked up on the darker chocolate and espresso type notes? I’m not sure that I would. Sometimes the stories are impossible to avoid (Jefferson’s Ocean Aged) due to the hype surrounding them, but I enjoy approaching every bottle with little information.

Sometimes, as with many craft whiskeys, it can be hard to understand exactly what’s going on – odd finishes, unusual matter used for smoking/peating the whiskey, etc. Reading about it after having had an initial impression can help bring things into focus for subsequent tastes if there’s confusion.

In this case, the extent of the story I knew ahead of time was “corn whiskey”.

A mental ghetto.

The first whiskey I had was the new make – presented as “Blue Dog”. This is not available as a product on the market currently, but I think it’s an interesting precursor to the rest of the line. I’m obviously not a huge lover of white whiskey, but it can tell us something about the whiskey before it ages.

The nose, unsurprisingly, was a strong new whiskey smell – vegetal sweetness, turbinado sugar, and corn husks. The palate, also unsurprisingly was sweet, with the vegetal sourness resembling damp corn husks on a hot day. The sweetness was strong, but not overpowering. Plenty of heat, but not out of line for a new whiskey.

The finish was warm but dried, with corn, a surprising flash of cinnamon, with a slight doughy/yeasty character that has a floral character – probably their yeast showing thorugh. There’s a nice texture and it resolves to a light, doughy, corn taste.

Honestly, as far as unaged whiskey goes, it’s one of the better ones I’ve had. I think of all the unaged whiskeys I’ve ever had, my favorite still is the High West Oat whiskey, but that’s also at a lower proof and the dilution likely helps smooth the edges. This has a much more dimensional character even new than most I’ve had, and the sweetness is more nuanced as well.

It’s a promising start, to be sure.

The next I tried is available – Baby Blue. Baby Blue, like the unaged “Blue Dog”, is made from blue corn which Balcones claims adds some nutty notes to the whiskey. The whiskey is then aged in “lightly charred” barrels.

The nose on Baby Blue is still young – it’s got more of a sweet corn presence to it, less edgy sugars, faint hints of wood and a little spice, and some slight vegetal tones. After a bit it opens up and shows a little more wood influence.

The palate was a surprise – more wood influence than I expected, with some gentle oak and a touch of cinnamon. There’s some sweet corn on the palate and faint vegetal notes – only slightly sour. There’s plenty of heat on the palate, which carries through to the finish. There’s corn upfront, cinnamon, an almost subliminal dose of cherry. Gentle oak and slight doughiness round out the finish.

I wasn’t expecting much from the nose, but the palate really takes off in an unexpected and pleasant direction. It’s young, but it’s already developing some more depth of flavor. This one exceeded my expectations.

The Baby Blue is also available in a cask strength version, True Blue. The nose on it showed corn sweetness with a touch of caramel and vanilla. It was a little sharp and almost had pine-like notes to it, as well as a low-grade malt-like character to it. It had wood, but not too much, and I noticed a bit of coconut – closer to coconut oil than fresh coconut.

The palate, as expected, starts warm and gains heat. Tons and tons of black pepper dominate initially with some chili oil. It’s a little woody and has a slight barbecue note to it. Sweetness provides a foundation with corn and caramel. Again, I detected a malty character and a touch of A1 steak sauce. (I don’t touch the stuff but I can’t forget the taste).

The finish is hot, black pepper and wood, with chili oil on the lips. It fades quickly and turns to slightly bitter wood.

Being a cask strength whiskey, it’s worth attempting some dilutions. I didn’t find the watering down to be very helpful in most cases; the nose started to seem like a subpar Irish whiskey – musty and piney. The body becomes more sweet with caramel and wood; fine enough but not as enjoyably nuanced. Finally, the finish does improve, but it’s a bit musty.

For me, I found True Blue to be a bit overproofed. It’s an interesting whiskey, but I think it needs time to settle in and let a dominant note emerge – to me it was like a young hyper-peated whiskey that hasn’t quite figured out what it wants to be.

Even with these three, I found some surprises. There was a lot more nuance to the flavor of these than most young whiskeys. I can only assume that cask management is great, and I know they’re starting with a high-quality distillate. The notes that come through on the unaged whiskey, especially in the finish, I think speak to a promising yeast selection as well, avoiding the harsher and almost grainy flavors left by some other yeasts.

Though my impressions had already started to change early in the tasting, there was plenty to go, and everything ahead is even more interesting. I’ll pick up the story of Brimstone, “1″ TX Single Malt, and some other interesting spirits in the next update.

At a glance:

Mellow Corn 50% ABV
Light; corn present as is a general strong sweet presence (similar to but not quite as raw as the more sugary punch of white dog), a light undercurrent of white pepper and some wood which gains strength, vaguely floral. 
Thin mouthfeel, light wood; mouthfeel becomes a little more thick after a moment. Light sweetness, vaguely caramel but heavily sugary. Light white pepper. 
More wood and a touch of black cherry. A little white pepper on the palate and some heat as it goes down. Slightly vegetal.
Not bad; clearly young. More nuance than you might expect.

Balcones “Blue Dog” Unaged Newmake 62.3% ABV 
Unavailable Commercially
Nose:  Newmake. The usual vegetal sweetness you’d expect. Corn, light hint of turbinado sugar; corn husk.
Palate:  Sweet as expected; with the damp corn husk on a hot summer day vegetal sourness. Sweetness is strong but not overpowering. A fair bit of heat but not out of line for new make.
Finish:  Warm but dying down, corn, a touch of cinnamon actually, a bit of slightly doughy/yeasty character for a second which is lightly floral. Leaves a nice texture in the mouth after a minute – a lightly doughy corn taste.
Comment:  As far as white whiskeys go, this is one of the better ones I’ve had (I think I still prefer the High West oat one slightly). It’s a little more dimensional than other distillates and the sweetness has some nuance to it. 

Balcones Baby Blue 46% ABV
Fairly young still – sweet corn; a less edgy sugary presence; faint hints of wood and a little spice; a little vegetal note. Opens to have a little more wood.
Palate:  Surprisingly has more wood influence than the nose suggests. Gentle oak presence and a touch of cinnamon; still a sweet corn note on the palate and a faint vegetal note. Just slightly sour. Plenty of heat still. 
Heat initially with some corn upfront, then some cinnamon and maybe just a touch of cherry for a fleeting second. A little gentle oak, and it has a slight doughiness that can also be found on the new make. 
The nose leads in one direction, but the palate is different (and better). It’s definitely young, but it’s got some developing flavor. Much better than I expected. 

Balcones True Blue 62.9%
Corn sweetness on the nose with a touch of caramel and vanilla. Somewhat sharp and with an almost pine-like note to it. Also a low-grade almost malty character. Wood there but not strong. A bit of coconut? Closer to coconut oil than fresh coconut.  Water makes it smell like a subpar Irish whiskey – musty, with the pine note coming forward and going in the direction of Pine-Sol.
Palate:  Warm initially and gaining heat – tons and tons of black pepper, a little bit of chili oil. A little woody and with a slight barbecue note to it, but lightly so. Sweetness is a foundation here with a bit of corn and a bit of caramel. There’s a slight maltiness to the palate that I get at well. A touch of A1. Water doesn’t do much favor to this. Generally sweet, lightly malty, some caramel and wood with the chili oil peeking up at the back.
Finish:  Hot on exit. Wood with black pepper, chili oil on the lips. Fades quickly and turns to slightly bitter wood. Water helps a bit here but it’s still a bit musty (like the nose was with water).
Comment: Interesting but over proofed. I diluted and it seemed to fall apart. If this were another whisky I’d say it needed more time to kind of settle in and let a dominant note; it reminds me of some of the hyper-peated young whiskies that haven’t quite settled in.
Rating: C+

Strong Fundamentals Are The Basis For Quality – New Holland Whiskeys

Over the last few weeks I’ve devoted a fair amount of time and thought to writing about craft whiskeys, most recently with a step-back look at the recent Lost Spirits discussion. There are times where I feel like I must come across as carrying water for large distilleries, and the fact is, I’m not and I couldn’t care less who makes my whiskey, as long as it’s good.

It occurred to me that what separates the good distillers from the less interesting and successful ones is a command of the fundamentals of their craft. It’s not enough to fill a barrel every week or so and call yourself a “craft distiller” because you’ve got low volume. That just means you’re a small distiller. Totally cool.

Craft, while generally having implications of small scale, also carries with it a connotation of some degree of skill and aptitude with the work being done. In a sense this is kind of another extension of the “master distiller/blender” title in the slightly more honorific sense that marks its use in Scotland. You can say Charbay and Balcones have exhibited a clear focus on the craft of their whiskey making, but you could also easily apply this to Glendronach, Glengoyne, and Balvenie. The whisky is just so incredibly good that clearly care went into it, not just production targets.

The problem I have (and I’m sure others do too) is using it as a self-applied stamp of legitimacy. We’re led to respect those who use artisan and craft methods, but the loose and more euphemistic application of these terms by the market in general have devalued them. It makes it difficult to seek out and find the true artisans, and the people who truly have focused on developing their craft.

This weekend in my practice studio I was cleaning up and setting up mics on my drums again after not having had them set up for a couple months. Through trial and error I’ve learned a method for setting up microphones that results in great sound quality, though the actual act of setting up microphones and the recorded output is almost the point of the least effort.

Most microphone sets targeted at beginners have too many microphones and they encourage a really faulty belief that you need one or more microphones per sound source. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that drums are a stupidly difficult instrument to keep sounding good as you add more microphones. Without getting stuck in the weeds of the science, the basic problem is that the microphones getting sounds at slightly different times can lead to the recorded result sounding really mushy, distant and weak.

If you look at old recordings, say Blue Note photos or Memphis soul sessions, you’ll see only a handful of microphones – and those recordings sounded insanely great. Why? A focus on the fundamentals and everything ahead of time. The room sounds good. The instruments have been tuned and treated so that you can put a really sensitive microphone inches from them and you won’t hear strange buzzes, rattles, rings, or other unwelcome sounds. And most importantly, the person who is playing the instrument understands how the microphones “hear” their instrument (which can mean playing the instrument differently than the “natural” way).

As I set up the mics, I started with a single overhead and found the spot where it had a good coverage. I adjusted the gain and opened up the pickup pattern so that I got a little more open and airy sound. Playing while hearing the output, I was pleased – I could pretty much have usable results with a single microphone. However, I had some specific goals and needed a little more snap on the snare drum, presence and low end on the kick drum, and a better spread. I added the second overhead and tilted it so I had a wide stereo field available. Once I was happy with the results, I added the kick drum. The bass drum had a bit of a floppy sound coming from the front head so I retuned it a bit and adjusted the position a little more. Bam – perfect. Finally, the snare drum. Taking an utterly unglamorous workhorse microphone, I spent about five minutes finding the absolute sweet spot that gave me some body and punch, but also accentuated the snap of the stick hitting the drumhead.

Without having spent time trying to understand how and why each thing worked in the process of learning to use these microphones, I’d just be setting things up willy-nilly and hoping for the best result. Odds are, the result would be an unusable mess with tons of leakage, phase cancellation, and probably very poor tone as a result of inferior placement.

The fundamentals aren’t the fun things to work on. It’s far more fun to have everything set up and start playing… but the fundamentals are, as the name suggests, the building blocks that all flourishes must be built upon. They’re the foundation for everything that follows in terms of learning a craft. I had a teacher remind me many times that if I couldn’t play something slowly, I truly didn’t have command over it (… but playing fast is so much more fun!). Taking the time to stop and pay attention to every little detail that goes into the final product, no matter how slow and unenjoyable the process is the first few hundred times, is what lets you cruise more smoothly through those details in the future with mastery and confidence.

Certainly there’s science and mechanics to be learned in the craft of distillation. However, there are certain things that need to be in place before you can bottle a young whiskey that’s either peated to the Nth degree or finished in some questionable wine cask. As Jason Pyle mentioned on Sour Mash Manifesto, Jim Rutledge – master distiller at Four Roses – is fanatical about the quality of the corn that goes into his bourbon. So what? It’s just corn, you’re just making a distiller’s beer, it can’t be that important, can it? Maybe not, but the fanaticism that surrounds Four Roses (I include myself in this cadre) is because of the quality of the final product, not the image it portrays or its market segment.

It’s been said that one challenge that faces small distillers is the learning curve. Some are likely facing the cold realities of a high burn rate and their business model dictates that they must start seeing ROI as soon as possible. I would argue that ROI doesn’t mean you should barrel or bottle the very first thing you distill.

The point that drove this home for me was in tasting New Holland’s Brewers Whiskeys recently. They are clearly the result of a distiller who is paying attention to quality of the raw material. New Holland, for those who don’t know, is a Michigan craft brewer who has been doing small runs of spirits as well. I had long been dubious about trying them – craft distillers have not been kind to me, and the malt whiskey proudly stated it was aged for six months in oak. Great – that dark color means that we’re dealing with undersized casks and it’s going to be a splintery, bitter, astringent mess.

The nose on the New Holland Malt House malt whiskey confirmed my initial fear – there were light new-make hints under a fairly hefty wood presence. There was a little white pepper and some more raw alcohol notes. Disappointed again.

The palate was initially sweet, with a moderated presence of the more pure white dog sugary sweetness and a more straightforward malt sweetness. After a second I noticed a presence that seemed like a light hoppiness – more oily, dry and earthy than the big floral notes. This was in the background and as textural as it was a taste, but it added some intrigue. Behind that was wood.

The finish led with the hop character and was almost chewy. There was a malty sweetness that almost seemed beery as well as a little wood. For six months, this had a lot going on and considerably more nuance on the palate than most ultra-young, small-barrel craft whiskeys. I could be imagining the hop presence on this one but it seemed to be there, and with the later sweetness, it had a certain beery quality to it that was a little more in check than other whiskeys. Honestly, this presents at least one compelling alternative to bourbon as a style that could become uniquely American – at least given the love here on the west coast for heavily hopped beers. I’d welcome it. The standard-bearers for the style remain the Charbay first and second releases, but this has a pleasing element to it.

The other whisky being tasted was the New Holland Walleye Rye. Younger ryes aren’t at all uncommon with all of the LDI rye being bottled fairly young, and rye seems to carry itself fairly well at a young age, assuming it had some decent aging on it – the floral and spicy characteristics of the rye seem to be able to act almost like a less-intense crutch sort of like peat does in other whiskeys.

The nose was, as expected, young – sharp and piney at first, with some wood and a Pine-Sol like cleaner/solvent note. Not exactly pleasant, but the Malt House didn’t have a great nose either.

The palate led with some bitterness and was fairly oily. There was some more young rye, a little light pepper. It was slightly bready and had a light malty sweetness, as well as a dimensionless and flat wood presence.

The finish had a little white pepper, some of the youthful rye, and a curious presence of the oily hop note that I caught on the Malt House. There was also some light wood. All in all, it wasn’t bad, despite the sharpness of the nose. The finish was pretty enjoyable in fact.

What intrigues me about both of these whiskies is that there’s clearly some work here to develop a profile. I haven’t had more of New Holland’s whiskey, but this is more than the usual questionable white dog that’s overoaked at a young age and reeking of vegetal notes. While this is clearly young and the product of small barrels, the oily hop character really speaks to some deliberate efforts in the distilling process. In fact, this is one of the more interesting craft efforts I’ve seen in a while. While it’s not quite ready for the mass market, I think more adventurous palates will find this to their liking. Certainly these didn’t merit a bottle dump or an uneasy use in hot toddies or other mixed drinks to try and kill their flavor.

I’ve said this for other craft whiskies, but in this case I’m actively searching for their next effort. This stuff doesn’t really make it out to California and it’s a shame, because it’s definitely better than a lot of the craft offerings on the shelf right now.

At a Glance:

New Holland Malt House Brewer’s Whiskey (6mo), Batch 1 45% ABV
Nose:  Light new-makey hints under a pretty hefty wood presence. A bit thin. A little white pepper and some raw alcohol notes.
Palate:  Sweet upfront, kind of a mix between a pure white dog sugary sweetness and a bit of a more developed malty flavor. There’s a light hoppiness to this as well – kind of the oily, dry earthy hop character. (In light measure.) Some wood underlies it.
Finish:  The hop character continues and has a little chewiness to it. Some malty, almost beery sweetness. A little wood.
Comment:  It’s only been aged 6 months and the nose could use some work, but I actually kind of enjoy this. The hop influence is so subtle I could be imagining it but it’s got a distinctly beery heritage to my tastebuds.
Rating: B-

New Holland Walleye Rye Brewer’s Whiskey Batch 1, 45% ABV
Young rye, fairly sharp and piney at first. A bit of wood and a little cleaner (like pine sol)
A bit bitter initially, fairly oily. A little youthful rye presence, a little light pepper. Slightly bready, and a lightly malty sweetness. A little flat-tasting wood presence. 
A little white pepper, some of the youthful rye, a bit of the sort of oily hop-like presence found in the Malt House. Some light wood. 
The whisky’s not bad; the nose is a bit sharp. The finish is fairly enjoyable. 

For the recording nerds: 2x AKG 414 B-XLS stereo pair in XY configuration; Shure Beta 52 on kick; old faithful Shure SM57 on snare.

Failure MUST Be An Option: Lost Spirits’ Leviathan & Seascape

Once again, I find myself commenting on the ins and outs of the recent goings-on in the whiskey blog universe despite my desire not to. Fortunately, it’s again a springboard for a larger thought.

In the last few weeks, reviews of two new craft whiskeys from Lost Spirits have trickled in. The whiskeys are highly peated whiskeys distilled in a unique still – instead of going over it myself, I’ll let K&L’s David Driscoll (and Lost Spirits themselves) tell the story of the production of these whiskeys.

The reviews that I saw began with Sku’s Recent Eats, which summed them up as being young and more like a smoky mezcal than a peated single malt (the obvious reference points on a review such as this). Josh over at The Coopered Tot reviewed Leviathan and also commented on its relative youth. 

This is familiar territory and one which is common in the American craft distillery scene. Things are getting better, for sure, but for every promising whiskey, there are several too-young or otherwise flawed whiskies out there.

What made Lost Spirits’ story a little more interesting was the response posted on Recent Eats from Lost Spirits as well as reader response to that. Bryan of Lost Spirits took umbrage at the assertion that the whiskey was “too young”, and launched a fairly impassioned defense of his product. I think it’s an understandable response for someone who feels strongly about something they’ve put time and money into producing. I have no intent to jump on the dogpile; they’ve taken their lumps and likely wish that particular incident would disappear.

If You Only Care About The Booze, Skip Ahead

One of my tendencies I have to work to hold in check is a perfectionist streak. While it’s something that can be an asset, in the long term (especially in high-stress situations) it can damage your ability to function either in the capacity which engages the perfectionism, or in the rest of your life.

I’ve worked on and off in the technology startup world, and it’s very fast and free-wheeling, which can be a lot of fun. However, the startups tends to attract other highly-motivated, type-A perfectionists. Add to this cocktail a liberal dose of bravado and garnish with workaholic tendencies, and you have a recipe for burnout and disaster.

Startup engineers like to imagine that the social playlist sharing service they’re building or the mobile check-in application they’re updating are on par with the Apollo program in difficulty and importance. I myself referred to some projects as “moon shots” in the past. It’s completely ridiculous. I have no idea how in the hell you would actually put a man on the moon in real-world practical terms.

Eventually, as with virtually any business project ever conceived and executed, the project runs into snags, is behind time and over budget, and an executive or manager walks in and launches into their best faux-motivational (fauxtivational?) brow-beating crunch-time speech and most likely includes the line “failure is not an option”. Because, as we all know from Apollo 13, the next step after failure is death. If people don’t get their playlist sharing, they, too, will inevitably die.

Indeed, failure is viewed as one of the most unforgivable sins as opposed to a learning opportunity. This has been something I’ve wrestled with for ages personally. There are some movements in the startup world to adopt saner, real-world production techniques like Lean Production (repackaged brilliantly by Eric Ries as the Lean Startup) which teach us that failure, unintended consequences, setbacks, and so on, are a valid and expected result of experimentation and learning. They seek to improve things by constantly learning and improving, which seems to indicate that the largest automaker in the world knows that you will come up short and it’s nothing to freak out about.

It’s a difficult thing to trust that even if our efforts fail, things will be alright. If you place a huge bet on something that could drastically alter your outcome, you are placed in what may feel like a fight for your life. People don’t work well in prolonged struggles for survival. It’s not a stable state for any extended amount of time.

Much saner, then, to not make a series of feast-or-famine bets and test critical assumptions early on with low risk. In the startup world, this is finding your critical business assumption and trying to test it in a bootstrapped manner without having the burden of several hundred thousand (or even millions) of venture capital dollars riding on the outcome of your gut feel, intuition and maybe a hunch.

This model further says that if you fail, you do so in a way that you can learn from and you refine your approach the next time. It builds in failure explicitly as part of the learning process, as it is for every other endeavor in the real world. Failure is healthy. Failure is necessary.

I’m reminded of my son learning to walk, which he’s taken to quite well. Now he has decided that walking is pretty much the best way to get around, and crawling is a last resort. Not so even a month ago. The difference? Lots and lots of little experiments, lots and lots of trial and error, lots of failures. To this day, he still regularly misjudges his balance and lands on his butt. And then he fearlessly picks himself up and tries it again.

Back to “Failure is not an option.” I wondered about this phrase. Those five words are so cinema-ready. Were they really uttered at NASA in 1970?

According to Jerry Bostick, the flight dynamics officer at NASA on Apollo 13, those five words were not said. The actual way it went down, according to Bostick:

“… when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”

According to the linked page, writers for the film were interviewing Bostick and in the car after their meeting, they said in the car: “That’s it! That’s the tag line for the whole movie, Failure is not an option. Now we just have to figure out who to have say it.”

An entire type-A culture uses as its cultural touchstone (and assumes as valid management advice) the words of a screenwriter (no offense to those screenwriters reading). That makes as much sense as basing our financial sector’s motivation on the words of an imaginary corporate raider from a movie. Oh well… I guess we all love a good line.

It’s important to understand Bostick’s meaning. Yes, “failure is not an option” makes for excellent cinema. However, replace the word “option” with “outcome” and you have a much truer reading of what Bostick was saying:

“… when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the [outcomes], and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.

I’ve added emphasis as well to underscore the real point: they never gave up. That’s the real takeaway point. You never plan to fail, but you accept that you may have failures and setbacks along the way. The advantage we have is our ingenuity and ability to adapt, overcome and improvise in the face of failures.

Another thought regarding failure from Brian Eno:

What would be really interesting for people to see is how beautiful things grow out of shit… Nobody ever believes [that it happens that way]. Everybody thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head, that it somehow appeared there and formed in his head, and all he had to do was write them down… and what would really be a lesson that everybody should learn is that… things come out of nothing.  Things evolve out of nothing.  You know, the tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest, and then, the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing.
And… I think this would be important for people to understand because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that that’s how things work.
If you walk around with the idea that there are some people who are so gifted, that they have these wonderful things in their head, but you’re not one of them, you’re just sort of… a “normal” person, that you could never do anything like that, then… you live a different kind of life, you know?
You could have another kind of life where you can say, “Well, I know that things come from nothing very much and start from unpromising beginnings, and… I’m an unpromising beginning and I could start something.”

This longer quote necessarily presumes that one must accept failure. In fact, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies includes one aphorism that says “Emphasize the flaws” – which presupposes the existence of failure as a part of a larger, hopefully more successful end. If things had to evolve, if things are not pre-existing in their final state, then there must have been a period of creation in which things were experimented worth, found to be in need of improvement, and improved upon.

It’s easy to assume that a healthier, more sanguine attitude about failure is simply laziness or a willing to settle. After all, some may argue, if you really cared about the outcome, you’d make sure things worked. However, if I’ve learned anything in my days, it’s that forcing an outcome leads to a brittle solution that will begin eroding in stability from day one. Furthermore, forcing an outcome offers little room for serendipity – and sometimes those serendipitous outcomes can be life-altering (if not life-saving).

The whole concept of embracing failure is one in which you realize that failures may lead you to a bigger, better outcome (or may teach you the unpleasant lesson that your intuition was just wrong). Maintaining this flexibility necessarily means that you’re able to adapt when the world shows you that your plan was not right. Take heed from Eno – a master if there was one – great ideas weren’t born fully formed and launched into the world. They’re the product of hard work, setbacks and adaptation.

You can take these setbacks and try and force a positive outcome from the negative, or you can revise and learn from them. It’s not aiming to fail, it’s being able to understand the positive role of failure and how it can lead us to better ends.

Pour yourself a drink. If you’ve been scrolling for this point and didn’t want to read everything else, top yourself off: back to whiskey.

Failure is a great teacher in the whiskey world. Buffalo Trace continues to launch all kinds of crazy experiments in its Experimental Collection and has even has noted its own failures (and even has a label online proving it!) while finding other interesting whiskeys in the collection. Under the guise of Single Oak, they’ll presumably release over 190 whiskeys that will not pass muster with consumers to be bottled. Even setbacks have proven to be opportunities disguised as disaster and failure – Glenfiddich and (of course) Buffalo Trace readily capitalized on their warehouse disasters to produce some interesting whisky. As to the role of serendipity – Ardbeg had a whole release around one of those oops moments.

Having worked in small, entrepreneurial environments and hoping to return to them again soon, I absolutely understand the stress that new distilleries are under. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have the padding in your funds and business model like the Daftmill distillery who continues to let their whisky mature over time, waiting for it to be ready, you have to compromise somehow. Kilchoman took lumps early on for releasing three-year-old whisky in the $70-a-bottle price tier. Fortunately in the last few years, Kilchoman has proven that they had the quality to back it up. Bruichladdich experimented with exotic cask finishes and released tons of whisky – some good, some not so good – to enable them to make it to their astounding sale to Remy. Along the way they were maligned for questionable whiskies and a completely confusing product matrix. It’s unsurprising to see now that they’re greatly contracting their lineup to a focused, understandable few.

In the US, there are less clear success stories yet. High West has defrayed some of the risk of a new distillery by taking the time-honored path of bottling sourced bourbons and ryes but creating something new and interesting in the process. Meanwhile, they have their own distillates which one presumes are gaining age. Fortunately for them, they’ve got a gifted blender with David Perkins and their results have been unusual but interesting and undeniably unique creations.

Balcones, who will get their due coverage soon, has decided to take corn whiskey (traditionally young, harsh stuff) in new and interesting directions. I never thought I’d care for an American whiskey so young, and yet the appeal of Brimstone especially is undeniable.

Finally, we have the path taken by distillers like Lost Spirits – the toughest of all roads to travel: no sourcing, and a whisky (single malt, barley only) traditionally preferred at an older age – three years minimum. This is a tough, tough sell.

At this point, the most reasonable thing to do is to try these two whiskeys and see how they stack up. Starting with the less-peated one, Seascape.

Seascape starts with strong vegetal notes upfront. It’s not quite as overtly evocative of corn husks on a hot summer’s day like many bourbons, but it’s a little more sour and green than the small amount of new make spirit I’ve had from Scotland. This quickly gives way to the peat, which is a more rubbery expression – reminds me of the children’s pack of fifty balloons, to be honest. Very rubbery. There’s a little prickle on the nose and some faint sweetness, but the nose is all about the rubber and the youthful, slightly damp vegetal notes.

The palate has plenty of upfront heat, a slight bit of sourness, but then the rubbery peat dominates. Heat builds up after a few seconds, but it’s uniquely expressed as Sichuan peppercorn. The palate is just dominated by the rubber notes with some light sweetness, and a nice, oily mouthfeel.

The finish is rubbery again with a touch of smoke, and a delightful slight show of more earthy peatiness. The heat continues from the palate, but subsides quickly, and instead of the slight mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn, it’s more of a chili oil coating heat. Again, faint vegetal notes come through.

Rubbery expressions of peat can be tough for me as they tend to feel artificial and chemical. I’ve had this problem with other whiskies (Caol Ila can go here as often as not) and it just doesn’t work. I tend to prefer either a more earthy peat or an industrial, tarry note. This whisky is unquestionably young and would greatly benefit from more time in wood to develop some complexity and integrate the flavors more, but it’s not bad. I’ll be interested to see where this one goes.

Leviathan, a highly-peated (110ppm) whiskey is obviously wanting to be held in similar company as Bruichladdich’s Octomore and Ardbeg’s Supernova. It may fare well; those high phenol concentrations can result in highly drinkable whisky – especially in the case of the wine-finished Octomores – at a relatively young age.

The nose on Leviathan is initially strong, with vegetal and slightly sour notes. It really kind of smacked me in the face right out of the gate. There’s a vaguely rubbery peat which comes in, and some malty sweetness – more sharp like a diastatic malt powder. It’s almost faintly piney, a surprising note for me which usually I associate with rye. After a while it settles and there’s more smoke on the nose, but the sweetness picks up and I just kept wanting to write that it was like a “sugary campfire”, whatever the heck that would mean.

The palate – hot and sweet! There’s chili oil, malty sweetness, cayenne and white pepper, and – yes – rubber again. There’s also light hints of powdered sugar. While it sounds simple, the interplay is pretty fun.

The finish is peppery, which is unsurprising after the palate. The balloon-like rubber notes continue; there’s a faintly vegetal quality underpinning it all, but it’s extremely mild, much less than on Seascape. There’s light chili oil and a moderate, lasting heat.

For my money, Leviathan is the better of the two. This doesn’t surprise me; the high peating level seems to hide sins but also gives the whisky its own personality. I’m surprised at how the maltiness came through on this one but not on the Seascape. Leviathan is a hot and young whisky, and it’s got that rubbery note I can find troublesome, but it’s not bad at all.

The truth be told, I think Lost Spirits overreacted to Sku’s review. I think the expectation when looking at a scale like the one LAWS uses especially is that the grades are going to cluster around A-/B+, which just isn’t the case. LAWS grades exceptionally hard and A-level whiskies are the ones that come around a couple times a year and generally make you want to reschedule your calls. More of LAWS clusters around B-/C+ – the difference between worth a try and drinkable though not necessarily worth seeking out. There are tons of decent whiskeys that I can drink in the C+ range; they’re just not ones I tend to want to spend a lot of time on. For me, Lost Spirits drops right in this cluster. I think Leviathan is on the cusp of being a B- (worth a try) whiskey; Seascape just doesn’t quite have it going on for me and just needs more time in wood.

I think these are both much better than I’d expected them to be given the recent uproar.

The challenge that craft distillers need to be cognizant of beyond the challenge of just making a good whisky is that you need time and room to stumble and recover. Rarely are first efforts home runs unless there is a lot of domain-specific knowledge and experience, which comes at a very dear cost. Sometimes, as I think this is the case, the technical skills are adequate (though the product is not quite ready yet), and the harder “soft skills” of running a business – dealing with negative reviews and those pesky bloggers – are the ones that need to be used and refined.

As I said, it’s a very tough road for a company like Lost Spirits who have decided to to model their business on the equivalent level of difficulty as a climb of Everest without a guide. Single malt whiskey has a very distinct set of expectations, even peaty young ones. Given that the American offerings to date have been questionable, there is not really as of yet anything that provides a compelling “other” option for the style when compared to the expectation of 3 years in wood. This means that stumbles – be they in the softer skills of people and public relations – or in the harder sciences of distillation and cask management, are inevitable. Indeed, failure must be an option in the business plan of a small, emerging distillery. The question for those distillers is, how do you handle a setback?

I hope they don’t give up.

At a Glance:

Lost Spirits Seascape 53% ABV
Strong vegetal notes upfront initially. This gives way to the peat which starts to smell like the variety pack of children’s balloons, very rubbery. A little prickle and some faint sweetness but this is dominated by rubber and a youthful damp vegetal smell. 
Plenty of heat upfront, a slight bit of sourness but the rubbery peat notes take over. Lots of heat after a few seconds, kind of a sichuan peppercorn type heat. The mouth is dominated by the rubber notes. Slightly oily and a touch of sweetness. 
Rubber with a touch of smoke on the end, ever so slightly earthy. The heat continues but subsides quickly, and has more of a chili oil presence. Faintly vegetal notes. 
Peat that goes more rubbery is a tough one for me because it tends to feel artificial and chemical. I’ve had this problem with other whiskies. It’s definitely young and would benefit from some more time in wood to develop some complexity but it’s not bad. I’ll be interested to see where this one goes.

Lost Spirits Leviathan (Cask 2) 53% ABV
  Initially strong with vegetal and slightly sour notes. A vaguely rubbery peat comes in after; some malty sweetness – like diastatic malt. Almost faintly piney. Like a sugary campfire…
Palate:  Hot! Sweet! Chili oil, malty sweetness. Cayenne pepper, white pepper, and – yes – rubber. Hints of powdered sugar.
Finish:  Peppery. The balloon-like rubber notes continue. Faintly vegetal, but very faint. Light chili oil, moderate heat that lasts.
Comment:  This is better than Seascape. Despite the higher peat, I get more nuance. It’s hot & young and has that rubbery note but it’s not bad.
Rating:  C+ (almost, but not quite a B-)

High West Campfire Whiskey

I started Scotch & Ice Cream last year, roughly around the time I started showing up at LAWS meetings. It really was not designed to be anything other than a regular writing exercise and a way to share some of my tasting notes with my friends. The fact that it’s found any audience at all has been a pleasant surprise. If that audience vanished, though, I’d still be writing this for myself and a handful of people I know in person.

One of the weird things about being part of the teeming horde of whisky bloggers is that people have an almost irresistible urge to put you into the appropriate boxes. “Primarily American”; “Scotch”; “That guy who does the Canadian whiskeys” and so on. There’s also this back-and-forth about your supposed integrity, largely based on if you’ve received any free samples from distillers or people on their behalf. It seems it’s a Norquist-like purity test designed to sort whisky bloggers in general.

Well, count me as a horrible sell-out officially with this review, but not in the way you might think. I’m not about to start writing conciliatory, florid puff pieces or regurgitating press releases, highlighting the whisky du jour as probably the greatest thing ever. Nope, S&I will stay firmly in the realm of marginally introspective self-indulgent writings that frame a discussion of a whisky, with strained setups to questionable jokes and general jackassery.

Last year, I met David Perkins of High West at a LAWS tasting. Before continuing, I must say that you should take the opportunity to attend any tasting he ever conducts. It was fascinating and loaded with tons of information, which unfortunately didn’t stick because the tasting was also loaded with TONS of samples. Sixteen to eighteen samples, if memory serves (and I’m not sure it does).

In my brazen and certainly inebriated state I started talking with David at that meeting and picking his brain about various whiskeys. I shot him a few samples (including some Woodfords I was only too glad to part with which apparently agreed more with his palate) and have stayed in semi-regular correspondence with him.

Earlier this year he hinted that he was working on Campfire Whiskey, which was going to be American whiskey with a peated Scotch component – either other whiskey or whiskey barrels. Little details would come up every so often as he hunted for the right ingredients (and even the final choices are not known to me). It was a new-to-me opportunity to see things develop over the course of several months and was very interesting.

In April I received a trio of small bottles, labeled “Campfire A”, “Campfire B”, and “Campfire C” – the contenders to wear the Campfire Whiskey label. These samples put the component rye, bourbon and Scotch whiskeys in different proportions, all at 100 proof. All that was sought was my opinion and answers to a few questions. A few of my friends also were included in the roundup.

It was an interesting to see the experiment coming closer. I have to admit though, even the best of the samples seemed like it might be too strange for those but the more adventurous drinkers. The peated component was considerable on some, manifesting as a big smoky blast on some, and an earthy, organic kick elsewhere, and even a medicinal tang in one case (thus knocking down my attempts to guess the source). Even the more heavily peated sample had a distinct kick of rye. It seemed that it might appeal only to the most open-minded of whiskey drinkers who jumped between sweet bourbons, spicy ryes and Scotch of all varieties. I had my preference and noted it to David (sample “A” for what it’s worth, though I preferred it with a little water which seemed to get things in check).

A short while later, David emailed us to tell us about what he ended up doing – Sample A, more or less, and at 92 proof. Apparently he also mentioned a bottle was coming our way, but I missed that entirely. So, when a bottle of Campfire Whiskey showed up, direct from Park City, I was completely surprised.

I even had reservations about blogging this one, not wanting to give the appearance that I was of questionable fairness. However, I feel like I’ve been forthcoming: I consider David to be a friend, and yes, this whisky was provided to me after trying some prerelease samples.

Enough hemming and hawing. Let’s get down to it – Campfire is supposed to be one for the cowboys, and I haven’t seen any good westerns where Eastwood has a soliloquy worrying about how his intentions might be perceived.

The nose on Campfire threw me initially – it’s sweet with corn, toffee and maple upfront. Rye first shows up with a lightly floral presence initially. Then there’s a nice but not overwhelming dose of smoke. There’s a slightly organic character to it that is also woody – honestly, yes, with the name, it does evoke a campfire. Traces of black cherry, a note I get off a lot of High West whiskey, is there as well.

The palate brings some heat and has some nice weight in the mouth, but doesn’t feel overly viscous or oily. It’s slightly earthy at first, which gives way to corn and maple syrup, with cinnamon and black pepper for heat. Light earthiness and faint wood continues, and there’s a little black cherry and vanilla at the edges of the palate, with some smoke on the roof of the mouth.

The whiskey finishes nicely – a sweet start with caramel and a lingering black cherry and vanilla creaminess. There’s a nice dose of smoke as you exhale, which is also slightly organic and earthy.

The name might suggest a smoke bomb, but it’s not. It’s got enough smoke to add an unexpected dimension, but it doesn’t really scream “Peated scotch” to me. You could have told me something was smoked in a finishing process and I’d probably believe you. It’s a great mix of sweet and smoky, but enough rye in the mix to add more dimension and keep it interesting.

Black cherry is a note I get on a lot of High West stuff as I mentioned earlier, and it’s one that I catch here. It’s a note that I’m a sucker for as you might have determined from prior entries. The peating I’m sure is a red flag for some guys, but it really doesn’t come across as that band-aidy or bicycle inner tube note that may scare them off. Honestly, I kind of think of Campfire as Bourye’s well-traveled cousin. It’s got a lot in common with it, and to my palate at least, this is dominated by the bourbon notes with rye and peat adding dimension.

David’s serving suggestion is with a s’more. I don’t feel like that’s right for me right now as the LA summer rolls around, but no worry: I will have more bottles on hand to test that suggestion in the future, though.

At a glance:

High West Campfire Whiskey (Batch 1) 46% ABV
Nice sweetness on the nose, very smooth corn notes, mellow toffee, a touch of maple syrup. Light rye floral notes and a nice but not overwhelming dose of smoke. Slightly organic with a wooden tone to it. Traces of black cherry. 
Warming initially, with some weight to the mouthfeel but not oily. Slightly earthy early, then showing a nice corn and maple syrup presence, a bit of cinnamon and black pepper to heat things up. Lightly earthy notes continue, a faint trace of wood at moments, and a bit of black cherry and vanilla. There’s a bit of smoke on the roof of the mouth.
Sweet with caramel and some lingering black cherry and vanilla creaminess. A nice dose of smoke on the exhale, slightly organic and earthy. 
The name might suggest a smoke bomb, but it’s not. It’s got enough to add a very unexpected dimension, but it’s not immediately identifiable as peated scotch, and I think it works to the favor of this. It’s a nice mix of sweet and smoky, but with enough rye in the mix to keep it interesting. 

Two Cleverly Named Bourbons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABV varies by category.

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

Update 5-4-2012

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

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

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

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

At a glance:

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

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

Collabo-Review #2: Wild Turkey Rye 101

After our horrendous run-in with Rebel Yell, which was memorably bad, Jason, Sku and I decided we’d do another group review. At the time, we kicked around a few options and Wild Turkey Rye was one on the list. Little did we know what would come to pass in just a few weeks.

As of the time of this review, the status of Wild Turkey Rye, 101 proof, is somewhat murky. A few weeks ago, rumors circulated that it was being discontinued in favor of an 81 proof version. At the time, Campari (the owners of Wild Turkey) said point blank that 101 was discontinued and 81 was the way forward. That was all that was needed for rye whiskey fans to take note and start stocking up like crazy. Unfortunately, the 101 was already somewhat scarce on shelves. Chuck Cowdery then posted an article saying the reality was that stocks of 101 would be scarce through 2012 but in 2013 and 2014, you’d see 81 and 101 coexisting on shelves much like the bourbons are at this point.

Others have speculated that this is a sign the 101 will return with a new price point or as a special edition. Whatever the case, this is look at a whiskey that is currently hard to find and of questionable availability going forward for the next few years. I’m sure Jason and Sku have much more in-depth knowledge of the subject from the business standpoint.

Unlike the “what the hell” approach we took with the first collaborative review, choosing Rebel Yell as a half-dare, half-joke, Wild Turkey Rye is a much more serious choice. No one’s seriously eyeing that Rebel Yell when they’ve got a jones for a good bourbon… but Wild Turkey has released some good whiskeys in the past. However, making good bourbon is one thing… what about a good rye? By all accounts it’s a much harder grain to work with. Not everyone gets a rye whiskey right – the Woodford releases were far off the mark. (As I keep saying, more on Woodford soon…) Beyond that, if you’re not producing your own rye, you’re likely to be bottling LDI rye – which is great, but who needs yet another LDI product when the market has some stellar examples of LDI rye already? It seems like a tough category to work in – and yet demand is increasing ahead of supply.

The nose on Wild Turkey’s rye is nice – it’s clean up front and has a big floral rye presence. However, it’s got some body to it. When you dig in, you get some pepper and a slightly piney note. The body is anchored and weighty – it’s a mix of cinnamon and a bready grain presence. Honestly, it seemed a lot like cinnamon toast to me. There’s cherry and butterscotch hanging around the edges of the nose as well. Left to develop, it will lose the more sharp rye notes and settles in on wood, pepper and a little leathery presence as well. Water focuses the nose even tighter on the pepper notes and it’s massive black pepper with a little bit of wood.

The body is not unsurprisingly light at first entrance. It’s slightly bitter and thin initially but really quickly opens up, becoming sweet with maple syrup, honey, and nutty toffee notes. The body gains a bit of sweet, syrupy weight pretty quickly. It’s got some real heat to it but isn’t overbearing – cinnamon, black pepper and a hint of cayenne. The fruit from the nose is there as well; cherries sort of frame the top notes and there’s a bit of orange zest too. There’s some woody bitterness and some black tea tannins that start to develop though. Adding a splash of water unfortunately causes it to lose some of the dimension and it is kind of a poor mix of rye sharpness and muddled sweetness.

The finish is led by those tannins; they’re very up-front and dominant with the black tea note giving way to a more straightforward woody cask note. Things dry pretty constantly and you get a celery root note. It also has some bready body to it – really, this is a substantial finish – but it’s not as tied to the cinnamon as before. That’s not to say there’s no heat… it’s got plenty, but it’s not overpowering. There’s a surprisingly strong straight rye note in the finish. Overall, this finish lasts and lasts…

For a mass market rye, this one is pretty surprising. I don’t think it holds up to Rittenhouse 100, but it’s pretty well balanced and fairly reasonably priced. It’s a bit more bitter than I’d like, but it’s got a lot working for it. The nose and body have a lot more weight and presence than I’d expected. It’s got nuance and some interesting notes that work well together. Really, this is a pretty good deal for the money.

Unfortunately, as I said earlier, this good deal is in increasingly short supply. If you see a bottle on the shelves, you should definitely give it a try. If you’re new to rye whiskey it’s a good starting point and will be about as difficult to find currently as Baby Saz or Rittenhouse (at least in Southern California). You can find Masterson’s and Whistle Pig reasonably easy on the shelves but that’s a serious cash outlay. IF you find the Wild Turkey 101, I think it’s worth it. I can’t say what the 81 proof version has in store or how it will stack up. My dilutions didn’t leave me hopeful, but it’s possible Wild Turkey has some tricks up their sleeve.

Read the review at Sku’s Recent Eats

Read the review at Sour Mash Manifesto

At a glance:

Wild Turkey Rye 101 – 50.5% ABV
Clean nose with plenty of floral rye up front – a little pepper when you dig in and some slightly piney notes. Very faint cherry note with a little butterscotch far off in the distance. A little grainy, bready presence and some cinnamon – definitely has a cinnamon toast body. The nose settles down and reveals a little more wood and peppery presence after a while, with some leathery tones to it as well.  
Light body. Slightly bitter initially and a thin palate but it opens up quite fast – a little more sweetness present with some light maple syrup, some honey, some nutty toffee notes. Cherries hang out at the far edges of the palate and there’s a definite hint of orange zest; heat is there and fairly notable – cinnamon, maybe a bit of cayenne, and some regular black pepper. Slight bitterness to the wood; a bit of black tea tannins. With water it softens the bitterness a bit and gets sweeter, but loses what makes it interesting. 
Warm but not overbearing. The tannins from the body hang around in a  big way; there’s wood from the cask and a slightly dry celery root note. It again has a bit of that bready body but not as intensely tied with the cinnamon as before. Rye is quite present on the finish as well. 
For a mass-market rye, this is not a bad one at all – and available at a pretty reasonable price. It leans just a bit more bitter than I like but that said it’s still a solid whiskey.