Category Archives: Rye

Whither Canada?

It’s no secret that Canadian offerings have been relatively underrepresented at Scotch & Ice Cream, with the bulk in a three-way comparison between Jefferson’s, Masterson’s, & WhistlePig. (You know, those “American” brands. Made in Canada.) The truth is, I haven’t had much interest, since as we know, most liquor stores have Canadian Whiskey in an uncomfortable ghetto near the collected industrial output of DeKuyper. Hey – if that’s your thing, I’m not gonna call you out for your love of 4 proof melon ball shots.

Several weeks back I had a phone call with Clay Risen and we were discussing the Canadian whiskey scene in America. To be honest, I didn’t feel like there was much to talk about – it’s the same story over and over: Great if you wanna be a quasi-baller and roll big with your Crown Royal (sorry, if it’s maple finished, I’m going to have to cut you), or do some kind of weird midcentury DDB/Leo Burnett sendup with Canadian Club. But for whisky enthusiasts, it’s been kind of bleak. Crown Royal offered their XR releases, some overpriced old rye trying to trade on the closed-distillery cachet that was more Brutini than Berluti. They weren’t bad… they just were middle of the road and certainly not worth the money.  Clay covered a lot of that ground in his recent piece on Canadian whiskey.

I was interested when I heard Lot 40 was coming to the US and had finally touched down in California. Lot 40 was on a short list of things that had my interest, so the opportunity to grab it was a welcome one. I went to the store, strolled over to the Canadian section, confidently made my way over to the Canadian section, ignoring the bargain-basement schnapps just over my shoulder, and scanned. And scanned. And scanned. Wait. It’s not here.

I looked in the case. It’s a premium whiskey, surely it’ll be alongside such amazing whiskies as Crown Royal Maple, Crown Royal Black, and Crown Royal Tarragon, Chive and Onion finish. Nope. I stepped back, less confident, and re-approached the shelf as if for the first time, and scanned looking for it. It wasn’t there! I figured the online inventory could be wrong, even though that was lame.

I rounded the corner and browsed bourbon for any interesting entries, while trying to hold back my urge to vomit at the sight of Jacob’s Ghost. Predictably, the bourbon shelf wasn’t stocking much of interest, and the case was the usual set of stuff. Until: Lot 40. In the bourbon case. Right next to WhistlePig.

This is a problem and will be a problem for Canadian whiskey in the US. This felt like one of those “separated by a common tongue” moments, even more so than the tendency to say “zed” or add the letter u to “color”. I’m not sure if the problem lies with the retailer, the distributor, or the industry in a larger sense. There’s almost a chicken and egg problem here.

Customers have not been presented with a really fantastic Canadian offering to date. Honestly, I look at whiskies like Lot 40, WhistlePig, and Masterson’s as incredible value whiskeys that don’t make much in the way of compromises. WhistlePig and Masterson’s try to obfuscate their origin and hang out in the American section, pretending they’re more or less the same as a Rittenhouse or a Sazerac. They’re not, but it’s great. They’re worlds ahead of most of the really sad LDI rye offerings, but by quietly adding the “Product of Canada” piece in the most hidden position imaginable, they undercut the quality of their source.

Retailers obviously have a bias to put things where they sell, and the Canadian whiskey section has not customarily been the spot where amazing whiskeys dwell — on shelves in the US at least. That probably explains the unbelievably odd decision to put Lot 40 next to a bunch of bourbons. Yes, it goes to to toe with a fair amount of them, but it’s different…. and that’s OK (Which consumers need to get comfortable with).

Finally, the question at the larger industry level: why keep apologizing for and obfuscating the source of a new crop of really fantastic whiskeys? Lot 40 is great in this regard, it declares itself to be a Canadian Rye Whiskey. No apologies. WhistlePig, Masterson’s and Jefferson’s would prefer to be lumped with the whiskeys produced south of the border. Perhaps they have longer-term plans to eventually be produced here (I know WhistlePig has made allusions to this), but if not, why bother?

Canadian whiskey is largely an inexpensive offering in the US, which makes it attractive against a backdrop of ever-more-expensive whiskeys from everywhere else. Part of this no doubt is due to an ocean of bad whiskey on the shelves: if all the rest of the world got from the US was Early Times and Ten High, perhaps perception would differ there, too. I’d imagine Canada is not immune to the industry-wide pressure on stocks. There’s an opportunity here though to land at 45-65 bucks a bottle with a good offering and absolutely own the “Premium Canadian Whisky” label among enthusiasts in the US. I’m always on the lookout for a better value, especially given the rising prices and outpaced quality of Scotch or the ever-younger bourbons. It’s different, and it’s staking out a new strategy, but that’s where you have the opportunity to make a land grab (which is far more rewarding, potentially, than being the eighth whisky from Scotland to “pursue a premium strategy” with dull, conservative presentation in margin-driving boxes and bottles).

This all leads to the whisky. I’ve tipped my hand that I think it’s better than the swill on most shelves in southern California. Let’s examine it.

The nose has an expected mix of spice – cinnamon and coriander; there’s some dry rye notes and a bit of cider that’s kind of lurking in the background. It’s not far off the mark of a WhistlePig but distinct nonetheless.

The palate is a little bitter at first; an odd mix of wood and an aggressive rye punch. It’s more oily and bitter rye than it is floral, but it works. There’s black pepper, cinnamon, and more of an oily quality overall. It finishes with an unexpected quick hint of savory sweetness – a hot, fresh doughnut with powdered sugar – which fades and lead to slightly bitter rye and a really pleasing sichuan peppercorn tingle in the lips and tongue.

I think the single biggest surprise to me with this is how big it is overall given the 43% strength. When I saw the strength, I initially sighed to myself and said, “another thin Canadian whisky”. Only after considering it later did I realize this really big, bold whisky that packed a punch was a lightweight in ABV. Fantastic stuff: It’s great to have a drink that’s not going to put you on your ass in the first three sips. This is no doubt in large part due to the pot still distillation, which lends an oily quality – sort of like the pot still Irish entries.

This one was a little less sweet than Masterson’s and more focused on an oily bitterness that is great and adds complexity. For my money, I prefer the dessert-in-a-glass profile of Masterson’s and (to a lesser extent) WhistlePig, but this is a worthy contender.

Let’s hope we see more of this on the shelves in the future, and more like it.

Canadian distillers, we’re waiting.

Lot 40 Canadian Rye (2012) – 43% ABV
Nose: 
Nice mix of spice – some cinnamon, a hint of coriander, a little rye dryness, even a touch of cider sweetness beneath it.
Palate:  A little bitter at first; some wood and then a pretty full-on rye profile, more oily and faintly bitter than having the floral tones rye can have. Some black pepper, a touch of cinnamon again. Slightly oily.
Finish:  A bit of sweetness not unlike powdered sugar on a freshly made donut, but it vanishes quickly, leaving a slightly bitter rye profile, some sichuan peppercorn tingle on the lips and tongue.
Comment:  Very surprisingly robust for 43%, likely owing to pot still distillation, a little less of the sweeter notes I found in Masterson’s. Another really solid Canadian rye, though I prefer the quality of WP/Masterson’s more.
Rating: B

Another Visit From An Angel

The hype echoed through the whiskey nerdosphere this spring.

“Angel’s Envy… is releasing a rye!”

For some, the excitement couldn’t be contained. Rye, after all, is the whiskey that has the coolest record collection. Everyone wants to be rye, even if they won’t admit it. MGP has obligingly supplied everyone from Diageo (in the form of George Dickel Rye) to High West to a coterie of small bottlers, each with their own comically overwrought backstory and fanciful label.

In that respect, it wasn’t at all surprising to see the port-finished bourbon being followed by a rye. Slap a classy-looking bottle (it uses more or less the same bottle as previously, with gold type instead of white) in the rye section, and they will come – or so is the hope.

Of course, any half-wit can release a youngish LDI rye and slap a label calling it “Capone’s Cache” or “Boos Myllar’s Best” or something equally underthought. The Angel’s Envy twist was to finish it in Caribbean rum casks. It’s either an inspired choice or the height of idiocy.

I myself was in the uninterested camp – how many mediocre LDI ryes do you have to try before you know you’re going to end up with a mouthful of Pine-Sol, an empty wallet and a conscience gripped with regrets? The compulsion to keep trying sourced ryes is like the manic fury that drives a drunken roulette binge at 3 AM in a dark corner of the MGM Grand. The odds are long and almost crushingly hopeless, but the payoff – when it comes – may silence the doubts enough for you to throw another fifty bucks down at the next opportunity.

Even when the inevitable trophy shots came in from well-connected bloggers, clutching – always clutching – prized sample bottles, I was completely unswayed. Everyone loves free whiskey. I wasn’t going to be goaded into a purchase, no matter how many people I trusted who reviewed it from advance samples. You can forgive a lot of sins when it’s free. I’m remaining firm in my conviction: I don’t care who reviewed it or how good the marks were, I am not going to play the part of Pavlov’s dog when someone shouts “new rye whiskey”!

And then a few average Joes I know purchased bottles. And the whiskey the described was so outside the incredibly narrow expectations I had for this release that I started to pay attention. The notes were all very similar, but they painted a picture of something completely unlike what was on the market. Knowing that the roulette wheel had come up red the last five times I’d tried some LDI-based product, I threw my cash on the table. I knew, as anyone does who has played roulette long enough (gambler’s fallacy be damned!), that simple probability said this spin in rye roulette had to come up black.

I strolled into my local booze merchant, quietly ignored the suggestions that I should check out a bottle of Booker’s, and grabbed Angel’s Envy. I wouldn’t be a victim of rye roulette this time. My bet would pay off. This had to be the first enjoyable rye in a while.

I grabbed the nearest knife I could and slit at the strip trapping the cork on the bottle. I dumped a pour into my glass and waited. The moment of truth.

Immediately it was clear this was not the average rye. Everything I expected was missing. Instead, I got a big hit of gingerbread on the nose, followed by fruity, cooked (and sugary) pineapple, cinnamon, brown sugar and angel food cake. I could only laugh. “Angel’s Envy” manifest in the nose already. Even at arm’s length, caramel sweetness and the confectioner’s sugar qualities were readily apparent.

I lifted it up to my mouth and was rewarded with a mouthfeel that was unlike most young LDI ryes – this one actually had some weight to it. It didn’t cede its identity wholly to the dessert sweetness; it had some rough and piney rye notes, but they were more of a grounding base for everything else, kind of like a better IPA where the drier hop notes add complexity. Pineapple, angel food cake and cinnamon were abundant; there was a hint of ginger, and it was generally sweet like a dessert with flashes of rye dryness.

The finish started dry, with a touch of bitterness, but was balanced by the cake-like sweetness. Confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, pineapple and a touch of vanilla rounded out the finish.

If Angel’s Envy Bourbon could be summed up as the speculative fiction of “What if Balvenie made a bourbon?”, then Angel’s Envy Rye would be, “What if Paula Deen was on your rye tasting panel?”

That obviously carries some weight (ha!), but let’s be clear about what is going on. Angel’s Envy Rye is the sweetest tasting rye you’ll probably ever have. It’s pure southern dessert – angel food cake, amped-up caramel and pineapple sweetness, with just a touch of rye to keep it from going off the deep end.

As the bottle gets some air, the more punchy top notes and overt pineapple-and-caramel quality dampens a bit; it’s still a bit syrupy and a little more spicy on the nose. The palate actually starts to get into cognac territory and the rye asserts itself more. Think of a moderately hopped porter – the hops don’t become the focus of attention, but they add more complexity. So is the rye with time in Angel’s Envy Rye. Also, with time and air, this does become a little more minty and mentholated on the finish, tipping its hat a bit to the origin, but I still would never peg this as LDI.

If you don’t like sweet things, just stay away. I can’t stress this enough. If angel food cake drives you into a rage, you really should not buy it. If you want the same boring rye you’ll get in a bottle of Bulleit or Templeton, skip this. This will not be for you. I promise. You’ll miss nothing by skipping.

But on the other hand, if you’ve been burned for a zillion times running and you’re just looking for something different – Angel’s Envy Rye has that in spades. I can’t think of a rye that tastes remotely like this. I can’t think of a whiskey that really tastes quite like this. And because I think it’s so unusual, I’m sure we’ll be seeing copycats in the months and years ahead.

I’m not sure that Angel’s Envy is an everyday sipper, but in a world of bad rye decisions, this is one of the few options that won’t disappoint. I’ve revisited this bottle a few times now and it’s very much the same thing as my first impressions, with a bit more of the rye character making itself known over time. It doesn’t lose that angel food cake and pineapple sweetness though. For my money, while it’s definitely a very particular style, I happen to really enjoy what’s going on with this whiskey. It’s not a daily sipper, but then, you shouldn’t be having a big, sweet desert every day either.

However, while I say it’s not a daily sipper, I can’t deny I’ve come back to this bottle with regularity and am already thinking about picking up another…

At a glance:

Angel’s Envy Rye (95% Rye) – 50% ABV B
Nose: 
A really unusual mix of gingerbread, a touch of pineapple, some cinnamon, angel food cake, brown sugar. Caramel and confectioner’s sugar. With air and time, there’s a little more syrupy quality mixed with some gentle spice, but never losing that angel food cake quality. 
Palate: 
Moderately thick on the palate, the kind of rough and piney rye notes provide a bed; there’s a big pineapple/angel food cake/cinnamon top end, a faint hint of fresh grated ginger. Sweet in a very dessert-like way with flashes of rye dryness. As the whiskey gains more air, the rye asserts itself more directly with some cinnamon, and has a cinnamon/rye/caramelized pineapple tug of war. 
Finish: 
Dry, a touch bitter but against with that soft, cake-like sweetness. Confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, a little pineapple and vanilla. Air leads this to be drier still, with an almost minty (but not full-tilt minty) or menthol top end, and a little more direct rye and cinnamon. 
Comment: 
The first LDI rye that doesn’t taste like everything else. Very sweet and desserty – indulgent. The elements pop out quite cleanly, but it also reminds me of a hummingbird cake. If you don’t have a sweet tooth (yes, on a rye!), you will not enjoy this. Almost has a cognac-like character at times.
Rating: 
B

Postscript

The bottle has a sticker on it noting the “95% Rye” mashbill. Obviously, this is a clear tip of the hand that it’s LDI rye. However, the fact that this is a sticker raises an interesting question: does Angel’s Envy have casks sourced elsewhere (e.g. Canada) with different mashes (100%? 51%+) waiting for a future release? Only the Hendersons know for sure, but it could be an interesting few years. Taking the whiskey used in WhistlePig or Mastersons and giving it an Angel’s Envy treatment (which seems to be summed up as “March to the beat of your own drummer’) could result in some really interesting choices.

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-

Tasting With Your Mouth (For A Change)

“But I always taste with my mouth!”

Me too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At a glance:

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

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

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

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

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

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