It’s October, which means that the truly hardcore bourbon dork is hunting for a bottle or two from this fall’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. For my friends who are not engaged in this irredeemably nerdy pursuit, here’s the quick and dirty so you can carry on a conversation and impress at cocktail parties:
Every fall, Buffalo Trace releases five bourbons which are some of the most extreme whiskies that you can get with any regularity:
George T. Stagg, an absolutely overpowering and massive cask-strength bourbon. Cask strength is one thing, but the Stagg releases are regularly over 70% alcohol by volume. This earns them the nickname “Hazmat” since you actually can’t fly with these (… because they’re hazardous materials).
William Larue Weller, one of the most phenomenal and amazing wheated bourbons. The 2010 Weller is one of my all-time favorite bourbons, and the 2009 is not far behind. Like the Stagg, it’s cask strength (though usually high 50s/low 60s ABV).
Thomas H. Handy, a bruising cask-strength rye whisky. If I were to summarize this in one phrase, it’d be “like getting hit in the face with a boxing glove covered in cinnamon”. It’s ridiculous and unbelievably powerful.
Sazerac 18, a sublime 18 year old rye whiskey, which is about as far from the intensity of the Thomas Handy as you can get. It’s got an amazing, soft rye quality to it and is about as close to liquified rye bread as you can get.
Eagle Rare 17 which.. is… Eagle Rare.. but.. 17 years old… I guess you can’t win ‘em all? Snark aside, I just don’t get this one.
But this is too much fun to waste time on snark.
This weekend I unexpectedly ran across the George T. Stagg and got to spend a nice, lazy Sunday afternoon getting acquainted with it.
You can read it there on the label – 71.3% ABV, a ridiculous 142.6 proof. You can interpret this as one ridiculously powerful, he-man bourbon, or two bottles for the price of one… I go both ways on it.
My first encounter with the Stagg was only last year when I got deeper into bourbon. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought the 70% ABV was some sort of excessive, hyper-macho “because-we-can” thing. In the time since I had that bottle, I’ve experienced some amazing high-proof bourbons and have learned through experience that despite the ABV, you can actually come out with an incredibly nuanced bourbon.
This year’s Stagg is a massive but nuanced assault on the senses. There’s a lot of grain on the nose, with corn in abundance. There’s tons of caramel and toffee; hints of vanilla and good, well-seasoned wood. It’s kind of like a late summer harvest on the nose.
The palate does not disappoint – it’s warm as you’d expect, as well as rich and buttery, but the heat does not overpower. Toffee starts to emerge just before the heat builds, bringing notes of cinnamon, pepper, and chili oil. Oak balances with some bitterness and then there’s some intensely cherry flavors. There’s a slight bubblegum note that’s perceptible as well.
The finish is initially hot, but loses heat quickly. It remains intensely cherry, to the point that you almost can believe you’re eating cherries. Grain comes back in a big way but doesn’t overpower the cherries. There’s some rye spice after a while, which dries slowly to a corn note.
The other treat with a 2011 Stagg is on ice. The best word to describe Stagg on the rocks is “creamy”. The bitter elements recede and vanilla and cream come to the forefront. The nose gains some molasses and creme brûlée. The palate is toffee, caramel and vanilla, with some cinnamon and nutmeg and a hint of cherries.
Like I said: very nuanced and rich. The 2010 Stagg which I’d had recently prior to this was a little more distinctly spiced with anise very present; also cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. I also thought the 2010 had a trace of saltiness that complemented its caramel notes.
The real joy of the 2010 Stagg was the finish, which had apple pie, mulling spices, toffee, plums and black cherries. As with the 2011, it became really nicely creamy when ice was added, and more of a sweet treat as the wood receded in the presence of ice.
Ultimately, the Staggs are certainly an extreme whiskey – novices may be intimidated or put off. Fortunately, it’s a whiskey that is absolutely able to take what you throw at it – ice, water, air… just don’t add coke.
This year’s Stagg has the distinction of being the first A grade I give out on my blog. There are absolutely more coming from my backlog of notes, but since this is so tasty I wanted to bump it to the head of the list.
If you can find the Stagg, and it’s not an easy find, it’s an amazing whiskey.
At a glance:
George T. Stagg 2011 Edition – 71.3% ABV Nose: Massively strong with plenty of spice and pepper up front. Corn in abundance initially, giving way to loads of caramel and toffee. Subtle undertones of vanilla; the vaguest hints of black cherry. Some well-seasoned wood comes in and then it all gives way back to corn and grain – smelling like a late summer harvest. With ice this becomes quite creamy and sweet on the nose; ample vanilla and cream. Sweet toffee and a little molasses and creme brûlée. Palate: Warm on the palate, rich and buttery but not overpowering with heat. Toffee sweetness, growing heat with cinnamon and pepper and a bit of chili oil. Oak is evident and provides a slightly bitter note. After some time some cherry notes emerge as well. Faint hint of bubblegum far off in the distance. Ice makes this amazingly creamy and rich, bringing toffee, caramel, vanilla, heavy cream to the front, with some cinnamon and nutmeg. Some cherries to give a slight cut against the sweetness. Finish: Hot but losing heat. Intensely cherry initially, almost tangibly so. The grain is evident and the cherry persists. Sweet and spicy, the finish lasts nicely. Some rye spice hangs around and there’s a nice dark fruit sweetness. After a while, corn re-emerges. Comment: This continues the Stagg tradition of big, bold, spicy, powerful bourbons. There’s a ton of nuance in this one. There’s not a lot to say: it’s great. Rating: A-
George T Stagg – 2010 Edition 71.5% ABV Nose: Powerful out of the gate (not surprising at 71.5%!) with wood immediately present and toffee right beside it. There is a kind of fall spice element to the nose, with hints of nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and anise. There’s also a butterscotch undertone to it. Big and bold but not closed. Palate: Warming immediately with more caramel sweetness than the nose would indicate, with wood predominant. Continues to warm, has a molasses hint and a slight amount of saltiness to balance the caramel sweetness. Some dark fruits creep in – plums, black cherries. A little cold water and ice cuts the heat and woodiness and brings the fruitier notes to the front quite predominantly. It also pops out a little vanilla creaminess. Finish: Cools from the palate, hints of apple pie, wood, mulling spices. Toffee is present as well. Plums and black cherries are also evident as well. Comment: It’s great. I prefer the WLW for 2010 but this is amazing. It’s a bit sharp for me at cask strength though. Rating: A-
Nose: Moderatly briny, malty, with notes of hay and grain and a little peat, faintly floral.
Palate: Rich, syrupy, oily mouthfeel; gentle warming and malt flavors, green grass, lightly dusty, and a hint of white pepper.
Finish: Slow, gentle, lingering with the peat and malt coming back; some grain.
Comment: This is not a big whiskey – it’s a mild, gentle, malty, relaxing drink that would seem like an older Banff or Glencraig with a little more pep. It’s totally enjoyable for what it is but it’s not something that will stick in taste memory for a long time. Rating: B
Of note, this bottling has been discontinued for a stronger (46%) version. Word is that it’s improved and more intense, if that’s your thing. At 40% this older version is a supremely easy drinker and it’s very possible that you might be able to find it for a great price. Keep your eyes open.
One of the best things about a healthy enjoyment of drink is finding like-minded people to share it with. After all, imbibing by yourself exclusively is a good sign that you either have a problem or that you’re about as well-socialized as a Morlock.
There are more special releases in any given quarter than most peoples’ budgets or cabinets could reasonably support. Distiller’s editions, Manager’s Editions, Cooper’s Cousin’s Sister’s Brother’s Choice…. Certainly it’s far in excess of my means and space — not to mention that it’d be more than I’m willing to put my liver through. Yet, if you read online, you see people raving about some of these editions. What’s the solution when your desires exceed your dollars?
There are two great ways to solve this dilemma. If, like myself and five other guys, you find yourself saying, “Boy, I really would like to try 192 slight variations on a bourbon to see what’s really great, but I don’t want to get stuck with 19 gallons of (wildly variable) whiskey that I might not like”, the group buy can be a great option. The first task is to identify something that you and some friends want to have. This is usually the easiest task because virtually everyone has the same problem as you. The trick actually becomes finding a reasonable breakdown between price and quantity.
A bottle for our Buffalo Trace buy is split six ways. Since it’s 375mL that means each person gets 62.5 mL, or slightly over 2 ounces. How to get that home? Easy. Go to Specialty Bottle, order a small box of 2 ounce bottles and caps. You can also get heat-shrink to go along with it to seal the bottle caps up tightly. Get some labels (so you can identify the contents), and a small flask funnel, and you can quickly portion it out. I use a Mini Measure glass from Crate & Barrel to avoid free-pouring from a bottle since the flask funnel can get overfilled quickly.
Another great source for bottles is saving the 50mL sample bottles you can get from mini-bars, airlines, and from a lot of liquor stores (especially around Christmas). Wash them thoroughly and you have an easy supply of bottles. Plus, you can also use the contents to try some drinks you’ve never had before. Besides, when have you ever needed more than 50mL of Jaegermeister in your possession?
In addition to the 2 oz and 50mL sizes, I like to hold on to some 1 oz sample bottles, which is also easily obtained from Specialty. You should make sure to buy glass Boston rounds. Glass will not impart flavor like plastic.
If you can’t find people who want to split the same bottle, the other option would be to buy it and trade samples. The sample swap is a great way to broaden your palate and get the opportunity to try things you haven’t before. If you have a friend who travels, they might be able to find bottles not available in the US or exclusive to Duty Free shops. They may be willing to part with a sample if you are willing to reciprocate.
I try to sample one-for-one, or at least give pours of similar value. I don’t think it’s worth getting hung up on accounting for the value, but I think it’s polite to try and offer items of value if you’re going to ask for items of value. Don’t ask for the 50 year old Glenury Royal if all you’re going to offer in trade is Glenfiddich 12 or something easily available at any store. On the other hand, if I’m pouring for someone, especially someone who doesn’t have a big cabinet or much experience, I like to try and throw in a surprise now and again, unannounced. The bottom line as always is be fair, be nice, and try not to be greedy.
I think the most important etiquette of the sample swap is to not be offended if someone doesn’t like your samples. I traded with someone whose samples I was not particularly fond of and tried to answer the “what did you think?” question reasonably diplomatically. However, it was received as if I’d made a personal attack. That’s unfortunate – not everything is going to be to everyone’s tastes, and if you don’t like what I’ve poured, it just means we have different palates.
In the spirit of the swap, I’ve got four notes from a recent sample swap.
I encourage you to find someone who might be interested and go in on a bottle with them or do some trading. You’ll have a lot of fun. (If you’re in the US, though, don’t send samples through the mail! It’s illegal…)
Nose: Sweet and malty. Nice, light but dominant sherry notes. Gentle, restrained wood. Faint grain notes. Slightly earthy and damp, with the faintest trace of grease. Slight caramel.
Palate: Delightfully weighty on the palate, slightly oily in texture and taste. Malty and with light sherry notes, gently warming on the palate. Sweet and slightly farmy – both earthy and damp (damp hay) as well as oily, worn work clothes.
Finish: Warming, sweet, a bit smoky. The sherry comes in a little later as do slight ripe apple notes, and the slight diesel character is there too.
Comment: Springbank has another good one here. This is a nice balanced sherry – the typical faint diesel, oily notes of Springbank are great with the less strong sherry notes. Rating: B
Balblair 1989 (2nd Ed, bottled 2010) – 43% ABV
Nose: Sweet fruits, perhaps slightly overripe and becoming sugary. A bit of white wine. Pineapple, applesauce, slightly malty. Peaches in syrup. Pears. Palate: Light and malty, warm on the palate. White wine, slight tropical fruits, powdered sugar. Very sweet and sugary – right up to the edge of what’s reasonable. Finish: Dominated by malt, with a bit of very ripe fruits – peach, pear, apple. A bit of white wine. Comment: This is one that I can see not liking because of the sweetness and wine notes; it’s a light and fruity drink like the ’97 which can be polarizing. This is a little more overtly fruity than the ’97 but I still like it. A great desserty whisky. Rating: B
Talisker 57 Degrees North 57% ABV
Nose: Slightly buttery in a way that is reminiscent of some Broras I’ve had; gentle peat. Reasonably strong on the nose. Light hay, mildly sooty. Malty and slightly musty. Some slight fruitiness in the far off distance, maybe a bit of pineapple? Water brings the fruit somewhat closer to the forefront.
Palate: Quite warm on the palate, good, rich peaty smoke, slightly buttery, lightly malty underneath; slightly fruity in the background. Spicy – almost a chili oil quality to it. With water, it’s more malty, less overtly peaty, but faintly rubbery.
Finish: Hot! Peat and smoke, malt. Spicy with the chili oil again. Faintly ashy, ever so slightly rubbery.
Comment: This one is quite big and bold. A little water helps tame it; it’s almost too big otherwise. One to warm you up on a cold night! The high heat on the palate is a bit much for me and keeps this slightly off a B+ but it’s close.
Kilchoman Cask Strength (Binny’s) Dist 7-4-07, Bottled 8-26-10, Cask 182/2007 61.1% ABV
Nose: Light white wine, moderate peat, some lemon, slightly mineral, some banana and pineapple fruitiness. Mildly briny. Palate: Very light. Good peat on the palate. Warming gently. Some brine, some malt. Warming with time. Pepper, maybe a touch of chili oil. Finish: Warm initially, some peat and pronounced barley notes, grainy and slightly rubbery. Some white wine after a moment, relaxing mostly into barley and some peat. Comment: I want the palate to live up to the nose. It doesn’t quite. Good but not there. Hell of a nose though. Rating: B
A couple weeks ago, hot on the heels of Round One of the Single Oak Project, I received the second shipment of twelve 375mL bottles. A few days later they were parceled out into samples and myself and the same group of people from Round One got our next fix.
Round Two isolates some different variables. Whereas Round 1 was examining top vs bottom cut for the barrel staves, with further variables in grain density and recipe, Round 2 examines barrel char. There are two barrel chars being tested: #3 and #4 – basically a shorter and a longer char. Round 2 again uses grain density and bourbon recipe as its other two variables.
However, this round is not directly comparable. Round 2 was aged in a different warehouse than Round 1 (concrete floors vs wood); had a different barrel entry proof (105 vs 125) and the barrel staves were seasoned longer (12 months vs 6 months). As a result it’s hard to draw a direct comparison to Round 1.
However, we can look at some of the things in common. I thought Barrel 3 from Round 1 was one of the worst of the batch (certainly it still is). Barrel 31 in Round 2 is the closest to it: #4 char, fine-grained, rye recipe, both are top cuts. However, where Barrel 3 was a C, 29 is a B. 29 was aged in a concrete floor warehouse vs. 3′s wood floor. The smart money is on two different variables though: 29′s lower entry proof (105 vs 125) and longer seasoning time (12 months vs 6). What’s the key difference? It’s hard to say, but hopefully in the coming years it will be revealed.
However, obsessing about comparisons in minute detail makes for a boring entry to write and read. With so much in play, it’s more helpful to look at broad trends.
I had a marked preference for rye recipe bourbons with rye recipes taking my top spots – though a wheater took the top spot this time. Last time it was more rye-heavy, so this will be an interesting one to track since recipe seems to be in play.
Grain played an uncertain role again: I found myself generally preferring the tight grained bourbons this time, regardless of recipe, but the coarse grain was not far behind. Average grain was the least favorite however. There seems to be no set logic as to the role grain will play in the final whiskey.
As far as char? I almost always preferred a #3 char to a #4 – there were a couple ties but this element was quite consistent throughout the release. The #4 chars were frequently sharp, piney, woody, and disagreeable to me. The #3s were much sweeter, smoother, and easy drinking. However, I found the flavors were less developed. As my friend Sku of Sku’s Recent Eats observed of Round 1, the bottom cuts had a more intense flavoring than the top cuts – so perhaps a bottom cut, #3 char would be the ticket?
As far as a quick summary of the barrels:
If you can only buy one: Barrel 61. In my opinion this is the best of the series so far, 24 variants in. It had an intensely fruity nose which was great, going as far as getting raspberry notes involved, as well as soft grains and smooth vanilla and caramel flavors. The palate was light but well-flavored with the fruit and berry notes in abundance, with some nice spicy flavors, some pleasant wood. I thought it was creamy and rich and sweet, but never cloying. The finish was again berries and vanilla, with light grain and maple syrup notes. In my opinion it could be turned up a bit more on the flavor intensity, but it was a solid B+ whiskey.
The best rye recipe: Barrel 29. This barrel suffered from the #3 char problem of underdeveloped flavors, but I found barrel 29 to be easy drinking and very thick and creamy. There was some good pepper and oak, as well as light fruits. It was, however, not exceptionally well balanced in my opinion.
Barrels to avoid: Nothing was as strongly objectionable as Round 1′s 3 & 4. 63 & 191 were my least favorite but neither was completely objectionable. 191 had a bitter and dusty note on the palate and finish that tends to wreck otherwise good whiskies for me anyway (Old Pulteney 12; Aberfeldy 12; more than a handful of Japanese whiskies I’ve had…). 63 was dry and peppery and generally tannic but did not have much going on for it as a whole.
Again, these are just my opinions. There seem to be less reviews this time around – I found a review at Drinkhacker for comparison, but neither John Hansell or David Driscoll have posted reviews.
For fun, after completing the tasting, I also tried my hand at “correcting” errors I perceived with my own vattings. I’ll put my mixing prowess on display here. The short version is, I’ve got a lot to learn – my mixes were uniformly worse than any single barrel on its own. This is a fun experiment to do and I will be doing from here on out.
My blends were all three bottles apiece, roughly an ounce total, and equal parts of each barrel in the final mix.
Barrels 61+127+191, 45% ABV “Tim’s Blend #1″
Nose: Initially sharp; maple syrup, some butter and toffee. Sweet with some graininess. Palate: Medium-thick mouthfeel. Sweet and syrupy – maple syrup for sure. Some toffee, some corn, a little vanilla. Warm on the palate. Vague banana note. Finish: The banana/juicyfruit note comes through. Somewhat bitter and woody. Comment: It’s not bad, but it doesn’t quite balance like I want. Still a little blandly sweet but with a sharpness that impairs drinkability. Decent enough try. Rating: C+
Barrels 29+157+189, 45% ABV “Tim’s Blend #2″
Nose: Faintly earthy, vanilla, toffee, sweet notes of fruit. Sweet and grainy as well. Palate: Dry initially, spicy and with some heat. Oak, pepper, cinnamon, some maple syrup and sweetness. Faint tannins. Finish: Warm, slightly spicy, tannic with notes of black tea and oak. Faintly earthy again, with more of a wet soil note. Dusty but also with a faint furniture polish kind of scent. Comment: A better attempt than the other vatting, but a bit on the sharp side that doesn’t quite have balance to it. Again the sharpness overpowers the sweetness. Rating: C+
Barrels 31+95+159, 45% ABV “Random Chance”
Nose: Dry and peppery. Oak, some solvent. Very faint vanilla. Palate: Slightly sour and sweet like white dog can be; faintly vegetal. After a moment, some toffee, vanilla and cherries. Faintly medicinal. Somewhat oaky. Finish: Warm and sweet – actually a decent balance of oak, fruit, toffee, vanilla. Some cherries in there as usual. It’s not a bad finish! Comment: Interesting experiment as good as any of my intentional ones, with a much better finish. Becomes pretty decent on the palate – shame about the nose. Rating: C+
Barrels 63+93+125, 45% ABV “The Leftovers”
Nose: Sharp and prickly, piney. Dry. Slight vanilla. Palate: Thick mouthfeel, warming slightly. Slightly piney, vanilla, slightly buttery. Sharp and peppery, oaky. Faint cherries. Finish: Warm and dry, with some cherries up front as well as vanilla and light toffee. Butter and caramel. Somewhat musty. Comment: It’s a little too sharp for me to enjoy, a very dry and prickly nose. The palate picks up but the finish is the best. Unfortunately again, this is not a great vatting. Rating: C
Clearly blending has a lot more to it – you can’t just take three things, mix them, and walk away with only the best of each. This magnifies everything – the flaws especially.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 29, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 17 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Initially strong but settles down. Somewhat of a gentle mix of pepper and wood with light fruits (cherries, plums) in the background.) Slightly generic alcohol note in the middle next to a lightly butterscotch note. Palate: Thicker and richer. Creamy. Not warm. Good oak influence, light heat from pepper. Buttery. Vanilla. Cherries. Slightly bland, the flavors are underdeveloped. Finish: Warms slightly, gives a dry blast of pepper and oak. Some vanilla in there too. Lasts mediumish length. Early kick of black cherries, and almost – for a moment – a slightly menthol/medicinal note. Comment: The flavor is underdeveloped and would be great if it was a little more in focus. That said, it’s easy drinking as can be and I’d probably keep some of this on hand. Thick mouthfeel! Rating: B
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 31, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 16 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Stronger prickle with some pepper. Pronounced sweetness on the nose – primarily vanilla with some toffee on the back. There’s some butterscotch and general alcohol notes. Some wood to it but not overbearing. Palate: Thick, creamy mouthfeel. Some pepper on the palate, plum and back cherry, slowly warming, sweet taste. Slightly bready at moments. Finish: Warming for a moment, with black cherries and a slightly medicinal note. Somewhat dry, somewhat oaky. Comment: This one is a little sharper and thinner but still enjoyable. Less easy to pull the notes out of than 29 but the flavors are more intense (just not there in abundance) Again, this is middle of the road but I’d buy it. Rating: B
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 61, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 19 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Fragrant and fruity. Berries in abundance, some raspberries even evident. Grainy and smooth; corn and wheat. Light pepper notes. Some wood, a little toffee and caramel. Vanilla. Palate: Light on the palate. Gently spicy, wood, vanilla, black cherries, creamy and rich. Sweet but far from cloying. Finish: Warming gently and settling down; the fruits and berries again hold strong with raspberries, plums, black cherries. Grain provides a light bed for it all with vanilla and maple syrup at the edges. Comment: This is an easy drinker and insanely fruity. I’d buy a bottle of this. My ideal would be turned up a little more but this is really enjoyable. Rating: B+
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 63, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 17 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Slightly dusty and grainy, with some spice and wood present. Faintly earthy. Dry. Palate: Warm, coating mouthfeel, warming gently, some spice. Some grains, some dry wood, slightly dusty. Some black tea tannins. Finish: Black tea, some spice and faint fruit notes. Faint clay, marshmallows. Comment: Mediocre. It’s dry and peppery and probably will blend well with others but it’s nothing special on its own. Rating: C+
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 93, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 14 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Dusty initially, grain on the nose with some oak and pepper as well. A solvent note on the nose as well. Some corn, some faint vegetal notes. Quite sharp. Very dry. Palate: Moderately thick in the mouth. Light cinnamon, pepper, wood, toffee, caramel, vanilla. A trace of vanilla. Some fruits hanging out in the background. Sweet. Finish: Vanilla, black cherries and a hint of plum, apples, some light oak. Drying. Somewhat weighty finish. Grains hang out the longest at the end. Comment: The nose really has nothing to do with the palate. Quite strange. Interesting but not great palate, somewhat muted; decent enough finish. Rating: B-
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 95, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 14 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Grain, with some corn. Somewhat closed off. Slightly buttery, some maple syrup. Oak and faintest vanilla. Palate: Thin but gaining weight; syrupy; somewhat earthy. Very thick but somewhat bland. Maple syrup, some hints of black cherry. Slightly buttery. Oak, black tea. Increasingly tannic. Finish: Very quick. Black tea. Some oak. Slightly bitter. Slightly warm and quite tannic. A slightly vegetal sourness. Comment: The tannins are interesting but it’s not enough to hold this together. It’s quite bland on the palate but pleasant enough on the nose. Rating: C+
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 125, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 14 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Slightly sharp, soft grains. Slightly sweet. Light hints of marshmallow. Slightly tannic. Palate: Medium thick. Sweet but not overly so. Heavy maple syrup, light toffee. Faint cherries in the background. Some gentle grains. Finish: Black tea, apples, gentle grains and light wood. A mild red wine quality as the finish holds. Comment: Unremarkable. Easy drinking and gentle but nothing special. Rating: C+
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 127, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 11 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Strong grain. Medium vanilla, light pepper, some oak. A hint of bubblegum. Palate: Light, somewhat bitter. Some oak, extremely faint pepper, light bubblegum notes. Slightly bitter and sour. Finish: Short, light, fleeting, tannic. The black tea note again. Comment: Nothing much to get excited about. It’s somewhat dry and somewhat sweet but nothing really going on for it in the taste department. Rating: C+
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 157, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 9 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Toffee and wood, butter, slight white pepper and oak, light fruit, a little cedar and a little pine. After a while some orange and vanilla develop. Palate: Light on the palate, initially oaky but buttery; toffee and slight caramel, maple syrup, pepper, becoming slightly sweet and vanilla. Faint orange. Finish: Drying, oak, black tea, some vanilla and light cherry notes. Light pepper and spice. Comment: The finish is somewhat unremarkable but this is actually pretty decent. Enough spice to be interesting but not overbearing in any direction. Rating: B
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 159, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Rye Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 8 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Oak and spice initially. Some grains evident but not strong. Mild sweetness – light vanilla, slight marshmallow. The oak gets slightly sharp and has elements of a pine scent. Powdered sugar. Palate: Medium thick, slightly warm. Moderately tannic – wood strong on the palate, light nutmeg, slight maple syrup. Faint cherries. Black tea. Finish: Warm and lingering. Some light cinnamon. Cherries. Black tea and rich wood. Comment: It’s not bad but the flavors seem restrained. Rating: B-
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 189, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #3 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 8 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Initially spicy, some toffee and butter, Lightly spicy. Some oak and very very light vanilla. Palate: Rich mouthfeel, soft, smooth, juicyfruit gum, vanilla, drying a bit with more toffee. Vaguest hint of banana, peach. Finish: Smooth finish, more juicyfruit,nice and sweet but not overly so. Vaguely banana and vanilla. Comment: Not bad. It’s a little restrained and doesn’t quite develop into anything but it’s a different and welcome take on a sweeter bourbon profile, getting some fruit for that. Usually those notes are kind of thick and overpowering but they just add here. Rating: B-
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 191, 45% ABV 8 Years Old, Entry Proof 105; Wheat Recipe; #4 Char; 12 Month Seasoning; Top Cut; 7 Rings/Inch; Concrete Floor Nose: Sweet spice, cherries, oak. Light toffee underneath it as a bed along with soft grains. Slight cinnamon and nutmeg. Some grain on the nose after a while. Palate: Moderate mouthfeel, slightly bitter, warm with pepper and oak, faint sweetness – a trace of maple syrup. Wheat is quite clear after a while on the initial palate. Some cherry as well. Finish: Warm, slightly musty and dusty. A little earthy. Some apple and cherry faintly present; wood as well. Comment: A little strong and harsh, the bitterness and dustiness kind of knock this one out of the enjoyability for me. Rating: C+
Nose: Strongly medicinal, a baked and almost biscuity undertone, bacon, hint of wood.
Palate: Briny, smoky, peat, smooth, gentle on the palate, more medicinal and some bacony flavors.
Finish: Slow, languid, delightfully medicinal becoming more smoky and peaty, a recurrence of brine.
Comment: It’s a can’t-miss Islay. You’ll either love it or hate it. I love it.
Don’t be in a rush with this one in the bottle – it develops nicely over a couple months, with the bacon note increasing after a while, and then even later it becomes incredibly creamy and rich. Rating: B
A couple days ago, David Driscoll of K&L Wines wrote an interesting blog post about people taking risks in their wine buying habits. He was talking about it from the perspective of a fear of a bad purchasing decision. But he hit on something in his last line that really resonated with me and my tastes in general, and not strictly in relation to whiskey:
It’s ok to end up with a bad bottle now and again. It’s the understanding of the bad ones that make the good ones so good.
I believe this completely, but I think you can remove “bottle” from that and replace it with “experience” and it works the same. Earlier this year I read Brené brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In a broader discussion about the tendency some people have to try and lessen the sting of negative emotions, Brown stated that numbing the lows also numbs us to emotional highs. That’s stuck with me since I read it.
Never was it more apparent to me how true that was than when our son went into the NICU a few days after being born. I can still remember hearing over the phone at 1 AM my wife’s voice and how shaky she was when she told me. As a brand new parent this was terrifying. We got acquainted with celebrating every small victory in the NICU and the baby steps (pun not intended) that we had to take to get out. Believe me, in the midst of that uncertainty, every little coo and bit of contact was the most electrifying jolt of emotion. (Actually, it still is… )
I love having the occasional whiskey that’s been ranked as terrible. I look for the ones where people use the strongest, most negative language they can, because I know that’s truly testing for the bottom. I feel like people through lack of experience or a desire to appear like they only enjoy the finer things, limit their palate and can’t truly appreciate the nuance of their truly excellent drink. I’m not saying they can’t pull it apart and tease out what’s great about it, but I question how much they truly appreciate it. I feel like some of the more adventurous may even try a couple “bad” drinks and safely retreat to their George T Stagg or Brora, having had a safe experience on the bad side of the tracks.
There’s a movie parallel I like to use in explaining safe-bad versus truly bad. A lot of people accept the idea that Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst movie ever made. And it’s bad, for sure. But have you seen Manos: The Hands of Fate? It’s a completely different experience and will recalibrate the low end of your scale. I’m sure there are movies even less redeemable than Manos (it’s quite well known as being really bad at this point), but it stands as a marker of how truly bad things can get. It’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen by a mile and makes Plan 9 look brilliant. I’m advocating hunting down the Manos experience instead of the Plan 9.
In the spirit of truly bad, I’m going to touch on a couple of the very worst I’ve had. For me these are fun to read and write because they demand a deeper level of conviction to convey how awesomely bad they are. I love reading peoples’ notes on these because it encourages people who would normally rate as “good” or “bad” to dig deeper and put words to the horrid tastes they’re experiencing. To see that person apply the same discipline applied to good and great (and average) subsequently is always fun.
Loch Dhu 10 year – The Black Whiskey
This is the Plan 9 of whiskies. A terrible idea executed poorly. You see, a fair number of whiskies use a caramel coloring to get a deeper brown color, which taps into some latent perception of deeper color meaning a more robust, developed, aged whiskey. Fortunately, Mannochmore released Loch Dhu, which proves that dark color doesn’t mean great taste.
The nose was strongly spirity, slightly raisiny, had a salty soy-sauce smell, was stale, and had a bit of brown sugar as well. Not awful, but nothing to seek out. The palate is bland and spirity. It’s murky, flabby, a little sherried, slightly sweet. There’s not much to note because it’s just there. It’s light in the mouth and not particularly warm. It finishes flat, with some raisins again and wet cardboard. It’s also got a slightly astringent, slightly woody, slightly bitter element to the finish which doesn’t wreck it but doesn’t help.
It’s not good, but as I’ve said, this is Plan 9 bad. There’s far worse whiskies out there, and it’s just not worth your time except as a mandatory stop on the bad whiskey curiosity trail. It looks bad, smells bad, and just doesn’t have anything happening for it. D+.
Usuikyou Vintage 1983 Japanese Single Malt Whisky
The Japanese are making some really great whiskies these days. I think Suntory Yamazaki 12 and Yamazaki 18 are worth the money and are great values for the dollar. Nikka has produced some great whiskies also (which I think may be getting broader distribution in the US if I read correctly recently). It’s a category that is worth exploring and I encourage you to seek out Japanese whiskies as they present an excellent “third style” to complement Scottish and American whiskies.
Usuikyou is not one of them. Fortunately, you probably won’t find this one. Even if you did, you wouldn’t want to have a bottle of this on hand. This is weapons-grade awful. The nose featured enticing aromas like burning garbage, mildew, wet cardboard, a massive dose of leather (actually, more like pleather), and had this rubbery new plastic scent, or vinyl that hasn’t degassed. It is incredibly chemical. The palate does not improve: Ashes, that new plastic toy scent, a metallic tang like sucking on a tin can, rubbery notes again, complemented by a weird cloying sweetness. The finish is new plastic, pleather, new leather, a really poorly integrated vanilla note, and ashy metallic garbage. It’s also an eternally long finish. Like twelve hours long: I still had this stuff wrecking my palate at morning coffee. It’s horrible.
And yet, I can’t give this my lowest grade in the book. It’s right on the cusp, I’ll be fair. It is amazingly chemical in taste, but the weird vinyl/plastic note started to remind me of some of the toys I had in the 80s. In a weird way that association saved it from being an F because I could find something redeeming about it. However, it’s a terrible beverage and would be worse as a potpourri. D-.
Bowmore 21 (bottled circa 1996)
Mid-90s Bowmore is a contentious point. At some point I’ll discuss an interesting Bowmore that represents a debated element of the “house style” in the 90s. However, I have to be honest that of all the whiskies I’ve had, this particular bottle of Bowmore is the worst.
The nose is revolting. My tasting notes say it simply: “Rotting garbage and farts, feet and a bit of wood.” I assure you there is nothing even slightly exaggerated about this. I looked for something – anything – else. There was only garbage, farts and feet. With a little wood.
The palate was not much better. (Yes, despite the notes I have, I still thought the palate was better than the nose.) I described it as “Feet and vomit, dead rotting animals, and dry wood.” Why I prefer vomit covered rotting animals, I don’t know. But apparently it is slightly better. The finish, blessedly short, was dry with strong spirity alcohol notes. Not as awful as what preceded it, but it still has that feet & farts smell.
While I devoted more time to the Usuikyou which probably should be on the bottom of the list, the Bowmore was just more than I could deal with. The garbage notes were just painful, and it just smelled like a bad day at the fraternity house. I seriously thought at one point I might have to puke because it was so instantly and sharply offensive. Fortunately the Bowmore had a short finish. Still, I enter it into the books as an F.
A Toast To The Worst
Take the opportunity to try something awful. And while it’s probably going to be unpleasant, really grab the experience and try and describe it as much as possible. It’ll help you understand what it is you don’t like. It’ll deepen your appreciation for what you do like. And when you go back to the great things you like? You’ll love them even more. (And try to figure out what it is you like about them!)
At a glance:
Loch Dhu 10 year 40% ABV
Nose: Strong spirit, hint of raisins, salty kind of soy-sauce smell, stale, vaguely leathery, low grade sherry note? A little brown sugar on the nose. Palate: Spirit and not much else. murky, flabby, kind of sherried, kind of sweet, doesn’t really have notes as much as it just sits there. Light mouthfeel, semi-warm. Finish: Flat, wet cardboard, raisins, earthy. Kind of sweet too, lacking vitality. Mildly astringent, kind of woody bitter but not strong – just perceptible. Comment: It’s not good, but it’s Plan 9 bad. There are far worse whiskies out there (looking at you, Usuikyou) but this is not worth the time aside from a mandatory stop on the bad whiskey curiosity trail. It looks awful, smells funky and just is muddy and indistinct. Rating: D+
Usuikyou Vintage 1983 Japanese Single Malt Whisky 64% ABV
Nose: Burning garbage, mildew, wet cardboard, rubbery, new plastic, vinyl that hasn’t degassed, neoprene, massive note of leather, incredibly chemical. Palate: Ashes, new plastic, weird cloying sweetness, metallic tang, and rubbery.
Finish: New plastic, pleather, new leather, poorly integrated vanilla note, metallic, ashy, garbage. Eternally long finish.
Comment: NOT GOOD. Became amazingly chemical. Repulsive yet reminded me of many toys from the 80s. In a weird way that association saved it from being an F. It’s really terrible as a beverage. It’d also suck as potpourri.
Bowmore 21 year (ca. 1996 bottling) 43% ABV
Nose: Rotting garbage and farts, feet, wood. Palate: Feet and vomit, dead rotting animals, dry wood.
Finish: Dry, alcohol, not as awful; feet & farts.
Every once in a while there’s an opportunity that you can’t pass up. Two of the most hyped bourbons released this year were Jim Beam Devil’s Cut and Lincoln Henderson’s Angel’s Envy. While these cleverly reference part of bourbon-making lore (more on that in a minute), that’s where the production similarities end.
So what’s the shared reference here, for those who have better things to do with their lives than be whiskey nerds? They’re both pointing to a phenomenon in whiskey production called the “Angel’s Share”. Basically, when you place a bunch of spirit in a barrel and let it age, some of it will evaporate. The lore was that this was the amount taken by the angels each year. The average loss is 2% by year – so if you’re wondering why that 18 year old whiskey costs more than the 12 – there’s part of your answer. This is also the mechanism by which Scotch whisky decreases in alcohol content over the years but Kentucky whiskies (among others) increase in alcohol content over the years. Well, that and some issues with humidity..
But that’s where the similarities end. The Devil’s Cut is made from the barrel remnants from Jim Beam bourbon that has aged 6 years. After they’ve dumped the barrels for the Beam, they’ve got barrels with bourbon in the staves. The Devil’s Cut is what they’re making from what they’re able to extract from the staves. (Sound like the dregs? It basically is, but don’t run off just yet.) Beam is tight-lipped on the process used, but Chuck Cowdery had a good discussion of this, which indicates there may be some water used in the barrel to “sweat” out the bourbon in the wood. Whatever the mechanism, we’re getting to the same underlying point: this is the stuff left in the wood after the barrel’s been emptied. (The “Devil’s Cut”, if you will…)
Angel’s Envy, on the other hand, is more traditional in its production. The sourced bourbon used in the whiskey is aged for 5-7 years in new charred oak casks, and then finished in a port pipe for 4-6 months. (Finishing, for my friends who are again blessed with enough of a life not to be stuck on whiskey minutia, is taking a whiskey from its original barrel and putting it in another barrel that held something else, to impart flavor. Murray McDavid has issued a lot of finished Scotch whiskies in recent years, though they call it “Additional Cask Enhancement”). This finishing is intended to impart some added dimension to the flavor of the spirit. Why “Angel’s Envy”? Well, this is made out of what’s not in the Angel’s Share, you see…
So how do they taste?
I will be honest and say my expectations for the Beam were low. Really low. I expected pencil shavings and gasoline. I was introduced to whiskey at the bottom shelf (with the expected results), and then when I got back into it from higher shelves, I’ve had the predictable reaction and looked down my nose at most major, mass-market whiskies. Beam was certainly no exception. With some hesitation, I poured a sample, trying to catch those early hints of gasoline, industrial degreaser, the pencil sharpener from third grade, and didn’t catch anything. Just a mild generic “bourbon” scent.
I nosed it, ready for my nostrils to singe. They didn’t. With some trepidation, I took a sip, and never got the heavy kick I expected. And the finish didn’t leave gasping like Jud Taylor in the Great Escape. You know what? It wasn’t that bad.
Actually, Devil’s Cut is decent enough if benign. There’s the expected corn, some moderate wood notes, light vanilla cream, and some clay earth and light cherry on the nose. The palate is surprisingly light – very light in the mouth, slightly warming, with a bit of the earthiness. After a moment, there’s a brief bitterness, and then some vaguely vegetal notes and some new-make sweetness with the turbinado sugar notes common to that. The finish is also light and on the short end of moderate. It’s got a light cherry note, but it dries out and becomes indistinctly alcoholic. The new make note also continues through with the turbinado sugar note again.
None of the expected harshness existed – it’s really light after the nose. It’s a C+; totally drinkable but lacking something after the intrigue of the nose.
The Angel’s Envy came with some loud hype as well this spring. While the Scottish have been fearless in finishing their whiskies; the Americans are more conservative on this point. Some people even questioned if it could still legally be called a bourbon since it wasn’t a to-the-letter representation of the law. (By addition, not omission)
I tempered my expectations on Angel’s Envy given some of the hype. And honestly, again, I was pleasantly surprised. Much to my surprise, the Angel’s Envy initially showed a stronger alcohol note on the nose. It had an intensely strong wine presence on the nose – tons of rich, red fruit and with that sugary richness of a port. That said, it was somewhat dry, and the bourbon made itself known with a little pepper and some oak.
The palate was a treat – very rich, very coating, like a thick wine – and some warmth. The wine notes were very clear with berries and fruit again. The wood came through after a while as did a light dusting of pepper. The finish, however, is where it asserted its bourbon character with a more traditional bourbon heat. There were black cherry notes all over it with some earthiness and a hint of vanilla. The port hangs on at the tail end of the finish as well as some dry wood flavors, but it doesn’t become bitter. A light dusting of cinnamon hangs on the finish as well.
Angel’s Envy drinks very much like a scotch – it’s actually got some similarity to sherried whiskies. It’s not in the class of the very best sherried malts, but it would hold its own against many midlevel whiskies, and certainly beats those that have become overtly raisiny (e.g. Aberlour A’bunadh batch 32). It doesn’t have the “grapey” profile of the other wine-finished bourbon I’ve had (the abhorrent Woodford Sonoma-Cutrer – a story for a different post).
It’s not quite a bourbon in flavor, it’s not quite a scotch. It’s just fun and drinkable. An easy B. I don’t know how it will hold up for a full bottle, but that too will be worth noting in the future.
It’s interesting to see how these bourbons have played with the lore of bourbon. One experiments with the nature of what can be considered a bourbon by borrowing a page from Scotland, and succeeds. Is it the envy of the heavens? Hard to say, but it’s certainly an interesting and promising experiment for American whiskey. The other seeks to extract every drop from the wood, sweating it out in an age-old fashion. Does it deserve the dark sided image? No. It’s not going to win bourbon of the year, but it’s a fun and light bourbon. If you’ve got a taste for new make, you might enjoy it!
UPDATE: According to the Angel’s Envy Twitter account, the batch I’ve reviewed won’t be on the shelves much longer. If you’re interested, now is the time!
At a glance:
Jim Beam Devil’s Cut 45% ABV Nose: Initially shows up with some corn notes, as well as a slight clay-like earthiness. Light vanilla cream, moderate wood. Slight cherry note. Palate: Light mouthfeel, slightly warming, the clay earthiness comes through. Fairly lightweight – not a lot of flavor on the palate. Gets somewhat bitter after a brief bit, with a vague vegetal note. Has a low-level new-make sweetness as well, with that unrefined sugar note. Finish: Warm but fleeting. Light cherry note and moderate length, but it dries out and becomes just sort of indistinctly alcohol-like. Not strong though. Also has the new-make note on the finish with the certain grainy sugar. Comment: There’s just not much happening past the nose here. It’s not bad – at all – but there’s just not a lot to it. This is right on that cusp of C+/B- and if there was juuuust a little more to it it’d be safely into B range. Rating: C+
Angel’s Envy 43.3% ABV Nose: Much stronger on the nose in terms of the alcohol content, and has a very strong wine presence upfront. Somewhat dry,a little bit of pepper on the nose. Some medium wood. Palate: Rich and coating, with some warmth. Again, definite red wine, berries and fruit, some wood emerging over time. Light pepper. Finish: Warming initially and then it goes down. This is where the bourbon presents most strongly – the black cherry, earthy notes, a hint of vanilla. There’s some port hanging on the finish as well as some slightly dry wood – but it doesn’t verge into bitterness. Light dusting of cinnamon in there. Comment: The port is all over it with sweetness and a definite rich wine note, but it doesn’t have a “grapey” thing happening like some wine-finished bourbons (Woodford Sonoma) do. To be honest, there are elements of this that remind me of a good midlevel sherried scotch (that isn’t drowning in subpar sherry and has that SunMaid gone bad flavor). I’m not sure how the bottle life of this one will be but it’s enjoyable. Not quite a bourbon, not quite a scotch, just something fun and drinkable. Rating: B