I’ve written about independent bottlers before, and they remain one of the best ways to try whisky that is either never released to the public, or to taste the whiskies produced by now-silent distilleries. They are also a great way to try the stranger whiskies that came out of the “distilleries within distilleries” of a few decades ago. The only ways that really are better or more cost effective are to have extremely wealthy friends, a time machine, or a loose moral code surrounding the ins and outs personal property.
For those not familiar with the “distilleries within distilleries”, there were a few distilleries that set up additional equipment to produce different styles of whisky a few decades ago. The Girvan grain distillery produced malt whisky from ’68 to ’75 and it was labeled as Ladyburn. (K&L had an exclusive Ladyburn cask released last year; it’s long gone.) Miltonduff and Glenburgie added Lomond stills and their output was labeled as Mosstowie (’64-’81) and Glencraig (’58-’81). Currently, two distilleries have Lomond stills – Scapa (though it’s been heavily altered) and Bruichladdich (who used it to produce the Botanist gin). One of the most thorough discussions on Lomond stills and what they are can be found at Celtic Malts, which I will make no attempt to duplicate here.
The first Glencraig I’m going to review is one of the Rarest of the Rare releases from Duncan Taylor, which is the series of releases that features closed, lost, or otherwise non-functioning distilleries – such as Glencraig, Glenugie, Banff, etc. I have only had a couple whiskies from this collection and they have all been good; two of the three are rather similar and towards the lower ABV and were of a slightly gently malty, lightly vanilla character. The K&L Banff is another one of these and it’s anything but gentle and malty. It’s an indie that I have no problem buying from.
This Glencraig definitely fits the gentle and malty character – a nice, easygoing malt that works in the heat of summer (as it was when I first tried it) or in the winter as a lighter whisky. The nose is light, fruity and gently malty with subtle buttercream vanilla. There’s a slightly piney and lightly solvent note, which kind of slides over to shiso after a minute. There’s a light dusting of white pepper as well.
The palate is moderately heavy, malty and gentle all around. As from the nose, you get some light vanilla, moderate heat brought by the pepper notes, and mint and shiso notes. The whisky finishes quite quickly and is mostly malt and gentle spice, with a tail end of light mint.
This one is just a simple, easy-drinking, enjoyable whisky. It’s hard not to like. While it doesn’t score particularly high on my scale, it’s still very enjoyable and worthwhile. To me, this is one of those whiskies that proves that a B is still a really good whisky – it’s not one of those ones that causes you to go catatonic and fall back into the carpet a la the Trainspotting heroin overdose scene, but it’s still totally enjoyable.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have a 15y Glencraig, bottled by the SMWS in 1994. Distilled in ’79, this is SMWS 104.2 (sorry, I don’t have a society name for it). This is an entirely different beast: 61.5% ABV, but the nose doesn’t have that high-proof prickle. It’s got a nice, slightly earthy malt with a liberal dusting of white pepper. Shiso and mint figure slightly in the high notes, along with some slightly overripe fruits. A light oiliness balances the fruitiness.
The palate is great – it’s warm, rich and tart at the outset, with oily and earthy notes coming up strong and going tarry after a minute. Against this is a maltiness which shows a quick flash of apple skin, but then returns to the more industrial, tarry notes. There’s some light pepper character to it throughout. The finish is equally big – peppery with cinnamon; malty and grainy, which fade to red delicious apples for a second. The whole thing is held together by the tarry notes.
Whereas the 30y Glencraig is gentle and shows some age and experience, the teenager is brash, bold, and powerful. Honestly, I would have guessed the younger one to be an early 80s Brora or perhaps a Springbank at first impression. It’s a real powerhouse whiskey and one that has caused Glencraig to command my attention now. While it’s unlikely you’ll see 104.2 outside of auctions at this point, it’s definitely highly recommended. Definitely much closer to a Trainspotting moment.
At a glance:
Glencraig 30y – Duncan Taylor Rarest of the Rare, distilled 3-1974, bottled 10-2004, cask 2926, bottle 319 of 341. 40.1% ABV Nose: Light, fruity, gentle malt, subtle buttercream vanilla note, hint of pine & low solvent. A touch of shiso and pepper. Palate: Moderate mouthfeel, malty, gentle. Light vanilla, moderate heat, slight pepper, small bits of mint and shiso. Finish: Relatively quick, malty. Gentle spice. Lightly minty. Comment: Reminiscent of the Cask 3414 of the Banff Rarest from Duncan Taylor (31y, distilled 11-74) – gentle & maltly. Pleasant. Rating: B
Glencraig 15y – SMWS 104.2 – distilled 1979, bottled 1994. 61.5% ABV
Nose: A nice, slightly earthy presence of malt with a fair amount of white pepper and some shiso on the nose. A bit of vanilla presence and some ever so slightly overripe fruits, balanced ever so slightly by very light oiliness.
Palate: Warm, rich and tart immediately on the palate, with the oily and earthy notes coming up strong with a slightly tarry note. It’s balanced by a maltiness which segues quickly into a bit of apple skin and then returns to the more industrial notes. Light pepper present throughout.
Finish: Big and powerful, peppery with a bit of cinnamon as well; malty and grainy notes lead and then fade slightly into red delicious apples. The tarry notes provide the bed it all rests on.
Comment: This is massive and very well put together. The finish lasts and lasts and gets everything in just the right proportions.
Rating: A- Sincere thanks to Chris for the 104.2 Glencraig. Phenomenal.
Sooner or later as a whisky aficionado, you’ll encounter these strange green bottles with numbers and weird names – e.g. “17.29: Handbags And Popcorn”. You’ll eventually find out who bottles these: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
The SMWS (and since I am in the US, I will be referring to the American branch, conveniently SMWSA) is an independent bottler that sells only to current members of the SMWS. Its bottles are single-cask releases, which means the supply is limited to a couple hundred bottles of any one expression. Additionally, they don’t filter or color their whiskies, so you’re getting the ultimate whisky-geek experience – an undiluted single-cask bottle.
What makes the SMWS unlike other bottlers, beyond the members-only policy, is the removal of all distillery names from packaging. Unless you’ve got a reference guide, past experience, or know your distillery trivia, you don’t know what distillery produced the whisky in your bottle. To use the above example, “Handbags and Popcorn”, the identifier is 17.29. That means it’s the 29th cask bottled from distillery 17. What’s distillery 17? Well, all we know is that it’s “Orkney’s lesser known distillery.”
Normal people would then refer to a guide to find out what distillery it’s from, which may influence their purchasing decision. Since I just finished reading a super whisky nerd book, I will save you the time and tell you that Handbags and Popcorn comes from Scapa distillery.
However, that takes some of the fun out of it. I think the truest reactions come from blind tastings and that remains one of the more fun ways to experience whisky – free from any sort of impression other than the drink itself. Short of being part of a whisky club which may conduct them (or having a willing but long-suffering family member aid you in the depths of your obsession), the SMWS provides one of the easiest ways to indulge in blind tasting, if you dare.
I’ll back up a second. I joined the SMWSA recently after seeing a string of fairly well-reviewed and generally interesting bottles. It’d been on my list for a while as something to try so I thought there was no better time than the present. Joining is a snap and takes only a few minutes online.
After a few days you’ll get your membership kit in two parts. First, you get a general info packet – your membership card (mostly useless to those in the US unless you want to tuck it in next to your expired Blockbuster Video card and your wallet-size fraternity membership certificate laminate and prove yourself a mega-nerd), a copy of the society magazine, and a few recent Outturn pamphlets. These pamphlets list the latest casks bottled that the Society has for sale, and publishes their tasting notes. Society tasting notes have a style all their own and it may be hard to develop a picture of the whisky described until your palate has matured a bit. It’s all packaged in a small folder.
The second package is the more fun one – four 100mL Society bottlings, a membership handbook (OK, maybe less exciting), a blank tasting notes book that also is a combination miniature bible and Russian phrasebook, and a lapel pin. God knows my lapels were shamefully unadorned prior to this – and who doesn’t enjoy that important feeling of belonging that only a lapel pin can offer?
But remember: this package has whisky. No lapel pin can bring that down.
My four samples were:
5.31 “Morning Has Broken”
76.82 “Gunpowder Green and Lava Rock”
29.99 “Power and Scorched Earth”
77.25 “Mouth Numbing Handbags”
The notes for these four will be posted at the end of this entry. I’d heard that Society bottlings could be variable, so this was my first litmus test. I was impressed that even the 23 year old bottle was still in the high 50% ABV territory. My impression (full notes below) was that these were all good bottles – one was aB+ (5.31, which I really liked a lot); the rest were all Bs.
I’ve since purchased a couple bottles which you will see reviewed here in the months ahead. As for now, I’m pretty impressed by the society’s offerings. The blind element lets you browse and buy what tickles your fancy based on descriptions, rather than determining which whisky is packaged in the most seaworthy container. My plan is to buy without knowledge of the distillery and not find out until after I’ve completed my tasting notes (as I did with this batch.)
SMWS 5.31 “Morning Has Broken” 11y 57% ABV
Nose: Fairly spirity; unsurprising at 57%. Nice, solid malty and cereal notes underpinning lighter notes that are slightly lemony and floral notes. Young fruit – a pear, maybe a granny smith apple in there too. Lightly honeyed. A bit of a sugary note that smells like sugar cookies or sugar icing.
Palate: Very strong malt presence that also has some cereal and bread with it. Ripe pears, golden delicious apples (and a whisper of Fuji apple), honey, lightly lemony. Nice heat on the palate, warming to a reasonable point but not overwhelming.
Finish: The malty note goes much more towards baked biscuits. The apple notes drop down in favor of pears; slightly honey and lemon notes continue. The heat subsides quickly and after a short while, golden delicious apples come up a bit again. Light wood influence at this point. A bit of cinnamon on the finish.
Comment: This has such a nice, full, rich body of malty notes that really ground it. The estery top is held completely in balance and while it’s warm it’s not overpowering. A great mix of malt and fruit.
SMWS 76.82 “Gunpowder Green and Lava Rock” 15y 56.7% ABV
Nose: Medium malty notes; a bit of green tea and some white wine. Very light white pepper, some hay and some honey. Water opens the nose up a bit but doesn’t bring much more.
Palate: Sweet initially and with a good malty presence; just a quick hint of toffee up front. Quite warm on the palate with pepper and cinnamon. A bit of hay and some damp cut grass. Wood and a slightly musty scent of old books. Rich and full mouthfeel. Strong texture – chewy. Extremely light fruit – a bit of apple; a bit of pear. Light oak influence throughout.
Finish: Pepper carries into the finish, with honey and grain beneath it. A little of the mustiness from the palate, some malt as well, and the oak continues. A hint of mint on the very far end of the finish accompanied by paraffin.
Comment: This is a pretty enjoyable, big, bold malt. Really full-bodied texture. The heat is strong but totally manageable. That said, there’s nothing very distinctive about this that would make me want to own a full bottle – it’s somewhat anonymous. Ultimately though, there’s nothing here keeping me away from future Mortlachs.
SMWS 29.99 “Power and Scorched Earth” 20y 59.6% ABV Nose: Strong sherry influence initially, with a bit of toffee behind it, absolutely dominating a faint wisp of peatiness. Very slight medicinal notes, a hint of band-aids. A suggestion of lemon and honey, a touch of white pepper and the faint scent of biscuits baking. Faintly ashy. Palate: Quite massive sherry note to this one, very syrupy mouthfeel. Heat builds slowly. Lightly medicinal and slightly rubbery. A little waxy fruit note early on. A little toffee and some extremely, extremely faint malt. Slightly raisiny. Finish: Plenty of heat, drying slightly but still showing a very strong sherry influence. Slightly rubbery; slightly medicinal. Medium waxy apple skins emerge on the finish and a small bit of smoke. Extremely long lasting finish with a strong sherry texture to it. Comment: I could hardly fathom Laphroaig being overpowered, but here it is. This malt is good enough, but the sherry is so ridiculously overpowering that it’s just over the line into unbalanced. Rating: B Distillery: Laphroaig
SMWS 77.25 “Mouth Numbing Handbags” 23y 57.2% ABV Nose: Nice, a little spirity at first but it’s also slightly floral – almost like a rye at first versus the usual more-flowery floral notes you get in many Scotch whiskies. Substantial white pepper, a bit of toffee. Lightly leathery, slightly grassy. The rye notes fade down after a couple minutes and vanilla comes up. Palate: Malty upfront, with nice white pepper. A bit leathery again but not overpowering. Slightly salty, reasonable wood influence. A bit of hay, slightly musty. A little apple tart note – nice integration of the fruit and grain notes. Some pear along there with it, but again more as a tart. Finish: The apple and pear notes come to the fore immediately with malt and slightly old, dusty wood behind them that’s never bitter. Sits nicely on the tongue. A bit hot – cinnamon instead of white pepper. Comment: Unusually bourbon-influenced nose, but really nice all the way through. Good mix of elements. Rating: B Distillery: Glen Ord
A couple weeks back, Jason of Sour Mash Manifesto, Sku of Recent Eats and I had a discussion on Twitter about Rebel Yell – one we’d all considered buying strictly for the purposes of blogging about. (That surely an placed us all in undocumented subtype of Sku’s Field Guide to Whiskey Collectors) This shared realization led us to one simple conclusion: we should all buy some Rebel Yell and then blog about it. Yep, pretty outrageous and edgy stuff. In fact, this is a coordinated Rebel Yell blog post – you can read Jason’s review of Rebel Yell and Sku’s review as well on their sites.
So, what of Rebel Yell? I’m sure you’ve seen it on the shelf and it’s one of those also-ran whiskies you always pass on, like Ten High and Kessler. Is Rebel Yell the great undiscovered value whiskey gem? Is it the spirit of a Confederate battle cry somehow embodied in a whiskey (warning: loud and weird)? It’s not a nod to Billy Idol, however: Idol credits the name of his song to a meeting with the Rolling Stones where they drank this bourbon, according to Wikipedia.
Rebel Yell is a wheated bourbon and the Rebel Yell site makes efforts to attach itself to the Weller name, though it’s not part of the Buffalo Trace stable. The label says it’s a straight bourbon but provides no age statement, so we know it’s at least four years old and meets the requirements to be called a bourbon (new charred oak casks; has had at least one bar patron speak about it and then go on to claim that “all bourbons must be distilled in Bourbon county”; has caused no less than ten college freshman to swear off the stuff, etc).
So what’s it like? To be completely honest, not much. And that’s not in the way that Levon Helm is not like many others. The nose is unremarkable with some light alcoholic, solventy and spirity notes. There’s a slightly dry and faint grainy note, paired with a little white pepper. There’s also a strange fruity note that shows up as a little bit of pear. Beyond that, it’s a little bit musty. From the nose, I’d almost expect this to be a young Glenfiddich aged in a tired, fifteenth-refill bourbon cask.
The palate has the light sugary notes – somewhere between raw sugar and table sugar. It’s not quite like the really aggressive sugar notes you get off of some Beam products or the Buffalo Trace white dogs, but it again suggests that Rebel Yell doesn’t have a lot of cask influence. There’s a little slight sourness, and a bit of dry wood – but it also has hints of napkins and popsicle sticks, kind of a raw, papery, fibrous wood influence. There’s also a hint of pepper. This really doesn’t seem to show a lot of cask influence. I can only assume that they have a crack team that stands ready to drain a cask the very nanosecond it turns four years old, with a warehouse foreman screaming at the top of his lungs, “WE’RE LOSING MONEY EVERY SECOND THAT WHISKEY IS IN A CASK! GET IT OUT!”
The finish, as is utterly unsurprising with something so new-makey, is relatively quick and sweet. The sugar from the palate is there, but it leans toward canned fruit as well – a touch of peaches and pears.
All things considered, it’s pretty bizarre in my opinion when you consider this is a bourbon. Even Beam, which I clearly don’t have a lot of love for, has more wood influence (it’s just unable to overcome the sweetness of the spirit). This is just light, light, light, with strangely fruity notes that almost take it in a light Scotch direction. Despite the uniqueness – which I can’t lie, unique is a selling point for me – there’s just nothing at all here for me to really care about. There’s nothing to hate, there’s nothing to love. In the end, Rebel Yell, unlike its Confederate battle cry namesake or the undeniably catchy Billy Idol tune, is just forgettable and boring. That’s about the worst thing I can think of to say of about any whiskey.
Rebel Yell 40% ABV
Nose: Mostly alcoholic and with hints of solvent or spirit. Slightly dry notes of faint grain. A bit of white pepper, a bit of white wine – very faint. Somewhat musty. Faint fruit notes, primarily pear, emerge after a bit of time.
Palate: Slightly sugary like raw sugar, but not overt like Beam. A bit of table sugar. Slight sourness, a bit of dry wood. Slight papery, fibrous notes – unbleached napkins or popsicle sticks. A bit of pepper but not much.
Finish: Quick, a bit of sweetness. The slight raw sugar notes persist, but also go slightly fruity – a bit of canned peach and a bit of pear.
Comment: This is one of those whiskeys that shows a reasonably strong new make character. It’s quite light and doesn’t have a lot of presence on the palate or a lot of character overall. It’s odd to get these light fruity notes that I’d almost associate with a Glenfiddich. Not much to really care about here.
Without rehashing history too much, the Single Oak Project is Buffalo Trace’s multi-year project to experiment with seven key variables to see how they affect the profile of a bourbon. At times it’s been called the quest for “the perfect bourbon” – a point that many have correctly noted will not be the end result of this project. I haven’t taken it too literally but have chosen to view this as an in-depth education on these things. However, there are some points to consider – we’ll discuss them later.
The seven variables that are being examined are, once again,
Warehouse (modern concrete vs. traditional wood)
Barrel char (#3 lighter char; #4 heavier char)
Grain tightness (tight, average, wide)
Entry proof (125, 105)
Recipe (wheat, rye)
Stave seasoning time (6 months, 12 months)
Stave location (top of tree, bottom of tree)
Round 3 one again carries through with the usual wheat and rye and grain coarseness variables. This time the other isolated variable is the entry proof – the proof that the spirit is at when it goes into barrels. All barrels in this round were bottom cut, concrete floor, #4 char, 6 month seasoned bottles. As always, the final product is bottled at 90 proof and is 8 years old.
As to the primary experiment of 125 vs 105 entry proof, results were inconclusive. I had a marked preference for the higher entry proof on the tight grained bourbons. I preferred the lower entry proof rye and wheat was a split on the average grain, and on the coarse grain it was split – preferring the higher proof rye and the lower proof wheat. If anything this may indicate a slight preference for higher proof ryes and lower proof wheaters, but there’s a lot of experiments left that will reinforce that or negate the assumption.
Wheaters were slightly my preference this time by average grade, though I thought the best barrel this time out was a rye recipe. Once again, the grain coarseness is also relatively inconclusive, though average grain fared the best overall this time. As more experiments are tried, perhaps some clear preferences may emerge. For now, though, it’s 36 bourbons into a 192 bourbon project – many, many more to go.
So what are the highlights?
I thought Barrel 136 was the best of Round 3. This was a 125-proof entry, coarse grained rye recipe. This had sweetness up front with peaches in the mix, gained heat on the palate and had lots of dimension, but then went surprisingly into tannic territory on the finish with black tea and red wine playing against the caramel and wood. It was complex and interesting.
The best wheater in my opinion was Barrel 120 – a low-proof entry that is primarily a big, sweet bourbon that gets some balance and character from some black cherry notes which shine in the finish, balancing black cherry and maple syrup in a really nice combination.
What ones should be avoided this time out? I thought Barrel 56 was a disorganized, incoherent mess. Drink enough of Barrel 56 and you probably will be too. Barrel 167 wasn’t bad, but again didn’t hold together coherently – sour, earthy, tannic, a little sweet, a little dry. I couldn’t put my finger on anything I distinctly didn’t like (again, nothing near as awful as Release 1′s barrels 3 & 4) but it was completely forgettable and disorganized.
Now, before going on to the full paste of tasting notes, a word about the project. As I was entering my reviews on the Single Oak Project website, I started to notice what I think might be a problem for the experiment’s dataset. Apparently in past reviews I’d been stingy with my scores on their site – I just don’t score whiskies the way they do and a 10-point scale is hard for me to reconcile on things like “color”. For me the score is the sum of its parts and saying something has a 9-point finish is hard to do since it’s part of the whole experience. Anyway, my scores seemed to come in consistently higher than previously – but I will say that I still think Release 2′s Barrel 61 is the best of the bunch. However, my scores on the Single Oak Project website doubtless put several ahead of 61 at this point.
Given that these are spaced out every quarter over 4 years, I’m not sure how accurate the final result will be, especially if people suffer grade inflation like I did this time around. That’s a long time to remain 100% consistent in your scoring of profiles for people who don’t do this for a living.
Overall, Release 3 was agreeable but didn’t have a lot of stand-outs. That’s good in the case of the standouts of Release 1 (mostly bad) but unfortunate compared to Release 2 which I thought was fairly strong. On average though, most of these were decent enough and at least worth a try.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 8, 45% ABV
Nose: Floral. Slight caramel. A little cinnamon, some orange, vanilla. Rather light on the nose. A bit of corn and general grain.
Palate: Mouth-coating and rich. Big push of caramel initially, followed by vanilla, cinnamon, light orange and a bit of black cherry. Starts a gentle warming.
Finish: Strong, big black cherry note at first, heat not present on palate and finish is assertive. White pepper, a bit of marshmallow, light hay. Moderately woody. Nice and long-lasting.
Comment: Really enjoyable finish. This one builds and builds.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 24, 45% ABV
Nose: Caramel and vanilla; maple syrup; thin and lightly solvent in nature. Medium wood. Slightly piney.
Palate: Slightly thin. Bitter wood initially, followed by black cherries and a bit of marshmallows. A light orange note, a touch of maple syrup. Gains heat; somewhat dogged by the bitterness though throughout.
Finish: Hot and dry. Bitter wood and a hint of vegetables (celery root; romaine), a fair amount of cherry, some black pepper. Comment: This is kind of a strange mix of bitterness and heat. Doesn’t work for me.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 40, 45% ABV
Nose: Moderate corn sweetness and a gentle grainy aroma. Maple syrup, light caramel. Very faint white pepper. A bit of blackberry and pomegranate juice on the nose.
Palate: Moderately light mouthfeel, sweet initially with corn notes and some faint maple syrup, a bit of caramel. Gently warming pepperiness. Very mellow. A bit of bitterness that takes a vegetable and greens character. Moderate wood.
Finish: Pepper from the palate and some wood, with a little of the grain from the nose. Some cherry tartness.
Comment: Uncomplicated but pretty enjoyable.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 56, 45% ABV
Nose: Slightly sharp and spirity. Moderate bananas and a bit of marzipan. Red wine. Light grains, faint marshmallow note.
Palate: Thin. Mildly astringent yet oddly buttery. Somewhat woody. Szechuan pepper. Light maple syrup. Moderately warming. Black cherry undertone.
Finish: Hot and initially dry. Maple syrup continues. Slightly medicinal. More straightforward pepper notes; black cherry. Dry in the mouth. Some dry wood.
Comment: Interesting for the assemblage of flavors, but it doesn’t hang together coherently. It’s kind of all over the place.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 72, 45% ABV
Nose: Woody, musty, with a slight pine note. Butterscotch and some caramel. Light vanilla. There’s a slightly roasted, nutty note – peanuts and cashews.
Palate: Moderately thick. Slowly warming. Bitter wood. Some caramel notes. Light cherries. Very very faint dusting of pepper.
Finish: Caramel, light vanilla, medium wood. Some pepper. Rye spice with some floral notes. A bit of black tea tannins.
Comment: A bit harsh – kind of unpleasant.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 88, 45% ABV
Nose: Lightly piney, with moderate wood. Maple syrup, black pepper. Some faint caramel.
Palate: Initially slightly sour; with wood present. Some maple syrup. Sugary notes present as well. Extremely faint vanilla. Light caramel. Some black cherries.
Finish: Warming slightly. Wood carries through, a bit of the sweetness plays counterpoint to the wood. Pepper goes more in the white pepper direction. Vanilla and light marshmallow notes are present. A little black cherry and black tea.
Comment: It’s not bad. It’s a little hotter on the palate than I’d normally like but it’s pretty decent. The dark fruit notes are a touch too dark.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 104, 45% ABV
Nose: Caramel and grain, with some wood. A bit of yeasty, fresh-baked bread. A bit sharp on the nose.
Palate: Somewhat thick mouthfeel; pleasant grains, gentle caramel and light maple syrup sweetness. A dusting of powdered sugar and a hint of fresh doughnuts. Building heat; marshmallow and cherry notes show up. Medium wood
Finish: Black tea tannins initially. Sweet but with some heat. Heavier maple syrup, powdered sugar. Raspberry jam and a bit of wood.
Comment: Sweet with some interesting depth. Not bad at all.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 120, 45% ABV
Nose: Medium wood, caramel, fairly upfront pepper across the nose. Extremely faint black cherry; some dusty grain.
Palate: Sweet caramel, maple syrup in abundance, vanilla and leaning toward marshmallow. Faintly earthy like clay; gentle warmth.
Finish: Caramel and vanilla come through; black cherry starts to build on the finish and has maple syrup as a counterpoint. Nice, gentle grain. Pleasantly lasting.
Comment: Lightly nuanced; primarily a big, sweet bourbon. The finish is really a nice counterpoint on this one, giving some more dark fruit tartness.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 136, 45% ABV
Nose: Sweet on the nose – maple syrup; medium wood presence; white pepper with a dash of cinnamon; a faint touch of peach.
Palate: Warming but sweet – a slight dab of chili oil with caramel; rich mouthfeel. Plenty of vanilla and a faintly earthy touch. Light grains, rye, and becoming slightly dry with a hint of bitter wood.
Finish: Warmth recedes beyond what’s left on the tongue – black tea tannins and a hint of red wine. Some light caramel, wood notes heavy as well as grain.
Comment: Some interesting heat and spice presence here. The nose hides a lot on this one; the palate has heat but not too much, and then the finish goes more tannic. Pretty interesting.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 152, 45% ABV
Nose: Dry on the nose, with an even mix of pepper and wood.Fairly sharp; a bit of prickling. Very dry rye notes with a faint hint of black pepper. A touch of red wine as well. Palate: Caramel, sweet but with a slightly sour edge to it. Plenty of heat on the palate. A bit of maple syrup and cinnamon. A slight bit of black cherry that’s just a touch syrupy and sweet too.
Finish: Drying off again – rye, pepper, a hint of celery root. A bit of orange and cinnamon as well. Moderately long finish.
Comment: Too dry on the nose and on the finish for me to really like this one much. Not bad; just personal taste.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 167, 45% ABV
Nose: Somewhat dry. Cinnamon. some corn providing sweetness, caramel and a little toffee. A hint of vanilla. A bit of soft wheat grain.
Palate: Vanilla; caramel and some toffee. A bit of earthiness. A bit of orange underneath everything. Faint grain. Slight sourness.
Finish: Drying slightly, with some light grains evident. Vague sourness and some corn notes. A bit of black tea tannins.
Comment: This one is a bit hard to pin down in terms of a distinct identity. It doesn’t really seem to have a coherent identity. It doesn’t taste bad but I’d never remember this one.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak, Barrel 184, 45% ABV
Nose: Sweet notes of caramel and maple syrup balanced by wood and white pepper. Some black cherry provides depth on the nose. Some lightly dusty notes and a bit of corn and some soft grain notes.
Palate: Sweet initially, warm on the palate. Gentle heat. Light presence of black cherries; some caramel. Vanilla present but not a strong note. A bit of wheat, a bit of corn, and moderate wood that’s well integrated.
Finish: Sweetness, with black cherries, white pepper, a touch of chili oil, some moderate wood and some light corn providing a bit of a sour note. The finish eventually goes just a touch more sour with wood and a light young vegetal note. Black cherries eventually emerge after that – a nice, long finish.
Comment: This has some good nuance and tastes like a younger Weller. The finish is just a touch off of where I’d like but this could age out into a great whiskey.
Nose: Light notes of caramel and white pepper. A slight undertone of celery root. Light cinnamon, a trace of brown sugar and nutmeg. Very low level vanilla; an element of the nose sits on the cusp of piney young rye and mere solvent.
Palate: Light, a bit of vanilla. Some astringent wood. A bit of caramel. Faint orange and cinnamon.
Finish: Cinnamon up front with a bit of rye. Vanilla and citrus after, with white pepper asserting itself later on.
Comment: It lacks cohesiveness on the palate. The nose is pleasant enough aside from the funky earthy bitter note. Beyond that it’s quite light and forgettable. Not bad, not particularly good. Very middle of the road. There’s nothing bad about this one, there’s nothing that really draws me to it. It doesn’t have much to say.
Buffalo Trace Single Oak 3 landed a week ago, and in my original plan, I would have had a blog post up tonight discussing the ins and outs of release 3. Unfortunately, things transpired differently and I spent the better part of the last week with a cold that required acetaminophen (a terrible mixer with alcohol) and also killed my palate.
However, in my downtime I prepared the Buffalo Trace Single Oaks to split among our group buy. I thought since I’ve written about group buys before, I’d take the opportunity to show you what goes into one like this. I should also say this is, in my opinion, the very best way to do the Single Oak Project, given that there are 192 375mL bottles being released over a four year span.
Last fall I got a lead on a full case of the first release of the Single Oak Project. I contacted some of my friends – former coworkers who had some cash to burn and an adventurous spirit, as well as a couple guys in LAWS including (as always) Sku, who has been writing about this project as well over at Recent Eats. We did the math and figured that splitting a case 6 ways gave everybody just over 2 ounces per bottle, just enough to fit in the usual 2oz bottle you can get from Specialty.
From that point on it’s become a quarterly routine which should continue through until summer 2015 if my math is right. Twelve bottles become 72 sample bottles which are boxed up and handed out.
One of these boxes arrives every quarter and it’s hard to keep it closed for long. There’s something about the process of preparation that, while time-consuming, is an enjoyable ritual.
The bottles are numbered on the exterior and accompanied by a release number sticker. It seems that they planned to release them quicker initially than they have been doing. All of these have had release dates that are much earlier than they’ve actually been coming out.
The bottles, unsurprisingly, come in standard Buffalo Trace fancy-bourbon-bottle tissue paper, which seems to only serve the purpose of obscuring barrel number (on BTSOs) or hiding valuable proof/release info (on BTACs).
Each bottle, as you’ve likely seen by now, is screened with the Single Oak Project logo and has a sticker with the barrel number.
The back label is the same for all bottles and has some information about the project. It’s worth noting that none of the Single Oak Project bottles contain any reference to the variables present on any given bottle. The intent is for you to taste them blind and learn about them on the Single Oak Project website.
Once they’re all removed from the package and paper, I then move onto the next step – photographing the bottles. I like doing this so I can have my own photographs of the bottles. Product photography is something I’ve never worked with (I studied photojournalism) so it’s an interesting challenge. Every time I set up, I tweak something different.
By real standards my approach is hopelessly low-fi. A few 200w balanced fluorescent lights, an off-camera flash, and some posterboard to provide a backdrop. I’m tolerant of some flaws in the photograph given that I also worked as a production artist for a while, so I have plenty of tricks to get the photos where I want in a matter of minutes.
It’s not much but there’s satisfaction in having the ability to shoot without taking up much space storing the gear in our apartment, and without having spent much money. (I think the bulbs were the single most expensive cost in the shooting setup).
I usually take the opportunity to shoot a couple other bottles that I may have soon so I can include them in posts. All in all it’s a fun diversion but it moves quickly. For the technically minded, I’ve been shooting on a Nikon D40 (due to the fact that it’s small and light) with an older 85mm f/1.4 lens which has been one of my favorites for a long time.
After the fun of photography comes the part that is both exciting and nerve-wracking: filling 72 small bottles. Making sure there are enough bottles, caps and labels on hand is important. I usually do a quick inventory beforehand. One thing that some guys are doing in our group buy is recycling their bottles. It helps, especially if they return them as I sent them, as there’s less prep work. Plus, less bottles equal less wasted cash and space – at least to my mind. I’m also not one to keep these lingering around for a long time.
Filling is an interesting balancing act. You need to quiet the part of your mind that says “what if I spill this?” – a voice that is very loud when you know every drop is accounted for and finding these bottles is not exactly easy. If you don’t spill something with a missed pour, maybe you’ll knock over a sample bottle – or worse yet – THE bottle. I’ve found the best thing for me is to just breathe slowly and evenly, move very deliberately and not let go until I know things are stable and flat on a surface. Moving without hesitation on a pour also helps.
This is probably the most nerve wracking process and the best thing to do, at least for me, is to try and remain present and focused strictly on the mechanics of what’s going on. Tracking your progress on the bottle or the set of bottles can cause you to lose focus and make mistakes. It’s this exercise in grounding yourself and being present that is the most difficult part but simultaneously one of the most rewarding.
After two ounces have been poured in, the remainder of the bottle is poured in in small measures using a plastic 5mL pipette that came with some whisky glass order. I don’t think I’ve ever used it for the intended purpose of painstakingly measuring artisan waters flown in from the north of Scotland, but it’s useful here to get everybody full and even.
After about six bottles I need to stop and clear my head and get a breath. I take the opportunity to clean up the counter where I’m working and wash out the bottles so the bourbon smell isn’t too overpowering in the kitchen. Sometimes I get clear notes off of the bourbons (release 2), sometimes I don’t get much unique from bourbon to bourbon (release 3 didn’t have an overwhelming character aside from one bottle that smelled great). I usually will take a break at this point because it’s been about an hour – each bottle takes roughly 10 minutes to fill, counting cleanup time after each bottle.
After pouring and cleaning up, the next step is to parcel each set of 12 bottles into a box that will be given to each of the six guys. To protect the bottles, I cut up pieces of the box that the bottles shipped in to act as dividers among the smaller bottles.
Heat shrink wraps are used to further protect the contents as well. After all of that, it’s basically done aside from the delivery of bottles to their recipients.
I hope you enjoyed the opportunity to see a bit of an unboxing and some of what goes into these BTSO releases. It’s a few hours of work but it’s a really enjoyable process and heightens my anticipation as I go through it. I’m sure in a year or two I’ll be singing a different tune, but for now it’s a very exciting point on my calendar.
I’ll be back soon with reviews of Round 3 as well as other whiskies. Until then, after all this work (and now getting over the cold) – it’s time for a drink.
Any cursory glance of the bourbon shelves these days will reveal a growing selection of flavored whiskeys. Some of these are below 40% and are actually liqueurs – Evan Williams Honey, Southern Comfort, Wild Turkey American Honey. However, there’s one of these flavored whiskeys that actually can bear the name “whiskey” – Red Stag by Jim Beam. And just like the other Stagg – George T., to be exact – it’s got an amazingly huge presence on the palate.
Unfortunately, that was one of the negatives of this tasting.
Red Stag is labeled as a “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Infused With Natural Flavors” – black cherry in this case. The presentation of this and its heritage unfortunately tip that this is not going to be a high-road approach that perhaps mimics some of the extra-aged bourbons that can show beautiful black cherry flavors that develop with some age.
There’s a profile in bourbon that I’m a huge fan of – it’s one that’s more woody, with light vanilla notes, perhaps some pepper, occasionally a marshmallow flavor or some light clay earthiness, with a bold black cherry note as the clear central note. Executed right, these are rich and nuanced bourbons that show how absolutely incredible it can be – especially if you’re of the school that tends to write off bourbon as little more than undrinkable fire-water. I’ll place some of the finer expressions of that against virtually anything. (One really quick way to experience this flavor is to pick up a bottle of Noah’s Mill. The last couple times I’ve had it, it was right down this line with some nice sweetness to complement it).
Given that I’m not generally a fan of Jim Beam due to its tendency to have some very strident sweetness, I had two expectations of this. The first was that it would be heavy-handed and vulgar, with an incredible artificiality. The other possibility which made me chuckle was that they would do it in moderation, and I would find a really interesting if artificially created bourbon that was very close to my favorite profile at a reasonable cost. The idea of having a hoard of Red Stag was endlessly amusing.
When you open up Red Stag, there’s nothing even slightly subtle about it. Even at arm’s length I got a massive and immediate hit of a strong cherry note instead of the faintly sour sweetness you’ll smell from other bottles when you pour from them. I even held the glass above my nose and at arms length and clouds of this smell were pouring from my glass, as if it was some sort of presence that had to fill the room.
I knew immediately which way this was going so I did the only thing I could do: I hid in the armor of cold, emotionless and rational analysis, undertaking this tasting for pure science.
The nose was repellent. Artificial aromas overpower in a huge way. Cherry cough syrup is the first and most immediate scent. Hawaiian Punch and tropical tea can be made out. There’s an artificial “fruit punch” flavor. Oddly, after a moment or two I could catch the faintest glimpse of the signature Beam corn sweetness and turbinado sugar/new make as well a faint bit of graininess. This was after some real digging and intense smelling though; it’s like trying to make out a conversation at an AC/DC concert.
Great. Time for the first sip. Immediately, my panic and flight reaction kicked in. It’s immediately and completely unapologetically syrupy with fruit punch, fake cherry and tropical tea. It’s unbelievably syrupy and fake – there was almost like a liquid Jolly Rancher mouthfeel. Also curiously there was a bit of grape to the flavor. Somewhat less surprisingly, there was some maple syrup notes and overall quality to it. It’s unbelievably sugary, just not in the usual Beam way – unless you usually have your Beam with a couple packets of Kool-Aid dumped in it.
The finish, true to Jim Beam form is light. The syrupy notes persist, with grape Jolly Rancher, fruit punch and cherry cough syrup. There’s also a fleeting dry bourbon note with the Jim Beam new-make sweetness and a touch of rye, but the syrup comes back to dominate again.
Armed with 50 additional mL of Red Stag (50mL more than anyone on this world should drink, and certainly twice my actual requested lifetime allotment), some ice and some Coca-Cola, I began the quest to find the proper dilution of Red Stag to Coke to hit the Cherry Coke note.
The earliest sips at about 1:1 still were overwhelmed by the syrup notes. I tried more, adding a little coke after each sip. Somewhere north of 2:1 (by my estimation) it got in the ballpark but not quite the same. Close enough. Still awful.
There was a moment where I thought this was Jim Beam without the painful new-make notes. Unfortunately, I was overwhelmed by the syrupy cloying sweetness. If you’ve ever wanted to experience getting completely drunk from cough syrup but didn’t want to risk liver damage or the dextromethorphan high, Red Stag is your drink – no question.
In a way, this is a somewhat towering achievement. I used to think Woodford Reserve’s Sonoma-Cutrer finished bourbon was the absolute worst bourbon drink in the world based on its intense fake-grape note. It turns out Red Stag’s jolly rancher taste easily unseated that (this should not even be a category of bourbon, let alone have multiple entrants).
Needless to say, I thought this was terrible. It was one of the worst I’ve ever had, and I’m charitably calling it a whiskey. On that basis, it rocketed straight to the bottom 5 whiskeys I’ve had in my life.
If anyone ever buys this for me I will unfriend them on Facebook.
At a glance:
Red Stag by Jim Beam – 40% ABV
Nose: Oh hell no. Artificial aromas overpower in a big way right out of the gate. Cherry cough syrup. Hawaiian punch. Tropical tea. Fruit punch. Underneath that syrup is the signature Jim Beam corn sweetness and turbinado sugar/new make kind of notes. Just the faintest touch of graininess underneath it. Palate: AW HELL NAW. Punches in the face immediately with big syrup, fruit punch and fake cherry and some tropical tea. Syrupy, fake, kind of a liquid jolly rancher thing happening with just a faint bit of grape. There’s a maple syrup quality to it as well. Sugary as hell but not in the usual Beam way – more Kool-Aid.
Finish: Very light. The syrupy notes persist, with grape jolly rancher, fruit punch, a bit of cherry cough syrup, and oddly enough there’s a distinct dry bourbon note momentarily with some more raw new-make sweetness and a bit of rye.
Comment: For the briefest moment I thought, “Wow, it’s a Jim Beam without the usual new-make agony.” And then I realized it was achieved in the most awful way ever. If you’ve ever wanted to get drunk off of cough syrup but you were afraid of liver damage, your whiskey has arrived. Take a bow, Beam, you guys have managed to easily and handily dethrone Woodford’s deplorable Sonoma Cutrer finish as the most objectionable fake-grape whiskey known to man. (This should not even be a category, let alone have multiple entrants!!) Horrid. Never again. If you buy this for me I will unfriend you on Facebook.