Tag Archives: Jefferson’s

Overhyped & Underrated

This weekend I finally had the opportunity to taste the single most hyped American whiskey of 2012 – the Jefferson’s Ocean Aged bourbon. This whiskey was immediately notorious among whiskey fans for its backstory, which was either a clever idea or the dumbest ploy to date to separate people from their money. The story, in brief, was that a few barrels of bourbon were placed on a research ship and were aged at sea. If you believe the story, the elements encouraged greater wood interaction and gave it a profile of an older whiskey.

Oddly, this all sounds like a familiar version of the usual refrain from microdistilleries (which Jefferson’s/McLain & Kyne are not, they’re an independent bottler) which is some variant of “we have found a way to cheat time by altering some variable regarding the aging process”. Such claims should be regarded with the same suspicion you should have when you hear about cold fusion or perpetual motion. That’s not to say that larger climate differences don’t play a role – bourbons are pushing into greatness in the 8-12 year range and are dangerously woody in the 15-17 year old range, while Scotch whisky is really great at 15-18 and tends to get oakier in its 20s. However, Kentucky and Scotland have definite differences in climate.

If that was all there was to Jefferson’s, it would have just been ignored. This bourbon, however, was limited. Like 250 bottles limited, which is a pretty shockingly small run for a bourbon batch – closer to a single cask scotch release, honestly. And the price tag? It hovered around $200 - if you could find it. Most people couldn’t. The hype naturally blew up on Twitter, and reached fever pitch when K&L had a spirits auction for it. I personally set my over/under line at $750, thinking it’d just barely crest that number given the level of the hype and how crazy people were getting (not to mention the “whisky bubble” factor this year).

I was wrong – dead wrong. It broke the $1000 mark. K&L did a good thing and donated $900 to charity (so don’t crucify them, they just held the auction – your fellow spirits aficionados are the knuckleheads who bid it up that high). Jefferson’s Ocean officially crossed into “bizarre curiosity” territory for me, but with that kind of value on it I didn’t have much thought of ever trying it. Until, as I said, this weekend rolled around.

The actual Jefferson’s bottle we had – photo by Bino Gopal.

So what does aging at sea do? As best I could tell, not a lot. There were light rye notes initially, but then I got a very standard modern bourbon profile with sour, somewhat vegetal aromas on the nose and some lightly woody undertones. There were light hints of raw sugar as well.

The palate was light and a little thin, with faint wood notes, again the slightly vegetal sourness, a bit of corn sweetness, some turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and a touch of cinnamon. The finish opened up a bit and had some light black cherries, more turbinado sugar, a more straightforward cherry note (verging momentarily on Luden’s cough drops), and had an even later faint hint of peanuts.

Jefferson’s Ocean Aged was, to put it simply, very unremarkable.

For me, that’s a very unsurprising result to this ultra-hyped whisky. To be totally frank, it tastes like a very anonymous younger bourbon. I’ll give some benefit of the doubt to the micro-climate-aging and say the Evan Williams Single Barrel was what jumped to mind on when I had this. Good but by no means great – and absolutely NOT worth a thousand dollars.

So, on one hand there’s that, which blew the whiskey world up. On the other hand, we’re in the fall which is traditionally Pappy-and-Buffalo-Trace time. Already my traffic is spiking with searches about Pappy availability. If you hit this post wondering if Pappy or Stagg or Weller or any of the others are available near you, I don’t know. Make friends with your local liquor merchant, they’ll know better and it’s a relationship worth having if you are tracking hyped and limited releases.

But seemingly under the radar and ignored by the mass audience is the absolute best bourbon of 2012 – the Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition for 2012. I’m going to make this hard for me to find any future bottles, but it’s worth spreading the gospel: this is hands-down the best bourbon of 2012.

Start your spending.

This version of Four Roses is a mixture of four whiskies – the 17 year old OBSV that I loved so much earlier this year, an 11 year old OBSV, a 12 year old OBSK (also a great, spicy recipe) and a 12 year old OESK (a higher-corn mashbill). It’s about $75 though some people will no doubt gouge a bit on it. Unlike the boat bourbon, this is worth it.

The nose on the Four Roses has nice spices up front – fresh black pepper, a little cinnamon, some nutmeg in the background. There’s some clay earthiness but it’s balanced by some prominent wood. Caramel, a little fudge, and some molasses add a nice sticky depth. Mint and cedar give some top notes and there’s some corn at the center of it.

The palate has a wonderfully thick, almost syrupy mouthfeel, leading with wood and then building. A sweet, lightly vegetal (in an entirely pleasing way) corn body with accents of cherry and hints of oranges. It’s momentarily a touch salty, balanced with caramel sweetness and a little hint of apples hiding in the back.

The finish leads with wood, unsurprising with the 17 year old bourbon in the mix, black cherries and cinnamon, and it lasts and lasts. It’s a rich, strong finish with a vegetal hint to it that really works well when held as a counterpoint to the sweetness and wood. A little waxy apple emerges as it dries.

The Four Roses Small Batch 2012 LE is everything you’d want in a premium-priced bourbon: ridiculously complex yet totally accessible, full bodied and not overproofed, sweet but not cloying.

And in spite of all of this, everyone’s going to be freaking out about Pappy as usual this year. It’s a shame, because they’re missing out on one of the best.

At a glance:

Jefferson’s Ocean Aged Bourbon 41.15% ABV
Nose: Light rye notes initially, but then a very standard modern bourbon profile with sour, somewhat vegetal aromas and some lightly woody undertones. Light hints of raw sugar as well.
Palate: Light and a little thin, with faint wood notes, again the slightly vegetal sourness, a bit of corn sweetness, some turbinado sugar, brown sugar, and a touch of cinnamon later in the palate.
Finish: Opens up a bit with a light dose of black cherries, more turbinado sugar, a more straightforward cherry note (verging on Luden’s cough drops). Later faint hint of peanuts.
Comment: Very unremarkable.
Rating: C+

Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition – 2012 55.7% ABV
Nose:  Nice spices up front – fresh black pepper, a little cinnamon, some background nutmeg. A little mix of clay earthiness, but there’s some prominent wood. Caramel, a little fudge, some molasses. A little mint and a cedar aroma too. Corn at the heart.
Palate:  Thick and syrupy mouthfeel, a little wood leads and then continues to build. Sweet, lightly vegetal (in an entirely pleasing way) corn body with a little cherry accents, some hints of oranges; slightly salty for a moment; caramel sweetness and a little hint of apples hiding.
Finish:  Leads with wood, black cherries and cinnamon, lasts and lasts. Very rich and strong finish; a hint of vegetal character that really works well when held as a counterpoint to the sweetness and wood quality. A little hint of waxy apple as it dries faintly.
Comment:  Ridiculously complex but totally accessible, full bodied and not overproofed, sweet but not cloying, probably the best bourbon all year.
Rating: A-

Canadian Rye, Three Ways

There are a number of whiskies out there that sit in the “American”/”Bourbon” section of your local liquor store that should more appropriately be sitting in the Canadian section. Three highly-regarded ryes – WhistlePig, Masterson’s, and Jefferson’s, despite hanging out next to Rittenhouse, Jim Beam Rye, Sazerac and others, are actually produced in Canada. You’ll see this usually acknowledged in teeny type on the label somewhere.

My interest in looking at these a while back was spurred by seeing a bottle of WhistlePig in one of my local haunts that had a store-made shelf talker which loudly announced WhistlePig as being made in Vermont.

That seemed odd to me – rye is in short supply these days and it’s not one of those things that a lot of people are producing. It’s a ridiculously tough grain to work with when compared to the other options out there, and has a tendency to get really sticky. (Don’t believe me? Try making some rye bread – even if rye is only 30-40% of the total flour weight, you will quickly see how much stickier rye is than wheat).

I looked on the back and saw the “Produced in Canada” label. Ah yes. It’s as American as William Shatner, poutine and ice hockey. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I love Star Trek as much as the next guy.

Digging some more, I saw two other ryes were noted as sharing some similarities with WhistlePig: Masterson’s and Jefferson’s. All three are 10 year old straight ryes, just at differing proofs. Clearly the best thing to do is have a shootout.

Starting at the top is the most expensive and probably most well known rye, WhistlePig. It’s garnered some awards and has developed a pretty good reputation. Its following is maybe not the most fervent out there, but that’s because it’s pricing itself into the premium end of North American whiskies.

WhistlePig’s nose is initially dry and slightly spicy, with a fairly hefty dose of wood. There’s a trace of black pepper, some oranges providing some zesty top-end to the nose, and a gentle caramel influence. Confectioner’s sugar, gentle cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg and faint clove rounded out the nose.

The palate started woody initially, with a slightly dry and light mouthfeel, but that opened up. It started to get more sweet, and cinnamon also added some heat to the palate. It was lightly floral as I commonly find ryes to be, and there was a slight caramel tone to the sweetness.

The finish was initially warm, but the heat faded, and left a slightly caramel sweetness with a good dose of rye and gentle spices. White pepper heat contrasted with nutmeg, and it all resolved to a wood finish.

Does WhistlePig live up to the hype? It’s a pretty good nose for a rye, with tons of baking spices competing for your attention. A little sweetness helps round out the palate and provides nice contrast with the spice and wood. It’s got tons of character and at 10 years, the really piney notes you get from a lot of ryes have been tamed.

That’s a promising start for this whiskey. The next up was Masterson’s, which came in at 45% ABV (compared to WhistlePig’s 50%).

Masterson’s nose was spicy and initially sharp, with white and black pepper abundant. It opened up to the familiar note of confectioner’s sugar and some sweet toffee. There was definitely wood again on the nose, but overall the nose was predominantly sweet with spice as a shading. I couldn’t help but shake the image of a fresh beignet when nosing this.

The palate entered with a light to moderate weight, with wood and a slow, spicy heat initially – again in the form of cinnamon. There was a very agreeable mellow sweetness permeating everything, with confectioner’s sugar giving some direct sweetness. It was gently sweet and had some faint piney notes, and again reminded me of a pastry.

The finish was sweet and agreeable with gentle toffee, but a more pronounced caramel character and a touch of maple syrup. There’s a light wood influence that was obvious, and it even had a slightly vanilla character to me.

Masterson’s had an undeniable similarity to WhistlePig, though at the lower proof, the sweetness shone through. It lacked some of the complexity on the nose, but had a more easygoing sweetness not found in the WhistlePig. Overall, I thought it was really nice.

Finally, the last option was Jefferson’s Rye, also 10 years old, and splitting the proof difference at 47%.

The nose on Jefferson’s was lightly woody and had traces of pine. Sweetness with the expected confectioner’s sugar, as well as some caramel led on the nose, with gentle cinnamon and a touch of anise to add a little more dimension.

The whisky had a medium mouthfeel, fairly rich and again led with wood and built heat slowly with cinnamon. The woody character lightened but remained present. Toffee and maple syrup developed in the background. Overall, the palate seemed to have a nice gentle heat and an agreeable balance between wood and sweetness. Again, like the Masterson’s, I thought the palate was slightly bready like a fresh doughnut. (Actually, it reminded me most of a malasada).

The finish was sweet and slightly minty at first, but then was dominated by wood with a little cinnamon and rye. It was slightly bitter, and a little nutmeg went along with the wood.

Again, I found Jefferson’s a pretty good whisky. Given that it runs a little cheaper it might be the best buy of the bunch. Tasting in this sequence though, I thought it lacked a clear identity when compared to the spice cabinet of WhistlePig or the decadent pastry sweetness of Masterson’s.

So that leads us to the obvious conclusion: Which of these straight ryes is worth buying?

Well, truthfully, I wouldn’t be ashamed to have any of these on my bar. They’re all good, but they do something slightly different.

If you’re a spice fan and don’t mind a little heat and slight dryness, you should check out WhistlePig. I really enjoyed the nose on this one, and every aroma was distinct and clear.

If you’re a sweet tooth, head straight for Masterson’s. In retrospect I think I might prefer Masterson’s to the WhistlePig; a little extra water seemed to get this one sorted in the right direction for me. Don’t expect this to be as totally creamy sweet as an E yeast Four Roses, we’re still talking about a 100% rye mashbill.

If you can’t decide, are a newcomer to 100% rye whiskies, or your budget is tighter? Jefferson’s. If you want something a little sweeter, you should go with Masterson’s, and if you want a little spicier, WhistlePig is your ticket. While I’d say this was my least favorite of the three, it’s only because the other two had clearer identities in a 3-way tasting. I still have this as my bottle on the bar and will enjoy every drop that I don’t share out as a sample.

Honestly, of these three, I don’t think there’s a bad choice. And that’s great for all of us.

At a glance:

WhistlePig 10y Straight Rye 50% ABV
A dry, slightly spicy nose with a solid wood influence, light black pepper, light oranges, a gentle caramel body, light powdered sugar, gentle cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg and a faint touch of clove.
Palate:  Initially dry and light and slightly woody; sweetness starts to show as the cinnamon heats up the palate. Lightly floral and again a slight caramel body to the sweetness.
Finish:  Warm initially, but the heat fades and leaves a lightly caramel sweetness with a good dose of rye and gentle spices on top. White pepper provides the heat with a shade of nutmeg. Resolves to wood.
Comment:  A nicely aged rye with balance, spice, and character. Tons of interest and the age does a lot to tame any overly piney characteristics that you get in too many ryes these days.
Rating: B+

Masterson’s Rye 45% ABV
Spicy and sharp initially, white and black pepper in abundance. Opens up with some confectioner’s sugar and a sweet toffee note. Wood is evident but the nose is predominantly sweet with spice. Smells slightly like a fresh beignet. 
Light-to-moderate body, enters a little woody and a slow spicy heat – gentle cinnamon. Mellow sweetness all around. Confectioner’s sugar again. Gentle spice, very faintly piney. Faint pastry sweetness.
Sweet and agreeable; gentle toffee but more light caramel and a touch of maple syrup. Light wood influence is obvious on this, even a touch of vanilla. 
Quite similar to WhistlePig, but a little sweeter. 

Jefferson’s Rye 10y 47% ABV
Lightly woody and with traces of pine. Sweet with caramel, a light touch of confectioner’s sugar, some gentle cinnamon and a touch of anise. 
Medium richness, wood at the entry and a gentle cinnamon build. Wood lightens but remains present, more toffee and a touch of maple syrup in the background. Gentle heat, and a reasonable balance between wood and sweetness. Slightly bready, like a fresh doughnut. 
Sweet with a slightly minty note for a second, but then predominantly on wood with a little cinnamon and rye. Ever so slightly bitter; a little nutmeg goes along with the wood. 
Pretty good. Not a bad rye for the price, in fact.