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Finding The Heir To Pappy

Everyone’s Van Winkled out this year, and it’s not likely to get any better. What options do we have out there?

To be clear, this isn’t a search for the next best wheated bourbon. I’m simply trying to get to the bottom of the question of what we should turn our focus to in the absence of any sort of reasonable shot of finding Pappy Van Winkle. What’s the absolute best bourbon out there on the shelves that you have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding?

To make sure one particular tasting session doesn’t sway the results, there are a few criteria we’re going to be judging this one on.

Appropriately “Bourbon-y” Name: “Pappy Van Winkle” is practically the picture of southern bonhomie. “Pappy” as a word alone just works. Append it to anything and you’d swear it was from south of the Mason-Dixon line. For example, “Pappy’s Village Vanguard.” Holy crap, hard swinging bebop in an Atlanta speakeasy. Done deal.

Availability: If it’s as hard to find as Pappy, then just buy Pappy.

Rugged, Cool Persona: Look, you may love Evan Williams Wild Honey. Fact is, it’s just not going to pass muster. Honey undermines the entire thing. Whiskey is as much the wild west as it is the deep south, and Lee Van Cleef would have shot Blondie dead if he found out he was sucking down some artificial-cherry-flavored monstrosity. And rightfully so.

Smooth, Easy Drinking Character: While I’m not a fan of lionizing “smoothness” as the end-all, be-all desirable trait in a bourbon, the simple fact is that Van Winkle is tremendously easy drinking. If it’s not agreeably drinkable all night either neat or on the rocks, it’s just not going to be a worthy heir.

Unlikely To Be Usurped By Foodies: I love a good meal as much as the next guy. But let’s not kid ourselves, the celeb chefs helped drive the mystique of Pappy, which got zillions of foodies interested, which no doubt got the New York Post writing about it. Ideally this will either fly under the radar or just not work for that crowd.

Finally, we will of course score with an eye to taste because that can’t be ignored.

Our whiskeys of choice:

George T. Stagg – We’ll use the 2012 edition of this perennial favorite for this article. The 70-something-percent bruiser routinely tops aficionados’ lists of best whiskeys of the year. Is it time to trade wheat in for rye?

Rock Hill Farms – A 100 proof rye recipe bourbon made by Buffalo Trace. Maybe you’ve tried it. Maybe not. We’ll see how it stacks up.

Baker’s – Not rare by any stretch, a 107 proof rye recipe from Beam.

Basil Hayden’s - Relatively easy to find, one of the lesser-heralded Beam small batch whiskeys at 80 proof.

Elmer T. Lee – a beloved (by those in the know) 90 proof Buffalo Trace sipper.

Old Weller Antique 107 – Another 107 proof entry, from Buffalo Trace and a wheater. If you aged this, theoretically it could become Pappy.

Jim Beam White Label - Utterly available. Maybe the love of our lives has been right in front of our eyes in this 80 proofer.

That’s more than enough entries. Let’s begin the competition!

Appropriately Bourbon-y Name

We’re looking for a certain rustic charm, something that suggests classic Americana, southern tradition, but a certain aged wisdom. By the numbers:

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Middle of the road. I don’t know Baker, but it does make you think of apple pie, which is pretty darned American. However, there’s no big Southern call to arms. 6
Basil Hayden’s Not quite there. It evokes Basil Rathbone, who is certainly old-timey but decidedly not American. If you don’t think of him, then you’re probably thinking of Italian herbs, which clearly means this is a miss.  4
Elmer T. Lee Now we’re getting somewhere. Elmer probably word-associates to “Fudd” for many of us, that works. Lee, of course – the General Lee or Robert E. Lee – if your mind goes to Hazzard County or history class, we’re in the deep south. High marks. 7
Jim Beam White Label  It’s hard to dock the name “Beam” any points, and Kid Rock’s recent association has certainly bolstered attempts to reclaim the South, but – wait a minute — Kid Rock is from Michigan! This really is like “Johnnie Walker”: A lot of people don’t even know it’s scotch. Middle of the road.  6
George T. Stagg (2012) An undeniable, huntin’ kind of name, this brings to mind camping, deers, elaborate outdoorsy designs burned into leather belts, and so on. What goes better with cowboys than whiskey? I don’t know what.  9
Old Weller Antique This isn’t bad. “Old Weller” both sounds old and has history; you might also mishear it as Old Yeller. It could be improved by dropping the “d” (“Ol’ Weller”) or getting a little more colloquial – “Ol’ Timey” – or moonshiney-misspelled (“Anteek”). “Weller’s Ol’ Timey Whiskey” would have scored higher. 8
Rock Hill Farms Sounds like a premium lunchmeat. “Rock Hill Farms Black Forest Ham” sounds more accurate than “Rock Hill Farms Kentucky Straight Bourbon”.  2

AVAILABILITY

What good is the heir to Pappy if it’s just as hard to find as Pappy?

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Reasonably easy; you won’t necessarily find this at a convenience store but certainly anything decently stocked (BevMo, BevWa, K&L, Wally’s, Wine House, etc) is going to have it.  7
Basil Hayden’s A little less common than Baker’s but still roughly as available. Rumor has it that this may be dropping the age statement which could contribute to the mid-grade challenge of finding it.  6
Elmer T. Lee Slightly less common than Basil Hayden’s and occasionally off the shelves; mentioned as a shortage possibility by David Driscoll earlier this year. Perhaps the word of this one is getting out there. 5
Jim Beam White Label  I think McDonald’s and Starbucks now sells this stuff. Ubiquitous.  10
George T. Stagg (2012) I’ll trade you 180 hen’s teeth for your Stagg. 1
Old Weller Antique Again, reasonably common anywhere Buffalo Trace is sold. This would generally be in the class of a Baker’s.   7
Rock Hill Farms Roughly as common as Elmer T. Lee – one of those secondary brands that is available when there’s shelf space to spare. Frequently crowded out by an undistinguished, overpriced micro.  5

Rugged, cool persona

Them good ol’ boys drank whiskey and rye. They didn’t have themselves none of those city-slicker artisan whiskeys with labels designed by guys in San Francisco who were busy checking Twitter. We may love SoMa, but Pappy can’t be replaced by some dude giving you an elevator pitch for his startup before he hops on his bike to go back to the Mission.

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Familiar. “Who brought this whiskey?” “Oh, it’s Baker’s – you should ask him where he got it.” Also, baking is a hands-on job, so I’ll give it that. However, the name doesn’t involve cowboys, meat, fistfights, wranglin’ cattle, or anything like that.  6
Basil Hayden’s Too busy playing the grand piano to be evaluated.  2
Elmer T. Lee He may be an older dude, but ol’ Elmer could have kicked your ass back in his day. This is spiritual kin to Pappy. Old Grand-Dad would have scored similarly but that particular old dude’s deeds weren’t heroic enough for us to remember his name. Now Elmer just hangs out on the porch, tells you stories about the war, and makes cultural references that predate you by a couple decades. Southern cool. 8
Jim Beam White Label Rugged for sure; Jim Beam would fistfight a riding lawnmower and win. However, Jim Beam is a kissing cousin of tequila: things might just get a little out of control when he shows up to the party. Rugged, yes. Cool in the Paul Newman sense? Maybe not so much. 7
George T. Stagg (2012) With a name like George T. Stagg you’re pretty much destined to win any “rugged, cool” competition.  9
Old Weller Antique Not bad. This is what the younger guys go for when they want to seem older, but not disrespectful to tradition. Rough and tumble but with some refinement – that’s what we’re looking for.  6
Rock Hill Farms Bristol Farms, Rock Hill Farms. Overpriced, slightly upscale grocery stores with small selections and smaller parking lots. About as ruggedly cool as an NPR pledge drive. 2

SMOOTH, EASY DRINKING CHARACTER

Again, the hunt is for something that’s as easily quaffable as Pappy. Ultra high proof may be enjoyable on its own, but it’s not something that fits the Pappy mold. Which of our bourbons scratches that itch?

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Runs a bit hot. If you’ve developed your manly bourbon drinking skills, this should be no real challenge though. Impress your friends as they choke on their weak 80 proof drinks.  5
Basil Hayden’s  More “watery” than “smooth”. Has that kind of weird disagreeable character that ruins Irish whisky as well.  6
Elmer T. Lee  Sweet and rich. This is right down the line of “easy drinking”. However, as a single barrel with no real information on the label, you might get stung by an odd barrel.  8
Jim Beam White Label  The secret weapon of drinkability. Identifiably bourbon, no strange grain, massive batches for consistency, but low proof enough that you can drink all night. It may not taste like much, but it’s easy to drink.   7
George T. Stagg (2012) About as “smooth and easy drinking” as a salad of cinnamon and fire ants. Hellaciously good but even the most hardcore of bourbon lovers will admit to giving this one a splash of water.  4
Old Weller Antique  Given that this stuff eventually becomes Pappy, it should be no surprise that it’s an easy sipper. Like Baker’s, can run a touch warm.  7
Rock Hill Farms No! At least the barrel I tried was harsh and tannic – barrel variance here may kill you if you’re trying to look cool and get a mouth full of black tea and wood shavings.  4

UNLIKELY TO BE USURPED BY FOODIES

There’s no doubt that the shortage of Pappy has been in part driven by the embrace it’s received from celebrity chefs and foodies outside of the bourbon circle. More buyers on rare stuff means less to go around, which potentially puts any of these in the same crunch as Pappy. Let’s check.

Whiskey Comment Score
Baker’s Second fiddle to Booker’s, lacks glamour in its price tier – outgunned by the more popular Woodford and Maker’s options. Probably safe for some time.  6
Basil Hayden’s Mentioned in passing in a food diary by Alton Brown, though not praised or reviled. Uncomfortably close but safe. Seems to have more traction among the cocktails crowd than epicures.  5
Elmer T. Lee Quietly under-appreciated though spoken of highly when mentioned in foodie contexts.  7
Jim Beam White Label Broadly safe. Yes, a likely pick for more honest-to-god homestyle cooking when making bbq, but when elevated to higher cuisine, Jim stays home and his older brother Knob Creek or that Woodford guy gets the call.  8
George T. Stagg (2012)  Clearly the next big thing.  3
Old Weller Antique DISQUALIFIED.
Mentioned by David Chang in the Fallon video. Technically he’s holding a W.L. Weller, but he’s talking Old Weller. Having made the cut to be in the video, it’s already in dangerous territory.
 0
Rock Hill Farms Tumbleweed. Maybe safer than even Jim Beam white.  9


TASTING

This is where the rubber meets the road. While we may be tired of the Pappy hype, it’s undeniable that its reputation has been earned thanks to the consistently great taste it delivers. In this set, we will assign numeric scores to the letter grades – F is 0, D- is one, and so on, up to A+ being worth 12 points.

Baker’s 7y 53.5% ABV
Nose:
  A light sweetness, with a good hearty dose of wood, some caramel and a touch of vanilla. Familiar beam sugary notes come through after a minute. Gets a bit thin and slightly peppery. Softens with a bit of time in the glass.
Palate:  A little cinnamon up front, some heat on the lips. Lots of caramel, some wood, a very little bit of dried orange. Slightly leathery and a hint of tobacco.
Finish:  A little kick of black cherries upfront, some vanilla behind and then a little light pepper.
Comment: This drinks a little hotter than it should, but it’s one of the best Beam products I’ve had. Nice caramel body.
Rating: B-

Basil Hayden’s 8y 40% ABV
Nose:
  Slightly watery and thin upfront; caramel and a reasonable amount of wood. Lightly peppery, a touch of orange. A fair amount of vanilla.
Palate:  Thin on the palate, leads slightly sweet with a little bit of caramel and sugar; a little hint of orange. A little slight sour corn note that is more classic bourbon than new make. A little wood but it’s kind of a waterlogged oaky note. Vanilla fairly abundant.
Finish:  Thin, a little cinnamon heat but it’s kind of quick. Surprising heat given the mellowness of the rest of it. A slightly nutty note late. A touch of vanilla, the faintest hint of black cherry.
Comment:  This is just kind of bland and OK. Decent if you’re maybe trying to graduate to bolder bourbons and you’ve been drowning bottom-shelf stuff in cola.
Rating: C+

Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel 45% ABV
Nose: 
Light and sweet. Caramel upfront with a faintly floral and piney rye presence. a very faint touch of black cherries, lightly dry tobacco, a touch of black pepper. 
Palate: 
Light but not entirely thin. Caramel and vanilla lead with some gentle wood influence behind; a light dose of oranges and a faint touch of orange zest. Suggestions of cinnamon, a hint of black cherry and a faint bubblegum.
Finish: 
Black cherry surprisingly leads with an unexpected heat. Goes back towards caramel and vanilla with a faint hint of pineapple (pushing slightly towards Juicy Fruit gum). Gentle wood influence. 
Comment: 
A nice easy sipper. Very well done with some good dimension. It’s possible that if some of the edges were sanded down this could be a B+. 
Rating:  
B

Jim Beam White Label 40% ABV
Nose: 
Lightly spiced with a very faint touch of nutmeg, pepper, mainly a light bit of rye. Some caramel. Thin, a bit watery, some more straight alcohol notes on the nose.
Palate:  A light trace of wood, corn sweetness, slightly vegetal. Caramel creeping in at the edges. A bit of the Beam raw sugar taste and some building heat. Watery and light.
Finish:  A bit hot, slightly peppery, with a little show of wood. Again a slightly sour presence. Faintly doughy.
Comment:  Watery and unremarkable. Fine for mixing, mostly unobjectionable neat but an awful boring pour.
Rating: C+

George T. Stagg 2012
Nose: 
Familiar Stagg nose – tons of caramel and a good bit of wood with a very heavy dose of cinnamon on top. Black cherries,  some toffee. 
Palate: 
Rich mouthfeel, fairly caramel heavy with a touch of corn sweetness, seasoned wood, cinnamon, and chili oil. Plenty of heat!
Finish: 
Black cherries and black tea lead, wood right behind. Quite woody and a touch tannic. Caramel and corn. Lasts and lasts. 
Comment: 
Sweeter than some previous Staggs with lots of caramel, but an unexpected tannic element this year. Good but not as gloriously complex as in the past. Water, unlike the past, does this no favors at all. 
Rating:
B+

Old Weller Antique (Private Barrel Selection) 53.5%
Nose:
Slightly dry with wood and black pepper; a light but dry hint of black cherries on the back end. Almost medicinal, like a Luden’s cough drop. Lightly vegetal – slight corn husks and turbinado; a hint of romaine heart and celery root. Light cinnamon.
Palate:  Light in the mouth, leading immediately with the black cherry note but then the cinnamon takes over with some heat which increases. Some light corn; a boozy buttercream character balanced with some raw sugar.
Finish:  Black cherry, dry wood. Corn sweetness. Lasting and resolves to wood.
Comment:  This is just a touch drier than I prefer but nice. An interesting nose – though it’s got a strongly vegetal component, it’s not necessarily new-makey or funky… it just has that character.
Rating: B

Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel 50% ABV
Nose:
  Dry and slightly piney, lightly peppery, heavy rye influence. Woody and slightly funky. Dark, dark, dark black cherry note. After a bit, a slightly caramel top note but it’s watery and blown out by the tannin bomb.
Palate:  Mouth coating, a little vanilla upfront but then dominated by that almost oppressive wood and rye note with a piney kick. Fairly tannic.
Finish:  Warm upfront, fades – black tea in huge measure initially, then wood, pepper, rye, a touch of black cherry. Slightly astringent.
Comment:  I’ve seen more positive reviews elsewhere and since this is a single barrel product there will obviously be a large amount of variation. However, this one absolutely doesn’t do it for me.
Rating: C-

 

Name Available Rugged? Smooth Foodies Taste Total
Bakers 6 7 6 5 6 7 37
Basil Hayden’s 4 6 2 6 5 6 29
Elmer T. Lee 7 5 8 8 7 8 43
Jim Beam White Label 6 10 7 7 8 6 44
George T. Stagg 9 1 9 4 3 9 35
Old Weller Antique 8 7 6 7 0 8 36
Rock Hill Farms 2 5 2 4 9 4 26

As we can see, Rock Hill Farms shouldn’t have been in this race. Basil Hayden’s also didn’t really know what it was doing with itself. Old Weller and Baker’s made respectable showings, and George T. Stagg was right there with them (and likely could have won had it been an overall bourbon excellence comparison). That left us with two to battle it out for the top spot. Elmer T. Lee made a respectable showing, but we’re clearly left with one conclusion:

If you like Pappy Van Winkle but don’t want to deal with the cost or hassle, the next bourbon you should be drinking, without a doubt, is Jim Beam White Label.

0

And on that bombshell, goodnight!

 

Thanks to Josh Feldman for the RHF sample!

Whiskey’s Other Stag

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.

I registered my disgust on Twitter and Sku responded, saying “You can’t drink it neat. Throw it on ice with soda…then it actually does taste like Cherry Coke.

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. 
Rating:
D-

Gift Packs: Bargains Galore

A while back, I wrote about how useful a good glass can be for appreciating everything a whiskey has to offer. The right shape of glass will help focus some of the aromas that would otherwise blow past your earlobes and set on your forehead in a traditional old fashioned glass. My favorite, as I’d mentioned, was the Glencairn glass.

In the last few weeks of shopping, I’ve seen holiday gift sets starting to appear on shelves, and there’s been a number of them with Glencairn glasses. Better yet, the price is right. If you’ve been curious about these glasses but don’t want to pony up $10-12 for a single glass, then the holidays are your absolute best time to pick one up at a low cost.

One gift pack I saw is an Old Pulteney 12 Gift Pack (I saw the actual article at the Wine House recently). This pairs two Glencairn glasses with an Old Pulteney logo, as well as a bottle of the 12 year old Old Pulteney. It’s a great bargain: about $35 gets you the two glasses and a bottle of Old Pulteney. If you’ve never had Old Pulteney, it’s a great, low-risk way to try it – even if you don’t like the bottle, you will have two great glasses.

Another was a Glenfiddich gift set. It looks like the major stores will be selling an Americanized version with two old fashioned glasses. However, I have stumbled across a different version: a bottle of Glenfiddich 12, a Glenfiddich logo Glencairn, and a small “tasting diary”. The tasting diary looked like a pretty decent quality, small, moleskine-type notebook (but very very thin). At less than $25, you’re basically paying $12 for the whiskey – a great deal.

You might also find that some stores put out old stock they may have gotten at a low cost from distributors, or have had warehoused over the last year. I saw an Old Forester Prohibition Repeal set this week as well. This set couples an Old Forester logo Glencairn (their press release from the time calls it a “snifter” – fine) and a 375mL bottle of Old Forester in a prohibition-era style bottle. It also includes an Old Forester logo pen and a scroll of the 21st Amendment. “Suitable for framing”, no doubt. I can always use a pen. This gift set was released in 2008 and I found it on shelves at the end of 2011. Keep an eye out.

If you think the Glencairn is impossibly dorky and just for people who are too precious about the whole thing, you could be right. There are some decent quality old fashioned glasses to be had out there; and sometimes you want a cocktail (say… an old fashioned). My favorite example of these were the Four Roses Single Barrel gift set. A bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel (recipe unknown, at least on my bottle) and two old fashioned glasses of pretty good quality. Four Roses is a great bourbon. If they ever start putting recipes on the label, keep your eyes peeled for the OBSK recipe – it’s great. Most of the major bourbon producers seem to be going the route of old fashioned glasses, so it’s an easy pickup.

Beyond that, there are some great bargains to be had. I’ve seen Glenmorangies cropping up recently with samples of their finishing experiments (Astar, Lasanta, Quinta Ruban, Nectar D’or) bottled alongside a Glenmorangie Original. The usual Macallan 12 with samples of Macallan 18 tucked inside are also showing up. Given the entry fee of $140/bottle for the 18, it’s a great way to try it if you haven’t.

I’ve also seen Johnnie Walker Black packaged with a small flask as well as Jim Beam white label with a flask. If you don’t have one, this could be a good place to pick one up along with a good, accessible bottle for guests who may not share more esoteric tastes (or might simply want to mix with something).

Hopefully you can find something that kills two birds with one stone this season – and don’t forget to pick up a gift for a friend. It can be an unexpected gift that might kick off a passion – especially if they have someone to help show them the ropes.

Angels & Devils

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.

Devil's Cut & Angel's Envy

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