Tag Archives: tales from the bottom shelf

2013 World Tour: South Africa Via Florida

Like many whiskey lovers, I’m always looking for something new and interesting on the shelf. I always am looking for an unusual bottle shape or a label I don’t recognize so that I can find something new and different.

Last fall, I was in in one of my local stores in the early holiday shopping season, and was scanning past a lot of noise – “festive” crap mostly targeted at wine drinkers but cross-marketed to festoon your whisky bottle with some sort of dopey flair. Who doesn’t need a mistletoe charm to slip around the neck of their bottle of Jack Daniel’s, anyway?

As I was scanning, something caught my eye – a plastic pouch. I moved in to look, and was revolted and enchanted at the same time. I had in my hand a “Porta Shots” pack of Kings Crown Whiskey, with the absolute most generic artwork ever. For a moment, I’ll retract my criticism of silly bottles like Thor that are a little too art-directed. Let’s just agree categorically that your packaging artwork should not be done in CorelDraw.

The treasure, in all its glory.
The treasure, in all its glory.

What the hell is King’s Crown? I figured, since this was precariously occupying the tense border between bourbon and, uh.. artistan… moonshine… that it was probably some sort of low-rent, ultra-reject whisky from Indiana, or maybe a head-heavy cut of something unremarkable out of Heaven Hill that they figured they could make a few bucks off of.

More detail photos than anything else on this site.

I flipped the pouch over to divine the provenance of this and was immediately taken aback. This “Straight Whiskey” hails from South Africa, specifically the North West province. Apparently the climate is such that you can grow “some of the worlds’ best corn (Maize)”. I’m sure it’s nice, but as a midwestern boy, I’m going to say that you’ll be hard pressed to beat midwestern sweet corn in the summer. That is another debate entirely.

Seems legit.
Seems legit.

Since Bain’s and Three Ships aren’t commonly stocked where I shop, this would be my first African whiskey. This isn’t necessarily the ambassador the local industry might like, I’m sure, but it’s the one I found. For what it’s worth, we have a Tampa-based importer (and PortaShots themselves in Ocala, FL) to thank for bringing us this bounty.

A small amount of the bounty contained within.
A small amount of the bounty contained within.

The Porta Shots package is pretty bizarre and sets expectations appropriately. It’s a large resealable plastic outer pouch with 25 individually sealed pouches of whiskey. The layout on the pouch itself is a little more, shall we say, traditional, but still declasse enough to make most generic mystery-blend bottom-shelfers look like luxurious and grand whiskies. Also of note was a faint hint of corn whiskey when the package was opened. Hmmm.

OK, OK, maybe a LITTLE art direction for whisky packaging is OK.
OK, OK, maybe a LITTLE art direction for whisky packaging is OK.

Each packet contains 30mL and is roughly about twice as big as a regular Heinz Ketchup packet. It’s plastic instead of some sort of foil like those Heinz packets though. I anticipated this would be a tough one to open, despite a helpful “tear here” label, and this was confirmed. No easy tear was available, so I grabbed a pair of scissors, snipped the corner and poured it into a glencairn to give it a fair shot. It poured surprisingly dark.

Government warning, continued: you probably ought to consider not opening this.
Government warning, continued: you probably ought to consider not opening this.

I held the glass up to my nose and sniffed. I was immediately overcome by a reflexive central nervous system response that was somewhere between involuntary twitching and a panic response to get away from toxic chemicals. Despite the color, this was all clearly very, very young whiskey – bearing an incredibly aggressive punch upfront of raw alcohol notes, acetone, low-quality corn whiskey, raw sugar and a general newmake sweetness. Except that it’s not like your average newmake, this is bad. From the nose, I’d guess the color to be completely artificial because this bears virtually no cask influence on the nose.

The palate is similarly young – completely dominated by sugary notes and an undeniable white dog character. It doesn’t have the heat of any of the uncut white dogs you might have tried (owing no doubt to its strength), but it has that rawness. It lacks the sweet corn notes you’ll taste in Buffalo Trace’s white dog, and rests almost entirely on a bland sweetness.

The finish, which I expected to be vanishingly quick and unpleasant was actually the most nuanced part of this whiskey. The corn presence seemed most pronounced here, and even had a slight bubblegum sweetness for a second before returning to corn and newmake notes.

The bag says “Straight Whiskey”, and I don’t buy it in terms of adherence to the US definition (4 years minimum to avoid age statement). As an imported product this likely avoids that regulation, but this was either the most mysterious cask ever – imparting color but zero flavor, or it was aged briefly and colored. My bet is heavily on the latter.

It’s unfortunate to see whiskey of this quality on the shelf; obviously this is not one geared for the connoisseur. Even casual drinkers would not have a lot to love in this one. This unfortunately helps push forward an alternate image of whiskey as low-quality rotgut.

Clearly, the Porta Shots packaging says “party”, and this is a whiskey that demands to be mixed if only to cover up the taste. There’s a part of me that looks at this with the eyes of my college-age self and thinks, “this is a genius way to sneak alcohol into places that I couldn’t have carried it” – but then I am reminded I would have had to take up the unenviable task of actually drinking the stuff that I’d gone to all the trouble to sneak in.

The Porta Shots range consists of several products – three rums, two vodkas and this whiskey. A little sleuthing revealed these to be products of South Africa as well – my guess is this comes out of a contract distillery that produces pretty much anything. I didn’t see any smoking guns in my search. This being from the North West province, according to my limited understanding of South African geography, safely exempts the James Sedgwick distillery as a potential guilty party.

This is an interesting curiosity or a good way to prank your friends. I can’t recommend trying this in any serious context, unless you’re wanting to plumb the depths.

At a glance:

King’s Crown Whiskey 40% (Porta Shots packaging)
Nose:  Oh god. A really aggressive punch of low-grade corn whiskey, acetone, raw alcohol, raw sugar, and a very strong new make character – vegetal undertones. It’s so young and newmakey that I have to wonder if the color isn’t completely artificial.
Palate:  Thin, completely sugary – totally white dog. Not hot, but just raw.
Finish:  Corn, a little bubblegum sweetness for a second. Back to corn and raw new make.
Comment:  Tastes completely unaged. Atrocious.
Rating: D-

Tales From The Bottom Shelf: Evan Williams

Last month I featured some pricey bottles. I could continue raiding the more exciting corners of my collection and give the impression that I’m loaded beyond imagination (rather, wealthy – loaded in the other sense might at times be accurate). Heck, I guess I could just write a series of wholly fictitious tasting notes just to add to the illusion — perhaps that will become an occasional feature at some point in the future. After all, who’s going to open all those Dalmores that sell for $25,000 and up? Might as well have some additional notes on them. Right: It’s a plan.

But, I’m not loaded (in either sense) right now, so balance is called for. Today we journey from the glass cases of December to the bottom shelf. This isn’t done in some sad attempt to claim legitimacy and relevance (I attempt to avoid both), but rather for the simple purpose of balance. You can’t eat coq au vin and wild game constantly; it’ll get stale and boring. Sometimes you just need a Pink’s chili dog. And in that spirit, we go from bottles with three figures left of the decimal to bottles with three figures, decimal included.

Today’s whisky is Evan Williams. That’s it. Plain, standard Evan Williams, stalwart resident of the bottom shelf of my local BevMo. You could argue that this is a position of shame, but I prefer to see Evan Williams as one of the foundations of the selection available. It’s not glamorous like the latest trendy bottle with a special label, nor does it necessarily occupy the same spot in the mind as, say, Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam. Evan is a little more low key and anonymous, an everyman in the bourbon aisle.

I must admit before going further, I previously ran afoul of Evan Williams. In my college days, Evan was the first beverage that got me REALLY drunk. It became a staple of our movie nights, with a 1.75 being squirreled out and poured into a styrofoam cup and then mixed with Coke. The resulting hangovers were the stuff of legend and caused me to give Evan a wide berth in later years. (We also discovered one hung-over football morning that you could sing “Evan Williams Whiskey” in time with the chorus of Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It“.

That was then… this is several years later. I approached this with a bit of hesitation, figuring that at $9 this was probably about the same level as what powers my car and it was going to hurt going down. After all, those college diets and drinking habits aren’t chosen on taste…

The nose had more going on than I remembered – obvious corn upfront with a little tail end of new-makey vegetal sourness. Some moderate wood influence was there and a bit of varnish and paint thinner. Yeah, yeah, sounds great. But also in the nose were light bits of black cherry, caramel and faint vanilla, with a bit of cinnamon. All the elements for a decent bourbon (except maybe some age) are in place.

The mouthfeel is medium-light and gains some weight. The palate comes with plenty of toffee and caramel upfront with corn right behind. There’s some faint woodiness on the palate and a hint of raw sugar that echoes the new-make notes from the nose. There’s a distinct black cherry note very late in the palate.

The finish is probably the biggest stumbling point for Evan Williams – it’s vanishingly quick. There’s a bit of black pepper, some caramel and more corn; and then a quick hint of vanilla and some slight wood notes.

It turns out that Evan Williams is a pretty decent whiskey – especially considering the price. It’s not fully developed and would benefit from some age, but there are good elements in place. Compared to, say, Jim Beam, it’s miles ahead. Beam products to my palate have a much more sharp sugary sweetness that really makes it objectionable. Evan Williams to me is far more balanced, but would just benefit from some age.

Let this be a reminder to us all – those bottles at your feet may be worth reexamining. They’re likely not going to break the bank and they’ll generally be more satisfying than that white whiskey you were about to pay 30 bucks for. Put it back. Put it back! Just grab the Evan Williams. You can even let your friends mix it and you don’t have to get all uptight and fussy like whiskey drinkers are supposed to. (They’ll probably even appreciate that you haven’t stocked your bar with something that has a five minute long backstory detailing the more obscure points of cooperage.)

At a glance:

Evan Williams 43% ABV
Notes of corn (and faintest new-make vegetal leafiness) and some moderate wood influence. Light cinnamon, very light black cherry. A slightly varnishy/thinner note. Light caramel and very faint vanilla.
Palate:  Medium-light on the palate but becoming heavier. Caramel and toffee are forefront with caramel dominant; corn notes are right behind it. Very faint wood, and a hint of raw sugar that is again an echo of the new make notes from the nose. Very late black cherries.
Vanishingly quick. A bit of pepper, a bit of caramel and corn. Hints of vanilla and mild wood. 
It’s not fully developed and would benefit from a little more time in wood, but the elements I like are there. This is way better than your average Jim Beam buy – by a longshot. Totally drinkable, totally mixable.