The hunt for ‘Unobtainium’ – Pappy Van Winkle

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In 2009, I entered the recording studio with my band (Desolation Angels) to record our second full length album.  We had chosen a famous Detroit studio, and were lucky enough to work with a great engineer in John Smerek.  For the first two days, we worked at a prodigious rate, laying down drums, bass and guitars for a dozen songs.  As we capped off the second day, a bottle of whiskey was passed around.  John, from behind his control board asked me “Are you a fan of bourbon?”

I replied that I was, although my knowledge was limited to Beam, Maker’s Mark and the occasional Woodford Reserve.

“Then I’ve got one for you to try!” he said, and began to tell me about a bourbon I could find at a store local to me, so wonderful it would make me a full-on bourbon aficionado.  That it tasted of caramel and vanilla, and was so smooth it could almost be an after-dinner drink.  The conversation ended soon thereafter, and I forgot about the recommendation.  I was relatively broke at the time, and if I wanted something that smooth, Gentleman Jack would have to suffice.

That bourbon was Pappy Van Winkle.

Two years later, after we had two recording studios close beneath us, John and I met again to mix the neverending album, now in year two.  As we drank Jack Daniels, he asked me if I ever went to the store and bought the Pappy he recommended.  I told him I had not, but that it would most assuredly make my list now.  And it did.

This began my search for the ever-elusive, now legendarily hard-to-find Pappy Van Winkle.  In the three and a half-years since, the hunt for “Pappy” has led me to meet wonderful people, sample amazing bourbons and truly become an educated bourbon fan.  It also has brought me anger, sadness, frustration and driven me to the brink of madness.

When John first suggested I try it, PVW was another respected, higher-end bourbon readily available at finer stores, even here in Metro Detroit.  By the time I actually went looking, it’s popularity was on the rise.  Stores were out of it, but thought they’d get more in that spring or fall.  The Rip Van Winkle website listed stores that carried it…and none of them were mad if you called!  Sure, Anthony Bourdain and the tv show Justified had talked about it, but there was still…a hope.

Since then I’ve learned there are other bourbons just as good, sometimes better.  That, while Pappy and the Van Winkle line are guaranteed to be great, the difference between a bottle of Pappy 15 and Weller or Blantons or Elmer T Lee is hardly worth the days spent searching or the obscene amounts of money the bottle costs – if you find it.  Yet, I continue to look, because I can’t seem to help myself.

So over the next few posts, I’m gonna talk a bit about the hunt for Pappy.  Not the actual product itself, but the hunt, because at this point, Pappy is more of a myth than reality for most people.

Now, there are all kinds of ‘experts’ on the web and posting boards, letting you know the “best” way to get some of the magic known as Pappy Van Winkle.  And for some people, these methods may have actually worked.  But the truth is usually much different.  For example:

Prescribed Method: Make friends with your local liquor store proprietor, so that you are the first one he/she calls when the Pappy comes in.

This makes logical sense – you find a store that has the selection you like with an owner and workers you enjoy chatting with, and give them your business.  When that time rolls around, of course they tip you off to come by and purchase a bottle of this rarest of rewards.

How it actually works: You go to as many stores as possible, eliminating the ones that you know will never get Pappy Van Winkle.  This isn’t easy – a store can have an excellent supply of hooch, but never get the PVW because they didn’t buy a single barrel of Buffalo Trace this year, or didn’t purchase the 500 bottles of Mr. Pickles Magic Elixir Vodka, made from dry-rot potatoes that caused blindness in focus group participants, that the distributor was trying to unload.

You find a few that you know get the good stuff, and then realize half of them are staffed by miserable hipster douchebags who ride to work on unicycles so they can carefully groom their handlebar moustaches in the open.  DON’T try to befriend them – you may think you have a connection, but the truth is that they will view Pappy as “mainstream,” and the first time you let them know you covet it, you will lose their shallow, fickle ‘cred,’ and they will feel no remorse in handing the bottles they get over to a bottle flipper just to spite you.

Narrowed down, you might find a great store or two.  This is where hearts really get broken.  The truth is, unless you are buying multiple bottles a week, you probably aren’t one of their most valuable customers.  I once stood at the counter of a local store I frequent talking with the owner and his brother for an hour about new ryes coming out, and it wasn’t until I got back to my car that I realized that I had watched almost $7,000 in business go on while I stood there.  People buying thousand dollar scotches…one gentleman picking up 4 kegs for an event…my $75 bottle was insignificant.  Not surprisingly, after a year of frequenting that store, when the Pappy came in, I ‘just happened’ to miss it.

A different store got in 3 bottles of Pappy 23 year and did offer them to me…for $1,500 a bottle.  This, while I was checking out with $400 of bourbon in my hand.

One local store I love and frequent explained it to me like this: “If someone came in and offered you a ton of money for your car – more than it possibly warranted – wouldn’t you have to sell it to them?”  He explained this as an analogy for why he was quietly moving his Pappy 23 for $1,000 to someone who inquired.

In four years, I have been able to purchase exactly one bottle from a store, and it was due to a raffle system in which hundreds entered for a chance to buy one of three bottles.  I’m not saying befriending your local shopkeeper isn’t a good idea – it’s a good idea regardless of Pappy.  They can order special products, tell you when new stuff is coming out, and be a wealth of knowledge.  But to those spouting platitudes about how Pappy is easy to get if you make friends with the store, I laugh.

Next time, I’ll talk about the secondary market.  Brace yourself…

Ballpark of the Week: AT&T Park (Home of the San Francisco Giants)

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Ballpark of the Week: AT&T Park (Home of the San Francisco Giants)

In September of 2012, I married the beautiful and talented Jen Weaver here in suburban Detroit, Michigan, in a ceremony that we had spent over a year putting together.  It went off beautifully, and our months of DIY work was complete with both of us satisfied with how well it had gone.  The day after the wedding, we embarked on our honeymoon: a trip up the California coast.

Our trip was to begin in San Diego, with a couple days there, before moving up the PCH to Santa Monica, Big Sur, Monterrey and finally, San Francisco.  We planned all kinds of events for our week – parks, historical sites, shopping.  And for that Friday, we decided we would take in a San Francisco Giants ballgame at AT&T Park.

The trip started off bumpy, with my wife getting food poisoning from the destination airport food.  But she shook it off well and, with a convertible Mustang, the first couple days were awesome.  Then, swimming in the ocean at 6:00 in the morning in Santa Monica, she broke my foot.  Not intentionally, of course, but her kicking out into the waves one way met my kicking towards the beach, and my foot looked like it had been hit with a hammer.  Refusing to go to the hospital on our honeymoon, I pressed on, pain-be-damned.  That night, at a resort in Big Sur, I waited until she left the room and pressed hard on the swollen foot and felt the bone snap into place.  I assumed that meant it had just been dislocated, and we journeyed on.

It wasn’t dislocated, of course.  We didn’t know until I saw the doctor when I got home, but the foot had actually been broken in two different places.  My doctor said that setting my own broken bone was one of the toughest things he had seen…and one of the dumbest.  I got lucky and it went back together, but it could have gone horribly awry.

I tell this tale only to lay the pretext for our trip to the ballpark.  By the time we got to San Fran, my foot was swollen and I could barely walk.  Luckily, our hotel was a short half-mile or so from the ballpark, but hobbling along on one leg, it felt like one hundred.  The game was against the San Diego Padres, and as we got closer and closer, the streets and sidewalks filling up with fans, I have never been happier to arrive at a park.

From the outside, the brick facade of AT&T park is reminiscent of Camden Yards.  There are the usual statues of Giants greats outside, and plaques on the walls.  Being a Friday night in a year where the Giants had already clinched a playoff spot, the crowd was enthusiastic and exuberant.

When picking our seats, I had researched online to find the section and area that would give us the best view, not only of the game, but of the beauty of San Francisco.  Section 304 looked like a winner, with a dramatic vista of San Francisco Bay, the Bay Area bridge and overlooking McCovey Cove (where kayakers and boaters camp out to hit a home run clearing the wall in right and landing there in the bay).  We headed up to our seats, stopping to take a look around the stadium as we went.

The sightlines of the field in the lower concourse were quite nice – one of the best things about newer parks is the ability to keep an eye on the game while getting concessions.  We had been informed to be sure and get Gilroy Garlic Fries, so that was stop number one, along with some dogs.  We were astounded by the concession selections.  SanFran is known as a foodie paradise, but the fact it extends to their ballpark is truly awesome.  There was seafood, veggie and vegan options, traditional ballpark food – even wine offerings that helped to remind that Napa was just a short drive away.

We made our way up to our seats, and were truly impressed by the view.  Oakland over the distance, the field spread out beautiful in front of us.  It was absolutely breathtaking.  The seats around us began to fill, and we were even more surprised to note that everyone around us were season ticket holders, and knew each other!  In fact, it wasn’t until the 3rd inning that we found out one middle aged couple next to us had been divorced for a decade, but still shared a love of the Giants – and their seats.

As the sun set and the game started, the famous San Francisco chill began to move in.  As my new wife began to shiver, those around us (who by this point had inquired and then congratulated us on our nuptials) shared their blankets with her.  We talked baseball, the Giants, marriage, Detroit, more baseball, Buster Posey, Barry Bonds, Los Angeles, beer and baseball for nine innings with these awesome fans.  I am always proud of how knowledgeable my hometown (Detroit) and adopted hometown (St. Louis) are about baseball, but I found these Giants boosters to be as smart as any of them.

When we finally got up to leave, they wished us well as we walked along the right field fence and looked out into the chilling waters in the cove (a baseball had actually been hit in, by Chase Headley scoring the Padres only run).  Poetically, we stopped in the gift shop to purchase stuffed animals.  My wife and I both have nicknames for each other, and it just so happened that the Giants did too.  Like Pablo Sandoval, I’m the panda. Like Brandon Belt, my wife is the giraffe.

I thought of that trip and the wonderful fans this year when the Giants won their third title in five years.  What a lovely park.  What a lovely time.

Dan’s scale (1-10): 9.3

Below are my stats.  I’ll post them for every park I’ve visited.  I include the big details, as well as who I visited with.  Lastly, I am a huge fan of throwback jerseys, and for every stadium I visit, I buy one of a player from that organization I admired as a kid, from watching them or reading about them.  So for every one, I will also list the throwbacks I’ve purchased for each.

AT&T Park – September 21, 2012.  San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants

Date: Friday, September 21, 2012, 7:20PM

Seat: 304, B, 9, 10

Ticket Cost: $34.00 each (purchased from StubHub)

Went with: Jen Weaver McKernan

Attendance: 41,728

Time of Game: 2:58

Linescore:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R  H  E
Padres 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0  1  7   0
Giants 0 0 0 1 1 3 0 0 X  5  11  0

Winning Pitcher: Ryan Vogelsong (13-9)

Losing Pitcher: Casey Kelly (2-2)

Jersey: Will Clark (1989); Willie Mays (1951)

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Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey

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So, the word is another Polar Vortex is headed down, and we can already feel it here in Michigan.  There is a serious chill in the air, and the briskness plus the earlier nightfall serve as a reminder that winter is right around the corner.

What better time, then, to try out a bourbon that comes to us from the snowy slopes of the Rocky Mountains – Breckenridge Bourbon from Breckenridge, Colorado!

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey (photo taken at the National World War II Memorial)

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey (photo taken at the National World War II Memorial)

Now, Breckenridge has been on the scene for a few years now, ever since it placed top three at the 2011 International Wine and Spirits Competition (in England).  This has led to some pretty loud claims of excellence, and a close eye on their methods.

As origin stories go, Breckenridge has a pretty darn good one.  They tout the pure, melting Colorado snowmelt they use in proofing as one of their unique qualities – a shot across the bow to those who believe only Kentucky limestone water can make a proper bourbon.  The award put them in a rarefied air as well, drawing comparisons to BTAC-grade products.

What is very clear is their rye content.  Breckenridge uses a 56/38/6 corn/rye/barley recipe.  This certainly falls on the higher side.  What is less clear is how Breckenridge comes to be.  While some of their bourbon seems produced at their distillery proper (where they keep a custom 700 gallon Vendome combination Pot still, amongst others), they do reportedly source as well, and blend the native and sourced bourbon, before proofing it with their unique Colorado water at one of the highest altitudes of a distillery in the world.

So, with a great story like this, what about the taste?

I purchased my bottle in 2013, and it is different in that it is a Single Barrel selection (from Kakos Liquor in Birmingham).

It certainly has a healthy amber color, and the nose was sweet and spicy.  I noted a very hearty corn, but also raisin, hints of butterscotch and honey.  and a touch of citrus.

The taste was not as sweet as the nose.  It was remarkably smooth, if obviously a bit on the young side (there is no age statement, but 3 years has been the buzz on the internet).  It has a medium thick mouth feel, and the corn lives up front, alongside a slight tingle of rye.  There was almost no presence of oakiness, and the back end was exactly what I’d expect from such a rye content – cinnamon, pepper and the slightest touch of leather.

The finish, now thats where things got weird.  It has a shorter than expected finish – the smoothness slides the taste away quickly.  MAybe that’s because of youth.  But both Jen and I noticed a bit of aftertaste, not unpleasant, but not easily identifiable.  Was it minerals from the runoff snow?  Was it a thicker mouth feel than it seemed?  Do I need to wash my bourbon glasses better?  It wasn’t the last – we tried different glasses.  Jen jokingly called it a ‘splenda aftertaste – like diet bourbon!’ and that was a little bit what it was like.  Unique.

All in all we liked it – it was smooth, and clean.  Maybe it’s effective marketing creating preconceptions, but it tasted cleaner as we thought of that snow melting.  It’s a bit young, and a higher rye than I traditionally like, but it was a very good pour.  I do have a curiousity what it will taste like if it’s left in the barrel for four to eight more years…

Dan’s Rating: 8.2

Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Willett Family Estate 2 Year Rye

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Well, first of all, Happy Halloween! Once more it’s the time of year with ghosts and goblins, tricks and treats.  Children dressing scarily and wondering through your streets collecting candy.  I hope you and yours enjoy it this year.  It’s also deep into autumn, with the harvest coming up, and I like to think of all the corn, the wheat, the ryes that will soon be mashed and distilled into my favorite treat – whiskey!

Secondly, congratulations to the San Francisco Giants, who last night won their third World Series in five years.  I feel like the Giants are our adoptive team, as my wife Jen and I went to see them during our honeymoon in 2012.  Particularly amazing was the performance of Madison Bumgarner,  I’m glad I watched this series through to the end!

And now…on to bourbon.  Or in this case, rye.

The Willett name has a long and storied history, going all the way back to pilgrims who arrived in the US in the 1600s.  The Willett family has been responsible for bourbon distilling in Kentucky since the 1860s, and has played an important role in much of the great bourbon legacy there.

In the 1930s, the Willett family started the Willett Distilling Company on the family farm in Bardstown, Kentucky, and it still sits there today.  Willett, which later changed it’s name to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers(1984), made bourbons on the family farm up until the 1970s.  At that time, during the oil crisis, they made the decisions to have their whiskey brands made elsewhere and age and bottle them (or just bottle them) onsite.  This allowed them to convert their production facilities to make gasahol fuel.  This venture did not work out, however, and by the 1980s, the Willett location was only used for it’s warehouses and bottling.

Several brands are released under the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers name – Johnny Drum, Kentucky Vintage, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill among others.  They also do aging and bottling for a few other brands, including Corner Creek and the sought after Black Maple Hill.

In the mid 2000’s, the family started work to reopen the Willett production facilities, and by 2012, they barreled the first of their new products.  And in 2014, they unveiled it at last – the Willett Family 2 Year Rye.

I was down in Kentucky in June and visited Willett, and was lucky enough to land a few bottles of the brand new, Willett produced two year rye.  So how’d it taste?

Dan's (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Willett Family 2 Year Rye

Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Willett Family 2 Year Rye

My review:

107 proof – that was the strength of my Willett 2 Year Rye – a nice barrel proof number.  And Willett certainly knows bottling – their Still Pot Reserve has won awards for it’s beautiful bottles, and their ryes come in beautiful bottles adorned with the family seal as well.  In short, it’s a lovely bottle.

It has a nice gold color, and the nose is fantastic.  There is a definite fruitiness in the nose – I picked up cherry, citrus and a hint of raisin.  The woodiness reminded me of something other than oak – more like a cedar or even a Christmas pine.  I soaked it in, and found some vanilla.  What shocked me the most was the lack of a burn.  Despite the high proof, this pour didn’t smell like pure alcohol, and had a surprising richness.

I’ll admit, my first sip was jarring.  The nose had put me to sleep, and I took perhaps too big of a drink, forgetting the high potency of the proof.  But even as I coughed a bit, caught off guard, I noticed how smooth it was going down.  My next drink was more restrained, and I got a good feel for this rye.  It was softer than a 2 year has any right to be, with a great range of flavor that belies it’s age.  It had an earthiness to it, and I thought mint rose to the top, along with a maple.  I didn’t note the usual pepper or cinnamon ryes have – it’s probably too young to have really soaked that in from the wood – but there is far more citrus than I would have ever expected.  Overall, it’s rather sweet.

And it has a nice finish to boot.  Not the longest finish, but smooth and lingering where a touch of spice mixes with an earthiness (that is probably the biggest tip off to it’s age).

On the whole, I’m not as big a fan of ryes as I am traditional bourbons.  But for this Willett entry, I’ll make an exception.   It doesn’t have the ‘graininess’ of a young rye – that taste that lets you know that some of this whiskey has never touched the side of a barrel.  Instead, I would have thought upon blind taste that it was at least four, and maybe even six or eight years old. What really intrigues me is what these barrels will taste like in a few more years!

Dan’s Rating: 8.5

Ballpark of the Week: Kaufmann Stadium (Home of the Kansas City Royals)

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Ballpark of the Week: Kaufmann Stadium (Home of the Kansas City Royals)

Look, let’s get the obvious out of the way: you are probably saying “hey Dan, funny we haven’t seen you post in two weeks, since you declared your Detroit Tigers favorites to win the American League!”  Yes, that’s true.  You might say, “That timing seems a bit suspicious, like you decided to lay low and avoid the mockery and derision that would come your way!”  Yes, point taken.  You might say, “Hey Dan…” but at this point, I would punch you.

It’s true, we lost.  To a Baltimore Orioles team that beat our bullpen like rented mules and made our hitters look like children swinging wiffle bats.  It was upsetting, but I’m over it.  Watching that same Orioles team get out-ran, out-fielded and out-hit by this never say die Kansas City Royals team was truly something to see.  So this week, I look to 2013, when I was lucky enough to visit the lovely stadium and fountains of Kaufmann Stadium.

It was the best kind of event one could hope for – we were headed into Kansas City for the wedding of my wife’s friend Mike, and the Royals were on a home stand.  I had gone to the University of Missouri and have friends in the St. Louis area, so an agenda took hold – we would fly from Detroit to St. Louis, visit some friends, then rent a car to drive from St. Louis to Kansas City (stopping in Columbia for old times sake) before enjoying a weekend of wedding fun, BBQ food and a Royals game.

The plan worked flawlessly.  My friends were wonderful, the weather was perfect and the drive – roughly four hours straight – was great too.  We stopped in Columbia and I showed my wife my old dorm, the famous Mizzou columns, even stopped for a bite at Shakespeare’s Pizza. We arrived in Kansas City, checked into our lovely hotel downtown, and got ready for the game.

The first thing an out of towner might notice when driving to visit Kaufmann Stadium – or it’s next door neighbor Arrowhead Stadium – is that they are seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  Right off of I-70, both stadiums are set in the middle of a massive expanse of parking spaces, with little else to see.  As we pulled in, it was a bit disorienting – nothing but concrete as far as the eye could see.

Now while this may kill the distinct Kansas City flavor from the environs, it allowed for something else: tailgating, and lots of it! I’m not used to seeing people tailgate before a baseball game, much less a June game between two teams headed for the basement, but there were people with grills and food going everywhere.  Furthermore, it was “Girls Night Out,” a promotion geared towards female baseball fans, and they were out en masse.  Pink Royals jerseys, pink hats and high pitched cheers abounded.

I bought my tickets through StubHub (I like to see if I can get better seats from a season ticket holder looking to unload them than from the team site and, whoopee, it worked!), so I picked them up from Will Call, where the Royals employees were wonderfully nice.  Tailgating, Ladies Night, Friday or not, there was no way this game was selling out.

Our seats were fantastic.  The third base line, a few rows back.  We had a perfect view of the entire ballpark.  The famous Royal crest in the outfield with it’s massive scoreboard.  The fountains around the outfield, erupting at intervals.  This stadium, despite it’s early 70s birthday, really is a relaxing, comfortable place to watch baseball.

Perfect seats

Perfect seats

As the night went on, we watched a low scoring affair.  We wandered the park, and were impressed with the sight-lines one can get from almost anywhere within.  Particualrly cool was standing in the outfield by the fountains, watching them go off from close and looking over the lush outfild grass.

The Kaufmann Stadium fountains really are beautiful

The Kaufmann Stadium fountains really are beautiful

We tried a few different BBQ concessions, but none had quite the taste of real Kansas City BBQ.  The real surprise of the night came in the 7th inning, when the concessionaires announced it was “dollar” time, and all hot dogs, soda cans (Pepsi products) and peanuts/popcorn was now, yes, $1.  I have to humbly report that I may have scarfed down four hot dogs and three sodas at this point, because I’m a midwesterner who can’t refuse a value.  I’m willing to bet that, with their team in the Series now, $1 hot dogs are harder to find at Kaufmann than a Royals fan who didn’t jump on the bandwagon in August.  I’m just kidding.  Well, sorta.

Because that was the only downside to my visit.  The park is absolutely beautiful.  I love the huge Royal crown, the 13 story scoreboard. The concessions were a value.  The fountains are amazing.  The post game fireworks on Friday were impressive. The game was even very good, with two small ball teams going at it.  But the fans weren’t, at least not in large part.  There was the enthusiasm that came with the ‘Girls Night Out’ promotion, but not a lot of cheering or booing going on.  As an observer of the AL Central, I noted how, even this year, in the midst of a pennant chase the Royals weren’t selling out.  There are great and knowledgeable fans in Kansas City, no doubt.  But compared to their cross state brethren in Cardinal fandom, they have a long way to go.

That said, Kaufmann was a beautiful park and I would go back in a heartbeat.  Especially if it was to see the Tigers top them again.

Dan’s scale (1-10): 8.7

Below are my stats.  I’ll post them for every park I’ve visited.  I include the big details, as well as who I visited with.  Lastly, I am a huge fan of throwback jerseys, and for every stadium I visit, I buy one of a player from that organization I admired as a kid, from watching them or reading about them.  So for every one, I will also list the throwbacks I’ve purchased for each.

Kaufmann Stadium – June 7, 2013.  Houston Astros at Kansas City Royals

Date: Friday, June 7, 2013 7:10PM

Seat: 115, D, 3-4

Ticket Cost: $28.00 each (purchased from StubHub)

Went with: Jen Weaver McKernan

Attendance: 24,808

Time of Game: 2:58

Linescore:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Astros 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 2 9 0
Royals 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 2 X 4 9 0

Winning Pitcher: Kelvin Herrera (3-4)

Losing Pitcher: Wesley Wright (0-2)

Save: Greg Holland (11)

Jersey: George Brett (1985)

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Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Jack Daniels Sinatra Select

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Oh, Frank Sinatra.  There are few voices in music I enjoy more, few people who’s interpretation of a song I respect more.  In short, there are few vocalists who I enjoy more.  The legend of his connection to Jack Daniels whiskey, “the nectar of the gods,” is well documented and very, very cool.  Long before Jack became the libation of choice for rock and rollers, it was three fingers and some rocks for the swingingest cat that ever put on a fedora to take a Las Vegas stage.

My introduction to Frank came many years before my introduction to Jack, courtesy of a Christmas record (Christmas Songs by Frank Sinatra).  A regular in my house at the holidays, I quickly found his versions of the holiday classics to be my favorites.  As I got older, I purchased an anthology on CD (Sinatra Reprise: The Very Good Years) and it was official – I was a full on fan of Ol’ Blue Eyes.  I started to get all of the albums I could – and believe me, there are a ton.  My favorite era, though, has always stayed that 1955-1969 era, starting with In The Wee Small Hours, and ending with My Way.  Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, Come Fly With Me, September of My Years and on and on, all of them brilliant.

I discovered Jack along the way as well, and throughout my 20s, it remained my drink of choice.  Smooth but punchy, a little bite but flavorful, good with Coke or straight, Jack Daniels was a staple of mine, at bar or home.  Later, when they put out the even smother Gentleman Jack, it took over the coveted position as my favorite cocktail drink.  As a fact I will detail in a longer post sometime in the future, it was my love of Jack Daniels that started me down the path of Bourbon, as a great friend noted my love of Jack and pointed me in the direction of Kentucky whiskey.

The past few years, the team at Brown Forman (owners of the Jack Daniels brand) has introduced a number of specialty releases to their trademark product.  They also embraced the relationship between Ol’ Blue Eyes and Old No. 7 and developed a marketing campaign around it including radio and television advertising.

With this in mind came the Jack Daniels Sinatra Select special release – a unique, limited and (very) pricey tribute to the Chairman of the Board.  I coveted a bottle, and at my birthday, received a wonderful gift from my wife and her family: a bottle of the treat.  So how did it taste?

Dan's (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Jack Daniel's Sinatra Select

Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select

First of all, I do not judge the value of a bourbon (or in this case – whiskey).  If it is one thing I’ve learned in this crazy, often inflated market, it’s that value can only be determined by the individual.  I don’t know that a bottle of anything is worth $1,500 to me, but plenty of folks clamor on Craigslist to grab a bottle of Pappy for just that.  I am far more likely to point out a great deal or value than the opposite.

I bring that up, because the Jack Daniels Sinatra Select is very pricey.Around $175+ in stores, and far more online.  Is it worth it?  That is completely dependent on the collector.  Personally, I’m glad to have it.

The packaging is beautiful, with a case and small book detailing the Sinatra-Jack history.  There is also an ‘invitation’ to the Jack Daniels Country Club, As the website explains:

Founded by Frank Sinatra, the Country Club was only for his closest friends. When Frank once arrived in England decked out in classic British style — gray flannel trousers and a dark blue blazer with a crest — the local media went into a tizzy to determine just what royal house the crest represented. It became clear upon closer examination the crest was crossed golf clubs and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s surrounded by the words: “Jack Daniel’s Country Club.” Frank had commissioned the patch for himself and a few close friends, and had them added to custom-made blazer.

Also, the bottle is a one-liter size (instead of 750 mL), so there is more pour.  The Sinatra Select is aged in casks that have had grooves put into the barrel staves. This allows for more alcohol to stay in contact with the wood itself (increases surface area).

The nose shows this.  Outside of being a sharper alcohol smell than the regular Jack (it’s 90 proof, as opposed to the typical 80), there is a thick wood, as well as smokiness and a hint of tobacco.  Just like Frank would have liked it.

The taste puts you on your heals a bit.  It does not have they typical Jack smoothness.  It is immediately husky, with that oak flavor prominent right from the start.  There are touches of orange peel and molasses, but the wood and some accompanying black pepper take over quickly and remain well into the finish.

The finish itself is on the short size, and smoother than the taste would have you anticipate.  But the biggest item of note is that this whiskey tastes dry! Jack Daniels Sinatra Select has the tannins and dryness that would typically be associated with gin or red wine.  It wasn’t unpleasant, but seemed like a negative aspect of the stave grooving.

The drink is cool, just like it’s namesake.  And it’s fun – and a fine collector piece.  As a glass to have on the regular, you might want to grab some Gentleman Jack or regular Number 7.

Dan’s Rating: 7.7

Ballpark of the Week: Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Home of the Baltimore Orioles)

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Ballpark of the Week: Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Home of the Baltimore Orioles)

Tonight, the American League Central Division Champion Detroit Tigers start their fourth consecutive American League Divisional Series with a match-up against the AL East champion Baltimore Orioles.  Since the Tigers are my hometown team, it’s not hard to figure out where my rooting interests lie.  And while this season was grueling, with the Tigs not clinching the division until the season’s last day, we in Detroit are feeling pretty good about our chances.

I will admit, however, that I regularly root for the Orioles in their division.  Like the rest of the world not living in the five boroughs, I despise the Yankees.  Once I had a sympathy for the Red Sox and their unbeatable curse, and cheered joyously as they won that memorable title in 2003.  That dissipated quickly as Sox fans became unbearable in the years since, and I now only root for them when they play the Yankees.  If Tampa Devil Ray fans don’t exist, why would I acknowledge their team? And the Blue Jays…well, I don’t really dislike them, but they have to make the playoffs for me to root for them.  That makes the Orioles the lesser of five evils, I guess.

Those days are over.  Tigers in three! four!

That said, I was able to visit Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 2012, My wife had a work conference in Washington DC in June, including a couple of evening events, so I used the opportunity to rent a car and drive north to catch a game.  Particularly fortuitous for me, my wife’s uncle and cousins – Maryland natives – were happy to meet me at the game and make it a night at the ballpark!

The drive in was less than ideal – while DC and Baltimore may be separated by few miles (40 or so), the drive time between the two is a bit on the slow side.  I’m sure natives to the area are well aware of this – unfortunately, I was not.  When I did arrive in Baltimore, however, I was pleased to find how easy it was to get to the park!  There is ample parking, thanks to a nicely developed area of hotels and convention centers nearby, and was parked and ready to go in no time.

Driving in from DC, I noticed the large crowd of people in Orioles gear between a statue of Brooks Robinson and a few bars names Pickles and Sliders across the street from the stadium.  I wandered over for a bite and to catch some local flavor – and I did.  In particular, I’ve developed a taste for ‘Baltimore Wings,’ which are the local take on traditional Buffalo Wings.  Baked in butter and rubbed with Old Bay seasoning, they may be my favorite wings in the world now.  People hung out and talked baseball, but I snapped a pic in front of the Brooks Robinson statue, and headed over to the large main gates to get a feel for the place.

In front of the Brooks Robinson statue

In front of the Brooks Robinson statue

Upon entering the park from Camden and Eutaw, the first thing you notice is how the stadium feels like an older park than it really is.  This is, of course, by design.  After years of demolishing our baseball cathedrals in favor of bland, round, all purpose stadiums (like Three Rivers or Veterans stadiums), Oriole Park at Camden Yards was a much heralded return to the classics.  Set in an actual part of the city (as opposed to far-flung suburbs), built with brick and iron and as a part of it’s surroundings (the warehouse overlooking the park from center to right field).  It revolutionized ballparks, and while it has borne many imitators (including Comerica Park here in Detroit), it is still very unique.

Strolling along the bricks above the outfield, I had to stop into the famous Boog’s BBQ.  Boog Powell, slugging hero of those late 60s and early 70s Oriole teams, has a BBQ stand/tent here, and it came highly recommended.  An additional treat – Boog was there that day, and I got to shake his hand, get an autograph, and chat for a few minutes with a Baltimore legend!  And the BBQ was delicious too.

Boog Powell's delicious barbeque

Boog Powell’s delicious barbecue

Our seats gave us a great view of the park – it really is a beautiful sight.  I was there during an interleague matchup, and many fans from Pittsburgh were there as well, so there was a good spirited taunting going on in the stands.  A high scoring game, we were able to see everything clearly, and despite it’s throwback style, Oriole Park has plenty of modern game-watching amenities: great scoreboards, clear public address, ball, strike and pitch speed sensors throughout.

Steve Pearce and Mark Reynolds both hit shots our way, and we even thought we might have a chance at catching Reynolds.  The O’s scored early and often, and the game was fun for the hometown fans.  At one point, I headed up to the picnic tables in centerfield to grab some crab dip and waffle fries – a local favorite – and found out OPaCY is one of the few ballparks in which you can bring your own food and drink (provided the drinks are sealed)!  A walk down Eutaw was particularly enjoyable, as you watch the game on the one side, and check out the bars and souvenir stands inside the warehouse on the other.

Now, it did take me almost two and a half hours to get back to DC after the game, but that didn’t dampen my fun.  Oriole Park at Camden Yards is a beautiful park, and another must see for baseball fans!

Dan’s scale (1-10): 8.7

Below are my stats.  I’ll post them for every park I’ve visited.  I include the big details, as well as who I visited with.  Lastly, I am a huge fan of throwback jerseys, and for every stadium I visit, I buy one of a player from that organization I admired as a kid, from watching them or reading about them.  So for every one, I will also list the throwbacks I’ve purchased for each.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards – June 14, 2012.  Pittsburgh Pirates at Baltimore Orioles

Date: Thursday, June 14, 2012, 7:06PM

Seat: Section 82, Row 4, Seats 13 – 17

Ticket Cost: $34.00 each (purchased from team site)

Went with: Phil, Kenny, Ashley & Tara Daniels

Attendance: 29,995

Time of Game: 3:06

Linescore:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R  H   E
Pirates 0 0 0 0 3 2 0 0 1 6   10 0
Orioles 4 0 1 5 0 1 0 1 X 12 16 0

Winning Pitcher: Tommy Hunter (3-3)

Losing Pitcher: Erik Bedard (4-7)

Save:

Jersey: Brooks Robinson (1966)

A trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival – Tasting and Gala

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This year, I have been fortunate enough to head down to Kentucky for three separate bourbon related events.  In February, my wife and I went to Louisville to take in the second ever Bourbon Classic, a fantastic celebration of bourbon and its culture.  In June, we headed back to tour some distilleries and attend the “Pappy For your Pappy” tasting dinner with the Van Winkle family at Buffalo Trace Distillery.  And last week, we headed down for the The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala.

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival is a yearly event in Bardstown, Kentucky in the heart of bourbon country.  It started small in 1992, and has grown every year, as a week long full celebration of all things bourbon.  There are barrel making exhibitions, events for families, kids, tours of Bardstown, mixology lessons, cooking demonstrations – this is a full scale celebration!  As the week goes on, there are nightly events for the bourbon faithful – dinners and dancing, country and bluegrass concerts, all culminating in the big event, the Gala – a black tie affair.  It was for this event my wife surprised me with tickets, and for this event we headed down.

We stayed in Louisville, in the 21c Museum Hotel, which had treated us so well during the Bourbon Classic.  On Friday night, we had dinner at Proof on Main to celebrate our 2nd Anniversary, and the food (and drink) was outstanding!  One of the greatest parts was their offering of bourbon tasting flights:

Proof on Main Bourbon Flight Menu

Proof on Main Bourbon Flight Menu

I went with the KY Bourbon Distillers Flight, as it offered three products I cannot find in Michigan, the Johnny Drum Private Stock, the Rowan’s Creek and Noah’s Mill.

KY Bourbon Distillers Flight

KY Bourbon Distillers Flight

We’ve sampled the good from Chef Levon Wallace‘s kitchen before, and this time was every bit as fantastic and delectable as expected.  Dining in Louisville is an exceptional experience, and Proof on Main may be the best of the bunch!

Saturday, we did some exploring of the stores between Louisville and Bardstown, looking for new, limited or fun bourbons that we can’t attain in Michigan, and finding a few of note.  Particularly wonderful were the people of Old Town Wine and Spirits – they had a fantastic collection of spirits, particularly bourbon.  After some perusal, I noticed they had two different store choice barrel strength Four Roses selections.  I asked a gentleman about the differences, and he was wonderful enough to not only walk me through it, but to taste each.  And by taste…I mean he poured me a glass of each.  That is hospitality!  With some new bourbon’s purchased, it was back to the hotel to get gussied up for the big Gala event.

Now, I will be the first to admit, wearing a tuxedo is not exactly a point of comfort for me. By my count, I have worn one five times in my life: senior prom, standing up in three friend’s weddings, and now the bourbon tasting and gala.
Dressed in my best James Bond impression, and with my wife looking stunning in a new dress, we headed to Bardstown.

Jen and I at the Bourbon Tasting and Gala

Jen and I at the Bourbon Tasting and Gala

The first surprise was the location. Having not been to the festival, it came as a bit of a shock when we pulled into the parking lot of what appeared to be a massive distribution or warehouse facility. There was no doubt, however, that it was the right place to be, as the parking lot was full of shuttle and tour buses, and elegantly dressed people got out of cars to line up for the event. We took our place in line and soon enough the doors opened.

A welcoming site outside the Bourbon Tasting and Gala

A welcoming site outside the Bourbon Tasting and Gala

Inside the first massive room we went into lay a bourbon lovers delight. Each of the major represented distilleries had bar setups around the outside walls. Each one was unique and different. Upon entry, each attendant was given a bag – this would be where we would stash our collected goodies as the night unfolded.

A room full of beautiful people and beautiful bourbon!

A room full of beautiful people and beautiful bourbon!

Each distillery had a full selection of their products available to drink. Most would serve your drink of choice in a glass specially made for the occasion, which you were to keep (by storing in the aforementioned bag). Most of these individual bars would also have a choice of mixed drink cocktail, ice, water, or to have the drink neat.

In the center of the room was a long spread of hors d’oeuvres.

Bourbon Festival ice sculpture

Bourbon Festival ice sculpture

Our first stop was the Blanton’s bar. Always a favorite of mine, it seemed a great way to get the night started! We sipped our drinks, and moved around. Wild Turkey had a backdrop for guests to have their red carpet style photo taken. They also had perhaps the most ornate bar, practically a saloon set up there where I was short to procure a glass of the Russell’s Reserve I love so much.

In addition to a wonderful set of cocktails and a beautiful display, Makers Mark had an ice luge, where I enjoyed a glass of Makers 46, chilled in this most fun way possible.

Maker's 46 from an ice luge

Maker’s 46 from an ice luge

After some food, & a wonderful conversation with former Maker’s Mark and now Bardstown Bourbon Company master distiller and Kentucky Bourbon Festival Hall of Fame member Steve Nally and his lovely wife, we made our way over to the Heaven Hill set up, where Jen enjoyed a Ezra Brooks smoothie , and I indulged in a pour of Evan Williams Single Barrel.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Buffalo Trace had the most elegant glasses of the evening, with a raised Buffalo etched in the side. Ridgemont Reserve 1792 served a bourbon orange cream drink that would certainly fit as a dessert on any fine menu.

Ridgemont Reserve 1792

Ridgemont Reserve 1792

By the time I wandered up to the Jim Beam bar, we had only been there for about an hour and a half. I asked the bartender for a glass of my favorite Jim Beam product, the Jim Beam Black 8 Year. When he asked if I wanted a single or double, I laughed and said the night was so young I better keep it a single. He quickly responded that the night was so young, it was early enough for a double!

Bulleit had their 10 year bourbon available, and I spoke with one of their representatives about the recent reopening of the Stitzel-Weller distillery under the name that had occurred that week. It is certainly on the short list of places I want to visit soon.

The line at Four Roses was intimidating – they were also offering photographs – so I visited Michter’s and grabbed a few more munchies just as the lights flashed to usher us into the main room where dinner was about to be served.

They have a bag check so we wouldn’t carry around the impressive number of glasses we had collected during the evening, and we entered the large room for dinner.

The dining room part of the evening...

The dining room part of the evening…

As you might imagine, a room sitting what I estimated to have been seven or eight hundred people for dinner would be massive. And it was. There was a stage set up on the far side of the room, where the toast and a few short speeches would be given. Later in the evening, this would also be the bandstand for the dancing part of the night. We found our table, to the far side from the stage and took seats.

We were seated with two lovely groups. One group of four had come in from Atlanta, Georgia. One of the groups gentleman was celebrating his 50th birthday, to celebrate at the Bourbon Festival. What a fantastic idea! There was also a young couple from Cincinnati, Ohio at our table as well. With a bottle of Ridgemont Reserve at each table to toast with, we enjoyed talking to our fellow tablemates while eating our salads. I was particularly overjoyed to find out our new Georgian friends where sports fanatics as well! We talked about baseball at length, as well as SEC football. To my dismay, my Missouri Tigers fell that afternoon to the Indiana Hoosiers, a rather embarrassing loss.

By this point, we all had noticed the lack of climate control in the facility. The temperature outside hovered around 85, and inside the lack of air flow had begun to take its toll. Many a brow was sweaty, and for the men, our tight collars and ties became slightly oppressive.

As the toasts and short speeches began, we found we were too far on the other side of the room to be able to discern what was being said. The sound system was not clear enough for us to here the toast itself, or any of the comments of Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell who had showed up and made some comments of his own. Unfortunately, all we could hear was a sound more similar to the teacher from a Charlie Brown cartoon.

By the time the delicious dinner was served, we dug in. A band playing Motown and classic soul favorites struck up, and some revelers, including ourselves, went to dance for a bit.

Time to dance!

Time to dance!

The gala goes on until 1 in the morning, but by 11, the heat had taken its toll and Jen and I were ready to retreat the distance back to Louisville. We bid our new friends farewell and safe travels, and beat the path back to Louisville, for a good night’s sleep.

Overall, the bourbon tasting and Gala is a fantastic event, and one I believe we will return to in the future. Next time, we would like to take in more of the entire Bourbon Festival. And hopefully it’s a few degrees cooler…

 

Wait, did Derek Jeter do something last night?

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I’m kidding of course.  This baseball season has been the ‘Season of Jeets,’ to a degree I certainly think has been ridiculous.  There was the initial wave of adulation and reflection…

followed by a understandable backlash…

…followed by last night.  In his last game wearing Yankees Pinstripes, Jeets hits a walk off single to win the game for the Yankees.  Surely Joltin’ Joe and The Kid smiled down from the heavens.

I hate the Yankees, like most rational thinking baseball fans in this day and age not living in the greater New York Metropolitan area (or unabashedly front-runners, who are probably moving over to Mike Trout Angels jerseys as we speak).  That doesn’t diminish, however, The Captain’s legacy.

Derek Jeter was a constant, a great player, a sure-fire hall of famer, who exuded class even in an era when the Yankees payroll became as bloated as C.C. Sabathia at the Old Country Buffet.  He’s one of the few stars of the Steroid Era to not be under suspicion – and that includes many of his pinstriped teammates (we see ya’ A-Rod, Giambi, Rocket and Petite).  He was a great player.

Now with that said, I would invite those heaping attention to take a second and look at the career statistics of one Alan Trammell, who also played a 20 year career in one place.  Detroit may not be the Big Apple, but Trammell was part of a record setting double play combo, and the glue that held the Tigers together for 20 years.  He wasn’t quite as good offensively as Jeter, but was better defensively, and with a comparable WAR and advanced sabermetrics, maybe some light could be shed on his career before it’s too late for him to be enshrined in Cooperstown.  Down the hall from Jeets – two great shortstops who were leaders on the field.

Congrats to #2.

#freesimmons

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