Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year

T-minus two days until I head to Louisville, KY with my lovely wife for the Bourbon Classic.  I could not be more excited – and I will be posting updates all weekend as I partake in all the bourbon culture this weekend promises.  Plus, I will get to escape the Polar Vortex madness that has settled on the great lakes!

For those curious, the Bourbon Classic is a (now) annual convention/conference/event bringing together distilleries, writers, speakers, master distillers, chefs, mixologists and just about anybody else interested in bourbon for a two day event in downtown Louisville.  This will be my first time going, so I am ready for a weekend of learning about and thoroughly enjoying all it has to offer.

With such a fine event on the horizon, it seemed the best time to pick a sure thing for my bourbon of the week.  And today, that means none other than the legend itself, Pappy Van Winkle. In this case, the 15 year.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year

 

I won’t waste your -or my – time recapping the Pappy Van Winkle story. What I will do is review this elusive bottle for those who, like me, have had a *difficult* (read: impossible) time procuring the drink. Hopefully, it can help someone decide for themselves – is it worth it?

When I say “worth it,” I am referring to the hunt for Pappy, or to pay the increasingly higher prices enthusiasts find when searching. For taste alone, I’m not sure ANY bourbon is worth the hundreds of dollars PVW commands. Many of those who are dropping hundreds of dollars for this, or any other rare whiskey, are doing it more for the prestige of having the bottle in their collection than the taste or quality. But that does not mean that PVW does not have those things. It actually has them in spades.

My take: I’ve had the PVW 15 before, and have actually had this bottle for a year and a half before reviewing. Most notably, I had it at Buffalo Trace Distillery at a Pappy Van Winkle tasting event last year, where I sampled the 12, 15, 20 and 23 year. For my taste profile, the 20 year was best (a little smoother, a bit more stately) but many say the 15 year is the perfect bourbon, and I can see why.

It’s nose is unparalleled. At 107 proof, you expect the bite of alcohol, but won’t find it here. Instead, a sweet mix of cinnamon and honey, maple syrup, honey and a bit of sharp oak comes forth. I held the glass to my nose again and again, absolutely in love with its aroma.

The first sip is sharp – the charred oak mixes with a delightful caramel and it’s creamy texture almost separates on your tongue. There is that sweet thick vanilla caramel on the front, and toffee. In the back, the cinnamon pours out, with more oak and a husk spice that is unique in a wheated bourbon. It’s not harsh, but rather, smooth and strong. Clove and more oak come forward if you hold your sip a bit longer.

Then the finish – very very long and warming. Still smooth, but with warming oak flavor and the lingering of caramel.

I found waiting between sips made it even better. The second didn’t catch me off balance, and the sweetness increased with each subsequent sip, the sugar mingling with that smoky oak char.

Did I love it? Yes, even more this time than before. I can’t in good conscience leave it out of my top five, although I still prefer the softness of the 20 year. Is it worth $500 a bottle? Again, I’m not sure anything is. But a glass at a bar is worth the asking price, and if you have the means, you won’t regret it from the taste.

Yum.

Dan’s Rating: 9.1

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Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon

10 days and counting until the Bourbon Classic, and the excitement continues to build, in spite of a second round of Polar Vortex weather here in frozen Michigan.  I received some great feedback on last weeks DBotW (Traverse City Whiskey Co. American Cherry Edition), so this week I continue on with Michigan based bourbons: the New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: New Holland Beer Barrel Bourbon

New Holland Brewing is responsible for many of the fantastic, Michigan-based brands of beer.  I’ll be the first to admit, I am not a great connoisseur of beer, but even I am aware of their qualities.  The Hatter series are renowned in the area, and one of their most unique and popular labels is the “Dragon’s Milk,” a stout beer aged in Oak bourbon barrels.  It is a tasty and satisfying beer, and it’s with this product in mind that New Holland – who extended their beverage creation to the New Holland Artisan Spirits a few years back – created the Beer Barrel Bourbon.

Just as Dragon’s Milk is aged in oak bourbon barrels, New Holland created their Beer Barrel Bourbon by finishing a pre-aged bourbon (sourced from a distiller in Indiana) in former Dragon’s Milk barrels.  There is, of course, an irony to this – the bourbon is being finished in actual bourbon barrels that had been ‘borrowed’ to age beer.  But it promises a unique finish – taking a bourbon and introducing it to the barrel flavor of a rich, creamy, vanilla-strong stout beer.

Like last week, I should admit here that I have serious reservations about bourbons where the juice itself was prepared offsite and the label company was responsible only for finishing and bottling.  You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, they say (who says that?  I don’t know – i suppose either the purse or bacon industries).  So the idea that you can take a less-than bourbon and make it something worthwhile by disguising its real taste is upsetting to me.  Allow me to say that the New Holland Bourbon is from neither the best nor worst stock. It’s unfinished taste is straightforward and young.  I feel pretty confident that, without the beer finishing, I would not be overly fond of this beverage. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, rather, its mellow, young and not impressively unique.  However, I’m not judging it without the finish.

My take:

From the cool New Holland bottle, Beer Barrel Bourbon is a nice pour.  It has a rich amber color, and looks nice enough in the glass.  It’s nose, I couldn’t help but notice, changed with a bit of time.  At first blush it has a nice blend of vanilla, toffee and oak, but with a few minutes in the glass, it opens up some malt and hop scents.  A faint smell of the beer finish is introduced, and becomes stronger the longer it is in the glass.

It has a thicker mouth feel – not necessarily creamy, but not too light, It has caramel, and corn (a bit more corn than I like), and it delicately smooth on sip.  There are oak flavors, but I didn’t get tannins, and it was a pleasant drink.

The finish is where it gets the most interesting.  While the sip is easy on the throat,  it is really then that the Dragon’s Milk influence comes out – you taste the stout beer presence on the finish – almost like it had it’s own chaser.  Given the good pour that Dragon’s Milk is, this was a wholly welcome development.

Also worth noting is the finishing kick this bourbon has – my wife and I both noticed that this one left that warm from-the-stomach-headed-up feeling other liquors do.  On such a cold winters night, it was kind of appreciated, and it certainly sets it apart.  The finish actually had more kick than the drink!

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this: One of my favorite parts of being a bourbon nut are the scents that are left in a glass after finishing it.  I revel in the magical sweet smells you can find in a glass minutes or even hours after a drink has been finished.  This one was no exception, but one thing was significantly different: the glass smelled like beer.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Dan’s rating: 7.8 (higher if you are a micro-brew aficionado)

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Traverse City Whiskey Company American Cherry Edition Bourbon

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Traverse City Whiskey Company American Cherry Edition Bourbon

Today I start the two week countdown: two weeks from tomorrow I will be traveling to Louisville Kentucky to take part in the Bourbon Classic. The Classic is a newer event where distillers, enthusiasts, master chefs, distilleries and fans will gather in Louisville to learn about, taste and truly revel in the spirit we enjoy so much.  This will be my first time at the Classic, a Christmas gift courtesy of my wonderful wife Jen, and I am counting down the minutes.

In The meantime, life goes on. And today it went on with an unexpected snowfall, and a painfully slow commute home from work. Such a day almost requires a glass of fine bourbon at the end of it to calm one’s nerves. Luckily for me, I had several new ones to choose from, so this evening I sampled one of he newer offerings from the Traverse City Whiskey Co., a Cherry infused Bourbon they refer to as their “American Cherry Edition!”

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Traverse City Whiskey Company American Cherry Edition Bourbon
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Traverse City Whiskey Company American Cherry Edition Bourbon

 
For those familiar with it, the Traverse City Whiskey Co. has been making small batch Michigan-based bourbon for a a while now. I say making, but in actuality they, as a newer distillery, have been purchasing their bourbon from a Midwest distributor who has created it to the taste profile they requested. This can get tricky, as we discussed in the past. Sometimes that means that smaller distilleries are basically slapping a label on a second rate product, and selling it under a “local” banner.

Now, if you read this blog regularly you know there are two particular things that can get my goat when talking about bourbon. I really hate when I believe a second rate offering hits the market at a premium price simply to be part of the current bourbon craze, and I have a personal vendetta against Bourbons that have been tarnished with too much finishing, flavor adding, or just shenanigans that confuse a flavor profile. So it would be a fair assumption that I would not be fond of a bourbon whiskey, from a newer outsourced brand, that has been infused with cherries. But that assumption would be wrong.

At least tonight. Maybe it was a refreshing drink after a long day. Maybe it was my home state pride. Likely, it was both with a strong dose of the mere fact I love cherries. But I actually enjoyed this, even more then I would have guessed.

My take:

The bottle I purchased was hand labeled Batch 001. Now I don’t know if that means it came from their first batch ever, as the product was just introduced in the fall, or the first batch of this year. But it was number one all the same. The nose was exactly what you would expect from a cherry infused bourbon. The scent of cherries, so integral a part of Traverse City tradition, was certainly the most noticeable element. There was also a strong scent of burned sugar, so common in younger Bourbons. After the glass sat a while, you could pick out notes of vanilla giving way to a baking spice elements. Cherries, vanilla and baking spices…made me hungry for a slice of pie to go with it.

The taste was more bourbon than cherry, and I’d say, for the market they seek, it’s a well measured mix. I could still get strong vanilla tastes, and although it was a rye, the spiciness was very low and tempered. That was probably due in no small part to the cherries, which blended well. There was a nice oakiness to it as well. It’s a thin mouth feel, and goes down easy with very little burn at the finish. I like a mellowed finish myself, so those looking for that finishing warmth may be disappointed, but then again, if you’re looking to get your ass kicked, you probably aren’t drinking cherry infused bourbon.

The price point for this juice is not bad – I picked it up for $25 and it seems about right. I would be more likely to mix it in an Old Fashioned or Manhattan where the cherry flavor would be a better touch.

According to their website, the Traverse City Whiskey Co. is currently working to set it self up as a fully in house bourbon distillery. They are going so far as to plant the crops that they will use in the process. Personally, I encourage this kind of growth. There is something special about a distillery that grows, distills and markets its own unique beverages. I look forward to seeing how the TCWC grows.

I feel strange about giving a rating to a bourbon that is so different then the others I typically try. But I will do it anyway.

Dan’s rating: 8.3 as a mixer bourbon; 7.5 as a sipper

Shakeup in the Bourbon World: Suntory purchases BEAM Inc

As many bourbon fans know, the craze around it’s production and consumption is not limited to the United States, or even North America.  Other markets, including Europe and Asia, have been clamoring for the fine American beverage for some years now, despite the serious limitations in it’s availability there.  It certainly comes as no surprise that an Asian company would make a power move by purchasing an American producer.  The surprise is more which one will have global headquarters on the move.

BEAM, Inc, the company responsible for some of the most iconic American bourbons like Makers Mark, Knob Creek and, of course, the many faces of Jim Beam itself, will be purchased by Suntory Holdings, Inc.  Suntory is a privately owned Japanese company, and they are purchasing BEAM, it’s assets and it’s debt, in entirety, and are adding the many products – which also include Canadian Club whisky, Sauza tequilla and Courvoisier cognac, among others.

What does this mean for the bourbons?  It is not yet known what impact, if any, this will have on the products themselves.  Suntory has been in the whisky game for a long time (they already owned whiskies Yamazaki – which they started in 1923 as Japan’s first whiskey producer, Hakushu, Hibiki and Midori liqueur).  It would be expected that, given their closeness with the under-served Asian market, the import and distribution to Asia of a much higher quantity could be on the horizon.

That could mean shorter supply here at home, or higher prices, but only time will tell.  It also could lead to the revisiting of a lower proof version.  When Makers Mark announced their desire to water down the bourbon slightly last year to meet increased demand, a public relations firestorm ensued.  Although they relented days later (leading some to wonder if it was a publicity stunt), public misconceptions still loom.  Last year, I heard several liquor purchasers comment on their lack of interest in Makers now that it was “watered down,” and my attempts to explain to them that it was only a thought, and they hadn’t actually changed it were met with disbelief.

Only time will tell.  For right now, the reporting is that the American management will stay in place.

The truth is most beverage distilleries are owned by large, global corporations and we are rarely any the wiser.  I won’t go into the geo-political aspects but I would remind readers this: if the ‘buy local’ movement is something important to you, there are a fantastic wealth of homegrown bourbons of excellent quality available out there, including most of the big names.  In the mean time…

It’s Suntory Time!

*thank you to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, NPR and The Bourbon Review for details

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Angel’s Envy

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Angel’s Envy

It’s cold here in Detroit. Damn cold. A “polar vortex!” The kind of brutal cold that makes you want to curl up by the fire with a good book or, in the case of my wife, all six seasons of Breaking Bad.  At once.  Yikes.

Personally, I prefer the warmth that comes from sipping a great bourbon.  So with that in mind, with the snow shoveling done and the wind howling, I perused my bourbon cabinet, and decided to try the unique looking bottle of Angel’s Envy.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Angel's Envy
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Angel’s Envy

I will admit I had a bit of a grudge against Angel’s Envy.  When I first started making myself a nuisance around liquor stores, seeking out new bourbons to try and review, store keeper after store keeper would push Angel’s Envy on me.  It started to get obnoxious – I’m looking on the backs of shelves for a forgotten single barrel, a neglected micro distillery bottle or a dusty bottle of Pappy or Stagg, and aggressive sales people kept telling me “try Angel’s Envy.”  So I began to rebel against the thought of it, and didn’t pick up a bottle.

Well, this Christmas, I received a bottle as a gift, so there was no need to boycott it anymore.  So while the gales blew outside, I popped the cork and poured a glass.

Angel’s Envy has been on the scene for a couple years, a unique bourbon with two claims to fame – one that it was created by the Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson, the taste buds behind Woodford Reserve’s introduction in the mid-90s, as well as the creation of Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey; and two that it is a bourbon finished in Port Wine ‘pipes’ or barrels.  Angel’s Envy hit the shelves in 2011, and didn’t take long to make a big splash.

Mr. Henderson passed away this last year, but the spirit he created in Angel’s Envy continues to live on.

My take:  It has a distinctive bottle and it a sharp looking product.  In the glass is is a lighter amber color than most of the bourbons I’ve sampled, more transparent and less thick looking.

But my goodness the nose – Angel’s Envy has a fantastic nose. There is a sweetness, like maple syrup and brown sugar. I also noted something reminiscent of raisins. With eyes closed, the sweetness came with each sniff – slight caramel, hints of vanilla.  This had one of my favorite noses of all time.

After such a spectacular nose, I had a hunch the taste may let me down, and it did, if only a bit.  Not that it was bad – far from.  It was smooth and there were no unreasonable tastes.  Mainly I noted soft corn, a hint of cinnamon and clove, and a very light vanilla.  It didn’t burn, and no particular flavor jumped to the forefront.  It was a fine, pleasant, and rather thin mouth-feeling bourbon.  The finish was long and warm, and only then did you get a hint of the port wine that it was finished in.

When we were done, my wife Jen and I looked for the right words to describe it and struggled a bit.  It was smooth, clean, almost too pure.  I would not hesitate offering a glass to a non-bourbon drinker as something they might well enjoy.  It was like…

…Gentleman Jack.  It hit me that it’s smooth, tasteful but ultimately safe pour reminded me of Gentleman Jack, the smooth, tasteful but ultimately safe pour Tennessee Whiskey I enjoy when I’m not feeling like a bourbon.  The fact that both are recipes from the same man only encouraged this feeling.

I love GJ, and I like AE.  It might not be the bourbon I would pour for the adventurous bourbon palette, and it doesn’t have the aged taste of a great bourbon.  But it is a also a drink you could have anytime without concern it would be the wrong taste for the moment either.  If it was a plain whiskey, I would give it something in the mid or high 8’s, but as it is a bourbon…

Dan’s scale (1-10): 7.8

*there is a cask strength Angel’s Envy, which I am looking to score a bottle of.  I have a hunch in a higher proof, I would like this bourbon even more and note certain flavors much more.