I’m back. Not that you necessarily noticed I was missing, but I took a short sabbatical from reviewing and posting about bourbon (don’t worry, I took no sabbatical from drinking it!) to take care of some things and recharge. And I’m glad to say I’ve come out the other side refreshed, recharged and ready to go! In the summer months ahead, I have a ton of whiskies to review, ballparks to cover and other fun reads to post. So on with the show.
I certainly hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend – I certainly did, with a trip to see friends and family get married in St. Louis and New York City, respectively. Not only were my journeys an opportunity for my wife and I to spend time with many great people we do not see enough – it was also an opportunity to pick up and try some tasty regional bourbons. That’s where we start today – with Brooklyn’s own Kings County Distillery Bourbon.
Kings County Distillery has been on the scene for a little while now. Founded in 2010 in a building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Kings County Distillery is the definition of artisan distilling. They do not and have never sourced their liquor, distilling and aging it on site. Even the grains come from a nearby Brooklyn farm, and their pride in sustainable, local distilling is strong.
I first became aware of Kings County this year at the Bourbon Classic, where Master Blender Nicole Austin joined a host of bourbon and whiskey legends for the panel discussions and tastings. Unfortunately for me, the Kings County booth proved so popular that I never got a chance to make my way up for a sample. No mind, I was in NYC and it seemed an ample opportunity to check it out.
I had hoped to give the distillery a tour – and will make a point to in the future – but on this trip time was tight, so I used the distillery’s handy site and found a store right by our hotel where I could purchase a bottle. (As a note, if you are in NYC and looking for a fantastic collection of whiskey, check out Bowery and Vine if you haven’t already. Great selection, and fun service.) Bottle gotten, and back home – time for a tasting.
Dan’s take: First thing first, I do love the packaging. A hip flask bottle befitting a local distillery with a throwback touch. I do wish I was able to pick up a fifth, as a pint or half-pint were the only choices available. That said, it’s a pricey pour at $45 a pint, so my wallet is happy for the smaller size.
The color was a rich amber, not so young as to give away the relatively young age (anywhere from 1-4 years). Kings County makes their bourbon from NY corn and UK barley – they don’t mention rye – and the nose is very strong of the sweet corn smell. There is an almost perfume-like note as well, like dried raisin and honey. It took a few minutes to fully open (it is 90 proof), and when it did, the corn was most present.
The mouth feel was thick and slick, with a viscosity I also didn’t expect. It was soft, and buttery, and made for a most enjoyable sip. Admittedly, it tasted young, and not as sweet as the nose, but very smooth. Hints of cinnamon and light caramel presented, but I didn’t note any vanilla or maple. There was no bitterness to speak of, and the corn sweetness carried it through to the finish. Again, cinnamon was obvious in the finish, but it would not be unfair to say that the smoothness, rather than any particular flavor, was the primary observation. The finish was relatively short, without a real burn.
Blind tasting it, I may have known it was young, but how young I wouldn’t have suspected. It does not have the complexity of an 8/10/12 year pour, but does have a sweet smooth finish rarely found in something so new. Overall, I was impressed. This is a nice bourbon, distinctly…well, Brooklyn!
Dan’s take: 8.3
(Don’t worry, more NYC songs are coming with future reviews!)
Last year when British spiritmaker Diageo announced the pending release of an “Orphan Barrel” series – a collection of bourbons retrieved from very aged stock Diageo owns – there was a bit of a schism in the bourbon community. Some criticized Diageo – a company that has among it’s many assets Bulleit Bourbon and the old Stitzel-Weller and Bernheim distilleries – for a lack of transparency in issuing these releases. Chuck Cowdery, the king of bourbon writing, led the charge. It has been his belief that, in not fully divulging the history of each of the Orphan Barrel releases, Diageo is exploiting an over-hyped market and taking money from the naive with flashy packaging.
There was another set of voices that defended the Orphan Barrel series, pointing out that Diageo had a very unique and distinct set of products that were very exciting. Bourbon distilled at legendary facilities like Stitzel-Weller and the old Bernheim factory could be assumed to be more ‘craftsman’ than the typical MGP whiskey sourced in so many bottles in the last few years.
The reviews were mixed as well. The first release, a 26-year old bourbon named Old Blowhard, was less than well received, with most commenting on the overall woodiness of the release as well as the prohibitive price ($150+). Then came Barterhouse and Rhetoric, two younger, very different and more affordable releases, and more popular in reviews.
Meanwhile, the bottles sold out, and Diageo could call the Orphan Barrel series a success. By the time the fourth release, Lost Prophet, was announced in the fall, interest was high.
I am coming late to the Orphan Barrel game. Here in Michigan, bottles of Old Blowhard/Barterhouse/Rhetoric started showing up in small numbers last year, but the price, as well as a lack of knowledge, kept it off of my shelf. Bourbon connoisseurs know that age is no guarantee of quality – in fact, very very few whiskeys can stand 20 years in the barrel without coming out tasting like oak tree bark. This is part of what makes drinks like the 20 year Pappy Van Winkle or the older Elijah Craig releases so unique: they retain their flavor even at this advanced age. But not all do – in fact, the 23 Year Old Pappy Van Winkle may be near impossible to find, but the last laugh is really on those who don’t realize it may be the least impressive of the Van Winkles because of that advanced age.
Age statements and ‘limited edition’ bottlings are to collectors as catnip is to felines, however, and that is Mr. Cowdery’s main complaint. It would be a fair hypothesis to make that any bourbon producer could find barrels of aged whiskey – regardless of taste, where they were stored, recipe or certainly quality – and make a healthy profit selling them to a relatively unknowledgeable ‘whiskey collector/investor’ base. But is that what Diageo did with their Orphan Barrel series?
The truth seems to be somewhere in between. The histories of each Orphan Barrel release can be investigated and found out. The impressive labels and mystic stories not withstanding, these barrels were made by serious, quality companies and stored in historic, if over-hyped locations. Simply storing barrels at Stitzel-Weller doesn’t make the product Pappy Van Winkle anymore than buying a Ford Fiesta from a dealership makes it a Mustang. But that’s not to say it can’t be good, even great. So I start my Orphan Barrel reviews with one of the recent releases: Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet.
The story of Lost Prophet is a name dropper’s dream. It was distilled in 1991 at the (1) George T. Stagg distillery. That’s now (2) Buffalo Trace Distillery. It is believed to have been distilled using the Stagg Mash Bill #2 – the same as (3) Blanton’s and (4) Ancient Age (thats 75% corn, 15% rye, 10% barley). It was then moved for storage to the (5) Stitzel-Weller warehouse outside of Louisville. At some point, Diageo became aware of these barrels they had purchased in one of the transactions, and they bottled the results at 22 years. Like I said, a lot of name dropping.
But was it any good? We cracked a bottle and had a taste.
Dan’s take: Right from the start, this hit me as a different bourbon, and in a good way. The nose didn’t open up to sweetness at all – instead, it was an older, deeper scent. Dried fruits, raisins, a serious dose of cinnamon and clove, touched off with a hint of oak. But that was the biggest surprise – it was a hint of oak. At 22 years, I was expecting a lot more of the charred wood smell, and was pleased to get more texture.
The taste did not disappoint. Again, there was a spiciness – cinnamon, clove, plum and a slight bitterness of dark chocolate opening up to a wider leather taste. That bitterness did open up, with a decent taste of the oak, but never overwhelmingly tannin or pucker inducing. And it was shockingly smooth for a bourbon of it’s age. But, just as the nose, there was no real sweetness to be found. The dried fruit taste mixed with oaky smokiness was pleasant and unique though, making this a truly different pour.
The finish was long and smoky, with the wooden age lingering.
Sometimes, I will try a bourbon that is not to my taste profile, but I respect immensely anyway, and that’s how I feel about Lost Prophet. There are certain times and certain meals I look forward to pairing this well aged whiskey with. On one hand, it is a bit cost prohibitive, at $130 retail, but considering it is 22 years old, worth an investment. And while I sincerely hope Diageo becomes a bit more transparent with their origin stories, I think Lost Prophet is a worthy entry.
Among the many great things about travelling to Kentucky for bourbon events is the opportunity to purchase harder-to-find products that just aren’t available here in my home state of Michigan. While the local selection has certainly improved in the last five years, it is still a drop in the bucket compared to what is available in the larger Kentucky stores, much less the more legendary stops in Bourbon country.
When we were in the Bluegrass State last month for the Bourbon Classic, we were able to fit in a bit of shopping. Now, those expecting to run into those more well known unicorns – Pappy, BTAC, Four Roses Limited Edition, etc – will find themselves every bit as frustrated as they might in their own state. But some good knowledge of stores and a bit of luck mixed with a willingness to search, and you can certainly find some unique bottles.
It was with that mind set that Jen and I stumbled across a unique variation on a brand I had reviewed in February. Then, I tried the Buffalo-Trace produced, Virginia aged John J. Bowman single barrel for the first time, and found it enjoyable. This time, we found a bottle of a Abraham Bowman limited release, aged in Vanilla beans. It certainly seemed unique enough, so we brought the last bottle on the shelf home to try for ourselves.
The Bowman distillery in Virginia has been putting out Limited Edition efforts for a few years now – past releases included a port-wine finish and a double barreled. This year, they released a vanilla bean infused version. The distillery explains this as quite a process – they “chopped up Madagascar vanilla beans in October, 2012″ that then “were added at various levels and tasted every ten weeks to observe how their flavor interacted with the bourbon as it aged. After a little over two years, all of the barrels were married together.”
What resulted was less a”flavored” bourbon and more of an interesting, enhanced version of their whiskey. Luckily for us, although the release was originally only supposed to be available in the Bowman home state of Virginia, we found a bottle in Kentucky, so a few got out.
Was it any good? Jen and I gave it a shot (pun fully intended).
Dan: The nose is certainly vanilla-infused, but not nearly as much as i expected. There are serious rye notes here, as well as a nuttiness akin to walnut and pecan, and a soft oak smokiness. That’s not to say there isn’t an abundance of vanilla – it’s definitely there – but it does downplay some of the other sweeter notes I would expect. There’s no sweetness aside from the vanilla at all. But I think it’s well balanced.
Jen: The nose is a bit too Bath and Body works for me. And I don’t have to sit around with my nose in a glass, so who cares if it smells like there should be coordinating lotions?
Dan: The taste is surprising. I don’t get a flood of vanilla – this is no ‘flavored’ whiskey. Cinnamon and spice, orange, with more of that nuttiness in there, along with a touch of bitterness I am going to assign to the vanilla bean. Madagascar vanilla beans are known for being rich and creamy, and while the mouth feel here is thicker than the average whiskey, I wouldn’t call it creamy or buttery. It has a flatness to it – exceptionally smooth, but not particularly sweet.
Jen: But the taste was very nice. I think the vanilla flattens the complexity of the whiskey giving it a simpler taste, much like a flavored whiskey. However, unlike other cherry or honey whiskeys, the vanilla is integrated very naturally and very skillfully into the rest of the flavor profile. So you avoid feeling like a sorority girl while you drink it. It’s a very pleasant drink, and very tasty.
Dan: Good call. It is a bit flat, and very smooth, and has a medium finish that is ALL vanilla. It’s hard to prescribe who this is for, other than the adventurous bourbon enthusiast. It’s not complex enough for the aficionado, not soft enough for the flavored whiskey fan. I bet it would make an awesome mixed drink. But at $70 and up a bottle, that’s a pricey mixer.
We both like it, and it’s fun and different. A nice addition to the collection, but if it makes more than it’s current limited edition run, I probably wouldn’t seek it out again.
When Jen and I travelled down to Louisville last year for the Bourbon Classic, it was our first real foray into the larger bourbon culture, and the largesse of those involved (recap parts one and two here). The blog was only a few months old, and our participation and education about bourbon had come from distillery visits, reading books by Cowdery and Minnick, and personal consumption.
We were blown away by the awesomeness – of the event, of the people, of the culture as a whole. It kicked off a wonderful year where we made frequent trips to Kentucky: touring Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace (again), Willett; visiting Louisville, Bardstown, Frankfort, Lexington; and eating and drinking at fantastic establishments. For the Bourbon Classic 2015, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation – we were going again.
This year the Classic was a little later – the end of February (instead of the end of January), and we hoped that would lead to some good weather. On that end we weren’t so lucky, and we drove into a Louisville that had been hit pretty hard by a snow storm earlier in the week. We checked in to the 21c Museum Hotel – who have the most fantastic staff of any place we’ve stayed – and geared up for a wonderful weekend.
The first night of the Classic centers around a cocktail and small plate tasting. Nine bourbon labels are represented – Barton’s 1792, Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Michter’s, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. Each brand selected a mixologist and chef to prepare the tastings. We were pleased to see some of our favorite’s from last year returning, including Issac Fox of Volare and our favorite Louisville chef (and all around awesome guy), Levon Wallace of Proof on Main.
The setup is simple: attendees stroll the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, where participating brands, chefs and master bartenders are set up against the walls, and sample to their heart’s content.
That’s right – you stroll the rooms, picking up cocktails and chef-prepared small plates as you go. It’s beautiful in it’s simplicity. Personally, I am more of a three-fingers-of-whiskey-neat guy, but these cocktails are so expertly made (and often unique), that I was happy to try many…and many more! Of particular note was the Tallulah (a peanut tasting bourbon drink), a bourbon mimosa and a bourbon/beet juice/dill cocktail. The first two I found fantastic, the last…well, it was certainly inventive. Almost every dish was fantastic.
I avoided two mistakes I made last year as well. First of all, I didn’t try to chronicle every dish and drink. There is just an abundance of great stuff, and trying to write it all down is too much. Secondly, I kept my imbibing to a slower pace, to more fully enjoy the flavors of the evening.
We were happy to run into some friends we had made from the last Bourbon Classic. Greg and Chris from Virginia were in attendance again, and this time they brought more of their fellow alumni with them, making it a real college reunion of sorts. We got to spend some time with Wallace (who is leaving Louisville for Nashville very soon), and I also met Eric Byford, who founded Beard Force Films and was there shooting some final footage for a documentary on Kentucky Bourbon (and it’s impact on the local culture) he has been working on. He showed me a trailer and I am certainly looking forward to it.
Jen and I sampled dish after dish and drink after drink, and if the Bourbon Classic was limited to the Friday night event, it would be plenty enough reason to head down. But the event gets even bigger on day two.
Admittedly, we skipped the first “Bourbon Classic University” session of the day to do a bit of bourbon hunting and get a good brunch (Toast on Market!). The goal was to get good seating in the auditorium for the second session: The Bourbon Masters General Session. The list of distillers that would be present was impressive, and it was MC’ed by Fred Minnick.
Last year, the Master’s session was a genial celebration of bourbon’s rise in popularity. Anytime you get many of the more long-time distillers around each other – Russell, Noe, Rutledge and even Wheatley and Henderson – you are going to get funny anecdotes and good natured ribbing. While the mood and spirits stayed high this year, however, Minnick asked a little more probing questions.
Right off the bat, a highlight was the presence of Texan Chip Tate. Last year, Tate seemed to be the talk of the whiskey world, as he fought with investors over the future of the distillery he founded – Balcones. The debate about craft versus investment swirled around the proceedings, while headline grabbing words like ‘gunplay’ and ‘banished’ abounded. Since then Tate has left Balcones and started a new distillery, and this was the first time he spoke to the public.
Settlement agreement in place, there wasn’t a whole lot of detail Tate could go into regarding the saga, and he downplayed the media accounts. That said, he did talk about the difficulties with reconciling the spirit of craftsmanship with the drive of commerce, as well as say that many of the facts that he was accused of by the Balcones board simply were not true. He is looking forward to producing brandy, and after the non-compete agreement expires, whiskey, under his new name of Tate and Co.
A few other edgy topics were discussed. Henderson and Magliocco were asked about ongoing lawsuits against ‘sourced’ whiskeys and label information (Magliocco refused to comment, but Henderson spoke openly about how he finds them frivolous and unethical, equating the lawyers involved as whiskey ambulance chasers).
The popularity of flavored whiskey was talked about. Russell was proud to say that when he pushed Wild Turkey to start offering flavored drinks in the 70s/80s, he was well ahead of his time. Wheatley – who’s Buffalo Trace is owned by Sazerac, makers of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey – pointed out that it was made from Canadian whiskies (not bourbon), and those sales helped him finance Buffalo Trace experimental offerings. Rutledge said Four Roses wouldn’t offer flavored whiskey as long as he is the master distiller, and Magliocco warned that flavoring whiskeys could lead down the path taken by vodka in the last 15 years, where flavors and gimmicks made the spirit itself lose credibility.
Other topics included the “whiskey shortage” (consensus opinion – if you are a distiller, there is none. If you are sourcing, good luck!), new products, and the rise of women in bourbon demographics. This last one was a bit sticky – Nicole Austin, from King’s County Distillery in Brooklyn, New York, was the only woman on the panel, and her…annoyance…with being asked about being a ‘woman’ in whiskey (rather than a person in whiskey) was funny and well received. Further questions got a little more tense, as they discussed marketing whiskeys to women, and it became harder to tell if Austin, whose distillery is the first post-prohibition distillery in Brooklyn, was seriously upset or just sarcastically funny.
Either way, the session ended jovially, and we kept our seats for the second session, a “Bourbon Icons” discussion with Noe, Russell, Rutledge and Freddie Johnson, tour guide extraordinaire of Buffalo Trace, who told of his family’s three-generation deep involvement in the Kentucky Bourbon industry. It was a captivating hour with four true legends – all of whom shared stories, and a few jokes.
Finally, the main event. Tables upon tables of fine bourbon – neat, on the rocks or with a splash of water. Again, there were again small plates as well as a buffet style presentation and, while a bluegrass band played from atop the stairs, the goal was to stroll and sample.
…and sample we did. Saturday has more varieties than Friday, with Jefferson’s Reserve, Old Forester, King County, Bulleit, Copper and Kings, Angel’s Envy and others joining the festivities. The distillers were mingling as well – I spoke with Jim Rutledge for quite some time about the difficulties resuscitating the Four Roses name in the Untied States after Seagrams had almost destroyed it. Jen spent some time laughing with Wes Henderson about his irreverent sense of humor (always a point winner with my wife).
When Greg and Chris let us know Heaven Hill was pouring its Parker’s Heritage Wheat Whiskey, we made a beeline there, and each enjoyed sips of one of our favorite drinks of 2014. Many more drinks followed, and by the time we retired at 9:30, another fantastic Bourbon Classic was put to bed. Let the countdown to 2016 begin!
So as I mentioned before, Jen and I had an amazing time at the second annual Bourbon Classic last year (for a recap of 2014, please read Part One and Part Two here), and decided to return to Downtown Louisville for the event again last week. Tickets were purchased, hotel reservations were made, and last Friday, we made the drive down from Detroit.
We arrived midday and, since the Classic doesn’t begin until 7pm, looked to enjoy a little more bourbon culture prior to the main event. We were staying at the 21c Museum Hotel close to the event, so we decided to stay close and check out the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience that opened in 2013 right on Main Street.
The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is part of the official “Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” but it is not a distillery. Rather, it’s a sort of museum dedicated to the history of Evan Williams Bourbon – and whiskey in general – in Louisville.
A tour of the EWBE starts with a short film. Wall sized projection video is a very big part of the EWBE, and it starts with a bit of background about the bourbon namesake, Evan Williams, himself. Williams, as the legend goes, was the first commercial whiskey producer in Kentucky, settling in Louisville and starting there. Like so many of the ‘facts’ around the history of bourbon, the details of William’s life are less than clear, and they are presented in a less than canonical way.
Rather, the show sets the stage for a walk through ‘Louisville past.” The short film explaining the importance of Louisville as a port (and stopping point on the Ohio River) leads to a room showing what the small town of Louisville might have looked like in 1800, when the whiskey business was just starting in earnest.
This is the ‘experience” part alluded to in the title – Evan Williams Bourbon is actually made at Heaven Hill distillery nearby, before being bottled in Bardstown, KY. It is not actually made at this location – the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is more of a beginner’s guide to bourbon.
That said they have created a very small micro distillery, that illustrates the wall-scale, step-by-step “How Bourbon is Made” multi media presentation. Approximately one barrel of whiskey is created there a day, and tour participants are encouraged to sign the guest book to be alerted when the whiskey of their visit day is matured.
Subsequent floors (exhibits) show the 1800’s distilling equipment and methods, which serve as a good intro primer to how bourbon is made.
The upper floors focus on Louisville, and Bourbon, through the eras. A nineteenth century saloon is recreated. The third floor showcases the “Bottled-In-Bond” Act and it’s importance at the time. Some Prohibition-era bottles are displayed, along with some recreated era-appropriate storefronts.
Finally, the tour resolves in a tasting of different Heaven Hill products – we had Evan Williams, Evan Williams Single Barrel, and the wheated bourbon Larceny – in the recreation of a 1960’s bar where we learned about the history of Heaven Hill, and by proxy, the Evan Williams brand. We exited through a gift shop, and our time at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience was done.
All in all, it was a pleasant way to spend an hour – the cost wasn’t prohibitive, and it was fun. It certainly wasn’t as in-depth as an actual distillery tour, but in fairness, it didn’t claim to be. What it certainly did do was serve as the perfect primer for the main event – The Bourbon Classic!
It may only be Wednesday, but it feels like it has been a full week already, and there’s plenty more to come! In Michigan, we are steeped in snow and in the midst of another Polar Vortex, but we are not alone – a good swath of the country looks to be frozen along with us.
One place it’s not frozen is Florida, which is good because it’s Spring Training time! My Tigers have a few new faces (Cespedes, Gose, Greene and Simon), a few question marks (the rotation) and some injuries to see through, but few things can bring warmth to a sub-zero winter day like the thought of baseball.
This is also Bourbon Classic week, and I will be going for my second year. We had a wonderful time last year, sampling the wonderful dishes and drinks, and I am looking forward to it again. I just wish it was a tad warmer in Kentucky…
So what to drink when the weather is so very cold? How about trying something Barrel Proof? And that’s exactly what I did, with a glass of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof!
The most recent issue of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is it’s sixth offering, although I haven’t been fortunate enough to run across the earlier five myself. It is also the highest proof, at a little over 140. No laughing matter here.
Heaven Hill barrels this direct – no char filtering – and it shows in the color. Even in the bottle, it’s a very deep brown. They have accented that with a dark label, and it is just distinctive enough to set it apart. I have respect for 12 Year Elijah Craig, even if it’s not my first choice (it is, however, my first choice in baking – it’s spiciness adds much to pies, cookies and chocolates!). How would this one fare?
The deep, dark amber-brown color of the pour lets you know right away that this is not a light and breezy pour. But what really amazed me was the nose – a 140 Proof glass should burn, but this most certainly does not. There are many wonderful, unique and often, sweet aromas in this glass. Rich vanilla, caramel and the smell of warm baking, like a gingerbread man iced with maple frosting. Does that sound unique? It surely shocked me – there was no great burn, just the wholly unique smell of sweet baking in a wood fired oven.
The taste brought me back to earth and how. The tip of the tongue held that sweetness of caramel before the proof hit. In baseball, a pitcher might throw a fastball up around the batters shoulders to brush him back a bit, or get him to swing wildly at an eye level pitch – the ‘high heat.’ This drink is the ‘high heat,’ and the first sip admittedly knocked me back for a second. The nose had lulled me to sleep, but 140 proof woke me up fast. I caught my breath and tried again – slower this time. There is a slightly burned sugar taste, brown sugar to be more specific. Wood weighed in heavily, but not overwhelmingly, as the toasted oak blended well with the toffee, maple flavors.
(I handed it to Jen to sample, and she agreed with me on both the taste, and the kicks-like-a-mule effect of drinking too large a sip!)
It has a long finish, and a whole lot of burn. THe wood is probably strongest in the finish, and I’ll admit, it went on a little too long for me. Such a high proof leads to a long finish, and this one left traces of oak, alcohol bite and burnt toast on my palate for minutes.
So how do I rate it? I thoroughly enjoyed it – not unlike a roller coaster that gives you a great start, but maybe by the end you wish was a little bit shorter, this version of the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is a great ride. I look forward to trying other, varied proof versions.