Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Virgil Kaine Bourbon and Ginger

“Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train…”  So begins one of the most legendary songs in the rock lexicon, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The song tells the story of the surrender of the Confederacy from the viewpoint of a southerner.  Written by The Band, released in 1969 and sung by Levon Helm, the American, southern drummer and singer in a band of Canadians who understood Americana as good as anyone.  This week is the fourth anniversary of Helm’s passing, so let’s raise today’s glass to him.  The fact it’s named Virgil Kaine makes it all the more appropriate.

imageDan's Bourbon of the Week: Virgil Kaine Bourbon and Ginger
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Virgil Kaine Bourbon and Ginger

Virgil Kaine (with a “K”) is also the name of a whiskey maker from South Carolina.  Founded by two acclaimed chefs, the idea was to take the concepts of molecular gastronomy and apply it to whiskey making.  While there are many examples of this today – Jefferson’s Chef Collaboration, for instance – the idea was more novel in 2011 when David Szlam and Ryan Meany decided to take a love of whiskey and culinary experimentation and start the company.

Their most recognizable product is the Bourbon and Ginger.  The process is unique: they start with a young sourced bourbon, heavy in rye (60-36-4 corn/rye/barley) and then infuse locally grown yellow hawaiian ginger.  Different sources mention the addition of other ingredients, including (potentially) cinnamon and vanilla.  After maceration, the bourbon is distilled a second time for refinement before being bottled and sold.  But how does it taste?

Dan’s take:

The nose is a cool customer.  There is obviously ginger, but not nearly as strong as I expected.  Similarly, there is light cinnamon, vanilla and a touch of baking spice.  What there isn’t is oak or strong bourbon presence.  The fact this is a young pour shows in the nose.  Still, it is a pleasant softness, that slightly reminded me of a glass of Vernors.

The taste is more aggressive with its ginger – it comes in right from the get go.  It has a freshness to it, along with a soft sweetness.  There is vanilla, and the light pop on the back of the tongue of cinnamon.  The vanilla is soft, and like in the nose, the rye bourbon is not harsh in the least.  I can understand why they are choosing to use a young bourbon – the taste retains the corn sweetness, but doesn’t overpower the gentle ginger notes with oak and burn.  It tastes like a cocktail, and a well mixed one at that.  I am curious how a wheated variation may taste…

Jen pointed out the same thing.  When we added soda water, it deadened the flavor too much.  The best way to enjoy it was neat or with a few rocks.  Straight, it drinks like a nice – albeit potent – cocktail.  If you like your whiskey with a touch of ginger, you cannot go wrong with this one.

This product does not seem to be available in Michigan, or many northern or western states yet.  I grabbed my bottles while in Atlanta and Asheville a few weeks back.  Hopefully, distribution will expand further as well.  It’s a fun addition to the liquor cabinet.

Dan’s Rating: 8.2

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon

Next week is an exciting first for me – Jen and I will be attending the WhiskeyFest 2016 in Chicago!  Hosted by Whiskey Advocate magazine, this is the biggest and baddest of the Whiskey festivals.  Already there are dozens – dozens – of bourbon, scotch, malt, wheat and every other kind of whiskey imaginable distillers RSVP’ed.  I have spent the last couple months whittling down the list of what I absolutely must try, and have prepared for a truly great event.

But before all of that excitement, there are newer things to try closer to home, and that’s where I found myself this week, at a new speakeasy-inspired bar in Grosse Pointe called “The Whiskey Six.”  Named after the supposed engine of choice among Detroit River traversing bootleggers, the bar/restaurant boasts an impressive list of whiskies (if mostly from the usual suspects – Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and, for today’s choice, Brown-Forman).  Indeed, it is from the Brown-Forman catalog that we try Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon, our taste of the week.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Old Forester 1870 Original Batch Bourbon

On the surface, Brown-Forman hype this newer Old Forester release as closer in spirit (if not taste) to the the original methods used by Old Forester founder George Garvin Brown in 1870.  Theoretically, that is true, but the truth is that Mr. Brown basically blended whiskies from three different distilling sources for maximum consistency from batch to batch.  If this sounds familiar, it should, because it’s basically what any non-Single Barrel release does today.  Hardly revolutionary.

Still, it is always nice to recall history, and the idea of blending of barrels from three different warehouses is a nice throwback.  The only problem is that, to my palette, it doesn’t work.

My take:

There are a lot of things going on in a glass of Old Forester 1870.  Upon nosing the glass, I found it exceptionally hot, and with eyes closed, I wouldn’t have guessed it the 90 proof it is, but probably more like cask strength.  Upon letting it sit for a minute, it began to open, slowly, but what was revealed was scattered and still very hot.  Notes of clove began to waft, as did a medicinal scent, suggesting lavender and even a touch of juniper.  I did not denote any soft sugar, but rather, a spicy rye.

I found the taste burned as well.  On the front, there was a suggestion of bitter cherries with a touch of molasses.  Also forward was a hint of cinnamon, a bit of toffee and a course black pepper.  I found there to be several tastes going on at once, and none of them complimentary.

The finish was long and hinted at dried fruit and dry spiciness.

I admit, I have never been a huge fan of Brown-Forman products, save Jack Daniels.  Woodford Reserve does nothing for me, and I still say Early Times 354 was the worst bourbon I’ve ever tasted.  That said, I respect that their products are usually dependable, if not exemplary.  Old Forester 1870 fits into that pattern.  It’s a fine bourbon for a shot or two, and a good mixer for a bitter cocktail.  But at the price a bottle is usually found ($50+), I just think you can get better.

Dan’s Rating: 7.3

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon

Today, we drink bourbon in celebration of the victors of Super Bowl 50.  Just like the Broncos that vanquished the Carolina Panthers last weekend, our spirit of choice hails from Denver, Colorado.

The Laws Whiskey House in Denver, Colorado takes great pride in their trade as craft distillers.  The whiskies they produce are distilled from (mostly) local grains: the corn is from Wisconsin, but the barley, rye and wheat come from Colorado.  Laws Whiskey distills the juice and ages it themselves, before bottling and selling.

The Laws distillery makes traditional straight bourbon, but for today’s taste, it’s the unique A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon we’re trying.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon

Now, bourbon by it’s legal description has to be made of at least 50% corn.  What makes up the other (up to) 50% is usually distillers choice.  Barley usually makes up a small percentage, with the rest being either a rye (spicier) or wheat (smoother).  Making a whiskey utilizing all four grains can be extremely tricky, as it involves balancing many flavors. Hence, there are very few four grain bourbons on the market.

It would make sense, however, that a craft distillery, with very good control on the source products they use, like Laws Distillery would be perfect to try this.  The Laws website is full of focus on the craftsmanship and patience employed.  Now their AD Laws Four Grain Bourbon is available throughout the country.  So how does it rate?

My take:

On first nose, I was surprised at the lack of sweetness.  There was an oak and leather, and a tinge of tobacco.  I also pulled a lot of baking spices that caught me off guard.  The Four Grain Bourbon is three years old, so I expected the sweetness of corn, but even after sitting out for a bit, the smell was allspice and oak, with a slight hint of dried raisin.

The Colorado distiller boasts that their whiskey ages year round, unlike Kentucky whiskey which ‘sleeps’ in the cold winter.  The fluctuations in Colorado mile high air supposedly keeps the whiskey maturing year round. I admit I was sceptical, but the nose certainly didn’t seem like such a young whiskey.

The taste was surprisingly mature too although not as tannic as the nose hinted at.  The leather and oak were most prominent, with a subtle tickle of spice, more clove than pepper.  But there was some sweetness now, albeit as a secondary flavor, with a hint of vanilla and the slightest bit of honey.  The mouth feel was medium – neither watery or creamy – and the youth of the drink showed through more in the second half, and subsequent drinks.  An ice cube opened up the flavor a bit, leaning toward the savory and added a bit of pepper.  It did taste young, like the individual elements weren’t fully absorbed, but it did taste like it was quality made.

The finish was medium, and had a bit of harshness to it.

Overall, its a unique and quality product by a craft spirit house that obviously cares about their product.  It is also refreshing to drink spirits that are more about the product and less about the story.  That said, this wouldn’t be a daily drinker for me – a bit too bitter, and a bit too young.  But kudos to Laws Distillery for their dedication to fine craftsmanship, and daring.

Dan’s rating: 7.8

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John E. Fitzgerald Larceny

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John E. Fitzgerald Larceny

It’s been a long summer for a baseball fan here in Detroit.  The Tiger’s have personified mediocrity this year and, with the small fire sale that we had last week (trading off David Price, Joakim Soria and Yoenis Céspedes) and the surprise dismissal of team architect Dave Dombrowski, we’re settled in for a pennant chase-less autumn for the first time in quite a few years.

It’s at moments like this one can turn to drinking – luckily for me there is a cabinet full of nice bourbon’s for me to try and write about, regardless of the Tigers score.  So we get back into the swing of things with a taste of Heaven Hill‘s wheated entry, Larceny.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: John E. Fitzgerald Larceny
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John E. Fitzgerald Larceny

For those familiar with the blog, you know that I am a sucker for ‘wheated’ bourbons – that is, bourbons that use wheat instead of rye in the distillation.  Now of course rye or wheat are used sparingly in the distillation of bourbon proper anyway, but wheated bourbons have a more sweet, rounded flavor without much of the spicy punchiness rye brings as a grain.  Most of my favorite bourbons – W.L. Weller, Maker’s Mark, even Pappy Van Winkle (and the famous Jefferson Presidential Select 18 year) have been wheated bourbons.  So Larceny has an advantage right off of the bat.

Larceny is Heaven Hill’s entry into the wheated bourbon market, and they did so with a heaping helping of bourbon history and lore.  John E. Fitzgerald was a Treasury agent, responsible for watching and approving of the manufacture and storage of bourbon.  As the only man with the keys to the rick-houses, Fitzgerald supposedly had quite the palate, and would choose the finest barrels to…pilfer…whiskey from.  The distillery owner, S.C. Herbst, and many years later it’s purchaser, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, honored the crooked agent with discerning taste with the brand name “Old Fitzgerald.”

Old Fitzgerald, to which “Pappy” introduced the wheat, was produced by the Stitzel-Weller Distillery until, the brand was sold in the early 90s to Heaven Hill.  In 2012, Heaven Hill began bottling Larceny as an homage.  A true “small batch” consisting of 100 barrels of 6-12 year old wheated bourbon bottled at 92 proof, they sent Larceny into the market, albeit limited.

Larceny is, for example, still largely unavailable in Michigan, and it was only on one of my trips to Kentucky I was able to wrangle a bottle of the very affordably priced ($26) bourbon.  So how did it taste?

Dan’s take:

Right off the bat, Larceny has a nose that declares its wheated mashbill.  There is maple syrup, and a nice oakiness right from the start.  Let the glass sit for a few, and it opens up a little more to a butterscotch, toffee and even a hint of honey.  Blending with the oak, it makes for a nose that leans into a deep sweet aroma.

The taste was a little sharper than I anticipated – despite the lack of rye, the first sip had some bite to it.  The mouth feel was thinner than I expected for the recipe and age – it wasn’t thin like a young bourbon, but didn’t have the creaminess I expected.  That said, it had a great flavor – toffee was in front and strong, with tiny sparks of cinnamon behind it (which owed it’s presence to age instead of rye).  The drink was very smooth, and the toffee/vanilla with a little grit brought a smile to my face.

The finish was shorter than I expected, but very nice and smooth.  All in all, I enjoyed Larceny very much, but I suppose that’s not a surprise.  And for the price, I found it to be right on par with Maker’s Mark, and close to my beloved Old Weller 107.

Dan’s Rating: 8.3

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Mad Buffalo Thunderbeast Baby Buffalo Bourbon

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Mad Buffalo Thunderbeast Baby Buffalo Bourbon

I am extremely lucky in the fact that, because of my and my wife’s jobs, our situation and our hobbies, we get to travel a bit.  And aside from all of the usual joys of traveling – new places, sightseeing, and different foods, among others – we get to try regionally specific bourbons.  Trying something specific to a particular area is one of the things we enjoy the most, and with the explosion of regional distilleries in the past few years, the new things to try are more plentiful than ever.

I’ve focused on Michigan bourbons, Vermont bourbons, New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, among others.  Today, I turn my sights to Missouri.  I went to college there, long before the whiskey renaissance was in swing, and returned recently for a good friends nuptials (more on the drink we shared at a later time).  I was pleased to see how many new and locally crafted whiskies there were (as opposed to sourced/bottled/labeled).  With that in mind, I picked up a bottle of something I had never seen before, and took it home with me to try: Mad Buffalo Thunderbeast Baby Buffalo Bourbon.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Mad Buffalo Thunderbeast Baby Buffalo Bourbon
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Mad Buffalo Thunderbeast Baby Buffalo Bourbon

First thing first – Mad Buffalo distillery has renamed itself since creating the bottle I purchased, going by Coulter & Payne Farm Distillery.  A little bit of research explains why – this is truly a family endevour, and the names are representative of the family lines that both moonshined in Appalachia and farmed in Missouri.  The family decided to make the Union, Missouri farm into a distillery in 2011.

Right from the get-go, they created a “ground to glass” model, the ultimate in sustainability.  They use only non GMO grains, and plant, grow and harvest all of the ingredient crops right there on the farm, before distilling them and even barreling them in wood made from trees growing on the farm as well.  This is the ultimate in artisan craft, and is respectable in every way.  Currently they are making a variety of whiskies under the Coulter & Payne name, as well as a vodka and moonshine under the “Crop Circle” moniker.

So how is the juice?

Right off the bat, there is obviously something different about this bourbon.  At 80 proof and an age statement of “under 4 years,” it has a youth and lightness in the nose – strong corn, a touch of caramel and vanilla and a little maple.  But there is something else, something…floral.  Almost perfume-y. There is an air of fresh mowed grass, and flowers, something distinctively earthy.  It certainly confused me for several minutes and gave me pause.

The taste did not clarify things.  Again, the corn was in front, with a soft sweetness expected in such a young drink.  There was a soft caramel, a secondary note, and the mouth feel was not particularly thick, and more watery.  As it spread out along the taste buds, however, there was a strange sort of bitterness to it that brought to mind certain kinds of bitter greens like spinach.  It was earth, and my wife and I struggled to put our finger on it – dandelion?  kale?  Was it just the difference of not being cut with that limestone Kentucky water?  The finish was short, but a slight bitterness remained.  I couldn’t get past it.

When I added ice chips, the caramel and vanilla disappeared all together and the corn and bitter was all that remained, with a touch of spiciness around the corners.  This taste was so distracting that I even checked my glass to make sure I didn’t have a little soap residue from the last washing.

I was bummed.  I love everything about what they are doing, from an artisan and environmental standpoint.  But with the bitterness, I am afraid this bottle is destined for the Manhattan/Sidecar collection.

Dan’s Rating: 6.3

Looking at the website, it looks as though the bottle I purchased was from 2014 or even 2013.  Since then, in addition to the name change, they have introduced a host of new products including a Single Barrel and a Cask Strength.  It is the cask strength I would most like to try, to see if the bitterness came from the water or was even limited to this particular bottling.  I strongly encourage them to keep making whiskey in these new, great ways, and I do sincerely hope to try it again with better results.

For more about craft distilling in Missouri, check out this article from Feast Magazine, 2012

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Kings County Distillery Bourbon

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Kings County Distillery Bourbon

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.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Kings County Distillery Bourbon Whiskey
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Kings County Distillery Bourbon Whiskey

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!)

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet

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.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: 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.

Dan’s Take: 8.6

Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Vanilla Bean Infused Whiskey

Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Vanilla Bean Infused Whiskey

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.

Dan's (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Vanilla Bean Infused Whiskey
Dan’s (not quite) Bourbon of the Week: Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Vanilla Bean Infused Whiskey

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).

Our take:

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.

Dan’s take: 8.1

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof

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!

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year Barrel Proof
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Elijah Craig 12 Year 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?

Dan’s Take:

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.

Dan’s Rating: 8.7

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

With all of the discussion and debate that swirls around “sourced” whiskey – whiskey produced in a facility not owned and operated by the bottler and/or brand name on the bottle – it can too often go unsaid that there are two different ways a whiskey can be sourced.  The first and often more controversial way is when a bottler or brand name purchases mass-produced barrels of an indiscriminate recipe distilled and aged at one of the larger distilleries and puts it out to market with less-than-transparent information.  The ‘artisanal‘ bourbon that is really 3 year old sourced Indiana rye, or the fancy bottled and elaborate storied family recipe that is actually excess barrels purchased from an unnamed distributor.

This form of sourcing can be harmless – I’ve enjoyed many sourced and mysterious bourbons.  But it can also be a gimmick, and there are many overpriced, underwhelming bourbons on the market made from a basic recipe by a bulk manufacturer and bottled with a ‘family heritage’ story and a hefty price tag.  Its unfortunate, and gives sourcing a bad name.  Legendary bourbon blogger Chuck Cowdery calls them “Potemkin Distilleries” and on the whole, I concur with his opinion: failure to demand transparency in what we drink only encourages others to be (at the least) disingenuous or (even worse) underhanded.

The other way whiskey can be sourced is much more interesting.  This form of sourcing involves a distiller, NDP, or brand having their recipe distilled to their specs at a larger distillery.  For example, everyone knows the name Pappy Van Winkle, but Pappy is distilled by Buffalo Trace to spec – the same as John J. Bowman.

John J. Bowman’s distillery (The A. Smith Bowman Distillery) is most interesting, because they are, in fact, a distillery.  They are owned by Sazerac, the same as Buffalo Trace (and Blantons and Taylor and Stagg and etc).  They are in Virginia, not Kentucky, and have been at the current location in Fredericksburg, since 1988.

What makes their process so different is that they have Buffalo Trace do the first distilling, to make the ‘White Dog’ corn whiskey.  Then the distillate alcohol is shipped to Bowman, where they distill it two more times.  Then it is barreled, stored and aged.  I have even read that the barrels are stored upright, which is again very different.

So how is this Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey?

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

Dan’s Take:

John J. Bowman Single Barrel comes without an age statement, a barrel or bottling number, or any other indicators that would allow me to match this single barrel with any others.  Its unfortunate, because there is much about this whiskey I would like to find again!  The bottle itself is quite lovely, with its image of Col. John J. Bowman exploring Kentucky on the back.  It’s no slouch at 100 Proof.  I just wish I knew a few specs.

The nose is fantastic – caramel, vanilla, oak, and a soft corn.  It was a sweet nose, and as the soft corn gave way to the oak and wood, I almost couldn’t help but forget it was the dead of winter and think of soft campfire and roasting corn.

The taste was as smooth – a thick texture, with a great sweetness up front, but never overwhelming.  Again, vanilla, and a vanilla almost sugary and frosting like on the front of the tongue, while the thick mouthfeel showed off a rich woodiness blended with a slightly tart citrus.  Orange and a tiny bit of raisin, before resolving to a smooth finish of cinnamon, walnut and dry oak.

A second sip showed me a bit more of the rye – along with the cinnamon, there was a hint of clove and even a bit more of that raisin, roasting corn taste.

I found the John J. Bowman Single Barrel to be outstanding – a wonderful sipping bourbon, and a nice addition to the regular rotation.  Most impressive. I can see why it’s competition scores have seemed to rise ever year.

Dan’s Rating: 8.7