Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel

Happy holidays! Hopefully you all had a wonderful holiday season as we did here at Baseball and Bourbon, sipping fine bourbon by the fire with loved ones.  We were spoiled here, with a few new bourbons finding their way into our tasting collection as well as some well loved regulars. I can’t wait to pop the cork on all of them, and today I start with a bottle of Col. E. H. Taylor Jr. Single Barrel.

EH Taylor is one of the many labels produced by our friends at Buffalo Trace.  Taylor himself has been referred to as the “father of modern bourbon,”  due to his strict adherence to better bourbon and whiskey aging practices and his importance and influence in getting the “Bottled in Bond” Act of 1897 (the Act required that spirits labeled as “Bonded”or “Bottled-in-Bond” must be the product of one distiller at one distillery during one distillation season. It also required that bonded spirits be aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof).

Taylor also bought and expanded a distillery on the Kentucky river that survives today as… Buffalo Trace!  So when BT launched it’s E. H. Taylor line of whiskeys, it was made up of spirits aged in the actual Taylor warehouses and using the Taylor recipes.

There are a collection of Taylor products – Small Batch, Single Barrel, Barrel Proof, Straight Rye – all of which are aged in the famous Warehouse C on the Buffalo Trace campus, and most considered exceptional.  So how does this stories bourbon hold up?

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel

In short, spectacular.  The Col. E. H. Taylor Single Barrel that we sampled was a complex and impressive pour.  There is no barrel or batch information on the packaging or bottle, so I can’t note which bottles it shares traits with.  There is also no age statement – an internet search came back with anything between 7 and 12 years.  Armed with…surprisingly little knowledge, we dove ahead.

(Ed. Note – Buffalo Trace media relations has let me know that the 2014 E. H. Taylor is “between 9-10 years old”)

Dan’s Take:

First of all, the color is quite dark, and made me wonder more about the age.  It was a deep amber, more akin to a 15 year old than a 7.  It caught me off guard, to be honest.

The nose kept me off guard.  There was a sharp bite to the nose – while 100 proof is obviously pretty potent, it had the alcohol burn of a barrel proof.  I backed off a bit, and found myself swimming in the scent of vanilla, cinnamon, toasted oak, a hint of butterscotch and, present and growing as the glass opened, black licorice.

The taste presented what the nose hinted to.  As a small sip, the EH Taylor Single Barrel has a thick almost creaminess to it, with a good push of corn and buttery caramel on the front.  The middle opened up to a spiciness that belies it’s relatively low rye content – cinnamon, all spice, even a bitter dark chocolate, with a peppery, spicy finish.

With a larger sip, the front burns a little more – again that 100 proof seems more like 120 – and while it retains the buttery sweetness in the front, slight bitter in the middle (more oak and tobacco is evident that in the small sip) it has a very long and potent finish, with oak, spice and a hint of peppermint.

The Col. E. H. Taylor is not the most of anything – not the sweetest, or spiciest, or most complex.  But it is a well rounded bourbon, easy sipping and very smooth.  Perfect for a fire and maybe ushering in the new year?

My rating: 8.5

The hunt for ‘Unobtainium’ – Pappy Van Winkle – Part Two

Back in November, I did the part one of a post about the hunt for “Unobtanium” – Pappy Van Winkle.  Coming off of another fruitless season of hunting for Pappy (and several other ‘collector’ bourbons), I wanted to share some of my experiences.  Judging from the readership stats, I seem to have stumbled upon something, because that post is the third most popular one I’ve put up this year.  I chose to hold off on the second part until now because I had a few irons in the fire, and wanted to be able to report fully and honestly if my alternate plans to procure some of the mystical elixir worked.

I can now report they did not.

Not that this bourbon hunting season has been fruitless.  I have been able to find the Parker’s Heritage Wheated, the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, the Woodford Reserve Sonoma, the Maker’s Mark Barrel Proof and the Black Maple Hill 6 year, all to try and report on soon – good or bad.  Nor was Pappy the only thing I struck out on.  Like most, I was wholly unable to get my mitts on any of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the 2014 Old Forester Birthday Release, Angel’s Envy Cask Strength or quite a few other sought after bourbons.  But it is Pappy, above and beyond all else, that seems to captivate and frustrate the masses (and often, myself), most of all.

So today I write about some other methods you can try to get the impossible: Secondary markets and Liquor Control states.  Maybe your luck will be better than mine.  I certainly have my doubts.

I want to be sure to state one other fact as well: media sources love to report how Pappy Van Winkle is ‘impossible’ to find, how it’s scarcity is the great equalizer, where billionaire CEOs and bourbon-loving bus drivers are equally perplexed.  That is not the truth.  If you want to but Pappy, there are plenty of places to find it.  As I post this, there are 12 listings on the Detroit Craigslist page for Pappy, the highest being $1,700 for a bottle of 23 year (the lowest being $250 for a bottle of 12 Year).  The concept that no-one can get it is an absolute myth.  The truth is very few can afford to get it except for retail price at an honest store.

Currently, my collection has four bottles of Van Winkle products.  I have a bottle of the 15 Year, that my sister kindly gave me as a birthday gift in 2011, before insanity truly took hold.  Out of respect for the gift, I’ve never asked details, but it’s my understanding she bought it on the secondary market from another state (Illinois, I believe), for a high but not unreasonable price.  I have a bottle of 10 Year that I bought through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board website, a bottle of 12 Year I bought from a local Metro Detroit store (by winning the chance in a raffle), and a bottle of 20 Year that I bought from a seller on Craigslist, along with some other choice selections, when I was in Kentucky early this year.

As I detailed in my earlier post, I struck out with my local vendors.  I frequent about six different stores around Michigan. Two didn’t receive any Pappy at all this year.  Two more put it up for sale at astronomical prices ($1,500 for a bottle of 23 Year, for example, a bottle that sells for $250 retail).  And the last two sold it to people for the prices they offered – still exceeding $1,000 per bottle.  It’s an unfortunate game, but one detailed quite nicely in an article posted earlier this month on The Daily Beast.

“Pappy has become a prime example of a certain kind of product that economists called a “Veblen good.” Named for the sociologist of the “leisure class,” Thorstein Veblen, these are luxury items that defy the normal workings of the Law of Demand. Normally, when the price of a product climbs, the demand slips. With Veblen goods, the demand does the opposite, growing as the price goes up. In part this is because the person buying the Veblen good gets what economist Harvey Leibenstein called “conspicuous consumption utility.” And Pappyphiles have been nothing if not conspicuous.

But Veblen goods also function because price stands in as a measure of quality—if you can’t tell what the best whiskey is, but you very much want to be seen drinking the best whiskey, then you choose a very pricey spirit. The more expensive it becomes, the better it must be, which in turn makes it more desirable. But note the embarrassing logic of Veblen goods: they appeal to those unable to determine quality based on the evaluation of the product itself—it’s the stuff of those less than savvy folks who need price as a proxy.” – Full Article Here

Now, I’m not quite ready to go full backlash yet.  I still think that in my experience, Pappy Van Winkle is one of the best bourbons I’ve had.  But I would be dishonest if I did not admit that so much of the allure, even to me, is the scarcity of it all.  That’s why I found myself standing on a freezing downtown Louisville street corner last year, buying a bottle of Pappy 20 from a complete stranger from a Craigslist post.

The Secondary Market

And there are plenty of people on both Craigslist and boozehound websites, happy to sell you a bottle for your first-born child and a few thousand dollars.  Like I stated earlier, it’s all about how much you are willing to pay.  Yes, it is a transaction that may well be illegal in your state.  Yes, it may lead you to make an exchange of paper bags in the darkest corner of a parking garage.  And yes, it will almost definitely mean you handing over an obscene amount of money for a bottle that will potentially then be too invested in to actually open.  But it can be done.  But buyer beware – like any other exchange of the sort, it is at the least potentially illegal, and at most, dangerous.

There are a good number of Pappy Van Winkle “fan” groups on Facebook.  While a good number of the participants will undoubtedly be clueless DBs looking for a venue to brag, there are good, decent bourbon fans, and often, they will be looking to sell (or at least trade).  If you can stand posts and posts of people showing their “collection,” it might be a wise place to put your effort.

If money is no object, there are some websites that offer bottles as well.  They often make the Craigslist prices seem reasonable – a quick look today showed me bottles of 23 Year going for as much as $3,000.  I won’t post any of their names here, because I don’t want to encourage such scalping, but know that they are out there.

Liquor Control States

I’m going to quickly mention this because its fresh on my mind.  Most states have privatized liquor distribution – the state has laws, but the importing and distribution is left to private companies/persons.  A few, however, have state run Liquor Control Boards.  In these states, it is the state government itself that orders, prices and distributes liquor (and often, beer and wine).

Pennsylvania is one of these states, and my wife happens to hail from there.  She has quite a few family members there as well, so we visit several times a year.  I have been able to find some products in Pennsylvania unavailable in Michigan. More importantly, when Pennsylvania gets a particularly popular (and limited) product in, they keep it as only purchasable online.  This works for me because I can order something, and have it delivered to my mother-in-law’s house, where she will hold it until we next meet.  This has worked for me a few times and been a nice avenue.

When it comes to PVW, and to a lesser degree, BTAC, however, it has been an epic fail.  Last year, the email went out that PVW 15 Year was available.  I logged in, bought a bottle, and then found out 3 days later their site had malfunctioned and I would actually NOT be getting any.  I was upset, but I work in technology, I know that once in a while bad things can happen.

This year, the PLCB doubled down.  When the BTAC collection went up for sale, their email blast system mysteriously stopped working, so only those informed ahead of time or following them on Twitter were notified.

Last week’s PVW release went even worse.  After weeks and weeks of teasing it, and knowing that users were circling the site like sharks in the water, they released the PVW last Thursday…and watched the site crash.  And crash again.  The next 30 minutes was a comedy of errors, where the site and app couldn’t stay online for more than seconds at a time.  Within 30 seconds of the site being back up, I had a cart with three bottles of the 2014 VW release in it.  But when I went to check out – crashed again.  Meanwhile, the PLCB was posting on Twitter how products were still available, only increasing traffic – nevermind that by the time they were posting, the system was telling everyone it was sold out.

For a government agency to run something as simple as an e-commerce solution and decent bandwidth in 2014 is disappointing.  Immediately, the Social Media lanes were filled with people complaining, and rightfully so.  In truth, I have seen almost no-one posting about being successful, which makes the lack of transparency the PLCB operates with a little more suspect, and begs the question – who got the 1,000+ bottles?

There is talk of them changing the way they handle PVW sales.  I certainly hope they do.

My advice?  If you have that much money to spend on a bottle and you don’t mind the price, go for it.  I’ve been lucky enough to drink all 6 major VW releases, and haven’t had a bad one yet (OK, I admit, I find the 23 year to be way too oaky and woody for me).  If you just want a great pour, there are plenty of other ones out there worth your consideration.

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Berkshire Mountain Distillers Cask Finished Bourbon – Founders

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Berkshire Mountain Distillers Cask Finished Bourbon – Founders

Hello, and happy Thanksgiving! Hopefully you had a great one, with food, family, friends and, of course, bourbon.  My wife and I brought a bottle of Old Weller Antique to Thanksgiving dinner ourselves, and it certainly went over well.

Back to talking bourbon, and this week, it’s all about a new one appearing at shops all over Michigan – the Berkshire Mountain Distillers Cask Finished Bourbon, Founders Edition.  Berkshire Mountain Distillers (BMD) is not a name we are familiar with here in Michigan, so it’s drawn particular note.  Add in the fact that this bourbon is finished in Kentucky Breakfast Stout beer casks from the much beloved Michigan beer maker Founders, and it’s bound to turn some heads.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Berkshire Mountain Distillers  Cask Finished Bourbon - Founders
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Berkshire Mountain Distillers Cask Finished Bourbon – Founders.  Note, that is a Founders Breakfast Stout in the photo, rather than the Kentucky Breakfast Stout, which is very hard to find this time of year.

First, to find out more about the Berkshire Mountain Distillers and this drink, I went to their founder, Chris Weld.  Chris let me know that Berkshire Mountain Distillers (which is in western Massachusetts) first distills their own bourbon and ages it for 4 years, before moving it to the finishing barrels.  Their blend is heavy on the corn – 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% barley (half of that is malted barley).  They are finishing bourbons in barrels from 10 or so of the best small distillers in America, including Sam Adams (Boston), Big Sky (Montana), Cigar City Brewing (Tampa Bay, FL), Full Sail (OR), Hale’s Ales (Seattle, WA), Brewery Ommegang (NY), Smuttynose Brewing Company (NH), Terrapin (GA), Tröegs (PA) and Founders in Michigan.

Berkshire Mountain Distillery has won some awards, and their bourbon is certainly no slouch.  But even I was a bit confused about taking a bourbon after 4 years in the barrel and finishing it for 9 months in a different bourbon barrel that had held stout beer in between…

To get a good feel for the Founders beer and what it adds, I went to good friend and founder of Good Pour (a beer lovers appreciation and events group), Dave Cicotte.  Dave is a fan of the Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, and gave me a review of the Founders KBS (and some useful beer knowledge to boot):

“When…poured in a snifter or tulip glass (around 55-58 degrees), the aromas of chocolate and coffee come to life. You’ll get a hint of the oak bourbon barrels when

Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout
Founders Kentucky Bourbon Stout. Photo courtesy of my Justin Ables, Good Pour contributor

nosing KBS in the glass, but you’ll get the full effect on the backend when tasting. The way it hits my palette is coffee, chocolate, bourbon, finished with the smokiness of the barrels. To intensify the flavor and get the best of both worlds, I like to (with any specialty beer) take a sip, swallow, and then exhale out of my nose. I know it sounds silly, but talk about getting the full effect of specialty beer! I also like to take my time with KBS and other imperials.

As the beer temperature starts to catch up with the temperature of the room, it begins to take new form. You’ll get different flavors along the way. I’ve begun to notice the higher the temperature, the more bourbon flavor you get. However, going beyond 70 degrees doesn’t interest me, and of course I don’t sit with a thermometer, so it’s more of a guessing game at the exact temperature. However, according to some studies (check out beergraphs.com) show that beer temperature, when in a room at a stable 70-71 degrees, will increase throughout an hour at an average rate of about 3.2 degrees every ten minutes, while alternating between holding the glass by the stem and setting it on a table/not holding it.

Getting into pairing KBS with food, I made sure to enjoy it with my thanksgiving dinner. My favorite pairing was with the stuffing. My mother in law makes an amazing mushroom stuffing that includes a little spice, cranberries, pine nuts, and a few other secret ingredients. Although I enjoyed KBS with my main course, I also saved some for desert, which happened at about the 68 degrees. I paired it with homemade flan… and it was amazing! It’s hard for me to pick my favorite beer, but I have to say KBS is up there for me. at least in the top five.”

So with all the knowledge I could put together, how is the bourbon?

Dan’s Take:  The nose of the BMD-Founders is very sweet, rich with caramel, corn, hints of vanilla and a fruitiness of raisin.  What I didn’t notice was the scent of stout beer that is usually up front in beer finished bourbons.  There was the subtlest hint of hops and barley, but so slight that it might have fooled me if I was tasting blindly.

The taste was a bit different.  The sweetness faded a bit, giving way to the cinnamon spiciness of rye.  The Berkshire Mountain Distillery bourbon is a very, very smooth pour, and even with the stout finish, it holds up here.  The sweetness that is there is more of a chocolate variety, with a touch of deep butterscotch.  Finally, there is the stout beer, adding a bit of bitterness to the taste.  Part coffee, part dark chocolate, it is definitely in the background, and far from overwhelming.

The finish is a little more of that dark chocolate with a bit of toasted…pine?

We liked the Berkshire Mountain Distillery-Founders, although the price point ($60+ in Michigan) is a bit high, especially with more and more finished bourbons available for less.  More than anything, BMD Founders is smooth.  Nicely done.

My rating: 7.8

Read more from Good Pour here: Good Pour on Facebook  Good Pour on Twitter

Thank you to Chris Weld of Berkshire Mountain Distillery and Dave Cicotte of Good Pour.

The hunt for ‘Unobtainium’ – Pappy Van Winkle

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…

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey

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

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

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

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

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

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

A trip to the Kentucky Bourbon Festival – Tasting and Gala

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…

 

Dan’s Bourbon Review of the Week – Jefferson’s Ocean II: Aged At Sea

Dan’s Bourbon Review of the Week – Jefferson’s Ocean II: Aged At Sea

We are here in Kentucky, for the third time this year, for a bourbon event.  Today, we will visit the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown for a bit, before returning to Louisville and gussying ourselves up for a the The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala tonight.  MY wife has a lovely dress picked out, and I will actually be in black tie – an event slightly less rare than Haley’s Comet.  I’ll be posting more about it tomorrow, but for today, it’s the review of a bourbon I wanted to try for a while – the Jefferson’s Ocean II: Aged At Sea.

Dan's Bourbon Review of the Week - Jefferson's Ocean: Aged at Sea
Dan’s Bourbon Review of the Week – Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea

Now, the story of the Jefferson’s Ocean is as interesting as anything.  A few years ago, Jefferson master blender Trey Zoeller put a limited number of aged barrels on a ship, and let it sail around the world.  Upon it’s return, they sampled and bottled it, and Jefferson’s Ocean was born.  The reviews were good – some pointed out that the temperature fluctuations and rolling motion of being on a ship gave it a truly unique taste, while some even pointed out an almost briny salt water taste deep within.

With that success, Zoeller dispatched 60+ more barrels of bourbon for a 6-month trip on a container ship.  The bourbon is reportedly 6-8 years old, and details of it’s source or blend aren’t known.  As the ship (and stored barrels) crossed the equator four times and stopped on four continents, the whiskey rolled in the barrels, increasing it’s contact time with the wood and slightly agitating not unlike a washing machine.  The process is pretty cool, but the question is – “Is the bourbon any good?”

My answer is absolutely yes.

The nose was one of the sweetest I’ve ever experienced in a bourbon.  Rich caramel, vanilla, brown sugar and a hint of what almost reminded me of banana creme wafted from the top.  Oak woodiness around the edges, but the smell of this liquor made me anticipate a rum like sweetness.

Two things struck me immediately at first sip: (1) this bourbon is far sweeter than I had expected, and so very smooth; and (2) the very thick mouth feel.  This bourbon has an almost creamy, sweet feel, and rolls almost like a liqueur across the tongue.  Again, caramel, vanilla, a touch of maple syrup blends with a touch of non-bitter spices and the oakiness of a well aged bourbon.  Others have noted a salt or brine touch on this drink – I did not get that at all.  I did get a good dose of dried or candied fruit, particularly citrus.

The finish was very smooth, and the longer it sat in the glass, the more sweet it smelled.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression – it’s not sweet like a rum or soda.  But it definitely is for the sweeter palate, and that’s perfectly fine with me.  I found it to be delicious.

Dan’s Rating: 9.0

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: George T. Stagg

A good start to the week – my beloved Detroit Tigers won the first of three against the division rival (and division leading) Kansas City Royals yesterday afternoon, closing the pennant gap to one.  The Detroit Lions beat up on the New York Giants last night on Monday Night Football to kick a new season off the right way.  And the temperature here in Detroit leads one to think autumn is right around the corner.  My favorite time of year.

For this week’s Bourbon of the Week, however, I return to those dog days of summer.  I was fortunate enough this year to accompany my lovely wife on a work trip to Los Angeles back in July.  It was a fantastic trip, full of sun, beaches, wonderful entertainment and great food.  We got to see Chris Isaak (a favorite of mine) at the Hollywood Bowl, and take in a show at the Comedy Store, including Marc Maron and Ralphie May. But, while LA has all the glitz and glamour, there is one thing it is definitely missing: bourbon.

Now, that’s not to say I didn’t find some good times and good bourbon.  A visit to the Dresden made me feel like I was in Swingers, and three fingers of Maker’s Mark certainly helped with that.  But from establishment to establishment, it was more of the same: Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Makers.  No Buffalo Trace, no Woodford, not even Knob Creek.  Finally, I went online to find somewhere in this sprawling expanse to procure a glass of something…special.  And sure enough, I found it, in Hollywood, of all places.

The bar is called the Township Saloon, and I will review the bar itself in the near future.  It’s a cool, hipster-meets-divey bar on Sunset, away from the Hollywood hullabaloo, and on that Friday night, kind of quiet.  Perfect for sampling one of the rarest of treats, because they had George T. Stagg.

For some reason, I have been unable to locate a bottle of GTS in Michigan, even third party, and Kentucky has fared me no better.  So I was excited to take a drink of this much respected and crowed about product for myself.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: George T Stagg
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: George T Stagg (photo from Wikipedia, as my camera stopped working that night!)

Some say George T. Stagg is the best bourbon made – another fine member of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.  It’s age varies (I have been told the 2013 was 16 years old), and it is a proud product of Buffalo Trace mashbill #1.

It has a very high proof – 129 on this bottling – so a keeping a little ice handy isn’t a bad idea, although I first tried it neat.  After all the raving I’ve read, I was looking forward to trying it.

The nose took me a minute.  Like most high proofed bourbons, the alcohol sears a bit on first blush, and should be given a minute to breathe.  Then, the world opens on this glass.  There was a dark sweetness to it, toffee and caramel, but not overwhelmingly so.  Plum, raisin peeked through, maple sugar, and a soft oakiness that was dry and had a hint of tobacco.

The taste was dark as well.  The toffee remained, along with an almost dark chocolate character. There was a hint of bitter, like coffee, before giving way to a wood that seemed fresh.  It is a strong drink, so I added a few ice chips, and found the sweetness seemed to dissipate a bit, while the oak and slight bitter remained.

The finish was surprisingly short for such an aged and high-proof pour, although I did get hints of cinnamon on the back end.

Did I enjoy it? Thoroughly.  Is it in my top five?  Well, not this years, but that just gives me a reason to try again next year.

Dan’s Rating: 8.8