Whatever your taste, pour a glass neat, on the rocks, a Manhattan, a Mint Julep or your drink of choice and raise a glass to the best whiskey in the world – bourbon!
“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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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
Whatever your taste, pour a glass neat, on the rocks, a Manhattan, a Mint Julep or your drink of choice and raise a glass to the best whiskey in the world – bourbon!
Happy Easter and Opening Day from BaseballAndBourbon.com!
Enjoy a sip by the fire, and Merry Christmas!
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.
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
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
Thank you to Chris Weld of Berkshire Mountain Distillery and Dave Cicotte of Good Pour.
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?”
“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…