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…
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Eric Felten, on The Daily Beast website today, writes an article about the popularity of “sourced” whiskey in the craft-whiskey industry. Worth a read – and consideration – when buying that next mystery $50 bottle of bourbon…
Summer has finally come to Michigan, with heat, humidity and thunderstorms. What better time to continue with the blog about the Pappy For Your Pappy dinner and Kentucky trip?
As I mentioned in my earlier blog, I was feeling pretty ill the first day of our Kentucky trip, and by the time we left Four Roses, I was becoming very concerned: would this stomach bug keep me from the Pappy tasting and dinner at Buffalo Trace? I didn’t want to think about it, but the truth was, it was a real possibility. My wife and I discussed, and decided to keep on moving, make a trip to a few of Kentucky’s finer liquor stores in search of new hooch, then head to Wild Turkey to take in the sights and tastes.
This plan was doomed from the start. We drove to Lexington, to shop at the massive Liquor Barn store, and were able to procure a few spirits not available here in the mitten state (as well as a case of the outstanding Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale). We then backtracked to the Wild Turkey distillery, hoping to catch a mid-afternoon tour…
Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. We had just missed one tour, and would have to wait an hour for the next one. In my state, that did not seem like a great idea – certainly not with a delicious dinner and some Pappy Van Winkle waiting for me! Luckily, the Wild Turkey visitor center has a nice set of displays dedicated to the history of the drink, as well as the legacy of Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell. We wandered around the nice grounds and looked at the displays, until finally it was time to try to get a little rest and hope to feel better for the big event.
And in large part – it worked! I may have still been a little queasy, but when the time came to head to Buffalo Trace Distillery and have a dinner and tasting with the Van Winkles, I seemed to shake it off. I’ve been to the beautiful Buffalo Trace distillery before, so we decided to skip the tour this time, for restful purposes.
Now, one thing I’d really like to mention is how nice, personable and kindly every person we have ever met affiliated with Buffalo Trace has been. This year was no exception. As I mentioned before, the tickets for this year’s Pappy dinner were a popular item, and I’m sure they have more than had their hands full with it. But, just as last year, every person was sweet and wonderful, even remembering the names of my family members that had purchased us the tickets before check-in.
We made our way over to the Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse to find our seat, and have a cocktail before dinner. Just as last year, the room was adorned beautifully, with candles in Pappy Van Winkle bottles on every table, the tasting glasses out and poured, and tables numbered.
One of the great parts of a dinner like this is sitting and talking with other bourbon enthusiasts, and we certainly had a great time with that. Our table had wonderfully nice and interesting people, and we were pleased to find out we were sitting with Tim Beckelhimer and Larry Parece, who run The Bourbon Guys blog (http://www.thebourbonguys.com/). Over a lovely dinner of salad, asparagus and steak, we talked about what brought all of us to bourbon, what is available where we live (a father and daughter at the table came in from Louisiana and North Carolina, respectively), and our fondness for that rarest of drinks, Pappy Van Winkle.
Julian and Preston Van Winkle took the microphone, and led us through the tasting of each of this years tasting selections: the 12 year Family Reserve and the 15, 20 and 23 year bourbons. As always, they were amazing…with one exception.
The 20 Year Pappy Van Winkle, which no less than Preston Van Winkle referred to as “the one that put us on the map,” tasted…very weak. Like 40 proof week. Had someone snuck a sample and replaced the precious drink with water? We will never know…
But the other four were, of course, fantastic. Even the 23 was a little smoother than when I had last tasted it. Then they open up the floor for questions. It was very similar to last year (Any tips to finding Pappy? How does my state get more?), with a few new ones. One person asked the difference between Weller and Van Winkle, which both use an identical recipe. Julian explained that it was a matter of selection (all Van Winkles are sampled and chosen by the father and son team, and are stored uniquely in the middle of the barrelhouse), where as Weller takes the rest, and then blends their final product. There was talk about the theft (no one was ever arrested, and Julian suggested that no one would be, after police interest ironically dried up post-election)and the history of Van Winkle, Stitzel-Weller.
After the Q and A, the Van Winkles retreated back to the Buffalo Trace Visitor Center, where they were on hand to sign items, and answer questions. I said hello, and then we headed for the hotel. We had another big day ahead of us.