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

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

I’m back.  Not that you necessarily noticed I was missing, but I took a short sabbatical from reviewing and posting about bourbon (don’t worry, I took no sabbatical from drinking it!) to take care of some things and recharge.  And I’m glad to say I’ve come out the other side refreshed, recharged and ready to go!  In the summer months ahead, I have a ton of whiskies to review, ballparks to cover and other fun reads to post.  So on with the show.

I certainly hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend – I certainly did, with a trip to see friends and family get married in St. Louis and New York City, respectively.  Not only were my journeys an opportunity for my wife and I to spend time with many great people we do not see enough – it was also an opportunity to pick up and try some tasty regional bourbons.  That’s where we start today – with Brooklyn’s own Kings County Distillery Bourbon.

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

Kings County Distillery has been on the scene for a little while now.  Founded in 2010 in a building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Kings County Distillery is the definition of artisan distilling.  They do not and have never sourced their liquor, distilling and aging it on site. Even the grains come from a nearby Brooklyn farm, and their pride in sustainable, local distilling is strong.

I first became aware of Kings County this year at the Bourbon Classic, where Master Blender Nicole Austin joined a host of bourbon and whiskey legends for the panel discussions and tastings.  Unfortunately for me, the Kings County booth proved so popular that I never got a chance to make my way up for a sample.  No mind, I was in NYC and it seemed an ample opportunity to check it out.

I had hoped to give the distillery a tour – and will make a point to in the future – but on this trip time was tight, so I used the distillery’s handy site and found a store right by our hotel where I could purchase a bottle.  (As a note, if you are in NYC and looking for a fantastic collection of whiskey, check out Bowery and Vine if you haven’t already.  Great selection, and fun service.)  Bottle gotten, and back home – time for a tasting.

Dan’s take: First thing first, I do love the packaging.  A hip flask bottle befitting a local distillery with a throwback touch.  I do wish I was able to pick up a fifth, as a pint or half-pint were the only choices available.  That said, it’s a pricey pour at $45 a pint, so my wallet is happy for the smaller size.

The color was a rich amber, not so young as to give away the relatively young age (anywhere from 1-4 years).  Kings County makes their bourbon from NY corn and UK barley – they don’t mention rye – and the nose is very strong of the sweet corn smell.  There is an almost perfume-like note as well, like dried raisin and honey. It took a few minutes to fully open (it is 90 proof), and when it did, the corn was most present.

The mouth feel was thick and slick, with a viscosity I also didn’t expect.  It was soft, and buttery, and made for a most enjoyable sip. Admittedly, it tasted young, and not as sweet as the nose, but very smooth.  Hints of cinnamon and light caramel presented, but I didn’t note any vanilla or maple.  There was no bitterness to speak of, and the corn sweetness carried it through to the finish.  Again, cinnamon was obvious in the finish, but it would not be unfair to say that the smoothness, rather than any particular flavor, was the primary observation.  The finish was relatively short, without a real burn.

Blind tasting it, I may have known it was young, but how young I wouldn’t have suspected.  It does not have the complexity of an 8/10/12 year pour, but does have a sweet smooth finish rarely found in something so new.  Overall, I was impressed.  This is a nice bourbon, distinctly…well, Brooklyn!

Dan’s take: 8.3

(Don’t worry, more NYC songs are coming with future reviews!)

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

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

Among the many great things about travelling to Kentucky for bourbon events is the opportunity to purchase harder-to-find products that just aren’t available here in my home state of Michigan.  While the local selection has certainly improved in the last five years, it is still a drop in the bucket compared to what is available in the larger Kentucky stores, much less the more legendary stops in Bourbon country.

When we were in the Bluegrass State last month for the Bourbon Classic, we were able to fit in a bit of shopping.  Now, those expecting to run into those more well known unicorns – Pappy, BTAC, Four Roses Limited Edition, etc – will find themselves every bit as frustrated as they might in their own state.  But some good knowledge of stores and a bit of luck mixed with a willingness to search, and you can certainly find some unique bottles.

It was with that mind set that Jen and I stumbled across a unique variation on a brand I had reviewed in February.  Then, I tried the Buffalo-Trace produced, Virginia aged John J. Bowman single barrel for the first time, and found it enjoyable.  This time, we found a bottle of a Abraham Bowman limited release, aged in Vanilla beans.  It certainly seemed unique enough, so we brought the last bottle on the shelf home to try for ourselves.

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

The Bowman distillery in Virginia has been putting out Limited Edition efforts for a few years now – past releases included a port-wine finish and a double barreled.  This year, they released a vanilla bean infused version.  The distillery explains this as quite a process – they “chopped up Madagascar vanilla beans in October, 2012″ that then “were added at various levels and tasted every ten weeks to observe how their flavor interacted with the bourbon as it aged. After a little over two years, all of the barrels were married together.”

What resulted was less a”flavored” bourbon and more of an interesting, enhanced version of their whiskey. Luckily for us, although the release was originally only supposed to be available in the Bowman home state of Virginia, we found a bottle in Kentucky, so a few got out.

Was it any good?  Jen and I gave it a shot (pun fully intended).

Our take:

Dan: The nose is certainly vanilla-infused, but not nearly as much as i expected.  There are serious rye notes here, as well as a nuttiness akin to walnut and pecan, and a soft oak smokiness.  That’s not to say there isn’t an abundance of vanilla – it’s definitely there – but it does downplay some of the other sweeter notes I would expect.  There’s no sweetness aside from the vanilla at all.  But I think it’s well balanced.

Jen: The nose is a bit too Bath and Body works for me. And I don’t have to sit around with my nose in a glass, so who cares if it smells like there should be coordinating lotions?

Dan: The taste is surprising.  I don’t get a flood of vanilla – this is no ‘flavored’ whiskey.  Cinnamon and spice, orange, with more of that nuttiness in there, along with a touch of bitterness I am going to assign to the vanilla bean.  Madagascar vanilla beans are known for being rich and creamy, and while the mouth feel here is thicker than the average whiskey, I wouldn’t call it creamy or buttery.  It has a flatness to it – exceptionally smooth, but not particularly sweet.

Jen: But the taste was very nice. I think the vanilla flattens the complexity of the whiskey giving it a simpler taste, much like a flavored whiskey. However, unlike other cherry or honey whiskeys, the vanilla is integrated very naturally and very skillfully into the rest of the flavor profile. So you avoid feeling like a sorority girl while you drink it. It’s a very pleasant drink, and very tasty.

Dan: Good call.  It is a bit flat, and very smooth, and has a medium finish that is ALL vanilla.  It’s hard to prescribe who this is for, other than the adventurous bourbon enthusiast.  It’s not complex enough for the aficionado, not soft enough for the flavored whiskey fan.  I bet it would make an awesome mixed drink. But at $70 and up a bottle, that’s a pricey mixer.

We both like it, and it’s fun and different.  A nice addition to the collection, but if it makes more than it’s current limited edition run, I probably wouldn’t seek it out again.

Dan’s take: 8.1

Exploring the 2015 Bourbon Classic

Exploring the 2015 Bourbon Classic

When Jen and I travelled down to Louisville last year for the Bourbon Classic, it was our first real foray into the larger bourbon culture, and the largesse of those involved (recap parts one and two here).  The blog was only a few months old, and our participation and education about bourbon had come from distillery visits, reading books by Cowdery and Minnick, and personal consumption.

We were blown away by the awesomeness – of the event, of the people, of the culture as a whole.  It kicked off a wonderful year where we made frequent trips to Kentucky: touring Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace (again), Willett; visiting Louisville, Bardstown, Frankfort, Lexington; and eating and drinking at fantastic establishments.  For the Bourbon Classic 2015, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation – we were going again.

This year the Classic was a little later – the end of February (instead of the end of January), and we hoped that would lead to some good weather.  On that end we weren’t so lucky, and we drove into a Louisville that had been hit pretty hard by a snow storm earlier in the week.  We checked in to the 21c Museum Hotel – who have the most fantastic staff of any place we’ve stayed – and geared up for a wonderful weekend.

The first night of the Classic centers around a cocktail and small plate tasting.  Nine bourbon labels are represented – Barton’s 1792, Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Michter’s, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve.  Each brand selected a mixologist and chef to prepare the tastings.  We were pleased to see some of our favorite’s from last year returning, including Issac Fox of Volare and our favorite Louisville chef (and all around awesome guy), Levon Wallace of Proof on Main.

The setup is simple: attendees stroll the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, where participating brands, chefs and master bartenders are set up against the walls, and sample to their heart’s content.

Setting up the judging area, Bourbon Classic 2015
Setting up the judging area, Bourbon Classic 2015

That’s right – you stroll the rooms, picking up cocktails and chef-prepared small plates as you go.  It’s beautiful in it’s simplicity.  Personally, I am more of a three-fingers-of-whiskey-neat guy, but these cocktails are so expertly made (and often unique), that I was happy to try many…and many more!  Of particular note was the Tallulah (a peanut tasting bourbon drink), a bourbon mimosa and a bourbon/beet juice/dill cocktail.  The first two I found fantastic, the last…well, it was certainly inventive.  Almost every dish was fantastic.

I avoided two mistakes I made last year as well.  First of all, I didn’t try to chronicle every dish and drink.  There is just an abundance of great stuff, and trying to write it all down is too much.  Secondly, I kept my imbibing to a slower pace, to more fully enjoy the flavors of the evening.

We were happy to run into some friends we had made from the last Bourbon Classic.  Greg and Chris from Virginia were in attendance again, and this time they brought more of their fellow alumni with them, making it a real college reunion of sorts.   We got to spend some time with Wallace (who is leaving Louisville for Nashville very soon), and I also met Eric Byford, who founded Beard Force Films and was there shooting some final footage for a documentary on Kentucky Bourbon (and it’s impact on the local culture) he has been working on.  He showed me a trailer and I am certainly looking forward to it.

Jen and I sampled dish after dish and drink after drink, and if the Bourbon Classic was limited to the Friday night event, it would be plenty enough reason to head down.  But the event gets even bigger on day two.

Admittedly, we skipped the first “Bourbon Classic University” session of the day to do a bit of bourbon hunting and get a good brunch (Toast on Market!).  The goal was to get good seating in the auditorium for the second session: The Bourbon Masters General Session.  The list of distillers that would be present was impressive, and it was MC’ed by Fred Minnick.

The Legends of Bourbon
The Legends of Bourbon: (left to right) Fred Minnick, Mark Coffman (Alltech), Wes Henderson (Angel’s Envy), Chip Tate (Tate & Co/Balcones), Ken Pierce (1792), Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Harlen Wheatley (Buffalo Trace), Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Denny Potter (Heaven Hill), Nicole Austin (King’s Country), Joe Magliocco (Michter’s), Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey).

Last year, the Master’s session was a genial celebration of bourbon’s rise in popularity.  Anytime you get many of the more long-time distillers around each other – Russell, Noe, Rutledge and even Wheatley and Henderson – you are going to get funny anecdotes and good natured ribbing.  While the mood and spirits stayed high this year, however, Minnick asked a little more probing questions.

Right off the bat, a highlight was the presence of Texan Chip Tate.  Last year, Tate seemed to be the talk of the whiskey world, as he fought with investors over the future of the distillery he founded – Balcones.  The debate about craft versus investment swirled around the proceedings, while headline grabbing words like ‘gunplay’ and ‘banished’ abounded.  Since then Tate has left Balcones and started a new distillery, and this was the first time he spoke to the public.

Settlement agreement in place, there wasn’t a whole lot of detail Tate could go into regarding the saga, and he downplayed the media accounts. That said, he did talk about the difficulties with reconciling the spirit of craftsmanship with the drive of commerce, as well as say that many of the facts that he was accused of by the Balcones board simply were not true.  He is looking forward to producing brandy, and after the non-compete agreement expires, whiskey, under his new name of Tate and Co.

A few other edgy topics were discussed.  Henderson and Magliocco were asked about ongoing lawsuits against ‘sourced’ whiskeys and label information (Magliocco refused to comment, but Henderson spoke openly about how he finds them frivolous and unethical, equating the lawyers involved as whiskey ambulance chasers).

The popularity of flavored whiskey was talked about.  Russell was proud to say that when he pushed Wild Turkey to start offering flavored drinks in the 70s/80s, he was well ahead of his time.  Wheatley – who’s Buffalo Trace is owned by Sazerac, makers of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey – pointed out that it was made from Canadian whiskies (not bourbon), and those sales helped him finance Buffalo Trace experimental offerings.  Rutledge said Four Roses wouldn’t offer flavored whiskey as long as he is the master distiller, and Magliocco warned that flavoring whiskeys could lead down the path taken by vodka in the last 15 years, where flavors and gimmicks made the spirit itself lose credibility.

Other topics included the “whiskey shortage” (consensus opinion – if you are a distiller, there is none.  If you are sourcing, good luck!), new products, and the rise of women in bourbon demographics.  This last one was a bit sticky – Nicole Austin, from King’s County Distillery in Brooklyn, New York, was the only woman on the panel, and her…annoyance…with being asked about being a ‘woman’ in whiskey (rather than a person in whiskey) was funny and well received.  Further questions got a little more tense, as they discussed marketing whiskeys to women, and it became harder to tell if Austin, whose distillery is the first post-prohibition distillery in Brooklyn, was seriously upset or just sarcastically funny.

Bourbon Icons: Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Freddie Johnson (Buffalo Trace) and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey)
Bourbon Icons: Jim Rutledge (Four Roses), Fred Noe (Jim Beam), Freddie Johnson (Buffalo Trace) and Jimmy Russell (Wild Turkey)

Either way, the session ended jovially, and we kept our seats for the second session, a “Bourbon Icons” discussion with Noe, Russell, Rutledge and Freddie Johnson, tour guide extraordinaire of Buffalo Trace, who told of his family’s three-generation deep involvement in the Kentucky Bourbon industry.  It was a captivating hour with four true legends – all of whom shared stories, and a few jokes.

Finally, the main event.  Tables upon tables of fine bourbon – neat, on the rocks or with a splash of water.  Again, there were again small plates as well as a buffet style presentation and, while a bluegrass band played from atop the stairs, the goal was to stroll and sample.

A Bourbon Classic ice sculpture representing the host city, Louisville
A Bourbon Classic ice sculpture representing the host city, Louisville

…and sample we did.  Saturday has more varieties than Friday, with Jefferson’s Reserve, Old Forester, King County, Bulleit, Copper and Kings, Angel’s Envy and others joining the festivities.  The distillers were mingling as well – I spoke with Jim Rutledge for quite some time about the difficulties resuscitating the Four Roses name in the Untied States after Seagrams had almost destroyed it.  Jen spent some time laughing with Wes Henderson about his irreverent sense of humor (always a point winner with my wife).

Chatting with Jim Rutledge of Four Roses
Chatting with Jim Rutledge of Four Roses

When Greg and Chris let us know Heaven Hill was pouring its Parker’s Heritage Wheat Whiskey, we made a beeline there, and each enjoyed sips of one of our favorite drinks of 2014.  Many more drinks followed, and by the time we retired at 9:30, another fantastic Bourbon Classic was put to bed.  Let the countdown to 2016 begin!

Bluegrass music from the top of the stairs
Bluegrass music from the top of the stairs
Old Forester making a presence
Old Forester making a presence
Blanton's: always a favorite
Blanton’s: always a favorite
Michter's at work
Michter’s at work

A Trip To the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

A Trip To the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

So as I mentioned before, Jen and I had an amazing time at the second annual Bourbon Classic last year (for a recap of 2014, please read Part One and Part Two here), and decided to return to Downtown Louisville for the event again last week.  Tickets were purchased, hotel reservations were made, and last Friday, we made the drive down from Detroit.

We arrived midday and, since the Classic doesn’t begin until 7pm, looked to enjoy a little more bourbon culture prior to the main event.  We were staying at the 21c Museum Hotel close to the event, so we decided to stay close and check out the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience that opened in 2013 right on Main Street.

No, it's not real bourbon - the lobby of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience
No, it’s not real bourbon – the lobby of the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is part of the official “Kentucky Bourbon Trail,” but it is not a distillery.  Rather, it’s a sort of museum dedicated to the history of Evan Williams Bourbon – and whiskey in general – in Louisville.

A tour of the EWBE starts with a short film.  Wall sized projection video is a very big part of the EWBE, and it starts with a bit of background about the bourbon namesake, Evan Williams, himself.  Williams, as the legend goes, was the first commercial whiskey producer in Kentucky, settling in Louisville and starting there.  Like so many of the ‘facts’ around the history of bourbon, the details of William’s life are less than clear, and they are presented in a less than canonical way.

Rather, the show sets the stage for a walk through ‘Louisville past.”  The short film explaining the importance of Louisville as a port (and stopping point on the Ohio River) leads to a room showing what the small town of Louisville might have looked like in 1800, when the whiskey business was just starting in earnest.

This is the ‘experience” part alluded to in the title – Evan Williams Bourbon is actually made at Heaven Hill distillery nearby, before being bottled in Bardstown, KY.  It is not actually made at this location – the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is more of a beginner’s guide to bourbon.

That said they have created a very small micro distillery, that illustrates the wall-scale, step-by-step “How Bourbon is Made” multi media presentation.  Approximately one barrel of whiskey is created there a day, and tour participants are encouraged to sign  the guest book to be alerted when the whiskey of their visit day is matured.

The Heaven Hill Experience Micro-Distillery
The Heaven Hill Experience Micro-Distillery

Subsequent floors (exhibits) show the 1800’s distilling equipment and methods, which serve as a good intro primer to how bourbon is made.

The upper floors focus on Louisville, and Bourbon, through the eras.  A nineteenth century saloon is recreated.  The third floor showcases the “Bottled-In-Bond” Act and it’s importance at the time.  Some Prohibition-era bottles are displayed, along with some recreated era-appropriate storefronts.

Finally, the tour resolves in a tasting of different Heaven Hill products – we had Evan Williams, Evan Williams Single Barrel, and the wheated bourbon Larceny – in the recreation of a 1960’s bar where we learned about the history of Heaven Hill, and by proxy, the Evan Williams brand.  We exited through a gift shop, and our time at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience was done.

All in all, it was a pleasant way to spend an hour – the cost wasn’t prohibitive, and it was fun.  It certainly wasn’t as in-depth as an actual distillery tour, but in fairness, it didn’t claim to be.  What it certainly did do was serve as the perfect primer for the main event – The Bourbon Classic!

scrooge
A text exchange between myself and friend/bourbon enthusiast Josh McAllister…

 

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Detroit City Distillery Two-Faced Bourbon

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Detroit City Distillery Two-Faced Bourbon

Rough week here in the “D,” losing Max Scherzer to the Washington Nationals.  It’s bad enough they fleeced us on the Doug Fister deal a year ago, now they are just getting greedy.  I’m especially sad to see him go, because aside from being a Cy Young Award pitcher, he was a fellow Mizzou guy.  Oh well, sounds like the perfect excuse to go and drink the troubles away.

And there are increasingly more and more places to partake of the finer things (namely whiskey) as the “bourbon boom” continues.  Here in Detroit, we have become home to several start-up distilleries.  In the next couple weeks, I’ll discuss them – and their corresponding tasting rooms – at greater length.  This week, I ventured to one of the hipper new distilleries – the Detroit City Distillery.

The Detroit City Distillery opened last year in Detroit’s historic Eastern Market.  Only the second licensed distillery to open in Detroit in 80 years (the first was Two James, which we will discuss soon), it was the brain child of a group of close friends with a passion for booze and urban revitalization.

They began by distilling their own vodka and whiskey, as well as preparing for gin, which will be out ‘soon.’ But what about bourbon?

Bourbon is one of the trickier offerings for any start-up distillery.  There are laws and rules regulation how bourbon has to be prepared, aged and bottled.  I won’t break them all down here (a good explanation can be found here), but the hardest one is the aging.  For a bourbon to be called “straight bourbon,” it has to have spent at least two years in the barrel.  If it’s younger than four years, it must have an age statement on the bottle.  So to make bourbon, a new distillery has to sink the money into storage, and barrels, grains and equipment and…wait.

There are, of course, ways around this.  The most popular way is to “source” bourbon, buying from another (often mass quantity produced) distiller and bottle/label it with the new brand name.  Many of the newer distilleries in Michigan are doing this, and Detroit City Distillery is too – sort of.

For their Two-Faced Bourbon, DCD is taking a five year old sourced bourbon and blending it with their own very young (6 month old) house made bourbon, in a 51%-49% mix – hence the name “Two Faced.”  Since their bourbon is locally sourced (including corn from St. Clair County here in Michigan), it is truly reflective of their own recipe (which is high in rye), but has some of the age of an older bourbon.

DCD is very open about this process, unlike other distilleries that are sourcing and a little less forthcoming about it.  And stopping into their speakeasy style tasting room in Eastern Market, one needs only look at their artisan cocktail list to see they are trying to do something both retro and inventive, with a great deal of respect paid to the craftsmanship.

The entrance to the Detroit City Distillery
The entrance to the Detroit City Distillery

With my good friend Eric Oliver joining me, we sat down at the bar to try the bourbon, as well as a few other drinks.  The long bar is impressive – it is made of reclaimed wood from another Detroit building – and the soft lighting and exposed beams set a nice ambiance.  Glasses were poured, toasts were made, bourbon was consumed.

 

 

 

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Detroit City Distillery Two-Faced Bourbon
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Detroit City Distillery Two-Faced Bourbon

Dan’s take:

Right from the nose, this dog has some bite.  While only 94 proof, the first scent was hot, almost like a high-proof rye would be.  Given a minute, the heat started to part and opened to an unsurprising corn and spice.  There were hints of almond and a touch of toffee, but the prevailing smell was corn.

The taste was softer than I expected.  Fiery on the front, the bourbon has those high-rye pepper notes, with a touch of cinnamon and allspice, but the younger corn seemed to temper it well.  Nutmeg and a slight bitter – almost coffee – were present.  It had a thin mouth feel, almost watery, but that works to it’s advantage – thicker would cause the spice to linger too long.  There was a soft sweetness as well, part corn and part caramel.

The finish was hot but not lingering.  There was a pepper to the finish, and it was the first time I detected a touch of oak. Most of all, there was that ever-present corn, soft and subtle.

The recipe for Detroit City Distillery Two-Faced Bourbon seems good – it was not overly simple, and blended nicely with the older sourced bourbon.  As a sipping whiskey, it could use more aging to add complexity and depth.  As a main ingredient in some of the totally unique cocktails they are preparing at their tasting room, it works very very nicely.

Detroit City Distillery Two-Faced Bourbon is not yet available at distributors, but will be soon.  The price point – like most micro-distillers – is still on the higher side ($50 for 750mL), but there is something to be said for buying local now, isn’t there.

And the Tasting Room is well worth a visit!

Dan’s Rating: 7.5

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.