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 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

 

A trip to visit Pappy…and Four Roses, Willett, Wild Turkey…Part Two

A trip to visit Pappy…and Four Roses, Willett, Wild Turkey…Part Two

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…

Bourbon Aisle at the Liquor Barn
Bourbon Aisle at the Liquor Barn
Wishbone at Wild Turkey
Wishbone at Wild Turkey

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.

Buffalo Trace Distillery
Buffalo Trace Distillery

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.

A Well Dressed Table
A Well Dressed Table

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.

Julian and Preston Van Winkle
Julian and Preston Van Winkle

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.

Preston Van WInkle, Julian Van Winkle and Dan
Preston Van WInkle, Julian Van Winkle and Dan

A trip to visit Pappy…and Four Roses, Willett, Wild Turkey…Part One

Two weeks ago, as I posted here, I was lucky enough to be the recipient of a fantastic gift from my family: tickets for my wife and I to travel to Kentucky and go to an event titled “Pappy For Your Pappy.”  The event is exactly what the title insinuates – over Father’s Day weekend, it is a dinner at Buffalo Trace Distillery where Julian and Preston Van Winkle join those lucky diners in the Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse to sample Pappy Van Winkle through the meal.

With a birthday so close to Father’s Day, my sister and mother presented us with tickets as a birthday gift last year, and we enjoyed the event so much that we relished the opportunity to go back.  That said, the Pappy craze, not close to slowing up, made it such a hot ticket that this year, one had to enter a raffle just to get the opportunity to buy tickets!  My sister was fortunate enough to be drawn, and so they presented us the tickets as a gift and sent us on our way.

Last year, we spent the time exploring distilleries and the local area.  We toured Woodford Reserve (which I will recap in the future here), and Lexington Kentucky, and spent a lovely evening staying at Shaker Village.  This year, with the event on Friday (as opposed to Saturday), we revised our plans a bit: we headed down Thursday evening, staying in Harrodsburg (at the lovely Beaumont Inn), and made plans to visit the distilleries at Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Willett, and Buffalo Trace, as well as *gulp* zip line in caverns under Louisville.

There was only one problem – my stomach disagreed.  I awoke Friday with a case of stomach flu that turned my mood as dour as the cloudy, rainy weather.  But it didn’t dissuade us from trooping forward – we headed over to Four Roses to tour the beautiful facility.

Four Roses Distillery
Four Roses Distillery Visitor Center

And beautiful it is – the uniqueness of a Spanish Mission style set of buildings against the rolling Kentucky backdrop certainly makes you feel just a little out of place.  As you might imagine, there are roses everywhere, and so we parked our car and headed on inside.

Visitor Center and Gift Shop at Four Roses Distillery
Visitor Center and Gift Shop at Four Roses Distillery

Bourbon is huge business here in Kentucky, and the distilleries all know it – the gift shops in every place I’ve visited rival those of any National Park or recognizable tourist site, and Four Roses is no exception.  Their Gift Shop is large and full of every product you might want, including bottles of their yellow label, Small Batch and Single Barrel products.  Like most other distilleries, there were no available bottles of the more rare and sought after specialty pours, like cask proof, anniversary editions, etc.  But it was a pleasant place to spend an hour while awaiting our tour (there is also a nice pavilion outside).

The tour itself starts with a video explaining the history of Four Roses, and to those who know, it is a unique history indeed: Four Roses was arguably the most popular bourbon in America for many decades (interesting fact – the large advertisement behind the kissing sailor/nurse Times Square V-J day photo? Four Roses!). In 1943, it was purchased by the Canadian Seagrams company, and in the mid-1950s Seagrams shifted the bourbon sales to emerging markets in Japan and post war Europe, while abandoning Four Roses bourbon altogether in the United States.  Unfortunately, though, they continued the name Four Roses, but changed the product to a low quality, blended neutral grain whiskey.  I was unaware of that history myself until I gave my father a bottle of Single Barrel Four Roses last year for Father’s Day.  He enjoys a good whiskey, but is not particularly a drinker, and one day mentioned to a friend that I had brought him a bottle.  His friend scoffed and suggested I was trying to kill him with a bottle of rotgut!  My father had to inform him that those days of horrible product are passed.

Visitor Center, Gift Shop and Tasting Room at Four Roses
Visitor Center, Gift Shop and Tasting Room at Four Roses

In 1995, Four Roses brought in Jim Rutledge as Master Distiller and, in the early 2000’s, thanks to some sales and acquisitions, Seagram sold Four Roses to Japanese company Kirin, who have restored the reputation and quality of the Four Roses label and returned product to American shelves (while eliminating the offensive rotgut).

The tour then started in earnest, where our guide explained that Four Roses uses two main mash bills, and utilize five different proprietary yeasts.

Two different mash bills —

75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley
60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley

Crossed with five different proprietary yeast strains:
V – delicate fruitiness
K – slightly spicy character
O – rich fruitiness
Q – floral essence
F – herbal

making a total of ten different casked bourbons. Four Roses uses single story barrel houses (at a different location).  After the film and walk through, we started the tour.

The tour group outside the Four Roses Distillery
The tour group outside the Four Roses Distillery
In front of Four Roses Distillery
In front of Four Roses Distillery
Control Room of Four Roses Distillery
Control Room of Four Roses Distillery
The proprietary yeasts at work
The proprietary yeasts at work
Fermentation
Fermentation
Mash fermenting to become Four Roses Bourbon
Mash fermenting to become Four Roses Bourbon

The tour itself takes about 45 minutes, and is a good glimpse inside a medium sized Bourbon producer.  The barrels are filled and stored offsite, so it really is only distilling taking place here, and while they certainly take it seriously, it isn’t as ‘craft’ as Grand Traverse was, nor as large as Wild Turkey.

Four Roses Copper Still at work
Four Roses Copper Still at work
Up close and personal in a copper still
Up close and personal in a copper still

After walking through the fermenting, distilling and preparation processes – they fill up tanker trucks to deliver to the store houses an hour away – we headed inside for the best part: tasting!  There, we enjoyed all three available bottlings, thanked our guide, and moved on down the road to Wild Turkey.  Stomach bug be damned, there was bourbon to taste!

In our next post – it’s Wild Turkey, and dinner with the Van Winkles!

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Stagg Jr.

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Stagg Jr.

It’s been a rough week over here at Baseball and Bourbon: I had my wisdom teeth out.  I won’t embellish, it didn’t go as poorly – or painfully – as some people had warned me.  But it wasn’t exactly fun either.  Most saddening was the fact that I was advised not to drink bourbon while my jaw recovered.  The one saving grace was that it gave me the perfect excuse to rest and watch the NCAA tournament all weekend.  So with a congrats to the Dayton Flyers, as well as Michigan and Michigan State, this week’s review is of a new favorite of mine.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Stagg Jr.
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Stagg Jr.

Now, I have no been lucky enough yet to get my hands (and taste buds) on a pour of George T. Stagg, try as I may.  I’ve been able to hunt down glasses, if not bottles, of almost all of the other Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, but the GTS eludes me.

That said, I was fortunate enough, when in Kentucky, to get my hands on a bottle of Stagg Jr, the newer offering from the BTAC.  Aged 8-9 years (unlike the 15+ GTS is bottled at), but coming from the exact same mash bill, ‘unfiltered’ and ‘uncut,’ it pours at a barrel strength. My bottle shows a 136.6 proof, or 68.3% alcohol.  Potent.

What I really note about the Stagg Jr was how my opinion changed over three months, and three different tastings.  I first had the Stagg Jr. in December at a bourbon event at the Wine Garden in St. Clair Shores.  There I found it too brash and even harsh.  Two months later I tried it again at a local whiskey bar, and found that I enjoyed it much more, and found it much more complex.  Last week, for review purposes, I tried it again, and came to trust my second, rather than first impression.

The nose: Make no mistake, like any barrel proof, that first sniff will be a burn.  Give it a minute to breathe, and you will note a burned-sugar-toffee, vanilla, charred oak and some spiciness.  The sweet notes – vanilla and toffee – strengthen as it site, too.

The taste: Again, let’s not kid – that barrel proof is a kicker.  It has a thicker mouth taste than I expected, but I could taste very strong influence of charred oak and rye spiciness.  A hint of brown sugar, but the sweetness gave way to the spicier hints of cinnamon, pepper and oak.  It didn’t knock me back, but I found it smoother than anticipated, without ice.

The finish: It has a burn, a good solid one.  Notes of spice hold out along with the taste of wood and subtle sugar sweetness. A little dry, as though there were tannins, on the throat.

My take: Personally, I like Stagg Jr.  Looking around online, it seems the biggest drawback Stagg Jr has is not being George T Stagg.  Maybe I will feel that way when I’ve had the GTS, but for now, I find this to be a nice, strong drink.

Dan’s Rating: 8.4

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Eagle Rare 17 Year-Old

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Eagle Rare 17 Year-Old

The explosion of bourbon popularity has led to many things: one one hand, there is a massive array of new, innovative and exciting brands and makers growing larger by the day. On the other hand, many products are harder and harder to find.

Another one of the advantages is the number of bourbon, or whiskey, themed bars popping up.  Here in Detroit, where the bourbon does not flow as freely as in Kentucky, this can mean a connoisseur (or at least a well read poseur) has a possibility of trying a spirit that would otherwise remain unavailable to them.

Last week, my fellow musician/bourbon-loving friend Jeremy Porter mentioned a bar that had opened in my neck of the woods and had a particularly noteworthy collection of whiskeys:  The Butter Run Saloon is St. Clair Shores, Michigan.  A quick look at the website caught me off guard – 84 different bourbons.  An amazing selection, even more surprising that it happened to be in the relatively sleepy burb I grew up in.

Butter Run Saloon: 84 different bourbons
A bourbon list of note – Butter Run Saloon: 84 different bourbons

Partially, my surprise was in my notion of what kind of bar would host such an elaborate selection – at least here in Detroit.  I shuddered while images of skinny-jeaned, ironic t-shirted hipsters gleefully threw down this week’s leftover vintage bicycle money on glasses of Pappy Van Winkle while discussing the day’s English Premier League scores and the latest London Grammar release.  This was not the case, in fact, it was almost the polar opposite.

The bar is a quiet, working class pub style restaurant/bar, that just also happens to have an amazing selection of bourbons (as well as over 100 scotches).  It serves good burgers, good onion rings, and Angels Envy Cask Strength (?!?).

Since there were a good number of drinks on this list I have not had the ability to hunt down for myself, I decided to try one that has been on my list for some time.  A big fan of the Eagle Rare 10 year, it seemed a good idea to try the Eagle Rare 17 Year-Old.  I was not disappointed.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Eagle Rare 17 Year-Old
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Eagle Rare 17 Year-Old

I love Eagle Rare – partially because I love the variations that I have gotten from this straight bourbon, but have not been able to get my hands on a bottle of the 17 Year, hard as I have tried (and I have tried, believe me).  With a glass in my hand, it was everything I love about the 10 year, but even more.

My take: The nose of this glass was deep, and incredibly complex and varied.  At first, I could make out fruits and a bit of spiciness. Baking apples and cinnamon, raisins and orange peel.  A charming array that slowly, as the glass opened, turned into warm leather and oak.

The first sip surprised me – it had a silkiness to it, and the smoky oak taste, but it wasn’t harsh at all.  Rather, it was gentle despite the tannin, and not bitter at all.  Raisins and almond were there before a soft leather presented itself upon the long finish.

To me. this was a magnificent drink.  Full of character and flavor, but not too harsh or biting.  Smooth, but not weak.  A top five, to be sure!

Dan’s Rating: 9.3

Bourbon Classic Day Two: Day-drinking

Bourbon Classic Day Two: Day-drinking

Saturday morning opened with clouds in Louisville, but that did not put a damper of any kind on the Bourbon Classic, or our trip in general. We woke up relatively early, and went to meet a gentleman from whom I purchased a bottle of Weller 12 Year (unavailable in Michigan) for later review.

I would like to say this about Kentucky – I have now met with several third-party “craigslist” style sellers to procure bottles not available, or hard to find, in Michigan – and have found there is a genuine friendliness in these exchanges that I have not found anywhere else.  Maybe it’s just better manners, but my wife and I were chatted up, about bourbon and life in general by every ‘collector’s market’ person we met.  Here in Michigan, the same transactions are tense as a TV drug deal, and all of the friendliness too.

We wondered over to a store called Vault Liquor and added a few more bottles of more accessible bourbon to our hall with the help of the friendly gentleman behind the counter of this round, strangely set-up store.

From there, it was back to the Classic, and it did not disappoint.

Master Distillers & Brand Legends: Wes Henderson, Angel's Envy; Fred Noe, Jim Beam; Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace; Tom Bulleit, Bulleit Bourbon; Daniel Preston, Cacao Prieto Artisan Distillery; Colin Spoelman, King's County Distillery; Willie Pratt, Michter's; Dave Schmier, Redemption Bourbon; Drew Kulsveen, Willett; Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey
Master Distillers & Brand Legends: Wes Henderson, Angel’s Envy;
Fred Noe, Jim Beam;
Harlen Wheatley, Buffalo Trace;
Tom Bulleit, Bulleit Bourbon;
Daniel Preston, Cacao Prieto Artisan Distillery;
Colin Spoelman, King’s County Distillery;
Willie Pratt, Michter’s;
Dave Schmier, Redemption Bourbon;
Drew Kulsveen, Willett; Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey

The Classic kicked off with a panel discussion where some of the biggest and most famous Master Distillers, as well as some younger up-and-comers, talked frankly about bourbon trends, tastes, the future of the industry, how to maintain quality but be inventive, and many other topics.  It was extremely fun, but also incredibly informative.  Some of the things I noted:

  • They all were in agreement that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with micro-distilleries or start-up labels outsourcing the actual alcohol production, but that the quality comes into question depending more on which supplier they use, and how involved they were in the recipe (as opposed to buying bulk leftovers).
  • They also agreed that there is an incredibly high demand for all bourbon right now, so it will be very hard and expensive for new micro-distilleries to start.
  • Fred Noe from Jim Beam said he truly doesn’t anticipate any changes to the Beam model, recipe or productions once the Suntory purchase is finalized, and that it has the most to do with expanding markets, not changing products.
  • Jimmy Russell, the legendary Master Distiller from Wild Turkey, pointed out the changing demographics of the bourbon audience.  “It used to be old men, going into the backroom at the bar, and having a cigar…playing poker,” he said, then pointing out the audience is now as diverse as the brands themselves.
  • There was some disagreeing over whether or not the aging process could be hurried or enhanced by other methods.  Most of the panel felt strongly that you can’t rush aging and attempts to do so are failures.  Daniel Preston, from Cacao Prieto, disagreed, and pointed to investments made in limestone mines where the barrels can be heated and cooled daily, and therefore, aged faster.  This was met with much skepticism.
  • A reminder that, as bourbon is an aged process, true market research is difficult – higher production today takes years to hit the market, and if the market is slower, there can be significant financial loss.

We left this fun session and went to the first of our breakout sessions, Bourbon Flavors with chef Ouita Michel of the Holly Hill Inn.

Chef Ouita Michel, Holly Hill Inn, walks us through bourbon taste profiles
Chef Ouita Michel, Holly Hill Inn, walks us through bourbon taste profiles

Now, I had expected this session to be more about recognizing flavors in bourbon itself, but it was more of a lesson in taste pairings between bourbon and food.  Using a variety of different tastes, and Woodford Reserve bourbon, we sampled and noted how sharing each sip with a food taste enhanced the overall experience.

Food pairings with Woodford Reserve
Food pairings with Woodford Reserve

As we sampled dark chocolate, Parmesan cheese, orange, dried cherries, hazelnuts and sorghum, we tasted Woodford and enjoyed.

Next, it was a more formal food session with Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University.  Here, Chef Schmid walked us through some do’s and don’ts of cooking with bourbon, and showed us two recipes that we then got to sample – a bourbon chicken and Woodford Pudding.

Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University
Albert Schmid, National Center for Hospitality Studies, Sullivan University

Both were delicious (we got to sample each), and when it adjourned, it was time for the Ultimate Bourbon Experience.

This is an amazing thing – there is plentiful delicious food – beef tenderloin, pork tenderloin, corn pudding, sausage stuffed mushrooms, and on and on – and you walk through the lobby and main areas with a bourbon glass, getting samples from and chatting with representatives from almost all of the major and many smaller distilleries.

For review purposes, this isn’t the best way.  But for sheer enjoyment, most definitely! We started at Angels Envy, sampling the A.E. Rye, then moved on to the Western Spirits display, makers of the Calumet Farm bourbon I’ve spoke highly of.  To be honest, the representative there was not very helpful in talking about the bourbons, and didn’t particularly seem interested in it.  Disappointing, but I had a drink of their Lexington bourbon and moved on.

Nelson’s Green Brier distillery has a great story, and it was a pleasure hearing Charlie Nelson tell it.  The Belle Meade bourbon was distinctive, and I hope to get a bottle to review here in Michigan soon.  From there we wandered longer, stopping for a bite, then a drink. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Prudence dictated we head back to our hotel at a decent enough time to take off for home bright and early (to prepare for a Super Bowl party we host), but I cannot say enough great things about this event.  It was truly a great time, and I hope to return next year.  Fantastic.

bourbon. Mmmmmmm
bourbon. Mmmmmmm