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

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

Well, first of all, Happy Halloween! Once more it’s the time of year with ghosts and goblins, tricks and treats.  Children dressing scarily and wondering through your streets collecting candy.  I hope you and yours enjoy it this year.  It’s also deep into autumn, with the harvest coming up, and I like to think of all the corn, the wheat, the ryes that will soon be mashed and distilled into my favorite treat – whiskey!

Secondly, congratulations to the San Francisco Giants, who last night won their third World Series in five years.  I feel like the Giants are our adoptive team, as my wife Jen and I went to see them during our honeymoon in 2012.  Particularly amazing was the performance of Madison Bumgarner,  I’m glad I watched this series through to the end!

And now…on to bourbon.  Or in this case, rye.

The Willett name has a long and storied history, going all the way back to pilgrims who arrived in the US in the 1600s.  The Willett family has been responsible for bourbon distilling in Kentucky since the 1860s, and has played an important role in much of the great bourbon legacy there.

In the 1930s, the Willett family started the Willett Distilling Company on the family farm in Bardstown, Kentucky, and it still sits there today.  Willett, which later changed it’s name to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers(1984), made bourbons on the family farm up until the 1970s.  At that time, during the oil crisis, they made the decisions to have their whiskey brands made elsewhere and age and bottle them (or just bottle them) onsite.  This allowed them to convert their production facilities to make gasahol fuel.  This venture did not work out, however, and by the 1980s, the Willett location was only used for it’s warehouses and bottling.

Several brands are released under the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers name – Johnny Drum, Kentucky Vintage, Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill among others.  They also do aging and bottling for a few other brands, including Corner Creek and the sought after Black Maple Hill.

In the mid 2000’s, the family started work to reopen the Willett production facilities, and by 2012, they barreled the first of their new products.  And in 2014, they unveiled it at last – the Willett Family 2 Year Rye.

I was down in Kentucky in June and visited Willett, and was lucky enough to land a few bottles of the brand new, Willett produced two year rye.  So how’d it taste?

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

My review:

107 proof – that was the strength of my Willett 2 Year Rye – a nice barrel proof number.  And Willett certainly knows bottling – their Still Pot Reserve has won awards for it’s beautiful bottles, and their ryes come in beautiful bottles adorned with the family seal as well.  In short, it’s a lovely bottle.

It has a nice gold color, and the nose is fantastic.  There is a definite fruitiness in the nose – I picked up cherry, citrus and a hint of raisin.  The woodiness reminded me of something other than oak – more like a cedar or even a Christmas pine.  I soaked it in, and found some vanilla.  What shocked me the most was the lack of a burn.  Despite the high proof, this pour didn’t smell like pure alcohol, and had a surprising richness.

I’ll admit, my first sip was jarring.  The nose had put me to sleep, and I took perhaps too big of a drink, forgetting the high potency of the proof.  But even as I coughed a bit, caught off guard, I noticed how smooth it was going down.  My next drink was more restrained, and I got a good feel for this rye.  It was softer than a 2 year has any right to be, with a great range of flavor that belies it’s age.  It had an earthiness to it, and I thought mint rose to the top, along with a maple.  I didn’t note the usual pepper or cinnamon ryes have – it’s probably too young to have really soaked that in from the wood – but there is far more citrus than I would have ever expected.  Overall, it’s rather sweet.

And it has a nice finish to boot.  Not the longest finish, but smooth and lingering where a touch of spice mixes with an earthiness (that is probably the biggest tip off to it’s age).

On the whole, I’m not as big a fan of ryes as I am traditional bourbons.  But for this Willett entry, I’ll make an exception.   It doesn’t have the ‘graininess’ of a young rye – that taste that lets you know that some of this whiskey has never touched the side of a barrel.  Instead, I would have thought upon blind taste that it was at least four, and maybe even six or eight years old. What really intrigues me is what these barrels will taste like in a few more years!

Dan’s Rating: 8.5

Dan’s 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

 

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Ezra B 12 Year Old Bourbon

OK, two things:

1) As this summer has gotten busier and busier, I have not been good about posting regularly.  I’m still sampling new bourbons, still reading about developments in the whiskey world and what not, but I’m not writing about it enough.

2) Despite the name “Baseball and Bourbon,” I hardly ever write about baseball! I named the blog Baseball and Bourbon because I planned on reviewing two of the things I enjoy the most: baseball parks and bourbons.  However, I discovered two key facts early on – it’s difficult to visit new parks regularly, and it’s way more fun (and easy) to try new bourbons.  This year alone, I have been able to visit one new park (Nationals Park), but will have gone on three separate trips to Kentucky for bourbon related events.

Both of these things will change now.

Not going to more baseball parks – time and money can prohibit that pretty severely.  But introducing more baseball content.  Reviews of baseball books, baseball movies, write-ups of parks I’ve visited in the past and just more baseball chatter will be a priority.  My hometown Detroit Tigers are (again) serious contenders for the title, and I keep pretty well plugged in to baseball.  Time to put it to type.

Secondly, I will include more bourbon reviews, but also, talk more at length about whiskey bars I visit, industry trends, and other whiskeys, especially ryes,

So let the fun begin!

Last night, after what has proven to be a particularly trying week in many regards, my wife and I sat down and opened a bottle that she had picked up a few weeks back out of curiosity.

Ezra B 12 Year Old Bourbon

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Ezra B 12 Year Old Bourbon
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Ezra B 12 Year Old Bourbon

OK, call this a spoiler alert, but I LOVED this bourbon.  Ezra B (Brooks) 12 Year is a Heaven Hill distillery product, and while Heaven Hill makes some bourbons I have liked (Evan Williams, Elijah Craig) and some I haven’t, none have ever tasted quite like this.

While the Ezra B 12 Year is the classier bottle of the Ezra Brooks line, with its wax cap and ribboned label, it’s not obscenely priced.  A little harder to find here in Detroit, it was still available at a store, and not only through third party sellers.  We opened the bottle and poured a healthy amount into our glasses…

…wow, what a fantastic nose.  Ezra B is 99 proof, but the nose didn’t burn of alcohol at all.  Amazingly, it was a sweet, rich nose, with notes of vanilla, caramel, raisin, rum, pecans and wood.  Not charred wood, mind you, but soft wood, like a new baseball bat.  It was warm and inviting.

The taste was outstanding.  First of all, Ezra B 12 Year is a thick mouth feel – like a melting butter.  But unlike most thicker tasting bourbons, Ezra B isn’t full of those mouth-puckering tannins some people (not I) love.  Instead, it’s incredibly smooth with a layered taste.  It opens with a rich sweetness – raisin and ripe banana, toffee and caramel, before giving way to a warming but not overpowering spice.

The finish is soft and medium, and almost seems to come in waves, but not of spice or rye, but rather, that wonderful citrus taste.

This just became a favorite.

Dan’s rating: 9.3

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

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace (Elmer T Lee Collectors Edition)

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace (Elmer T Lee Collectors Edition)

Tonight, I visited a bottle that’s been on my shelf a little while – A bottle of Buffalo Trace, with a special twist: the Elmer T Lee Collectors Edition.

A few years ago, my sisters found themselves in Kentucky and, while there, took a tour of the Buffalo Trace Distillery.  Neither of my sisters are bourbon afficionados (or even really like it), but knowing I am, brought me back some gifts.  Among them was this bottle.

At the time, it was my understanding, the barrels these bottles were from were still hand picked by Master Distiller Emeritus Elmer T Lee, godfather of the Single Barrel bourbon.  Mr. Lee, who passed away this year at the age of 93, was calling the shots at Buffalo Trace (then still the Stagg Distillery) in 1985 when he pushed for the launch of Blanton’s, birthed the single barrel craze and revolutionized the industry.  Elmer was renowned for his palate and skill, so the thought that he still selected these bottles is enough for me to be enthusiastic.

Of course, I don’t know if he actually did.  What I do know is that at the time my sisters procured the bottle for me, it was only available at the distillery itself and, having sampled it next to a regular bottle of Buffalo Trace, there are some, allbeit subtle, differences.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace (Elmer T Lee Collectors Edition)
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace (Elmer T Lee Collectors Edition)

I like Buffalo Trace Bourbon.  As a mass produced bourbon, I have preferred it to most of the others in it’s price range for everything other than pure sipping.  I’ve used it in cooking, in cocktails, in baking, and straight.  It’s not my choice for sitting back with a glass neat or on the rocks, but it certainly is a great product.  This particular bottle is a touch better.

My take: right from the get go, the color is a deep yellow-amber, darker than many others.  The nose opened up with corn, vanilla, and a sort of baking spices that made me think of rum or even fruitcake.  It wasn’t extremely strong in scent, but was pleasant enough.

It sipped a bit on the thin side, with a pop of pepper and spices.  There were tastes of orange peel, and I noted cinnamon, all spice and while I didn’t feel it was thick or had great mouth coat, it didn’t feel empty.

The finish was long and had both the sprite sparkle of cinnamon, but also a nice radiating warmth that lasted for some time.

A quality selection, and a good one to toast to Mr. Lee.

Dan’s scale (1-10): 7.9

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project Barrel Number 136

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project Barrel Number 136

A bittersweet weekend to be sure, but one deserving of a nice bourbon.  My Missouri Tigers beat Ole Miss on Saturday night, propelling them to a number five ranking in the country – exciting times indeed!  Next week it’s a matchup against Texas A&M, for the chance to play in the SEC championship game.

Unfortunately, Sunday led to a feeling all Detroit Lions fans know to well: the dismay of watching our beloved Motor City Kitties grab a defeat from the jaws of victory.  Four interceptions, a fumble, and a blocked punt to boot (pun sadly intended).  A brutal game watching experience while the November cold howled outside.

If that wasn’t enough, this week we raise our bourbon glasses to the passing of one of the best television characters I can remember rooting for (Spoiler Alert): Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire.  In my 36 years of television watching, I have grown fond of a lot of shows and certain characters – Silvio Dante (Sopranos), Jim Halpert (Office), Boyd Crowder (Justified), and on and on.  But few, if any, did I root for as much as I did for the sad, sharpshooting war veteran from Boardwalk Empire.  I (and we) rooted for his salvation, and felt true joy when he found it.  He was often the conscience on a show full of dark, evil deeds.  And last night, in the season finale, he was laid to rest after saving those people he cared about most, and was done in by the very soul he had found.  Rest in peace Richard – we drink to you!

So without further ado – our bourbon of the week!

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project Barrel Number 136
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project Barrel Number 136

Today we try another bottle from the ever fun and interesting Buffalo Trace Distillery‘s Single Oak Project, and today’s comes from batch number 136.  A few details about 136:

Barrel # 136
Distillation Date: 1/6/2003
Age: 8 years old
Entry Proof: 125 info
Bourbon Recipe: Rye
Char Level: #4 Char
Months: Seasoned 6
Tree Cut: Bottom
Warehouse: L
Warehouse Type: Concrete Floor
Warehouse Location: L-3-27

I do love trying these unique one-of-a-kind bourbons, for the reasons I’ve stated before – much of the fun for me is in comparing the differences, the subtleties of the character that so many bourbons have, and by making each barrel so different, Buffalo Trace has really given us something to enjoy in that special way.

My take: There was much disagreement in the house on this one between my wife Jen and I. This particular batch exemplifies the differences in what each of us likes in our bourbons.

The nose was warm and inviting – a rich caramel and toffee gave way to notes of dried fruits and an almost sticky sense of molasses and honey.  One of the best noses I’ve encountered.

The mouth-feel was rich and thick, although not overwhelmingly so.  The taste was quite smooth, carrying through on the toffee and caramel, with a bit of molasses and nutmeg thrown in for good measure.  It was a little too smooth for Jen, who likes her bourbon spicy and punchier.  The finish was medium and also smooth, not overwhelming or harsh in the least.

To conclude – I liked this one – alot!

Dan scale (1-10): 8.1

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Blanton’s Single Barrel

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Blanton’s Single Barrel

Ahhh, Blanton‘s.  This is the granddaddy of the Single Barrel bourbon craze.  They started releasing it in single barrel form in the 1980s, and it is still  produced from barrels in Buffalo Trace warehouse H.  One of the cool things about Blanton’s is it’s unique bottle, and the tops. There are eight different horses on the top of Blanton’s bottles, representing a jockey and horse coming to the gate, running a race, and winning – how very Kentucky!  I picked up this bottle from the Buffalo Trace Distillery when we were there in June.  It didn’t disappoint.

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Blanton's Single Barrel (Barrel no. 328, 5-9-13). The granddaddy of the single barrel bourbons.
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Blanton’s Single Barrel (Barrel no. 328, 5-9-13). The granddaddy of the single barrel bourbons.

The nose was fantastic – corn, apples, cinnamon, rye, and a hint of…apricot?  But the taste – so smooth, so clean.  It’s has a nice mouth coat – soft and buttery.  It’s got a bit of wood char bitterness, but is as smooth as almost any I’ve tasted. You can taste the corn, and there’s a sweet detection of summer fruits, like apples. 

The finish is mild, not overwhelming.  I love this bourbon.

Dan scale (1-10): 9.3

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project Barrel Number 72

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project Barrel Number 72

Last Christmas, I received an interesting gift from my mother – three unique bottles from the Buffalo Trace ‘Single Oak Project.’  I was intrigued immediately, and the explanation she had printed off to go along with the beautifully wrapped gift explained just how unique this was:

“…It all started with 96 individually selected American oak trees that differed according to the number of growth rings per inch and growing location. Each tree was then cut into two parts – top and bottom – yielding 192 unique tree sections. A single barrel was constructed from each unique section. Prior to construction we varied the stave seasoning times. The 192 barrels were then charred differently. These single oak barrels were then filled with different recipe whiskeys, at various entry proofs and aged in a variety of different warehouse styles.

We believe that this experiment will allow you to directly compare the impact of 7 different critical variables across 192 bottles for a total of 1,396 taste combinations. None of the 192 bottles in the complete set are exactly alike….” (from the Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project website)

After several months of admiring the bottles and project, we finally decided to take one out for a test spin!

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project Barrel number 72
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project Barrel number 72

So what did we find?

My take: The nose said this one was going to have some flavor.  The sweet smells of toffee, caramel and maple syrup meshed with the tangier notes of baking spices, nutmeg, and a slight smell of oak.

The taste was dry and thick, certainly a mouth-coater.  It tasted full bodied, and the taste agreed.  Again, sweet tastes of honey, caramel and toffee mixed with the nutmeg and oak, and I dare say there was a peak of mint in there as well!

With a long, lingering but smooth finish, this was a good glass of whiskey.  So why not a higher rating?  While flavorful, there was nothing truly outstanding about this glass, no real standout characteristic.  I’m very enthusiastic about trying the others though!

Dan scale (1-10): 7.7