Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

With all of the discussion and debate that swirls around “sourced” whiskey – whiskey produced in a facility not owned and operated by the bottler and/or brand name on the bottle – it can too often go unsaid that there are two different ways a whiskey can be sourced.  The first and often more controversial way is when a bottler or brand name purchases mass-produced barrels of an indiscriminate recipe distilled and aged at one of the larger distilleries and puts it out to market with less-than-transparent information.  The ‘artisanal‘ bourbon that is really 3 year old sourced Indiana rye, or the fancy bottled and elaborate storied family recipe that is actually excess barrels purchased from an unnamed distributor.

This form of sourcing can be harmless – I’ve enjoyed many sourced and mysterious bourbons.  But it can also be a gimmick, and there are many overpriced, underwhelming bourbons on the market made from a basic recipe by a bulk manufacturer and bottled with a ‘family heritage’ story and a hefty price tag.  Its unfortunate, and gives sourcing a bad name.  Legendary bourbon blogger Chuck Cowdery calls them “Potemkin Distilleries” and on the whole, I concur with his opinion: failure to demand transparency in what we drink only encourages others to be (at the least) disingenuous or (even worse) underhanded.

The other way whiskey can be sourced is much more interesting.  This form of sourcing involves a distiller, NDP, or brand having their recipe distilled to their specs at a larger distillery.  For example, everyone knows the name Pappy Van Winkle, but Pappy is distilled by Buffalo Trace to spec – the same as John J. Bowman.

John J. Bowman’s distillery (The A. Smith Bowman Distillery) is most interesting, because they are, in fact, a distillery.  They are owned by Sazerac, the same as Buffalo Trace (and Blantons and Taylor and Stagg and etc).  They are in Virginia, not Kentucky, and have been at the current location in Fredericksburg, since 1988.

What makes their process so different is that they have Buffalo Trace do the first distilling, to make the ‘White Dog’ corn whiskey.  Then the distillate alcohol is shipped to Bowman, where they distill it two more times.  Then it is barreled, stored and aged.  I have even read that the barrels are stored upright, which is again very different.

So how is this Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey?

Dan's Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel
Dan’s Bourbon of the Week: John J. Bowman Single Barrel

Dan’s Take:

John J. Bowman Single Barrel comes without an age statement, a barrel or bottling number, or any other indicators that would allow me to match this single barrel with any others.  Its unfortunate, because there is much about this whiskey I would like to find again!  The bottle itself is quite lovely, with its image of Col. John J. Bowman exploring Kentucky on the back.  It’s no slouch at 100 Proof.  I just wish I knew a few specs.

The nose is fantastic – caramel, vanilla, oak, and a soft corn.  It was a sweet nose, and as the soft corn gave way to the oak and wood, I almost couldn’t help but forget it was the dead of winter and think of soft campfire and roasting corn.

The taste was as smooth – a thick texture, with a great sweetness up front, but never overwhelming.  Again, vanilla, and a vanilla almost sugary and frosting like on the front of the tongue, while the thick mouthfeel showed off a rich woodiness blended with a slightly tart citrus.  Orange and a tiny bit of raisin, before resolving to a smooth finish of cinnamon, walnut and dry oak.

A second sip showed me a bit more of the rye – along with the cinnamon, there was a hint of clove and even a bit more of that raisin, roasting corn taste.

I found the John J. Bowman Single Barrel to be outstanding – a wonderful sipping bourbon, and a nice addition to the regular rotation.  Most impressive. I can see why it’s competition scores have seemed to rise ever year.

Dan’s Rating: 8.7

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 Review of the Week – Jefferson’s Ocean II: Aged At Sea

Dan’s Bourbon Review of the Week – Jefferson’s Ocean II: Aged At Sea

We are here in Kentucky, for the third time this year, for a bourbon event.  Today, we will visit the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown for a bit, before returning to Louisville and gussying ourselves up for a the The Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala tonight.  MY wife has a lovely dress picked out, and I will actually be in black tie – an event slightly less rare than Haley’s Comet.  I’ll be posting more about it tomorrow, but for today, it’s the review of a bourbon I wanted to try for a while – the Jefferson’s Ocean II: Aged At Sea.

Dan's Bourbon Review of the Week - Jefferson's Ocean: Aged at Sea
Dan’s Bourbon Review of the Week – Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea

Now, the story of the Jefferson’s Ocean is as interesting as anything.  A few years ago, Jefferson master blender Trey Zoeller put a limited number of aged barrels on a ship, and let it sail around the world.  Upon it’s return, they sampled and bottled it, and Jefferson’s Ocean was born.  The reviews were good – some pointed out that the temperature fluctuations and rolling motion of being on a ship gave it a truly unique taste, while some even pointed out an almost briny salt water taste deep within.

With that success, Zoeller dispatched 60+ more barrels of bourbon for a 6-month trip on a container ship.  The bourbon is reportedly 6-8 years old, and details of it’s source or blend aren’t known.  As the ship (and stored barrels) crossed the equator four times and stopped on four continents, the whiskey rolled in the barrels, increasing it’s contact time with the wood and slightly agitating not unlike a washing machine.  The process is pretty cool, but the question is – “Is the bourbon any good?”

My answer is absolutely yes.

The nose was one of the sweetest I’ve ever experienced in a bourbon.  Rich caramel, vanilla, brown sugar and a hint of what almost reminded me of banana creme wafted from the top.  Oak woodiness around the edges, but the smell of this liquor made me anticipate a rum like sweetness.

Two things struck me immediately at first sip: (1) this bourbon is far sweeter than I had expected, and so very smooth; and (2) the very thick mouth feel.  This bourbon has an almost creamy, sweet feel, and rolls almost like a liqueur across the tongue.  Again, caramel, vanilla, a touch of maple syrup blends with a touch of non-bitter spices and the oakiness of a well aged bourbon.  Others have noted a salt or brine touch on this drink – I did not get that at all.  I did get a good dose of dried or candied fruit, particularly citrus.

The finish was very smooth, and the longer it sat in the glass, the more sweet it smelled.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression – it’s not sweet like a rum or soda.  But it definitely is for the sweeter palate, and that’s perfectly fine with me.  I found it to be delicious.

Dan’s Rating: 9.0