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

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