Friday, September 25, 2015

Tasting A 1970s Dusty Cabin Still

Josh Peters' 1970s Cabin Still

A year and a half ago I wrote about how the Cabin Still brand was murdered by Norton Simon corporation. It had been the entry level product of Pappy Van Winkle's legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery. Norton Simon had struck out with Canada Dry Bourbon, their attempt to enter the Bourbon market in the 1960s. Canada Dry Bourbon was produced at the Nicholasville, "Camp Nelson" distillery in Jessamine county, KY and apparently there was a musty flavor because of a problem with storage. Stuck with the tax liability of whiskey they couldn't sell, they bought Stitzel-Weller in 1972 and proceeded to dump the problem whiskey into the base expression - Cabin Still. You can read the full post here:

When, exactly, the dumping happened, isn't clear. I have had people tell me that higher proof examples of Cabin Still from after 1972 were perfectly good. I've been assembling samples and planning to try to nail down the date of the transition as best I can from taste alone (i.e. make an educated guess based upon tasting). Furthermore, the evidence is inconclusive about how the dumping occurred. Was Camp Nelson juice simply substituted for Stitzel-Weller? Were the two mixed together? If so, were the proportions constant or did they vary? I don't know. What I did know was that 1960s Cabin Still tasted like lovely Stitzel-Weller (cherry cola, dusty honeyed malt and light and sweet coffee) and the 1980s Cabin Still I knew from college and subsequent tastings was a musty, cardboardy, nasty pour. Those experiences were the visceral support that made me a real believer in the tale.

So, when Josh Peters of The Whiskey Jug blog offered a taste of 1970s Cabin Still I was anxious to participate and find out if it tasted the pre-1972 good stuff or the inferior later stuff.

First of all, let's date the bottle. Let's use the tips found on The Whiskey Jug's excellent page on dating dusties:

Josh Peter's photos of the bottle are at left and below. We see:
  • No UPC code - thus prior to 1985 at least
  • Imperial measurement ("One Pint" impressed in the glass). This suggests the bottle was made prior to 1980.
  • "Series 112" on the tax strip just below the eagle. No volume markings on the end of the tax strip. This narrows it in to 1973-1976.
  • Series 112 below eagle and no volume marks on the ends.
  • As Sku notes in his post about this bottle: "a 1974 copyright appears on the label".  
This complex of attributes would put the date of this bottle pretty specifically to 1974-76.  That's just 2-3 years after the Norton Simon takeover of Stitzel-Weller.  If this stuff has the cardboard flavors of Camp Nelson / Canada Dry Bourbon then that lends more support to the notion that Norton Simon began the dumping right away.  Tasting is subjective, though, so it's circumstantial evidence at best.  But that's still evidence in my mind.  Here we go. 

Cabin Still 40% abv. Louisville 1974-76

Color: Medium amber.

Nose: sweet with hard candy, candy corn and cola with an earthy musky note.  Not bad
Palate: Opens sweet with citrus and cherry.  Good so far!  The expansion adds oak char and then it gets salty. It's more the suggestion of salt with a mineral and iodine aspect. At the turn a musty cardboard note enters. The finish has a bitter note that keeps calling up cardboard.  There is some heft to the mouth feel.  This feels very much like a vatting of Stitzel Weller and Camp Nelson juice to me.  But the Stitzel Weller flavors are in evidence in the cherry and cola flavors up front.  The opening is this whiskey's best part.  The finish, however, very much ruins it for me.  Prickly, bitter, cardboard... just unpleasant.  This is easily remedied by another sip which refreshes the pleasant flavors of the entry.  A real case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.  How do I score it?  The fore-palate is definitely four star / 80s territory, but the finish drags it way down in my opinion.

** 76

This stuff is clearly way better than the 1980s Cabin Still I tasted in my formal review in early 2014.  But with dusties the manner of storage matters.  Was the whiskey better in the mid 70s?  Or is this just a nice fresh bottle?  More tasting is necessary.  But this bottle confirms, in my mind, that:
  1. Norton Simon was mixing Canada Dry bourbon into Stitzel-Weller, at least at first.
  2. That they started this mixing pretty early after they acquired the brand.
Thanks again, Josh, for the opportunity to taste this fascinating whiskey and also be a part of a group whiskey blogging thing that involves some very distinguished bloggers.  Definitely check these guys out:
The four bottles Josh Peters sent samples of.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Old Crow New Versus Old: Tasting 1970s Against The Current Stuff In Very Good Blogger Company.

Josh Peters' 1970s bottle of Old Crow
Tasting dusty Bourbons and pitting them against the current expressions to learn about what has changed and, all too often, what has been lost, can be poignant because the dusty often represents a vanished distillery.  That's the case here with the 1970s Old Crow.  These exercises are often educational though.  By knowing history we come to a deeper appreciation of the current state of the art.  It's even better when you get to share the experience with others of a like mind.  Today we have a special opportunity to do all that courtesy of Josh Peters of The Whiskey Jug blog. Josh sent a quartet of samples (seen below) to a quintet of whiskey bloggers.  None of use communicated anything beforehand, other than Josh sending us the samples and bottle shots.  Now we get to enjoy reading all their perspectives about the same whiskies.

The blogs involved are:
I'm honored to be among such a great group of bloggers. Let's get started with a head to head of 1970s Old Crow versus the new stuff.

The samples. The Old Crows are in the two in the middle.

Old Crow is one of the greatest brand stories in all of whiskey.  It has the most noble and legendary of beginnings but the recipe is lost at least twice along the way and it's currently a bottom shelf item.  A classic American Rust Belt tale.  Named for Dr. James C. Crow, a Scottish physician and chemist who emigrated to the US in the 1820s and who had come to work for Oscar Pepper in 1838 in Woodford county, Kentucky.  He is generally (and probably incorrectly) credited with inventing the sour mash process where some of the spent mash from the previous batch is reserved and used as a starter in the next batch where it acidifies the mash and provides continuity of yeast and fauna.  He also barrel aged his Bourbon in era what that wasn't the norm.  And he properly cleaned his mash tuns and washbacks and tended the recipe with a careful and scientific manner.  All this gave early Old Crow an admirable level of quality and consistency which made it beloved.

James Crow died rather suddenly in 1856, apparently taking details of his recipe to the grave with him.  Oscar Pepper continued to make Old Crow, but passed away himself a few years later.  A group of investors, led by E.H. Taylor bought the brand and all remaining stocks.  They called the company W. A. Gaines & Co.  Old Crow of this era was famous.  Supposedly it was the whiskey of choice of probably the 19th century's most famous heavy drinker, General and President Ulysses S. Grant.  Jack Sullivan (of the brilliant history blog Those Pre-Pro Whiskey Men!) wrote:

"In his book, The Social History of Bourbon, Gerald Carson recounts that during one night during the long and stressful siege of Vicksburg, General Grant said to his aides: “See here, before we go to bed, let’s have a nightcap. Stewart [an aide] has got some prime Old Crow whiskey around here somewhere.” Stewart got the bottle and then watched as Grant filled a large goblet with Old Crow whiskey and tossed it down. ”It was a whopping big drink...”'

In 1878 the brand had grown to the point that a new, larger, and more industrial distillery was built further down the same road, South of Frankfort Kentucky, on the Kentucky river.  It would be made there for almost a century.  But in the 1960s sometime a tragic development happened where the amount of setback was changed and the original recipe forgotten.  Then the brand was sold and the the original recipe completely abandoned.  Chuck Cowdery, in his masterful book of whiskey history Bourbon Straight writes of Old Crow:

"After the war, whiskey-making resumed and Old Crow became one of the world's top selling bourbons. Until 1952, it was sold only as a bond, i.e., 100 proof. In that year, an 86 proof version was introduced.         In the 1960s, with sales still booming, production capacity at the Old Crow plant was increased significantly. According to a former National Distillers employee who was the last master distiller at Crow before it was acquired by Jim Beam in 1987, it was during this expansion that the original formula was accidentally changed. The error was in the percentage of backset returned to the new mash. This is ironic because the use of backset to condition new mash is the very essence of the sour mash process introduced by Dr. Crow. Despite falling sales, many customer complaints about the product’s new flavor, and even negative reviews from the distillery’s own tasting panels, the plant’s managers were either unwilling or unable to correct the mistake until just a few years before Jim Beam closed the plant in 1987. But by then the damage had been done.         Sales of almost all bourbon brands declined during the 1970s and 1980s, but none worse than Old Crow. In addition to losing sales, it also lost market share. Formerly number one, today it does not even rank in the top ten. For most of the period between Prohibition and Old Crow’s fall from grace, the brand’s chief rival for the position of best-selling bourbon was Jim Beam. As a final irony, the Old Crow whiskey in stores today is Jim Beam. That is, it is whiskey made by Jim Beam from the standard Jim Beam bourbon mash bill."

Cowdery, Charles (2011-05-20). BOURBON, STRAIGHT: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (pp. 114-115).

Interior of Distillery Building
Old Crow overgrown rickhouse.

Old Crow Distillery Building

After the 1987 sale to Beam, the Old Crow distillery where Old Crow had been made since 1878 and through the glory days of the 50s was closed and allowed to become a ruin.  There is a wonderful web site with many photographs of this ruin circa 2014.  Here are a few pictures from that site for color:

So, what we're tasting in this head to head is Old Crow from the last decade or so of the Old Crow Distillery (that gorgeous ruin) - which was part of National Distillers Corporation at the time, and the new stuff from Jim Beam.
Josh's new (Jim Beam) Old Crow (left), 1970s National Distillers Old Crow (right)

Old Crow 40% (Current bottling - Jim Beam) 3 years old.

Color: Pale gold
The nose is grainy (grassy, sour) with some blue cheese and plastic.

A bright, sweet sugar opening.  There is some light corn and citrus on the expansion and then a lightly sour and bitter finish with a nice doughy after glow.  With air it opens sweet gentle and not so bad.  Young and light, but certainly drinkable.

** 74
An undistinguished but inoffensive young Bourbon.

Old Crow 1970s 40% National Distillers

Color: Medium amber
Nose: Cream and butter. Vanilla. Citrus. Blonde tobacco. Something musky and little earthy.

Palate: sweet marmalade. Citrus compote. Dynamic and honeyed. Strong buttery texture and sweet butter flavor notes join hard candy at the mid palate expansion. Light leather and gentle charred oak turn and short finish that ends slightly bitter.

**** 86

Way more vivid and intense than the new stuff.  Classic mid-century style Bourbon in the light and candied mode.  And this is the decade after the setback amount was accidentally changed and the recipe lost.  Earlier versions had a richer darker aspect.  Also this is the 80 proof version.  86 an and BiB (100 proof) are no doubt even better.  I have some of those lying around.  I look forward to following this up at higher proof.

Allan Roth poured this pairing at
Char No. 4 a couple of years ago.
So, it's clear that the old National Distiller's stuff was leagues ahead of the bottom shelf younger version of Jim Beam White Old Crow has become.  A sad legacy indeed, for one of America's top brands.

A bit of personal history:  I had this head to head poured by Allan Roth, then of Brooklyn's terrific restaurant and whiskey bar Char No. 4 (now sadly closed) back in January, 2014.  I was having dinner and whiskey flights with a friend when Allan, beverage director, brought out a lovely early 1980s tax stamped dusty bottle of Old Crow (see photo at left) and poured my companion and I the National Distiller's dusty and the new stuff as complimentary pours.  It was a highlight moment.  BTW, our impression of these two whiskies was identical to my impressions in the current tasting:  National Distillers Old Crow was a lovely and flavorful pour which bears little resemblance the current stuff.  It's no surprise given that only the name is the same.  The long and proud legacy is lost.

Thanks for the samples and the opportunity to play along, Josh.  Be sure to check out the other bloggers reviewing this same stuff.  Here they are again:

Monday, September 7, 2015

Westland Is Kicking Butt - Particularly In Recent Single Cask Nation Releases.

Westland single barrel selections vatted to create the
Single Cask Nation Third Jubilee Festival Bottling

Westland, a five year old distillery in Seattle, is producing interesting single-malts that aren't trying to imitate the Scots. Instead, they're taking cues from the American Craft beer movement, using intriguing malts and yeasts from craft brewing.  A creative vatting of the range of flavors they are working with lately deserved to be the third of the adventurous bottlings the Jewish Whisky Company selects for their annual Whisky Jewbilee.

American whiskey production tends to focus on corn and rye.  Malt whisky is more often associated with Scotch, Irish, Japanese, and the new malts emerging in places like Scandinavia, England, Wales, Brittany, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the like.  But American Craft distillers are making single malts too, such as Balcones' Texas Single Malt, St. George Single Malt, Sons of Liberty Uprising, Stranahans, McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt, Lost Spirits, and Hudson, among others.  An interesting aspect of the American single malt movement is that a number of them show signs of emerging from the Craft beer movement.  Some, like Charbay, Corsair Rasputin, Sons of Liberty seasonals, and Pine Barrens (among others) are explicitly hopped, having been distilled from finished beer.  That's not the case here - but signs of evolution out of craft beer brewing are all over Westland's stuff.  They have an interesting story about using complex mash bills which involve a lot of different malts, the kind usually used in craft beer, such as Washington Select Pale Malt, Munich Malt.  Pale Chocolate Malt, Brown Malt, and also Peated Malt.  They further amp the flavor in the mash by using Belgian Saison brewer's yeast - a variety normally used in craft beer.  They claim the yeast produces a lot of esters and creamy flavor compounds.  I was initially skeptical about this claim. However, my early tastings of their standard expressions showed me that the whisky was rich, sweet, dark and musky in a way I really enjoyed.   Given that Westland is choosing to bottle their stuff young, typically 2 to 3 years old, I view this as a minor miracle.  It makes me inclined to believe the story about mash bill and yeast.  How else to explain the richness and apparent maturity in such a young malt?  This stuff is mostly too young to be legally called "whisky" in Scotland, but it drinks a lot like the real deal - and has its own set of flavors which are worth exploring.  

Part of the Anchor Distilling's portfolio - a sweet distribution platform - Westland joins excellent whisky peers like Nikka, BenRiach, Kavalan, GlenDronach, Glenrothes, Glenglassaugh, and Anchor's own Old Potrero.  The urban downtown distillery features a very Scottish looking setup with two substantial pot stills from Vendome for wash and spirit two part distillation (with column tops, although the plates are only used on the spirit still) and a beefy gorgeous spirit safe,  There's clearly some money behind the outfit.

Nima Ansari, spirit buyer at Astor Place Liquors in NYC tweeted this photo of Westland's stills & spirit safe.

Plus, see a great set of photos of Westland here:

I had my first taste of Westland at the June 2014 Whisky Jewbilee in New York, poured by Matt Hoffman, the master distiller and co-founder of Westland. A big bearded man who looks like a lumber jack, he comes off as warm and very knowledgeable with much to say about his production philosophy.. . A few months later, I got to taste some amazing Westland sherried and peated malt whisky barrel samples poured by Single Cask Nation's Josh Hatton with whiskey enthusiast Ari Susskind's crew last fall (later bottled by SCN and reviewed below). So when I heard that Hoffman was leading a master class this year (June 2015) and presenting the third Whiskey Jewbilee bottling, I signed right up. The first two festival bottlings, a 15 year old Heaven Hill single cask Bourbon, at barrel proof; and a custom vatting of rye whiskies and LDI Light whiskies, selected and blended by David Perkins of High West, had quickly attracted a cult following.  

(above: the first and second Jewbilee festival bottlings.  The first, left, a rich and intense Heaven Hill 15 yo single cask, had a young Jewish man sitting on a NY building stoop on the label.  The second, right, was a vatting of LDI rye and light whiskies by David Perkins of High West, has a label depicting the same young man, this time sharing a pour with a beautiful woman.  The bottle they are drinking is the first festival bottling depicted in miniature on the label).  The depiction of the previous bottle labels is now a "thing".

Matt started off by explaining about the Westland production story (the cool rainy Scotland-like climate in Seattle; their use of two large pot stills, full sized barrels; carefully selected woods, the many malts, the yeast, etc...) Then we dove into 6 different selections starting with the base OB expression and then through the single cask components of the Third Jewbilee Festival bottling.

OB Westland Single Malt - 2010 distillation 46% abv.
Barley grown locally: Washington Select Pale Malt
Munich Malt, Extra Special Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, Brown Malt, Belgian Saison yeast.  #3 char air cured barrels by Independent Stave and 24 month maturation.  
Dusky malty and sweet on the nose with cocoa and malt, cocoa and milk chocolate. The palate starts malty and honeyed, like malted milk balls. On the expansion things move to candied citrus fruit and rind.  The turn is moderately oaky and pretty well balanced.  The finish is moderately long, with char and herbal notes.  There is some of the brashness of youth, but there's a whole lot going on and most all of it is good.
**** 84

Left to right: Westland casks 539, 193, 90, and 189

Next we hit the single barrel selections used in the vatting to come. I didn't note their alcohol by volume percentages, but these are all barrel proof - around 62% abv for all of them. These were tasted at the event, so I'm not giving formal tasting notes or scores - but they were outstanding. Each of them were delicious and would crack ***** 90 point (+) territory. The following brief notes were taken at the tasting.

Cask 539 New American Oak Peated

(left in the photo above) 
Amber color
Peated malt. 2 years old.
Nose: bacon or smoked ham. Smoke. Nutty sweet meats.
Sweet elegant opening. Honey candied meat. Smoke.  Addictive.  Delicious.

Cask 90 New American Oak - 6 Malt Mash

(second from the right in the photo above)
Amber with red glints.
Nose Buttery oak. Cream. Untanned skin. Pork fat (procutto) panne cotta.
Palate: intensely fruity (lychee, chardonnay, banana, apricot), creamy, blond leather, soft mouth feel. Clove heat. Finish is lightly fruited, oak tannin,  Water amps the sweet.  

Cask 189 62.6% abv. 39 months old ex bourbon 

(right, in the photo above)
Pale gold.
Nose Sawn oak, fruity, vanilla, malt.
 Palate: honey, herbs, white fudge, and citrus.  Substantial intensity and long finish.

(Note. This barrel is also being bottled as a Single Cask Nation selection:)

Cask 193 pale malt ex bourbon

Same batch as cask 189. Even lighter. Crisp floral honey clover candied citrus oak.

The beautiful lady has returned on the third bottling, happily bearing the previous two bottlings, depicted in miniature, in her hands. 
She is greeting the man from the first two labels.  He is bringing flowers and behind his back a wedding ring and crossed fingers indicating his secret intention to propose marriage.
Then Matt's tasting advanced to the the vatting for the Jewbilee festival bottling itself.  Along the way, Matt described his motivation for the vatting as a marriage story.  He was inspired by the narrative progression of a romance leading to marriage on the bottle labels and chose to marry together peated and unpeated, and new oak and ex-bourbon barrels of Westland to make a marriage of a bunch of Westland's different flavor signatures.    

The redish color is from new oak maturation.

Whisky Jewbilee Third Festival bottling: Westland single malt vatting.  59% abv.  150 bottles.

Color: dark gold with reddish tints.
Nose sawn oak, honey and vanilla.  Then red fruits, mineral and cedar pencils, distant roses, flax seed oil, phenolic notes of young whiskey, animal skins, wood smoke, and smoked meats,
Palate:  sharp and hot and big with young grassy sweetness up front.  Then rich toffee, cocoa, vanilla, musky rich malt with cocoa notes, candied citrus, and also hefty syrupy richness.  The expansion admixes dusky notes of animals with a pointy spiky young oak that I associate with young craft whiskey.  The turn brings char and herbal bitters like an Amaro.  Oak tannins and bitter on the finish which is long but a little dark.  With a teaspoon of water and a good 15-30 minutes of air time some magic happens.  It becomes more open, sunny, honeyed, and rich.  Head to head blind, I'd be hard pressed to differentiate the palate from this one from a lightly peated Highland Scotch, sherry cask matured, and at full cask strength.  Yet, there's something about the oak in the nose that communicates that this is an American Craft spirit.  This is very good stuff, knocking on the door of extraordinary.  I might have preferred some of the components on their own to the vatting together, but there is a lot of complexity here.  This is a significant achievement.

**** 89

Single Cask Nation has other bottlings of Westland too - including a previously released cask strength sherried and peated 2 year old:

Single Cask Nation Westland 2 year old 60% (current edition)  Sherried and peated.

Color: rich medium amber with some coppery tints.  This looks a lot like Bourbon in the glass.  But the nose instantly gives this away: it's a darkly peated malt whisky.  The nose is honeyed and loaded with warm bbq smoke, animal skins, prunes, black raisins, balsamic vinegar then a big load of some very active first fill ex-Olorosso sherry barrel.  The palate is explosive at cask strength - beware.  This is a Churchill ring cigar of a whiskey.  It comes on sweet and malty and dark purple fruity and leathery and rich and then gets aggressively oaky fast.  The turn is a char attack - but char with depth of flavor.  You can taste the red line behind the char here. Caramel and toffee notes in a fierce battle grip with all kinds of dark licorice and black herbal flavors.  Sherry sweetness plays above the very intense and iterated wood.  This is an unbalanced whiskey.  The finish is bitter.  This gives this whiskey a very dark aspect.  It has a spiky quality to the interaction between the young whiskey's hot body and sweet attack, and the smoldering earthy smoke and oak char.  It's strong meat and a lot people will find this a young brash young whiskey a little bit out of control with flavoring aspects (peat, sherry, and oak) that were applied pedal to the metal.  But some will applaud and I'm one of them.  This whiskey is big, insanely rich, and incredibly fully flavored.  It has some of the roughness of youth but, by virtue of tons of rich complexity baked into the flavor up front from the way it's malted, a sinful, pudding like mouth feel and big tannin effect, it exceeds thrillingly.  A big Black Christmas pudding of a dram with extra cloves and nutmeg.  An 85% cacao dark chocolate bar with nibs paired with a slightly oversteeped but very high quality black tea.  This isn't for every day.  But it certainly fits a certain mood: (i.e. wanting a big smoke encounter like having a massive dark leaf cigar).  It is a HUGE sweet, young brash smoke bomb dessert feast that takes a long time to open.  And it's a two year old single malt whiskey.  It definitely pushes the boundaries of complexity of flavor in a young whiskey.  I mean, this kind of thing isn't rare in the worlds of Rhum Agricole, Tequila, or Mezcal.  But it is in the world of malt whiskey.  It mostly suffers sins more commonly seen in old whiskey: (i.e. borderline over oaked). Yet, it's so young that in the UK it can't be defined as whisky at all until it's at least three years old.  So, that this very young whiskey plays so big and sweet and dark is a mammoth achievement.  This stuff is an adventure.  How do you score it?  Who the hell cares?  (I'm going to dock it for being so dark and tannic, but that shouldn't discourage those of you who know you have to have it.  This stuff is among the peaks of the American craft whiskey movement at the moment in my opinion.  It'll all be gone in a heartbeat, of course, but it's more testimony that the Jewish Whisky Company really knows what the hell they're doing.

**** 89

Single Cask Nation bottlings have a very cool bottle closure with a glass stopper.
In conclusion,  Check out Single Cask Nation.  Great palates are making great cask selections.  And Westland is an American craft distiller making young single malts with a surprising and impressive degree of complexity and refinement.  The future of American malt tastes pretty good.

Source disclosure statement:  I bought all bottles reviewed here and paid for all events described, including my own membership in Single Cask Nation.  I'm a consumer of all this stuff purely as a whisky enthusiast and a fan.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Smoky Beast's barrel of Smooth Ambler Single Barrel Rye Shoots The Moon.

There has been a lot of excitement lately about a pretty special private barrel pick of Smooth Amber Old Scout Rye selected by Steve Zeller aka the "Smoky Beast".  Smooth Ambler's Old Scout Single Barrel Rye is typically 7 years old, cask strength, and very good; John Little's nice cherry picks of MGP/LDI's rye barrels.  There was some consternation recently when Smooth Ambler announced that the Single Barrel rye expression were going to disappear off the standard line-up and become a gift-shop exclusive.  That sad news implied that the honey barrels of mature rye in MGP/LDI's rickhouses were becoming scarce.  Hardly surprising:  part of the drum beat of scarcity afflicting high-end American whiskey all over the place these days.  
My connection with the story began in the dimming days of last autumn, October 17th, 2014 when Steve Zeller,  messaged me:

Steven Zeller:  i need your help on an urgent whiskey related matter

Joshua Gershon Feldman:  What's up?

Steven Zeller:  you wouldn't be free to come up to our place for a few minutes after work today would you?  B
lind tasting, american. will be the most consequential tasting of my young whiskey career. don't want to spoil it any more than that

Joshua Gershon Feldman:  ...dum dum dum DOHM!

I had been to blind tastings at Steve's before.  Some had involved some of the finest Bourbons possible.  One involved the peatiest whiskies on the planet.  (Finale post of that blind here).

I had no idea what I was going to be tasting - other than it was American.  But Steve was excited and that made me excited.  I was assuming very high end Bourbon.  When I arrived, I was facing this:
The blind flight of 5 with the blank tasting notes.
My job was to rank them.  I did so by writing out tasting notes and then numbering them in order of preference from #1 to #5.  I'll list my blind tasting notes (faithfully transcribed) below the reveal listed immediate below each note: 

1. Color: Amber
Nose: buttery nose (ND OC, IWH). Nougat wax vanilla w/touch of bitter herbal (rot).  Palate: Honey, juicyfruit, yellow florals, light citrus. 100 proof BiB. High corn Bourbon. #5 Reveal:  Michter's 10 yo Rye (2014)  I thought that this was a dusty high-corn Bourbon like Old Charter 7 or IW Harper.  I was completely wrong: it was a rye.  I ranked this one last.  Michter's Rye 10 experienced a big change in 2014 compared to previous years, going from a dark and very mature tasting rye to a much lighter profile, presumably because it stopped being old rye purchased on the bulk market when their contract distillate began hitting 10 years old.  Their contract distillate is apparently Brown-Forman (dsp-ky-354) - thus the same stuff as Rittenhouse Rye from a few years ago - but aged 10 years.  The comedy is that not only did I not recognize this as rye at all, but that I thought it was a low rye Bourbon mash bill!  The perils of tasting blind...

2. Color: Dark Amber red.  Nose: Rancio, herbs, big (high proof) dark KY tobacco peach compote bark. Lush  Palate: Huge lush honeyed herbal malty ivy, licorice (black) caramel cilantro rancio High proof (=- 57% (old Medley Rye). Intense. Bold. Long finish – honey herbal. #1 Reveal:  Smooth Ambler Single Barrel Rye - Barrel 990 (the winner) Yes, I thought this was an Old Medley rye - like Rathskeller or LeNell's or one of the big old Willett's ryes.  Blind, I thought that was a $1,000+ bottle of American classic rye.

3. Color:  Coppery dark amber. Nose:  oak varnish, herbs.  Palate: Big 55-60% high rye bourbon. Candied orange peel \blonde VA tobacco. Peach/citrus stewed fruit.  Four Roses vibe #3 Reveal:  Smooth Ambler Single Barrel Rye (a different barrel, not selected)

4. Color:  Copper penny.  Nose:  Oak sandalwood nougat, honey, citrus, leather, dust, vegetable oil.  Palate:  50-55% high rye bourbon. Candied citrus, blond VA tobacco, honey, vanilla BT (Buffalo Trace) vibe – ER17. Big bold assertive tobacco spice leather rich rancio bitter.  #2 Reveal:  Thomas H. Handy Rye 2012The biggest shocker for me.  Thomas H. Handy rye is among my favorite ryes; a benchmark for me.  Here I didn't even recognize it as a rye.  To my credit, I recognized the distillery (Buffalo Trace), and that it was from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.  But I thought it was probably the most different member of that group possible: the Eagle Rare 17.  Yes, I'm making my humiliation public.  This was the real kicker of the group.  I had ranked my favorite rye SECOND after Zeller's barrel pick.  This was utterly shocking to me.  Friends who have drammed with me recently know that I have been putting some century old Old Hermitage pro-Pro rye up against Handy 2012 in tastings.  I do that because Handy is a benchmark for me.  Such are the perils of tasting blind.

5. Color: Copper.  Nose: Peanut, rancio, honey, light tanned leather, vegetable oil, floral vanilla, sawn oak.  Palate: Vanilla! Honey. Rancio. Ivy herbs. Mint. High rye Bourbon. #4. Reveal: another unselected barrel of Smooth Ambler Single Barrel Rye
When the smoke cleared I had only correctly identified one of them as a rye at all.  I had incorrectly thought the rest were Bourbons.  Pretty humiliating.  But I knew which ones I liked best - and in that I was dead on correct.
The big reveal.
The rest is history.  Steve picked barrel #990, which yielded a whopping 56 bottles.  The massive amount of evaporation suggests storage in a very hot part of the warehouse.  This would explain the massive amount of wood extraction and rich flavors.  Steve generously gave out samples to a selection of very interesting people who showed pictures of their hoards.  Steve picked the most outrageous ones, figuring they must have a story.  Their notes have appeared on his blog all week.  They are good reading.  Steve's voice, in particular, is often laugh out loud funny. and my favorite:

I recently had another sip.  Here are my official (sighted) tasting notes and score:

Smooth Ambler Old Scout Rye Single Barrel - Smoky Beast Barrel #1 - 8yo 64.1% abv.

Look at that color...
Color: dark reddish amber - a stunning color.

Nose:  Big, forward, dark and rich loaded with swirling kaleidoscope of aromas:  honey, sap, citrus, sandalwood, blond tobacco, balsamic, ivy, licorice, aloe, flax oil, vanilla, char, and oak.
Palate:  Richly sweet and powerful on opening with dark cooked honey, raisin, and citrus compote, then vanilla, the sap of herbs cut vegetation.  The expansion is all about black licorice root - woody, herbal, sweet, and richly "black".  The expansion also adds some delicious cognac-like rancio (a rich nutty flavor of noble rot usually associated with madeira, sherry, and Cognac).  Then, as the mid-palate begins to turn towards the finish, a big dose of acid - like balsamic vinegar or pickle juice which turns to char, and then sweet oak.  The finish goes on and on with plenty of char, herbal bitters, more black licorice and all manner of darkness.

Adding a drop of water - automatic at this big proof amplifies the sweetness and thickens the mouth feel.  This stuff feels big, bitter, dark, rich, and old.  A magic trick of faux maturity from an amazing honey barrel.

*****  93

Bottom line: the best rye I've ever tasted out of MGP/LDI and probably the best 21st century rye yet.  This particular honey barrel, which tastes so rich are dark and mature at only 8 years old, is one of those astounding examples which make you question what you know about maturation.  If a rye can be this good at 8 years old, maybe there's a way to repeat it?  I hope so.  But I'm not holding my breath.  Congrats, Steve (and also Anthony Colasacco of Pour, Mt. Kisco who went in on the barrel with Steve).

Full disclosure:  the blind tasting and follow up tasting was from pours provided by Steve - as a host in his home.  I do own a single bottle of this whiskey - which I purchased.  I would have owned more if I had been allowed to purchase more.

Steve Zeller is a happy man with this honey barrel.
Blind tasting notes.  Read it and weep.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Blood Oath Pact 1 - Luxco Makes A Luxury Vatting. Marketing Hype or Innovation?

Luxco, the aggregator and NDP bottler of the great defunct Bourbon brands Rebel Yell, Yellowstone, and Ezra Brooks, has a new brand, a possibly interesting vatting of rye and wheat mash Bourbons.  But the wooden box and comic-book dramatic name "Blood Oath" make the brand sound like a Disney ride. Apparently the releases of Blood Oath are designated by "Pact" number.  This first batch is "Pact No. 1".  But the "pact" itself is a promise on the label that "this rare whiskey shall never again be made".  But the real story is the signature on the bottom of the front label:  "John Rempe".  Rempe is a flavors wiz for Luxco.  He works with Bourbon, but he works with flavored vodka too.  As an interview with "Sauce" magazine put it:

"At local spirits producer Luxco, someone has to formulate the flavors for Pearl vodka and the other 100-plus alcoholic beverages in its portfolio. For the last 16 years, concocting flavors has been the job of John Rempe, Luxco’s director of corporate research and development, otherwise known as “the mad scientist.

How popular is flavored alcohol?
Ten years ago, you didn’t see anything on the shelf in terms of all the different flavors. Now’s it’s just exploded. The main one I’m focused on now is Pearl. We’ve got 19 different flavors. Other than that, it’s flavored whiskies. There’s cherry, honey. Cocktails are starting to come back, ready to drink – just open and pour.

How many flavors are in your lab?
Several hundred. I’m constantly updating my library of flavors and extracts.

(emphasis my own).

Yes, he talked about flavored whiskies in the same breath as flavored vodka. This is his baby and Luxco is emphasizing his prowess with flavors.  I'm wondering, will he vat Bourbon the way he designs whipped cream vodka or cherry Bourbon?  In Bourbon & Banter's video from their post announcing the launch of the brand, Rempe talks corporate marketing-ese while cool jazz plays in the background.  ..."in bringing this product to market our particular goal was to bring an innovative and unique tasting experience and bourbon experience to the bourbon connoisseur."  Later he tells us that the product is designed to deliver "what the Bourbon connoisseur is looking for".   He explicitly says that NDPs have an advantage because they are not "tied down" to a spirit that they are producing".  It's hard not to wonder whether he considers Blood Oath a flavor blending exercise like he does making Honey Bourbon or Cucumber flavored vodka.

Rempe does convey some useful information in the video.  We learn that Blood Oath is a vatting of three Bourbons with two different flavor grain mashes (and that's the extent of the information we are given):  a  7 yo rye mash bourbon, a 12 year old rye based Bourbon, and a 6 year old wheat based bourbon.  Bottled at 98.6 proof.  Yes - the proof is the temperature of blood.  Is it just me, or is that a tad theatrical?  At least it's a relatively high number.

My impression of all this branding stuff is to feel manipulated.  I don't buy into the "pirate" or "old west" visual theme of the label.  I'm not too romanced by John Rempe talking about hitting a flavor profile for "the Bourbon connoisseur".  In the video they refer to Blood Oath as a "super premium" Bourbon.  All the fancy packaging certainly implies a marketing positioning of the contents as "super premium".  But what little we know about the contents doesn't particularly imply super-premium: that the wheat mash bill is 6 year old stocks from somewhere (almost certainly Heaven Hill - in the form of Rebel Yell Reserve) and some 7 and 12 year old rye flavor-mashed Bourbons (Luxco currently sell a 12 year old single barrel expression of Ezra Brooks sourced from Heaven Hill for $36)   None of that sounds like something worth $80.  I get the feeling that there's an attempt to get with the Bourbon mania and try to tap into the raging market for cult Bourbons, like Buffalo Trace inspires with the BTAC or Heaven Hill does with the Parker Heritage Collection.  But there is a vatting story that might be interesting.  OK, so throw down - let's get to tasting.  All this talk about branding - and either liking the story or not liking the story ultimately doesn't mean a thing if the whiskey isn't good and doesn't seem a reasonable value.  The angle here is clearly the vatting.  Is it delicious?

The fancy presentation box sent to reviewers.
Consumers get a nice box too, but no booklet or Glencairn

Blood Oath Pact 1 49.3% abv. 98.6 proof.

Color: coppery orange.

Nose: vanilla, honey, charred oak, musk,   daisies and marigold flowers.

Sweet on opening.  Fruity candy - juicyfruit. Honey, wine gums.  Citrus compote.  Candied orange rind.  Chocolate, then oak tannin.

A drop of water adds sweetness.  Vanilla buttercream on top of the honeyed entry.  The body becomes a little thicker.  The expansion tingles with some blond tobacco.  Prickly heat with white pepper spice.  The finish is medium long with oak char and tannin bitters.


It's an interesting vatting alright.  It hits the juicyfruit flavors I like so much in some mid-century dusty Bourbons, but with some freshness and intensity.  I poured this for Steve Zeller, the Smokey Beast.  Steve like it.  Heck, I'm giving it 4 stars - I like it too.  It's a little too sweet and open and sunny and fresh to feel like a Bourbon I'd spend a lot of money for.  Bourbons that get big bucks, like mid-aged Willett's, Parker Heritage, BTAC, EH Taylor, have darker richer flavor profiles and are bottled at higher proof.  But, that said, the flavors here are certainly good and this is an enjoyable pour, even if the comic book branding stuff isn't to your taste.  But even if it is, you still need to ask yourself whether it's a good value and, in my opinion at $89.99 retail the answer has to be "no".  There are good store picks of Four Roses Single Barrel (with the shiny gold labels bottled at barrel proof) available for $55-$70.  There are High West rye based vattings with serious appeal for less.  Although the particulars of this Bourbon vatting are a bit different from what's on the market right now, 4 grain vattings aren't totally unique, and this isn't uniquely good at its price level.  But the whiskey itself is a perfectly nice pour.  I'd just be happier about it if it were sold in a regular bottle at a more moderate price and without the limited edition story.  If this is pretty much a vatting of some older barrels of Rebel Yell reserve, Ezra B., and Ezra Brooks black then it could well be a regular expression at a much more moderate price indeed.  Are we paying a premium price for some hardware and some fancy printing?  That's not really something I'd like to encourage.  But with the Bourbon boom in full swing none of this may matter if enthusiasts snap it all up.

Disclosure: this review was based on a full bottle I received from the PR firm Common Ground (thanks, Pia).
Presentation box cover.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Water of Life Event: a fund raising effort that produced magic

Matthew Lurin hosts The Water Of Life event.

May 6th saw the birth of a new kind of whisky event: one with a both a moral purpose and a different format that lends itself to deeper tasting.  Matthew Lurin is a well-known whisky enthusiast and doctor in New York.  His stepfather struggles with a rare form of cancer called "Gastro Intestinal Stromal Tumors" (GIST).  Matt conceived of a whisky tasting event as a fund raiser for The Life Raft Group which supports research on GIST and supports patients.  It's a good cause and, as a fund raiser, the cost of admission is tax deductible.  The whisky community is generous, and many people donated excellent whiskies and other prizes for a raffle at the culmination of the event.  A critical mass of the North-East's whisky community attended and the selection of spirits being poured was superb.  But there was something more to it.

Lurin chose a great venue for the event: the Battery Gardens restaurant in Battery Park at the foot of Manhattan.  The views were excellent and the sunset was glorious.  A terrace allowed the holders of VIP tickets to enjoy cigars with some special whisky selections.  (Matt Morrissey provided Villager Elite cigars.  And special drams were provided by Raj Sabharwal of Purple Valley Imports and also by Compass Box.

Jennifer Wren shares news she is now
a brand ambassador for Glenfiddich
But what ended up being the most significant thing about the evening, for me, was that the format was conducive to close focused whisky dramming sessions with high quality experiences.  The structure of sitting down in a small group of people at a table with the whisky brand ambassador and having what feels like a one on one personal dram session feels more intimate and conveys more information, which simultaneously feeling more relaxed and convivial.  It's more like having a drink with a friend, which is very much what this event was all about.  The structure of the evening has you cruising in a tight formation with a group of fellow drinkers through a series of tables.  The people at this show included a fabulous group of whisky people who are friends of mine and I was very fortunate to do the show with a great group of human beings, particularly Malt Maniac Peter Silver, The Malt Impostor, and Jennifer Wren, the whisky event instigator known as Whersky .  Jennifer, by the way, had just learned that she had landed the job of repping Glenfiddich for the NorthWest - living her dream and moving to the spirits world professionally.  She was bursting with happiness about it and between her beauty, grace, amazing palate and love of the whisky, was an exhilarating drinking partner.  Later, there was ample opportunity to break from the group for dinner and terrace time.  The cigars were terrific and the company was fantastic.  There was a very special energy, with people really engaged and upbeat.

Robin Robinson poured Compass Box, but more than that, he shared his love and enthusiasm for the spirit.
It sounds like such a simple and small thing, sitting down with the brand ambassador rather than just standing at the table, but it turned out to be much more than that.  In the normal whisky show format people mob the tables and the people pouring are racing to fill the extended glencairns and rushing to give a basic orientation spiel over and over.  With the the "speed dating" format of The Water of Life Event there are no mobs and you have a solid piece of time in a small tight group at each table so you can relax and get the full attention of the rep and the people you're with.  It's civilized and more relaxed.  It fosters real conversations and more careful tasting.  It actually made an unexpectedly huge difference.  I'm going to post a bunch of pictures so you can get the feeling.

The Malt Impostor and Jennifer Wren
The Malt Impostor posted a review of this event here:

Steph Ridgeway pops up a surprise - a taste of Odin.

Can you tell that Steph Ridgeway loves what she does?
Raj Sabharwal of Purple Valley on the VIP balcony with Glenglassaugh 43.
Raj also had this on the VIP balcony
Elana Effrat of Vintry

Sallie Dorsett  
Craig Bridger of Macallan pours the good stuff
Susanna Skiver Barton noses Glenglassaugh 43
David Bailey of Compass Box and Timothy Malia
Our host, Matthew Lurin on the balcony
The sunset on the balcony was lovely.

David Laird of Balvenie did a chocolate whisky pairing
There were so many highlights.  One of them was definitely David Laird's brilliant presentation of Balvenie 12 Doublewood, Caribbean Cask 14, and Single Barrel 15 paired with excellent chocolate from Green and Black.  As a special encore, he also poured 21 Portwood.  It was an amazing treat and the pairings were brilliant.

Balblair's pours were spectacular.
There was fantastic food and terrific dessert.  At the end of the event there was the raffle drawing.  The tickets were expensive - but the event was for charity after all - and the percentage of winners was unusually high given the large number of donated prizes that the charity format inspired.

Full disclosure: Josh Feldman totally scored this awesome
Mark Gillespie original photo print in the raffle.

The Brandy Library was there - warm and wonderful.

Josh Hatton in his new position repping Impex Imports.

Peter Silver and I enjoying An Cnoc - photo courtesy of Ellie of
Matthew Lurin was clear that this was the First Annual Water of Life Event.  He intends this to happen again and again and wants it to grow.  Given how amazing it was, I hope he succeeds.  The mix of attributes - the tax deductible nature of the costs and donated raffle prizes, the excellent and relaxed format, the wonderful group of whisky enthusiasts, the superb venue, and the top flight food, cigars, views, and environment makes this an absolutely premier event.  I recommend it highly.  Watch for it next year.  It's not to be missed.  Bravo, Matthew Lurin.  What a wonderful way to foster community, love of whisky, and also to give something back to help those with GIST and help find a cure.

Keep track of The Water of Life Event on their web site:
...and their Facebook group: