Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why I Am Going To The Water of Life Event - And You Should Too

Passionate whisky enthusiast Matt Lurin is hosting the second annual Water of Life whiskey event Thursday night 5/12/16 and it's not to be missed.  The event serves an important charitable cause, supporting the medical research charity Life Raft Group's efforts to cure Gastro Intestinal Stromal Tumors (GIST). It's a good cause and, as a fund raiser, the cost of admission is tax deductible. But that's not why you should go.  The whisky community is generous, and many people donated excellent whiskies and other prizes for a raffle at the culmination of the event.  Personally, I'm bringing a 1970s-80s I.W. Harper to donate.  My friend Joe Hyman of Skinner's spirit auctions is bringing some stuff too - for one of the VIP extra classes:

Joe Hyman is bringing this....
...and this.
They feed you at this event too - with a focus on some
unique food and whisky pairings.  One of the VIP program options is a cigar terrace where you get to smoke special cigars with some special whiskies.  Last year the cigars were amazing and the whiskies were even more tremendous.

Last year - hanging on the cigar terrace with good friends:
David Bailey, Compass Box rep (left) and Timothy Malia  
But those aren't the real reasons why you should go either.

There are going to be over a hundred whiskies being poured - and if you go you will have the opportunity to taste over 25 of them (and please don't drive after having 25 whiskies).  These are top expressions from the best distributors and distilleries.  It's a top tier show.  The format for the tastings are really special.  Rather than crowded at tables, you get to sit down with the brand ambassadors and have a relaxed set of drams.  It's a "speed dating" arrangement where after a while you switch tables to enjoy a new set of drams.  It's incredibly civilized and makes a big difference.  It's more relaxing and pleasurable than any other whisky show I've ever gone to.  There is also a terrific raffle afterwards with a lot of fantastic whisky and other great prizes.  Your odds of winning are very high given the numbers.

But that's not the ultimate reason you should go either.

For more about the event go to the event's web page:  http://www.lrgwateroflife.org/

Tickets aren't cheap (but, again, your purchase is a tax deductible donation for a very good cause):  $300 for standard admission.  11 whisky speed dates, initial cocktail and hors d'oevres hour at 6pm.  Dinner, dessert, and glencairn.  $375 for VIP which steps up to 13 whisky speed dates, with  some special VIP selections, premium VIP offerings to be found in exclusive roof seating areas and a cut crystal glencairn.  You can use discount codes for 24 more hours (until 5/11/16).  Here's one from the best web site for checking out NYC's whisky scene:  "NYCWHISKY"

Here is the link for tickets: 

So - why should you go?  The people.  There are a TON of great NYC whisky people going to Matt's event.  There will be a ton of love in the room.  It's something you can feel and it colors the whole event.  I had an absolutely amazing time last year and I can't wait to go again.  See you there!

(FYI - The write up of last year's event on Coopered Tot:)

Matt Lurin - host of Water of Life

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Old Lancaster, Three Shawhans, and Boss Tom Pendergast

Bourbon's history includes farmers, pioneers, entrepreneurs, and industrialists.  It also sometimes includes operators, wise guys, and gangsters. Today's hero is a whole lot like Nucky Thompson from "Boardwalk Empire."

(Bottle photos credit: Chris Martin)

I  Tom Pendergast's Machine

Tom Pendergast (1872-1945) was born in a poor Irish immigrant family, the last of nine children.  He rose from working in his brother James' saloon in Kansas City to rule a vast political machine that controlled government patronage jobs, voting fraud, organized crime, law enforcement, and political policy in Missouri and ultimately sent a Senator to Washington who ended up as President of the United States.  Crime paid, but he got his comeuppance in the end.

Along the way, in 1938, Pendergast purchased a distillery called S.P. Lancaster in Bardstown, KY.  He gave it the name "Shawhan" - a storied distillery name from Missouri that he bought during Prohibition.  It wasn't surprising that Pendergast would have wanted a distillery.  His criminal activities during Prohibition had almost certainly involved a share of the bootlegging action.  Certainly whiskey oiled the saloon lifestyle in Kansas City in an era when a special type of Jazz was born; made famous by the likes of Count Basie, Walter Page, Bennie Moten, Lester Young, and the "Bird" himself, Charlie Parker.  Along the way, Pendergast briefly resurrected a some historic 19th century Kansas City whiskey brands one last brief time before they disappeared again into the darkness of history - carried along by the tide of social justice which routed Tom Pendergast out and put him in prison in an attempt to rid Missouri of systematic graft and political corruption.
Tom Pendergast depicted as the head of a machine
whose tentacles encompassed Kansas City - Daniel Fitzpatrick cartoon.

[St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Cartoon Collection, March 31, 1939, The State Historical Society of Missouri]

In the era before Repeal, urban working class life centered around a peculiar institution that no longer exists:  the saloon, where laborers headed with the week's paycheck. In Kansas City, some saloons were the banks and the only way an immigrant got cash. Saloons offered prostitutes, gambling, music and entertainment and access to patronage jobs and gigs in organized crime.  Tom Pendergast was only 17 in 1889 when he arrived at his brother James' saloon, named after the race horse "Climax" (a sexual double entendre maybe) in "West Bottoms." "Big Jim" was active in the machine politics of the day and had a good deal of pull in the community.  Twenty years later, Tom inherited the saloon (and a couple of more besides) and the political influence.  Tom found it expedient to open T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company. Look at him here in Howard G. Bartling's 1912 "Kansas City in Caricature" (pic below).

Tom Pendergast - owner of the 
T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company - 
[Kansas City in Caricature]
But politics proved irresistible.  He ran for his brother's seat as Kansas City Alderman in 1911 - the year Big Jim died.  He won.  He controlled a wide section of KC - but he shared control over the immigrant machine political pie with another boss, Joseph Shannon. Pendergast's supporters were called "Goats" and Shannon's "Rabbits".  There was a truce with a 50-50 split agreement that lasted for several years.  In the end Shannon double crossed Pendergast and the Goats by giving all the jobs to the Rabbits for a time. It was a mistake.  By the mid 20s Pendergast's wards had a higher number of voters.  He got rid of Shannon in the following election cycle by getting control of the city council and then boxing him out for good.

Over the 20s and 30s Pendergast ruled Kansas City and Missouri politics with iron control.  He successfully fought the State government for control over Kansas City's police force over a period of several years with his proxy, City Manager Henry McElroy ("Old Pencil Neck") defunding the police, and driving a turf argument with the State for control all the way to the State Supreme Court which ultimately turned over the hen house to the foxes in granting control over KC's police to McElroy and Boss Tom.  He also had iron control over organized crime.  That included close associations with mob bosses like John "Brother Johnny" Lazia.  He wasn't above setting up competition among organized crime captains  such as that between  Lazia and Michael "Jimmy Needles" LaCapra which resulted in Lazia being fatally shot on the street as he stepped out of his car (with his family still inside it) by a car full of LaCapra's men.  McElroy's daughter was kidnapped by petty thugs in 1933 and later fell into a depression when her captors were caught and sentenced to death.  She had become friends with them.  Kansas City was a tough town.  It was notorious.  America's most corrupt city.

Harry Truman started off under Pendergast's umbrella as an elected judge in 1922 and was appointed a county official in 1926. While Truman stayed clean - and ran successfully for senator - he couldn't shake the implications of Boss Tom's corrupt control over the region.  In 1934, Huey Long mocked him on the Senate floor, greeting the new arrival as "the senator from Pendergast."

Pendergast's name on a box found in a secret
speakeasy stash found walled up a in KC home.
In Prohibition. Pendergast seems to have been connected to the illicit liquor business.  Recently a renovation in Kansas City turned up a secret room full of moonshine jugs and bottles.

"A hidden room in the basement. A tall steel vault door. Inside, a collection of approximately 40 empty jugs and liquor bottles, themselves awash in an almost ankle-deep tide of close to 1,000 corks, glass caps and stoppers."

"And a plank of wood from a wooden crate reading 'TJ Pendergast.'


Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article301699/Long-hidden-stash-of-empty-bottles-hints-at-KC-secrets.html#storylink=cpy

Another awesome Daniel Fitzpatrick late 1930s cartoon
of Tom Pendergast for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

It all fits.  Pendergast's prior career as a liquor wholesaler and saloon owner had put him in directly contact with the network of liquor distribution prior to Prohibition.  With his organized crime connections and political control there is little doubt he was involved, or directly controlled, a lot of the illicit trade and production of alcohol in KC during that time.  There are millions of stories and rumors.  But the actual written accounts of history leave all that out.
Tom Pendergast's
1939 mug shot.

What they ended up actually getting Tom Pendergast on was tax evasion.  Reminiscent of the story of Al Capone - Pendergast's operation was clean as a whistle.  But the downfall was pure political dirty pool.  Pendergast had helped to create Missouri State Governor Lloyd Stark.  But Stark wanted to go to Washington as a Missouri Senator and Pendergast told him to stay put.  Stark helped get a Federal voter fraud investigation underway.  It resulted in 100s of firings and arrests.  It wasn't enough to take Pendergast down until in 1939 a Federal investigation found that Tom Pendergast had intervened on behalf of a consortium of insurance companies in a lawsuit involving the State of Missouri in exchange for $750,000 back in 1936.  Pendergast had failed to declare this on his taxes - so the IRS was able to put him in jail on tax evasion charges.  The affair was called "The Insurance Scam".  Pendergast was sentenced to 15 months in prison and 5 years of probation.  It didn't end his machine - but it was the beginning of the end.  Pendergast died in 1945.

II  Three Distilleries named "Shawhan"

Somewhere during Prohibition, Pendergast bought the name of the Shawhan distillery.  The name was prized by Pendergast because of its role in Kansas City's whiskey history.  George Shawhan, a man from Kentucky who understood Bourbon, had started a distillery called "Shawhan" on a farm in a place called Lone Jack, Missouri, after the Civil War.  (He had served with Morgan's Raiders cavalry on the side of the Confederacy).  He produced a number of brands but the best known one was "Shawhan Whiskey".  As his business grew he purchased a larger, more industrial distillery, in Weston, Missouri that had been started in 1856 by David Holladay, with management offices in Kansas City.   (Ben Holloday is another great story).  Shawhan sold out in 1908 (I'm not sure to who).  By the end of Prohibition Shawhan distillery in Weston MO was in Isadore Singer's hands.  In some accounts it had closed with Prohibition.  In others it still ran producing medicinal whiskey.   The Singer family apparently sold the name "Shawhan" to Pendergast and then renamed the Weston MO distillery "McCormick" after another distillery nearby.  Pendergast bought the brand name, apparently, because he believed that Repeal was going to take place and wanted the local Kansas City Shawhan brand name to use.  I like to imagine that it meant something to him - a saloon owner in the era of smoky backroom deals and sultry and vibrant jazz in great clubs in their 1930s heyday in Kansas City's bottoms.  In any case, in 1947, the distillery, still called "McCormick",  in Weston MO was sold to United Distillers for its old stocks.  They flipped it a few years later in 1950 to Cloud McRay, President of Midwest Grain Products.  The McCormick distillery has been owned by Ed Pechar and Mike Griesser since 1992 and continues to operate to this day making vodka, tequila, Platte Valley moonshine and Triple Crown Whiskey.  It has a claim to being the USA's oldest continuously operated distillery going all the way back to 1856.

So that's how Tom Pendergast came to purchase a newly rennovated distillery in 1938 in Bardstown, Kentucky and rename it "Shawhan" right away.  The distillery he bought was in  Nelson County's 5th District.  From the 1840s until 1919 it was known as S. P. Lancaster, RD No. 415  This wasn't the original S.P Lancaster distillery though.  That one had been built as a farm distillery in 1850 by J.M. "Matt" Lancaster on Plum Run Road (south of Bardstown about 5 miles).  The railroad came through Bardstown in 1860 and Matt's brother Sam wanted to move close to the railroad.  Sam bought  a parcel of land near the railroad containing a spring called "Old Blue Talbott" (after the family who owned the farm originally on the land).  Matt didn't want to move - so they didn't.  But when he died in 1881, Sam moved the distillery right away.  It thrived and grew over the late 19th century in the new location. The primary brand over this period was "Old Lancaster".  In 1903 it sold up to The Whiskey Trust who continued to operate it until Prohibition when it was shut down.  By Repeal at the end of 1933 the property was owned by a Will Stiles and he organized funding and refitted Old Lancaster (with his brother Jack Stiles as the distiller).  But their first barrels were barely ready to drink before they sold out to Tom Pendergast in 1938.  Pendergast had his own employees in mind and brought on Chester Hecker to manage the distillery.  A scant half decade later - an ex-Con and with his empire crumbling and just two years from in death in 1943 - Pendergast sold Shawhan to the States of Oregon and Washington under a special wartime provision for manufacturing industrial alcohol for the war effort.  It returned to Bourbon, rechristened "Waterfill and Frasier" after the war by its new owner, Joe Makler of Chicago.  The distillery closed for good in 1969, although the facility was bought by Jim Beam for warehousing and bottling in 1974 and remains with them to this day.

III A Hoard - & Some Tastings

The bottle we tasted.
Tom Pendergast loved his whiskey.  Recently a spectular trove of Prohibition and Repeal era bottlings from the Pendergast period (1938-1943) showed up.  There is excellent pedigree connecting these bottles to Tom Pendergast but no one wants to go on record.  Suffice it to say, I'm pretty convinced of the provenance.  It's an unusual hoard - solidly limited to the period of Boss Tom's period of power - and centered on Kansas City brands and the products of Shawhan.  The brands represented in the hoard include the eponymous "Old Lancaster"  with examples of both Prohibition and Repeal era bottlings.  There's a brand called "Pride Of Nelson" which clearly refers to Old Lancaster's Nelson County location.  "Pride of Nelson" was probably a new brand made up by Pendergasts crew.  It seldom appears anywhere.  In the NYPL's menu archive it appears exactly once - in 1940 where it's among the cheapest on the menu.  The 1940 date is squarely in Pendergast's period of ownership.  There are Repeal era bottlings of the eponymous"Shawhan".  "Waterfill And Frazier" - an amazing brand with a long and colorful history that will be subject of its own post soon.  I don't know anything about "White Seal".  It's a pretty generic name and might have been made up.  The more famous "White Seal" was Carstair's White Seal - a venerable Maryland rye whiskey that came back after Repeal as a cheap blended American whiskey from Schenley.  I suspect this brand might have ended quickly and quietly with a letter from Rosensteil's lawyers.

 "Old 1889" commemorates the year that Tom Pendergast moved to Kansas City as a boy to work in his brother "Big Jim's" saloon.  He made it better than the rest - 7 years old BiB (the oldest allowed at that time - and at the highest proof).   Old 1889 is currently owned by Heaven Hill and sold in the Japanese market.  But all of these were exactly the brands that Tom Pendergast's distillery in Bardstown was making in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

There are items in the find that expand the story of the Pendergast brothers.  For example, there is an empty bottle of California apple brandy called "Old Abbey" that references the Pure Food Act on the label, dating it after 1906 - but by the style of it not much after.  Further confirmation comes at the bottom of the label.  It says "Bottled By James Pendergast & Co. 526 Delaware St., Kansas City".  Since James died in 1911 it probably predates that.  Significantly, it shows that James was bottling hooch too.  It holds out the tantalizing possibility that Tom got onto the liquor business in James' footsteps.

Recently, I had the rare opportunity to taste a few of the items from this hoard.  My three selections include a Prohibition era bottling and two from Pendergast's ownership time (and brands).  It represents a good opportunity to try to see if there's a consistent Old Lancaster / Shawhan distillery character.

Old Lancaster BiB Spring 1917-Fall 1930 50% abv

A lot of old Prohibition bottlings are overoaked, or just taste weird with old growth oak notes, or destruction caused by oxidation, heat damage and/or light damage.  Not this one.  Mint condition (see photo above)

Color: medium amber.
Nose: tingly brown sugar, apricot pie, peanut shells, char, old barn, the inside of an old chest, and something distant but distinctly fungal.  Forest floor with mushroom.
Palate:  Creamy sweet opening with honey, sandalwood, nutmeg and a bright acid fruity note like strawberry lemon.  The mouth feel is creamy.  Buttery vanilla kicks in on the mid-palate.  At the turn there is plenty of char and oak - burned oak and old trunk oak and also herbal rye notes: licorice and mint, but also something less tidy: dank ivy behind the shed.  The finish brings the char and the herbal dark note to the fore and ends a bit bitter.  This a pretty decent pour.  A tad lacking in intensity (probably the degree of oxidation common in Prohibition era medicinal pints), but really interesting - with a wealth of unusual flavors and a decent balance between bright fruity acids and dark herbal bitter which is plenty drinkable.
87 ****

The reverse of the Old Lancaster medicinal pints
 shows it was bottled by J. A. Dougherty's Son's - Philadelphia.
But the Bourbon was from S. P. Lancaster Distillery No. 415,
District Of KY.

Old 1889 BiB 1938-1946 50% abv

Color: medium copper red - like an old copper coin that is still red, but on the verge of toning.
Nose:  Tingly spicy rides above carob, solvent, dark karo syrup, sawn oak, creamy vanilla pudding, damp earth, and distant fire.  
Palate:  Sweet and dark on opening: like dark chocolate with coffee or mocha cocoa but curbed with mint and a buttery wood herbal note giving way at mid-palate to char and grape magic marker.  There is a dank herbal "noble rot" flavor - like crushed ivy with a bit of mildew at the turn too.  It's a flavor I associate with Old Hickory (Pennsylvania Bourbon from the glut era).  The finish is lightweight but lingering on old oak, char and angostura bitters.  Lacking in intensity - almost certainly some oxidation, but a fascinating mix of flavors remain.  There is definitely kinship with the flavors of Prohibition era Old Lancaster - but lighter, as you'd expect in a younger whiskey.  7 1/2 years is the oldest that the Bottled In Bond act delayed tax payment for at the time.
84 ****

King of Nelson bottle bottom glass stamped '43 45% abv

Color: medium amber with a strong copper penny red tint.
Nose: Oak, varnish, marigold, more of that herbal bitter dank ivy aroma, chalk dust, with a peculiar metallic twang down deep - like dried ketchup,
Palate:  sweet opening with vanilla, honey, an a creamy citrus compote note up front.  The expansion brings more citrus zing and some spice (oak, sandalwood tannin spice), but also the dank herbal crushed ivy and a bit of old basement almost mildew - but also a bit like wintergreen.  The turn to the finish is about the sweetness draining leaving oak tannin and char and fading herbals terminating in a bitter fadeout.  Also somewhat subtle (bordering on weak).  I suspect oxidation again - or the fragility of great age.  Another take on what is now clearly the Old Lancaster distillery character of high-rye Bourbon with old growth oak and maybe some dirty washbacks.  Interesting, and not unpleasant to drink despite some off flavors.

81 ***

So, Tom Pendergast's whiskey is Ok, but not spectacular.  I can see why Old Lancaster / Shawhan / Waterfill & Frazier No. 415 ended up closed.  The odd musty herbal notes might be a detail of production, or they might be the flavors of old growth oak - or something from long basement storage.  The fact that these all come from the same hoard means that common storage may have helped produce common flavors.  But I think I was tasting the whiskey and not the basement here.  Tasting Boss Tom's liquor isn't just about the taste buds anyway.  It's about time traveling back to the world of gangsters, smoky rooms, and the golden era of Kansas City jazz.  America in a glass.

Below is a gallery of bottle shots from the Pendergast hoard taken by the talented Chris Martin.  These were whiskies that Tom Pendergast kept - perhaps because they were notable in connection with his distillery activities, or because he liked them, or who knows?  They are a remarkable set of bottles.  These are just a few highlights from the extensive group.  Enjoy:
Pre-Pro 21 year old whiskey?  A Kansas City mystery.

The earliest possible Prohibition bottling.  Almost Pre-Pro.

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: http://thesunbreak.com/2013/10/03/westland-distillery-takes-single-malt-whiskey-to-a-new-level/

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.