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:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Brenne 10 - Taking It To Another Level

Brenne, the single malt whisky brand from Cognac, is preparing to release a 10 year old limited edition expression this Fall.  This is exciting news to people who have been seduced by the ineffable combination of creamy fruity flavors and silky mouth feel of Brenne Estate (a single cask bottling that is 7, and sometimes 8 years old).  It's also intriguing news to those who have wondered what Brenne would taste like at higher proof and with more oak.  How will additional maturation affect the flavors? (I have some answers later on.  And if you aren't familiar with Brenne, I have some links at the bottom of this post.)

Brenne's stills.
Brenne is all about the terroir of Cognac.  It is distilled from a mash of Vanessa and Prestige barley strains grown on the same estate where it is distilled, plus local Charente River water, and the same yeast strains used for the estate's Cognac.  It is double distilled in charantais alembic stills normally used for Cognac and then matured with an interesting wood management scheme that starts with half a decade in virgin French oak and then finishes for a couple of years in ex-Cognac casks.  That wood management story is, as it turns out, something else that is unique about Brenne 10 beyond just the maturation.  Instead of being a single cask product, it is a vatting of casks with a varied wood management program, including ones that have spent the full ten years in virgin oak and ex-Cognac casks.
Allison Patel nosing Brenne new make.

Allison Patel, Brenne's creator, is a personal friend of mine.  Over the years she had mentioned that she was holding stocks back to make a ten year old expression - but had wanted to keep things confidential until she could get all the details arranged.  Secrets aren't easily kept in the whisky world, however.  There have been rumors of this release for months.  Steve Ury of skusrecenteats blog keeps tabs on the COLA label announcements on the TTB's web site and he tweeted out Brenne 10's label application back on April 4th:

Brenne 10 label from the TTB COLA form back in April.

A couple of weeks ago Brenne's Facebook fan page released a couple of photographs of Allison picking color swatches and working on the bottle's design.  Those (plus a few more from the Brenne FB page and some she e-mailed me are the photos you see here.  All of them, minus the COLA form, are courtesy of Allison Patel.) 

The story of how this 10 year old expression came to be is a testament to Allison's foresight and perfectionism.  Demand for Brenne has run high and she could easily have sold every drop she had.  But she deliberately held back stocks in both cask types to understand how each kind of wood affects the spirit over time.  She did so because she's a whisky geek (bless her heart).  She's also a genius at branding and releasing a higher end expression a couple of years in builds excitement and provides fresh exposure.

I asked Allison a few questions about it and her responses are illuminating:

Q: Normally Brenne is aged for 5 years in unused toasted french oak casks and then finished for 2 years in ex-Cognac casks. Is the 10 aged 5 years in new and 5 years in ex-Cognac?
A: "This first release (the 2015 bottling) of Brenne Ten - the 2nd product in my French Single Malt brand - is a blend of 4 barrels of Brenne. I'm using a combination of virgin French Oak and ex-Cognac casks as I've done for Brenne Estate Cask but choosing this time to have some that have been in both barrels and others that are exclusively aged in either the virgin French Oak or the Cognac barrel for the full 10 years."

Allison Patel working on the label and box for Brenne 10

Q: Did you specially select the casks that became 10 early on? What criteria did you use in cask selection for the 10?

A: "When I first met my distiller, a majority of the whisky he had been making prior to our introduction had been laid down in virgin french oak (the oldest of these barrels being 4 years old at the time, when they came up to 5 years old, I started moving some of them into the Cognac barrels which have now been released at 7-8 yrs old in the Brenne Estate Cask line). There were a few barrels at that time that had been aging exclusively in Cognac barrels (not started in the virgin French oak). To be able to study the barreling effects on his (and now our) distillate, I wanted to keep those aside as well as age further some of the all-virgin Limousin oak barrels AND the double barreled juice once we had that going too. Every year since I've kept an assortment of barrels aside. So, when I was playing around with the idea of releasing some of the oldest ones in a 10yr old expression, it was exciting to my palate to use a combination of these barrels a blend them together (versus doing single cask releases like Brenne Estate Cask) to showcase the typical profile of Brenne in much a richer & balanced way. "

A darker shade of blue.
"The fun continued when it came time to choosing the proof at which I wanted to bottle the Brenne Ten. At cask-strength, it's totally awesome but you loose too much of the subtleties of the fruit and floral notes. At 40% abv I found Brenne Ten to be far too weak. So I played around in the 45% abv - 55% abv range and settled on 48% abv, experiencing that this gave the whisky's characteristics just the right platform upon which to really shine."

Q: Will the 10 become a regular (limited) expression or is it a one time thing?
A: Yes, the goal of Brenne Ten is to release it in limited quantities annually. Since the initial release is so small (just 290 cases), I predict it won't be something that stays on the shelf a long time but I hope there is enough that those who want it are able to get it. While I have this year launched Brenne in France (through Les Whiskies du Monde), Brenne Ten will be something exclusive to the USA this first year.

Allison had a small sample of a pre-release batch of Brenne 10 at Whisky Live in April.  This is the stuff that she used to develop the expression.  It's a half year or so younger than the final released version will be, but it shows her thinking and what the product, in the main, will taste like.  She was nice enough to provide a bit of it to me.  Peter Silver and I tasted it shortly thereafter and tasting notes follow.  Because all of the branding prowess and great story doesn't mean a whole lot if the whisky isn't good.

Brenne 10 - Prebatch 1 (aged 9 1/2 years) - 48% abv 

Color: Gold

Nose:  richly floral (magnolia and lily), fresh cream, and citrus buttercream confectionery filling.  Undercurrents of musk, canola, and oak.  The oak is light and refined - like fresh sawn yard aged oak.

Palate: Really big ripe banana amid floral sweetness on the opening.  Spiciness like cloves tingle  on the expansion.  Then sweetness and waxing apricot cream on the mid palate which blooms with toasted oak and some incense complexity and filigree.  The turn has a moment of musk melded with apricot and cream.  The finish is medium long on apricot banana with oak tannin with some herbal bitters and pumpkin seeds.

My dominant impression is the massive banana on the opening.  I should make it clear that this sample is from Allison's initial development of the product.  It's at least half a year younger than the released product will be.  But still, this answers the question of whether extra maturation will amp up the esterification already rampant in Brenne.  The answer is "yes",  This already effusively estery fruity whisky has become even more intensely so with additional years in the wood.  At higher proof  and with this extra time there is more intensity and richer flavor with the 10 than the regular expression, which is most welcome in my book.  This is Brenne on steroids.  It's more everything.  Like a trip from Angoul√™me to Cognac on the back roads, this whisky breathes the air, soil, and water of a magical place.

FYI: Brenne Ten is scheduled for release in the Fall of 2015 via Classic Imports ( It will retail in the $100-$120 range.

Other posts about Brenne:

The story of the "Last Call" cocktail which marries Brenne and Sorel:
The first rumor of Brenne:
"One of her current projects is the development of an exciting new single malt world whisky expression called Brenne. It promises to be a significant new spirit: Cognac's first single malt."

A great review of Brenne on Sean Foushe√©'s WhiskyMarks:

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Old Forester and Old Taylor: New Versus Old. A Historically Inflected Tasting.

Photo courtesy of Xavier Wine Co.
What makes a Bourbon great?  Corn's sweetness melded to the smoky richness of charred oak with the glorious maillard sugars of cooked oak's red line and some herbal bite of rye grain, and oak tannin.  It's the combination of mash, distillation, oak, and time.  All Bourbons, by law, have these things (although the flavoring grain can vary).  But some are extraordinary and some are less compelling.  Why?  Fascinatingly we see some brands achieve greatness and then slip over time.  Others up their game.  Part of the story is that American whiskey brands exist independently from particular distilleries.  Some brands get sold to new owners who shift production to new distilleries and new mash bills and have little in common, as time passes, with what they once were.  In fact, that's pretty much the norm for most whiskey brands, no matter what the marketing says.  But it seldom jumps out at you like when you taste new and old expressions head to head.

Josh Feldman and Steve Zeller 
Photo by Dana Weisberg Zeller
A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of doing a public tasting that did just that with Steve Zeller of The Smoky Beast at a new liquor store called the Xavier Wine Company, a fine emerging establishment down in Manhattan's slick Meat Packing District.  Jim Parisi of Xavier Wine welcomed us with open arms to a wonderful event space in the basement, around a single enormous table built from a gigantic slab of a single tree.  Steve and I had structured the tasting to compare old and new expressions of two Bourbon brands that are deeply connected with the history of Bourbon itself:  Old Forester and Old Taylor.  Steve and I have great chemistry.  We love to drink together and geek out together.  Steve has tasted more widely of American whiskey than I have and is a great presenter.  Personally, I like to tell a long detailed history - but in a structured tasting you need to rein it in and let people drink.  Ha ha!  I'm completely joking!  I talked everyone's ears off and here's the gist of what I said and what it all tasted like:

FYI - Steve Zeller has already blogged about this tasting on his excellent blog:  The Smoky Beast:

Old Forester was the original Bourbon brand sold exclusively in sealed bottles. The branding story emphasizes continuity of family ownership of Brown Forman corporation and fidelity to the original expression.

George Garvin Brown (1846-1917) joined his half brother John Thompson Street Brown Jr. (J.T.S. Brown) who had started a wholesale whiskey business on Whiskey Row, Main Street, Louisville in 1870.  They bought in bulk from J.M. Atherton Distillery and Mellwood Distillery and BF Mattingly Distillery. Blended and sold under brand names like “Sidros Bourbon”, “Atherton…” “Mellwood Bourbon” sold by the barrel. Other brands included “Larue’s Best” “Widow McBee”, “Diamond Bluff”, “Beech Fork”, “Fox Mountain”, Old Forman” “Golden Age”, “Major Paul” etc… But barrels were often adulterated and/or diluted. To counter this G. G. Brown decided to bottle the whiskey with the brand “Old Forrester”. Named for “Dr. William Forrester” a leading Louisville KY physician. (Michael Veach’s story - debunking the popular rumor of it being named for Cavalry General Nathan Bedford Forrest). The label was meant to look like a doctor’s prescription. So, right off the bat, Old Forester was what would today be called an "NDP" brand (whiskey bottled by a company that buys it bulk from other distilleries, which doesn't distill any whiskey of its own). We don't think of the brand that way because the situation soon changed.

In 1902 Brown Forman bought the Mattingly Distillery that had been their major supplier. 1907 they added St. Mary’s Distillery. In the 1920s, during Prohibition, Brown Forman bought the Early Times brand from S. L. Guthrie. Whiskey at the many rickhouses was moved to White Mill’s Distilling #414, located at Jefferson County 5th District, Louisville, as a concentration warehouse to bottled for medicinal purposes. The distillery was rebuilt in anticipation of Repeal - and was renamed "Brown-Forman Distillery" DSP #414. It produced the Old Forester brand from the end of WWII until 1980.
Distilled and bottled at DSP-KY-414
After that, production of Old Forester was moved to Early Times Distillery DSP #354 (originally called the Old Kentucky Distillery, it had been purchased by BF in 1953 and renamed Early Times). Shively, KY (suburb of Louisville)

By the way, in 1956 Brown Forman - purchased the Jack Daniels Distillery too. They have had some success with that brand as well.  

The family continuity angle is completely true. George Garvin Brown IV, great great grandson of George Garvin Brown, is chairman. In May 2015 his brother Campbell Brown (age 47) will take control.
So, from a modern dusty hunting angle, the big divide is around 1980 when production shifted from Brown Forman #414 to Early Times #354.

We tasted two expressions head to head: 2014 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and Old Forester Bottled in Bond Fall 1973-Fall 1979:

Old Forester BiB Fall 1973-Fall 1979 (6 years old) 50% abv. DSP-KY-414

Color: Medium-dark amber

Nose: Dark malty sweet, pecan nutty, and complex sandalwood incense with dense oak filigree. Rich.

Palate: Big sweet opening, with dark brown malty rich flavors and a rich mouth feel. Maple and fig on the expansion, melded with big and complex oak, redolent of old furniture, leather, and char. The finish is long and lingering, back to nuts and figs and sandalwood incense with a fragrant herbal bitter aspect. Superb, memorable Bourbon, redolent of the dark, rich, sweet brown qualities that typify the best Bourbons of America's mid-20th century golden age.


Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014 (distilled 2002 - 12 years old) 48.5% abv (97 Proof), DSP-KY-354

Color: Light amber.

Nose: Sweet caramel, pecans, malt, solvent, oak, char, and loam.

Palate: Sweet opening with toffee, and honey. The mouth feel is thin and hot. There is citrus, solvent and some yeast on expansion. Oak and bitters on the turn. A fairly short finish for a big Bourbon.

There's little comparison here. Despite being half the age in wood of the new stuff, the 1970s Old Forester BiB totally skins the new stuff. It's richer, thicker, more complex, and more satisfying. Why? Clearly there was something special going on at the Brown Forman Distillery #414 in the mid-century decades. That said, there is a nutty flavor in common. You have to linger over them, but the kinship is clearly detectable, even though they were made at different distilleries.

The second pairing was between Old Taylor produced by National Distillers and Colonel EH Taylor produced at Buffalo Trace. 

Old Taylor fits the theme of "Bourbon origins" because Edmund Haynes Taylor himself was one of the major 19th century early leaders of industrialized Bourbon production in Kentucky and is often credited with getting the Bottled In Bond act passed, which completed what the Brown brothers started in moving the market permanently away from selling Bourbon in barrels to selling it in sealed bottles with recognizable brand names.
E. H. Taylor (Edmund Haynes Taylor 1832-1922) was the grand nephew of Zachary Taylor. He was named for his father's wealthier and more successful brother, a banker, and he started working at his uncle's bank in Frankfort, KY, at age 19. In 1857 the bank closed and Taylor got into various schemes with an incorporated "E.H. Taylor and Company" started in 1858 including dealing cotton during the Civil War. After the war, Taylor provided financial backing for the Gaines, Berry, and Co. who built the Old Hermitage distillery and resurrected the Old Crow brand (after Dr. James C. Crow, the Scottish immigrant distiller who is popularly credited with the sour mash process no near universally used for making Bourbon, had died taking his recipe with him to the grave). Old Hermitage distillery was a success and post-war demand for Kentucky whiskey was high so Taylor assembled investors and started the O.F.C. Distillery in 1869.

Taylor wanted O.F.C to be a showpiece and he invested heavily in it. He also purchased the Carlisle Distillery, and then the Old Oscar Pepper distillery. Over production and then the run on the banks known as the Panic of 1875 forced Taylor into bankruptcy. Two of Taylor's major customers, August Labrot and the firm of Gregory and Stagg took over Taylor's distilleries.

EH Taylor's son, Jacob Swigert Taylor had purchased a distillery on Glenn's Creek in Woodford County in 1879 called James C. Johnson Distillery. He renamed it J. Swigert Taylor Distillery and sold it to his father in 1882. They renamed it E.H. Taylor, Jr. & Sons Distillery RD#53 - a name it bore until 1900 when it was henceforth known as Old Taylor Distillery. Taylor, as he had done with O.F.C. desired to make it a showpiece and invested heavily. Taylor built the distillery building known as "The Castle" by 1887 and created a new brand called "Old Taylor". It was a success.

EH Taylor was interested in politics and eventually held many posts including the Mayor of Frankfort, and a Representative in the Kentucky State government. Savvy in politics and an experienced hand in the whiskey business, he was influential in the passage of both the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 and the related but much further reaching Pure Food Act 1906.

National Distillers Corporation (the rump of the Whiskey Trust, which had operated as "American Medicinal Spirits Corporation" during Prohibition) purchased the distillery in 1936 and production continued until 1982. In 1985 American Brands (Beam) purchased the distillery which was allowed to become a ruins, while the warehouses continued to be used. The Castle is currently being resurrected by independent investors Will Arvin and Wes Murray who bought the site and are investing $6 million into renovating it. Marianne Barnes, 28, formerly of Brown-Foreman, was just named first master distiller. .

Beam produced Old Taylor until 2009 when it was purchased by Sazerac Corporation as part of a deal involving Effen vodka. Old Taylor is still produced in Frankfort, KY, but now at Buffalo Trace.

That's quite a story. But we were drinking whiskey and we had the opportunity to taste a 1970s example of Old Taylor produced at The Castle head to head against one of the new high end boutique expressions of Colonel EH Taylor produced at Buffalo Trace - the Barrel Proof (the 64.5% edition - which isn't known necessarily as the best of them - but is, without a doubt an assault on the high end by Buffalo Trace - a distillery that knows about making high end Bourbon.)

Old Taylor 40% abv. 1970s 4/5th quart bottle, no UPC, castle on the label.

Color: Medium amber.

Nose: Toffee, vanilla, jelly candies, turkish delight with powdered sugar.

Palate: Earthy sweet on opening. Juicy compote of citrus and apple. Sweet creamery butter. Then fruity on the expansion with notes of jelly candies and cotton candy joined to earthy loam. There is a cardboard note at the height of the expansion - a kiss of bitterness. Then the fruity returns in the medium long finish.


Experience has taught me that the 80 proof Old Taylor is a shadow of the Bottled In Bond version. I'll put these to a head to head in an upcoming post. But as it stands, this was the weakest pour of the night.

Colonel EH Taylor Barrel Proof 64.5% abv

Color: Medium amber

Nose: Vanilla, linseed oil, herbal notes of cut corn stalk, musky loam, and lurking notes of charred oak.

Palate: Explosive bourbon goodness. Sweet and grassy on the first hit, rapidly expanding into a big expansion full of citrus zing, blond Virginia tobacco and clean new leather. The turn to the finish is marked by herbal notes of licorice and cilantro which I recognize as rye. The finish itself is fairly long and nutty with herbal bitters and toasted seeds and oak char.


This was a totally unfair head to head pairing, pitting the lowest possible proof Bourbon against among the highest. But they are both young classic Bourbons and the palates are telling. The National Distillers OT of the 70s was fruity and candied - a classic flavor profile of the time. The new EH Taylor is a young Bourbon, but superbly crafted and a delicious pour. Totally different, but both successful and delicious to drink. The point here is that Bourbon's glory days are not in the past. The future of Bourbon remains bright - perhaps brighter than ever with plenty of demand, interest, and money stoking the production end of things to reach for the high end.

Jim Parisi is interested in having future events of this type at Xavier Wine Co.  Hopefully there will be many more and I'll see you there.
The great table at Xavier Wine's tasting room.  Photo by Jim Parisi