Friday, July 12, 2019

Elijah Craig's Shift to NAS: A Decline? The Krav Organizes An Empirical Test

A fascinating vertical tasting of Elijah Craig 12 & NAS bottlings.
Photo by Michael Kravitz of Diving for Pearls blog.
The bottles above as blind samples poured and ready to go on my table.
Elijah Craig was one of my favorite daily pours back in the day.  It was good Bourbon and, perhaps coincidentally - or perhaps not, it was a 12 years old age-stated product.  Then a familiar pattern unfolded: popularity drove the product towards scarcity and Heaven Hill opted to remove the age statement so they could goose the production volume to keep it from becoming an allocated item like so many other brands which lose out because they can't deliver enough product to meet market demand.  You gotta hand it to Heaven Hill, they have managed to keep the product on the shelves even while the boom has boomed.  But the Bourbon-Skeptical people notice a different facet of the decision first: it's higher profit margin to sell younger whiskey so dropping the age statement is just "straight up corporate greed".  What's the real story?

And, who cares?  Is younger whiskey necessarily worse?   It's one of those "truisms" of whiskey which need to be punctured and deflated: that older whiskey is necessarily better.  Experienced whiskey-lovers all have tales of old whiskeys which were over-oaked and flabbier than powerful, vibrant younger whiskeys can be.  I've had my mind blown by young whiskey that, tasted blind, had the complexity and deliciousness of much more mature stuff.  Prominent examples include Balcones, Amrut, Westland, Kavalan, and Koval.  I remember one night when Josh Hatton poured a Single Cask Nation 7 year old Glen Moray which drank like a 20 year old BenRiach with phenols and everything.  So you can't simply be dogmatic about "older whiskey is better".  But like many stereotypes, there is a core of truth.  A given whiskey, all else being equal, gains in complexity and richness as it matures in wood up to a certain point, and then it declines.  There's still not any way around that.  Cherry picking active-cask outliers scores rhetorical points, but doesn't alter the basic physics of the equation.  (Although the physics is definitely altered in tropical climates like India, Taiwan, and Texas).  It seems almost not worth calling out or testing, on its face.  Yet, Diving for Pearl's rigorous blind tasting really puts this question to an empirical test.

Michael Kravitz is a thoughtful drinker, a whisky blogger of wide experience, and an articulate and intelligent drinking companion.  When he asked if I wanted to participate in a blind tasting he was organizing for Diving For Pearls blog where we would taste a ladder of Elijah Craig expressions ranging from a pre-fire Heaven Hill (DSP-KY-31) EC12 from around 2001, to the current NAS in the new taller slender bottle, I jumped.  The flight took us through the evolution from a new Bernheim DSP-KY-1 EC12 age stated on the front from around 2015, to the transitional EC12 with the age statement tucked away in the block of text on the back circa 2016, to the old style bottle NAS EC circa 2017, to the new bottle design NAS of today.  This would cut across the transition period of NAS implementation and then a few years in, so we can see, empirically, whether a shift to NAS actually matters to the quality of the whiskey.  Or, as the distillery's argument goes, "by having the freedom to choose the best barrels regardless of age, we can get as close as we can to the flavor profile, so the NAS version should get even better - not worse.".  I know everyone "knows" the answer going in.  But, by doing the tasting blind, and in a group of 20 people, we'd get to see whether i) people can taste the difference when the age statement is dropped, and, more importantly, ii) I could find out whether I, personally, could tell the difference.

Read Michael Kravitz's blog post about his blind tasting.  It is chock full of convincing statistics that show a plurality of people found more or less as I did in the notes that follow... or did they?
Then, bless his heart, Krav gives us a separate post with full tasting notes for each expression (links are at the bottom of this post).  He's good.  What follows isn't that - but it's my personal experience of that shift to NAS evolution..

When I sat down to the blind tasting, the first sample was clearly the odd man out.  It had a darker color and much clearer, stronger, flavor than any of the others.  Because I knew in advance that we'd have a single sample from pre-fire Heaven Hill dsp-ky-31 (thanks for the correction, Steve Urey.  I had previously erroneously called it "Old Bernheim" which was the previous generation of the distillery Heaven Hill moved to after the fire, eventually), and four samples from new Bernheim dsp-ky-1, I had a pretty good idea what the odd man out was.  I had never tasted EC12 from the old Heaven Hill distillery before, so the flavor signature was somewhat new to me, but it had a constellation of the features I associate with old Bourbon: dank sweetness, richness, darkness, and a funky untidy quality.  I have come to prize those features highly.  But what of the other four?  While they all shared a bunch of flavor signature aspects: peanuts and corn oil and a grassy sweetness; there was one of the four which was head and shoulders above the rest.  And those other three were mediocre and pretty similar to each other.  How to proceed?

I made a snap decision: I would forget about all of the iconoclastic honey-barrel cherry-picked challenges to conventional wisdom and I would just go with the stereotype: richer flavor means older whiskey and thinner hotter flavor means younger whiskey.  Then I added the assumption that Heaven Hill's evolution of Elijah Craig was a straight-up linear growth in demand with a somewhat fixed supply of aging stocks and a growing premium market, so there would be a linear decline in quality as the expressions moved through time.  In the 2001 bottling, some (most) of the whiskey was probably much older than 12.  By the time Heaven Hill was planning to ditch the age statement, by hiding it on the back, they were probably already pulling out the honey barrels for higher-priced premium bottlings, and then in the NAS era, they were free (or forced) to use younger and younger whiskey so that the flavor slope should be a one way decline.

So I ranked my tastings by score and preference and assigned identifications in a straight linear by date arrangement.  This approach turned out to be correct and I nailed all of the identifications.  Furthermore, I wasn't the only one.  Florin (@whiskystat on Twitter) also nailed all the identifications (and he's a man who seems to know Bourbon quite well).  He said in the comments below The Krav's first post on the tasting that he was guided by the same simplistic assumption that I was: that Elijah Craig was just going to simply decline in quality over time.  To his great credit, Michael Kravitz stuck with what he knew and didn't quite say so on any of his blog posts on the topic (even while holding Heaven Hill's feet to the fire regularly in his review of their contemporary whiskey products).

I'm a huge fan of Heaven Hill, but there's no denying the evidence I was experiencing first hand here.  I found that the quality of Elijah Craig declined dramatically when the age statement was dropped.  Furthermore, I found that the current version of the product scores about the same as the next brand down in their line up - Evan Williams.  My tasting notes are as follows, as submitted as guesses to the Krav for his blind tasting.  All my identifications are guesses - and you can see, I'm pretty cocky in my confidence:

Sample A - Ranked #1. 12 year old, bottled ca. 2001, distilled at the old distillery, before the fire.
N- Pecans, hops, iron (ketchup), marigolds, brown sugar buttercream and a hint of Kentucky tobacco That nameless smell of old mature Bourbon
P- Honeyed, nutty, notes of brown sugar, leather, mint and beery hops. Richer mouth-feel and clearly more mature. Herbal and mossy with some dank well notes on the turn and in the long finish. Nice rich bourbon with the old-school brown sugar and vegetal mossy and hoppy notes,.

Score: 87

This one stands head and shoulders above the rest in quality, and clearly has a different flavor profile, which is consistent with it being the only one of these made at a different distillery than the others.  Different water, different washbacks, different stills.  It's also the end of the glut so this batch would probably have included barrels far older than the stated age.  Also, fewer special editions had drained out the honey barrels.  Not to mention a couple of decades of bottle maturation.

Sample B - Ranked #5. Small Batch, no age statement, current bottle/label style
N- linseed oil - solventy, sunflower seeds, daisies and clover, earthy loam
P- Thin, hot, lightly floral, spicy

Corn oil note. A little bitter on the finish. Not unpleasant but clearly thinner than the rest.

Score: 76

The weakest of the bunch and I’m assuming it’s the most recent of the bottlings and that there is a linear progression of decline in the richness of Elijah Craig as it gets sold younger as a consequence of its popularity. I also wonder if more selectivity in the barrel management is routing more honey barrels elsewhere

Sample C - Ranked #4 Small Batch, no age statement, previous bottle/label style
N- very shy on the nose. But what there is: Corn oil, Unroasted peanuts and pecan. Nut brittle (candied). With air some coconut and peach notes emerge.
P- Thin again. Nutty grassy and young. A bit of bitterness. Some bitter orange. A bit of solvent.

Score: 79

Not great, perhaps just a hair better than Evan Williams - and also noticeably a hair better than sample B. Why would a label change correlate with a flavor change? Maybe it’s just a bit of random variation. Or maybe Elijah Craig continues to get younger as time progresses as a result of rising sales?

Sample D - Ranked #2. 12 year old Small Batch with the red 12 on the front label.
N- Honeyed Pecans, barn dirt, glove leather, hints of tobacco and a bit of distant lavender and mint
P- Big, sweet, grassy, notes of honey, cooked , stonefruit, juicyfruit gum, and oak and char on the finish.


The real stuff, from the New Bernheim distillery. It’s good. But I can’t help but notice that tasted blind it is smoked by the stuff from the Old Heaven Hill distillery. (If my guesses are correct). I wonder if the old stuff had older barrels because they were still working through glut stocks in that era? In any case, this is good, but it’s not in the same league. Still, it’s better than any subsequent expression.

Sample E- Ranked #3.  12 year old Small Batch with the age statement moved to the back label.
N- Corn oil leading, linseed oil (solvent), corn husks, cream, daisies, and sun-dried oak
P- Nutty, grassy. Hot at mid-palate with more grassy sweetness, some marigold florals, but a tad bitter on the finish. Things open up slowly and it gets a tad richer and sweeter with more time.


This is the mysterious one. Still age-stated 12 years old, why is it noticeably less tasty than the stuff with the age statement on the front? I don’t think it’s just the location of the age statement ink. I suspect that barrel management “improved” and that more honey barrels were removed for use in single barrel private, or premium distillery-only “Select” releases.

Control: Evan Williams BiB WOL Cut glass
N- Corn oil, earth oak
P- Grassy sweet and thin, hints of honey but also a solvent note. Opens into grassy sweetness


Evan Williams is the less expensive expression from Heaven Hill, and it’s clearly an expression of the same distillery. It’s amazingly good for such a bargain basement price (the 86 proof Black goes for around $14-18, and the BiB, although rarer, is only a few dollars more) and, amidst the blind, is clearly as good as at least two of the Elijah Craig bottlings. Eye opening.

Bottom line, it's yet another sad tale of dropped age statements leading to younger whiskey which, I'm so sorry to say, just doesn't taste as good. Period. I mourn Elijah Craig's long slow decline. We all know Heaven Hill makes good whiskey. If they can mature this stuff a bit more, Elijah Craig can return to tasting less like Evan Williams and more like Elijah Craig once again.  It's almost enough to make one wish for the end of the Bourbon Boom.  I know... bite your tongue.

Again: read Michael Kravitz's blog post about his blind tasting.  Great stuff.

Then read his subsequent posts with tasting notes for each of the expressions:

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Chuck Schumer's Gaffe and Why It Matters To New York Whiskey

On video it doesn't look like much of anything.  Chuck Schumer, Senator from New York, in a suit, at a conference in Kentucky addresses Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell:

"Brooklyn, where I was born, raised and proudly live, produces some of the best bourbon in the world."

Then he hands him a bottle of Widow Jane Bourbon. McConnell replies

"There's no such thing as Brooklyn bourbon," 

which gets a laugh.  But Chuck Schumer committed a gaffe today that has the whiskey world slapping its head in frustration and hilarity.  Widow Jane is one of those famous examples of a distillery that sources whiskey from a distillery somewhere else (in this case, supremely ironically, Kentucky of all places) and then lied (I'm using the past tense here) about being made locally in Brooklyn.  When people talk about "Potemkin Distilleries" (Chuck Cowdery's coinage), Widow Jane in Redhook is one of the famous, classic examples.  Chuck Schumer actually gave Mitch McConnell Kentucky Bourbon in a New York bottle and erroneously crowed about it being Brooklyn whiskey.  It's just awful, or hilarious, or pathetic, depending on how you look on it.

Newsweek got the angle first at 11am - well ahead of most of the press, in a piece by Gersh Kuntzman which gleefully points out that Widow Jane is Bourbon sourced from Kentucky.  The story spread from here.  Amusingly, Mr. Kuntzman makes sure to tell us in 3 separate parenthetical asides that he has been drinking the whiskey actively while writing up the story, and he really likes it.  He likes it a lot.  e.g.:

<<...Widow Jane is (full disclosure) exemplary whiskey...>> and <<...a taste of honey and cherrywood and a finish of charred oak and orange peel" (fuller disclosure: That is deliciously accurate).>>

By now, it's a talking point about what an idiot Chuck Schumer is.  But here is a moment when much of America is actually talking about and thinking about whiskey and they are getting exactly the wrong lessons about whiskey.  First of all, Mitch  McConnell's retort "There's no such thing as Brooklyn bourbon," is simply factually wrong.  That "Bourbon must be made in Kentucky" is one of the most common fallacies.  The legal restrictions governing the production of Bourbon only specify the mash bill, strength, and wood of maturation and the United States as the nation of origin:

27 CFR 5.22 - The standards of identity....
l, class 12, section 1: "...That the word “bourbon” shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States."

There is Bourbon made in every State in the Union (except Hawaii and Nebraska - thanks Susannah Skiver Barton!)   And there are plenty of Brooklyn Bourbons.  King's County Distillery was the first legal distillery in New York since Prohibition and has been making some really good Bourbon in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for years.  Other Brooklyn distilleries making true Bourbon include Van Brundt Stillhouse, and even Widow Jane itself (with their Wapsie Valley, Bloody Butcher and other boutique corn variety bottlings - which I don't recommend btw).  And there are plenty of other Bourbons in New York State, including some really good ones made at Finger Lakes Distilling by Tom McKenzie (who left the distillery last year).  There was zero reason for Schumer to make this error.  Anyone could have spent literally five minutes on the Internet and figured this out.

Chuck's gaffe makes Brooklyn looks bad to people who don't know whiskey because it seems apparent that if the Senator from New York can't even grab a bottle of New York Bourbon when he has set out to rib Kentucky about Bourbon then clearly there isn't one. They will all say "everyone knows Bourbon comes from Kentucky".  Mitch McConnell's error that "Bourbon only comes from Kentucky" will be reified.  

Coppersea Straight Malted Empire Rye
But there's a deeper irony here; and it's the big story in New York craft distilling this year: the creation of the Empire Rye designation.  New York just laid down the gauntlet, claiming a long tradition of rye whiskey production and leveraging that into a new era with some serious efforts by seven (and counting) craft distillers.  I recently sipped through seven of the new Empire Ryes (or their immediate predecessors)  and was extremely impressed.  These don't drink like the flawed raw Craft Whiskeys you'd expect from a new standard.  A big reason for that is because New York's craft distillers aren't new.  They have climbed the learning curve and are making some really good whiskeys - and in particular - rye whiskeys.  Coppersea's malted rye was dusky and complex with rich mouth feel and rich flavors imparted by malting the rye.  King's County rye was a powerhouse, with a rich clean rye flavor and a lingering bracingly herbal finish.   New York Distilling Company's Ragtime Rye was softer, but with really pleasing flavors and good balance.  Hillrock's Double Cask Rye was more austere - but still elegant and tasty.  The Empire Rye designation stands for something real:  At least 75 percent of its grain must be New York-grown rye. It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof; put into a barrel at no more than 115 proof (which is below the industry standard of 125 proof); and aged at least two years in charred, new oak barrels.  The original six members of the Empire Rye consortium — Coppersea, Tuthilltown, Black Button Distilling, New York Distilling, Kings County Distillery and Finger Lakes Distilling have been joined by three more distilleries since.  This is a real story for New York whiskey and it hasn't gotten enough press.

King's County Rye 51% ab
New York Distilling Ragtime Rye
Hillrock Double Cask Rye.

Last October I got to geek out about the history of rye whiskey in New York at an event called "New York Whiskey - Past, Present, Future" - part of the Empire Rye appellation celebration and New York State Craft Beverage Week, held by Josh Richholt at his cavernous super-bar "The Well" in Bushwick, Brooklyn.  Dave Pickerell (master distiller formerly of Maker's Mark but who now works on many distilleries including the Hillrock Rye project and, formerly Widow Jane), Christopher Briar Williams, master distiller (and I don't use the term lightly here) of Coppersea Distillery - one of the founders of the Empire Rye idea, Reid Mitenbuler (author of Bourbon Empire, and a serious whiskey geek), myself, and Josh Richholt (dusty enthusiast, owner of The Well, and another serious whiskey geek) - right to left in the photo below - discussed the long and fascinating history of rye whiskey in New York State.


It begins with farm distillery production of rye.  In the pre-industrial era there were literally hundreds of small distilleries in the original 13 colonies of the US - with strong concentrations in the heavily populated areas like New York.  Rye whiskey was the traditional form for people coming from central Europe and rye grew well in the colder environment of the NorthEast.  Josh Richholt brought a fascinating example from the end of that period - an 1892 vintage dated bottle of Emerson's Old "5x" Pure Rye Whiskey.  It was produced at Brotherhood Wine (which still exists, operating a vineyard out of Washingtonville, NY (Orange County) founded 1839.  The Emerson family purchased the wine made by the Jaques family according to the Brotherhood wine history for 60 years (until apparently 1899 or 1900) when the Emerson family purchased the winery. They named it after the Brotherhood of New Life Utopian community in the Hudson Valley.  They apparently operated a wine and liquor shop out of Soho because this bottle of 5x whiskey says so.  Was this whiskey made in New York or sourced from somewhere else?  Who can say?  This might be local New York farm distilled whiskey, part of that long tradition, or it might be sourced whiskey from somewhere else and bottled in New York by New York City merchants - also a long tradition associated with some of the greatest names in whiskey.

For example, H.B. Kirk & Co. of 69 Fulton St. New York City extensively advertised Old Crow and Old Hermitage rye from the Old Hermitage distillery Frankfort exclusive distributor.  This  1884 ad (right) states: "We have taken every barrel made since January 1872".  Josh Richholt brought (and cracked) a bottle of Old Crow Rye from the 1940s that was still bottled in New York even then.  (It was pretty damned good and deserves its own post).

Another example you might have heard of is a New York merchant named Austin Nichols who operated a famous (and vast) warehouse in 184 Kent St. Williamsburgh Brooklyn that was built in 1915. The famous Turkey shoot story that Jimmy Russel always tells everyone dates from 1940s. Austin Nichols First bottled Wild Turkey in 1954 (the year that Jimmy Rusell began working there.)  They used sourced bourbon from many distilleries at that time, and throughout the 50s-60s. Later on, in 1971, they bought the Boulevard Distillery (previously JTS Brown, originally Old Moore, & Ripy Bros) to make Wild Turkey.  So Wild Turkey, even though it's a Kentucky whiskey brand, is a New York company with a New York story.

Dusty bottles of New York rye - and other whiskeys just bottled in New York - courtesy of Josh Richholt.

There is a lot more to this history story.  Park & Tilford appears in Richholt's lineup.  Schenley too.  Both were New York companies.  (Tasting notes will follow in another post).  Wine & Spirits Bulletin in the pre-pro era shows dozens of distributors on the Manhattan & Brooklyn waterfronts.  The famous "Kevin Bacon" of the 20th century whiskey world, Sam Bronfman, who is in just about every American whiskey history story somewhere, built the Seagram's Building in Manhattan.  JP Morgan's cellar books in 1884 show New York State rye and winter wheat whiskey in wicker demijohns.  The more you look, the deeper the story goes.  New York State is making seriously good whiskey, it has a serious whiskey history.  If Chuck Schumer had just researched a little bit - or had talked to any of us who know and love the ongoing story - he could have delivered a real whiskey gauntlet to Mitch McConnell, and everyone in America might be talking about whether New York just might actually be a whiskey power, instead of laughing at Schumer and at the idea of New York whiskey.  This was a lost opportunity for New York and for Chuck Schumer - and for America.

On a panel with awesome whiskey people talking about
New York whiskey history... Yeah - I took a selfie.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Updated: actual selections for the BeastMaster Dusty Battle: CooperedTot Vs The Well.

Branded as Gibson's Distilling Co. - this bottle actually
contains whiskey from Stewart Distillery, Baltimore.
Made prior to September, 1917.
Update:  My previous post announcing the upcoming BeastMaster Dusty Battle event between myself and and Josh Richholt showed a lot of pretty dusty bottle pics.  But I didn't specify which bottles we would actually be pouring - so it's just hype.  Except... it wasn't.  We are really going to be pouring some amazing bottles.   In brief, a Prohibition bottling of a Maryland rye, a 1950s bonded Beam, and a pair of glut era 1970s Bourbons: a Wild Turkey 101 8 year old, and National Distillers Bourbon DeLuxe.  There will be contemporary Beam and Wild Turkey so you can taste vanished expressions against today's head to head.  The ways that these flavor signatures have changed will be one of my topics.  But first, let me get specific with the two bottles I'll be pouring:
Stewart Distillery, RD No.12, Baltimore, MD around 1909

I Prohibition era bottling of Maryland Rye - labeled "Gibson" but actually "Stewart"

Distilled prior to September 8th, 1917 at The Stewart Distillery. Two stories in one because the bottle is labeled one way, but contains a different whiskey.  This kind of thing was common in Prohibition when brands were consolidated into a few companies who had medicinal whiskey licenses to sell to pharmacies.  Actual whiskey was taken from closed distilleries and stored together in a smaller number of more defensible concentration warehouses and brands and spirits were often conflated as expediency demanded.  In this case we have Lewis Rosensteil's Schenley operation - which would become the second largest liquor company in the United States (second only to American Medicinal Sprits, which became National Distillers after Repeal).  Rosensteil's concentration warehouse was at Schenley PA, RD No. 2 - and sure enough - the back label on this bottle says that whiskey from Stewart Distillery, Baltimore was "bottled for" Gibson Distilling Co. of Brownsville, PA (the heart of the Monongahela region), at Schenley's concentration warehouse.

These are interesting brands.  Gibson's was a classic pre-Prohibition high-rye mash bill "red" Mongahela valley rye.  Rosensteil purchased the brand and had obviously run out of the juice by the time this bottle was filled.  Schenley shifted production of Gibson's up to Canada after Repeal, and Gibson's remains one of the major brands of Canadian whisky to this day.  It's fascinating to see that its roots are in PA rye.

Stewart's is one of the brands of Maryland rye that disappeared with Prohibition.  In a 1920s lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that the Stewart's Rye Whiskey brand dates back to 1788 (it also appears as Robert Stewart Distillery in the late 19th century).  According to tax records it was self-owned until 1901 when it was sold to the Carstair's Brothers - best known for Carstair's White Seal (another venerable Baltimore rye brand with 18th century roots.  Carstair's White Seal became a blended American whiskey after WWII).

This particular bottle has a front label that is age stated as 11 years old.  On the back is that odd statement "Made prior to September 8th, 1917".  The bottled in bond tax strip is missing so we can infer that this is probably a 1917-1928, or possible a 1916-1927 (or a 1915-1926). 

So this medicinal pint represents a rare opportunity to taste the whiskey from a vanished and historic Baltimore MD distillery which was part of the formation of Lewis Rosensteil's Schenley Industries in its heady formative days.

II 1955-1961 Jim Beam Bonded In Bond blue glass "Grecian" decanter.  100 proof.

How did mid-century Jim Beam differ from today's expressions?  Find out.  This lovely piece of mid-century kitch is a Mad Men era classic.  The decanter is blue glass - so there's no lead risk.  It feels and sounds full.  This bourbon is should be a rich with that mid-century heavy vanilla and brown-sugar loaded sweetness and that characteristic Jim Beam "funk" (which some people tastes like a barn smells - and other people say is "earthy").

This is a classic case of a historic American distillery which is still in major production.  Continuity and tradition will stand against industry changes in types of corn, length of mashing period, rising barreling proofs, shorter maturation periods, and other "enhancements to production".  Bottle maturation might also be a factor.  It's a half-century plus old decanter - who knows?  That's part of the fun of cracking a dusty.

And that's not all!  Josh Richholt is bringing some classic dusty Bourbons for our enjoyment as well:

a 1978 Wild Turkey 8/101 and a 1976 Bourbon deLuxe from National Distillers.  These are legendary delicious classics.

Want to attend.  Get your tickets here:
The green bottled in bond tax strip on the Beam Grecian Decanter showing
the year and season of distillation - and of bottling as a 6 year old.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Dusty Battle: Coopered Tot v.s. The Well at BeastMaster

FYI - this post was updated with the actual selections that will be poured:

Why drink old found bottles?  (The term "dusties" refers to whiskies which are no longer available, but which can be found in old liquor stores, orphaned on shelves). My friend Steve Zeller - the blogger of The Smoky Beast blog - sometimes tells a joke.

"How many whiskey bloggers does it take to screw in a light bulb?"
"A hundred.  One to screw in the light bulb and 99 to write about how the old bulb was better!"  

Old bottles, "dusties, with old styles,
obsolete age statements,
or produced at vanished distilleries.
But all joking aside, a lot of old bottles are really interesting, and many are better than the current versions and there are sound reasons why.  Over the last couple of decades, whiskey has become a victim of its own popularity - with age statements disappearing and younger whiskey now standing in.  Less flavorful faster-growing grains are used.  Higher-yielding faster-acting yeasts make more alcohol out of units of grain, at the expense of complex flavors.  Mashing periods have declined.  Barreling proofs have increased. And maturation times have decreased.  Each change has reduced costs and increased profits for distilleries - at the expense of complexity and flavor.  You can tell the difference by drinking old whiskeys.  It's fascinating and often delicious.  Dusties can be hard to find.  If you want a guided introduction, join me in attending a unique event where dusty hunters score and pour.

The 1973 Old Forester BiB I sourced
for the first BeastMaster event.
The last time I presented whiskey at a Smoky Beast BeastMaster event it was their very first public event and Steve Zeller and I were presenting a tasting that involved two dusty whiskeys: a National Distiller's Old Taylor and a 1973 Old Forester Bottled in Bond from 1973.   We were comparing them against current expressions of the same brands.

Now, I'm coming back to BeastMasters Club, in the new head 2 head contest format against my friend Joshua Richholt in a Dusty battle where we dusty hunt and bring our best finds to a public tasting.  If you've ever wanted to taste dusties with me here's a chance.

The format is simple  Josh and I will be given $300 and we will find the best dusties we can.  (If we strike out we can provide bottles from our own private collections).  I've known Josh Richholt for a while and I've drunk whisky with him a number of times and I can attest that he is a talented dusty hunter with amazing taste.  He founded an amazing bar on the border of Brooklyn and Queens called The Well.  It has an amazing line up of bottles and beers on tap.  It's built inside a 19th-century brewery.  Richholt knows the history and is well connected with the history of alcohol.  He will be formidable opposition.  We source the dusties and pour them for everyone in attendance.  Knowing me, I'll probably tell some stories about them.  I don't know what bottles will show up.  I'm going to be hunting hard because I want to impress.  It sounds like a whole lot of fun.  

Fri, October 27, 2017
6:30 PM – 9:30 PM

Where?  At the BeastMaster's Popup Lair on Canal St. in Manhattan.  Tickets are cheap at $50 and available here.

FYI - this post was updated with the actual selections that will be poured:

Don't look at it!  Dusties cover my kitchen table..
I didn't do nearly as good a job of romanticizing the story as Steve Zeller did.  Check it out his description from the eventbrite site:

Dusties are the true sport of bourbon hunting, setting apart the rookies from the veteran die-hard whiskey aficionados. We’ve been wanting to do a Dusty Battle for some time, but we needed to find the perfect two warriors who would be up to the task. Meet Josh & Josh…

Josh Feldman, whiskey historian and author of has been collecting, writing, and all-around obsessing about whiskey for over a decade. He was an early mentor to Steve and Dana as they began the SmokyBeast blog, generously guiding them into the unknown territory of shuttered distilleries, dusty gems, and the decades of history that surround these special whiskies.

Josh Richholt is the co-founder of The Well. Dubbed the “biggest local bar you’ve ever seen”, The Well boasts 200 beers on tap, a tasty whiskey selection. and a mammoth outdoor music venue. We caught Josh sneaking a bottle Jack Daniels into our “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” event. Little did we know it was a 1960’s Jack Daniels (which changed the move from sacrilege to bona fide). It turned out that Josh had come directly to our event from a successful dusty hunt of epic proportions.

Each contender will bring two dusties from his private collection for your consideration. You will vote to decide who shall hold the belt as BMC Dusty Champion.

We’re very excited to be able to share this special event with you. Don’t miss out!

Join us!

Dusty Old Overholt Rye

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What Makes The Water of Life Whisky Event Extraordinary?

Matt Lurin hosts The Water Of Life Event
What is the best whiskey event in the world?  Indeed, what makes a great whisky event?  Great whisky to be tasted, to be sure.  But comfort, decadence, and camaraderie have evolved, for me at least, to be almost as important.  I'm going to make the case that Matt Lurin's Water of Life just might be the ultimate whisky event.  I'm going to lay out my reasoning in detail and back it up with photos and descriptions of last year's astonishing event and details of this year's which continues a dramatic evolution towards whisky event greatness.  This event is going down May 18th 2017 and you'll want to attend and pony up for one of the VIP ticket options (and there are more than one).  Read on.
Malt Maniac Peter Silver gets the story from Raj Sabharwal on the VIP Terrace
Why go to a whisky event at all?  The usual answer is - to taste a widely among current offerings - learning a lot.  The other reason is to reconnect with friends - and make new ones. The classic format, which I associate with the parent of modern whisky events: WhiskyFest, involves a large bourse with many tables each devoted to a given distillery, brand, or distributor.  People crowd around - Glencairn glasses extended - vying for a pour.  Presenters run through their spiel quickly - stating the same thing over and over to a disorganized swirl of people.  Over the course of such an evening, you spend most of the time standing.  Most of the drams are drunk too quickly - and too soon after the pour, lacking time to open up.  You run into friends, connect, lose them again in the crowd, and if you're lucky to reconnect.  Most whisky events - even the best ones (like the extraordinary Whisky Jewbilee) - tend to run like this.  They often have VIP sessions which are classroom style with sit-down tastings - but they tend to be at the beginning which means cutting out of work early to make them a challenge.

Diageo rep and fount of human warmth,
Joe Gratkowski, pours the extraordinary
Lagavulin 8.
The Water of Life is inherently different, and the difference comes from the central mission which is charitable.  Matt Lurin, the whisky enthusiast doctor who created it, developed it for a cause: helping cure a rare form of stomach cancer (GIST - gastro-intestinal stromal tumors) by supporting The GIST Cancer Awareness Foundation.  Every attendee is helping this charitable cause and this higher calling imbues the evening with a sense of celebration and meaning.

The main event (the non VIP ticket) is a sit-down format 'speed-dating' type of event where you sit with small group of 4-5 people at a table and at intervals move to a new table.  At each, you sit down and have the whisky representative's undivided attention for a chunk of time.  This eliminates the crush and creates a more leisurely comfortable tasting session that fosters real conversation, whiskies opening up, and a feeling of luxury and ease.  There are hors d'oeuvres, dinner, and dessert and the option to buy an additional ticket for cigars and terrace access (normally a VIP only perk).

This year, Matt has something special planned with different focuses available for both the standard and the VIP tickets.  You can choose either "The American Whiskey Trail"(which debuted last year) which is about Bourbon and rye, or the "Island Getaway" which is about Islay Scotch.  You can also choose "A little bit of everything" which omits the specific focus.  You can specify Kosher or non-Kosher meals.  The food was excellent in 2015 and 2016.  VIP adds special pours, a beautiful cut crystal glass and that cigar terrace (which has special pours).

Rare Japanest from Flavien's
private collection in the ultra-VIP sessions
If you want to really experience what makes The Water of Life amazing you need an ultra VIP ticket - even more than at just about any other whisky event.  It comes back to the charity angle again.   This basis of the event in charity motivates presenters in a special way.  At the 2016 ultra VIP sessions, extraordinary people brought extraordinary drams.  A 50 year old Dalmore was served at the apex of an extraordinary flight.  Josh Hatton, impresario of The Jewish Whisky Company, Single Cask Nation, creator of the Whisky Jewbilee, and also brand ambassador for Impex, led a VIP session with the very cream of Impex's offerings.  The impresario behind New York's greatest whisky bars, The Brandy Library and Copper and Oak, Flavien Desoblin brought an astounding array of Japanese whiskies from his private collection - most of which I had never heard of or seen before.  They were incredibly delicious.  And, most amazingly of all from my perspective, was Joe Hyman's session which included a pre-Prohibition Belmont Bourbon - one of my unicorns, and medicinal pints, WWII era Scotches and Canadian whiskies and more.  You just don't see whiskies of this rarity and caliber at ordinary whisky events.  Unlike Germany's dusty smorgasbord Limberg where rare antiquities are on sale by the dram, to be had standing, these VIP sessions were included with the VIP ticket and were convivial, seated, leisurely, and extraordinary.  These VIP sessions came out of the love the NY whiskey community has for Matt Lurin and his cause.  It evokes generosity and people came with their A-game and it really showed.
The view from the cigar table at the 2016
Water Of Life VIP Terrace

For 2017 the Ultra-VIP ticket gets a whole second evening (May 17th) dedicated to those amazing pours. That way ultra VIP session attendees don't have miss time at the speed dating portion.  There is also a separate kick-off party on May 17th.  Get the details here:

Last year the VIP venue was gorgeous and the cigars were delicious.  I love that he has created a way for standard ticket holders to get access to this.

All this luxury and charity doesn't come cheap.  But this isn't a regular whisky event.  It's for a cause - and it's something special.  The standard tickets are $275 and the VIP tickets are $400.  Use this discount code to get $25 off standard tickets and $50 off VIP ones:  "gcaf2017"
Get tickets here:

Here are a few more photos of the 2016 event.  Notice the smiles.  The warmth and joy are real.  It was the best whisky event I went to in 2016 and may have been the best I have ever attended.  I'm excited to see Matt's assault of whisky event greatness continue to evolve in 2017.

Extraordinary pours courtesy of Raj Sabharwal
of Purple Valley Imports on the VIP Terrace

Steph Ridgeway spreads HP joy.
This was standard pour at WOL
but not at any other show.

Prohibition medicinal half pint and 1950s dusties at The Water Of Life ultra VIP
Yoni Miller, Ari Susskind, and Josh Feldman
Ari Susskind pours Tomatin, and also something dusty and special in his copper flask.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Whisky Gets Glamorous Tomorrow Night in Harlem

That Harlem Rensaissance vibe... Photo by Clay Williams

 Jazz and dance.  Photo by Clay Williams
I'm headed to the Harlem Whiskey Renaissance 2017 tomorrow, Thursday March 30th, 2017.  It's a whiskey show - where you get an engraved Glencairn glass and can visit tables where brand ambassadors will take you through their lines - but you also get a lot more.  Live jazz music by Dandy Wellington and his Band with burlesque acts by The Maine Attraction and Calamity Chang.  Also an awesome raffle and charity auction, cigars, chocolate, food, and a great vibe.

There are a ton of whiskies on offer (I'll put the list at the bottom).  There are VIP tickets which include a master class tasting five different Heaven Hill mash bills and another contrasting Corsair, Leopold, and Charbay offerings.  Also, VIPs receive the book "Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking’s Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions" by Brian Hoefling.

Last year's VIP tasting featured Alan Roth presenting Glenfiddich - photo by Clay Williams 

Proceeds from this event will benefit a worthy charity which helps kids in Harlem: The Boys & Girls Harbor.

The venue is conveniently located right on 116th St at MIST-HARLEM, 46 W 116TH ST, NY, NY

Visit the event's web site to learn more:

Here is the link to get tickets:

Dancer joins in - photo by Clay Williams 
Some of pours and other attractions will include:
Dandy Wellington and his band jazz up the joint.
photo by Clay Williams 

Andullo Cigars
Black Bottle
Crown Royal
Dad's Hat
Elijah Craig
Evan Williams
Filibuster Bourbon
Four Roses
Glen Scotia
Jake Cahill pouring Four Roses Kentucky Bourbon.
photo by Clay Williams 

Harlem Chocolate Factory
Harlem Swing Dance Society
Henry McKenna
Hudson Whiskey
Johnnie Walker
Loch Lomand
Meyer's Alsatian Whisky
Old Portrero
Pikesville Rye
photo by Clay Williams 
Sonoma County Distilling Co.

Sounds like a fabulous time.  Join me there.
That link for tickets again:

David Bailey pouring elegant Scotch. - photo by Clay Williams 

photo by Clay Williams