Monday, September 30, 2013

Why Rye... Exploring The Rebirth Of An American Spirit - Its Rise, Fall, And Revival From Prohibition Through Resurgence.

It's going to be a barn burner of a rye tasting on Friday, November 1st at the fabulous Morgan Library & Museum's Dining Room.  I've been researching the fascinating history of rye whiskey in America and I'm going to share stories and anecdotes and a full and extensive flight of delicious rye whiskies as well as a deconstructed-make-your-own rye Manhattan cocktail.  I guarantee there won't be a dry eye (or throat) in the house - and it will be quite a trick emerging from such a smorgasbord sober. 

Rye is the original whiskey of America.  Brought by central European settlers from Germany, France, Holland, and the like, rye was a hardy grain that grew well in the climate of the Northeast and central Atlantic States.  It's what George Washington was distilling at Mt. Vernon in the 18th century.  It was the whiskey that dominated the tastes and the 18th and 19th century markets of Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  Sweet and herbal with a mouth filling spicy and bitters kick - rye is the most fully flavored distilled spirit by a country mile.  Its unique flavor signature was the quintessential American whiskey flavor and the mainstay of early mixed potables from Rock and Rye through the Rye Old Fashioned and Rye Manhattan (the original forms of these venerable drinks).

Rye was the most popular whiskey in America before Prohibition
Rye's fortunes changed for the worse with Prohibition.  Like the rest of the American spirits industry, rye production was wiped out.  While some rye was among the salvaged whiskies sold as "medicinal spirits" during Prohibition, the mash bills and specific production methods, as well as distilleries themselves, were lost.  After Repeal, production of Rye did resume in a few States - particularly Pennsylvania, Maryland,  and Kentucky - but the culture had changed.  Repeal's days of everyone drinking younger whisky may have had something to do with it, but palates shifted to prefer lighter spirits.  Bourbon was just as sweet, but had much less herbal bitters and spice.  Canadian was even smoother and lighter and Canadian's whisky's ascendance and huge dominance during the 50s and 60s helped spell rye's demise as a popular whiskey.  Rye's decline became precipitous during the rise of white spirts and by the 1970s rye whiskey had virtually disappeared from the American cultural landscape.  It had become seen as old man's whiskey.  Old fashioned.  Unhip.  Bourbon took its place in most cocktails - and Canadian whisky took its place in the rest.  Canadian is often called "rye" - and usually contains some.  But most Canadian whiskies are blends where rye plays a minority role.  However, some Canadian ryes will play a role in our tasting (bonus selections!)

Whiskey production ceased entirely in rye's old strong holds of Pennsylvania and Maryland in the period of whiskey's post-Mad Men era's fall from grace.  Only a few brands of rye hung on in limited availability, produced only in Kentucky and Indiana and forgotten by most consumers.  But, like whiskey in general in the past 15 years or so, rye is has re-surged, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.  Broadly, as a culture, America was embracing rich flavors again and rejecting the "wonderbread" aesthetic in American food and drink.  As American palates turned from light, thin, beers like Bud to rich and bitter imported and craft beers, the palate preferences in the whiskey world were bound to reignite for rye.  All the same flavor elements that make rich beer delight the senses are at play in rye - and then some.  The number of rye whiskies available has exploded and rye has resumed its rightful place neat in the snifters of Americans and in the heart of American whiskey cocktails.  It's something to celebrate and enjoy.

Rye whisky has a special place in the history of New York - and a special significance for J.P. Morgan who loved the Manhattan.  How special it is to discuss this history and enjoy these flavors in Jack Morgan's dining room.

On the listing for the event appears as follows:

A discussion of the history of rye whiskey in the United States - it's rise, and fall and subsequent phoenix-like rebirth. Particular focus will be placed on its role in the history of New York and the Manhattan cocktail - related to the scholarship of presenter Joshua Feldman, blogger of The discussion will take the form of historic images, as well as an extensive tasting:
  • Rittenhouse 100
  • Angel's Envy Rye
  • Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye
  • Tuthilltown Spirits Hudson Manhattan Rye
  • Old Potrero
  • Willet Single Barrel Estate Rye
  • Thomas H. Handy Rye
...and some unannounced specials as well.
Also includes the deconstructed ingredients of the Manhattan cocktail for assembly and experimentation, and a small plate sampling accompaniment.
$85 if reserved by October 12, $95 beginning October 13th.
For reservations or inquiries call 212-685-0008 x589 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Master of Malt Glenturret 1977 34 Year Old: Tangello Cream and a Puzzling Lack of Rarity.

There were at least six casks of Glenturret distilled in 1977 bottled in 2012 at 34 years old by four different independent bottlers.  I find that remarkable.  The consensus was that there was a "pallet" - whatever that is.  I've noticed this kind of thing before.  For example all of a sudden there are 3 different meteorite apocalypse movies in one year.  The next year there are multiple volcano apocalypse movies - in the same year.  Zeitgeist?  More likely competition or cooperation among rivals.  That doesn't explain a whole bunch of whisky of identical vintage - somehow being bottled at the same time.  The story we are told is that casks are aged and periodically tasted until someone very knowledgeable about whisky determines that it's ready.  It sounds like a pretty approximate decision: is it getting over oaked?  Can it be pushed further?  What are the odds that 34 years in, at least 4 different whisky professionals spontaneously decide to bottle their separate independent casks at the same time?  Yet that's supposedly what happened.

Four separate bottlings alone were reviewed by Reuben of Whiskynotes: Maltbarn (48.4%), Malts of Scotland (47.4%), Whisky Agency (46.7%), as well as the Master of Malt bottling (47.9%):
(spoiler alert - he likes them all and gives them all 90s and 91s).

There were also two casks of 1977 Glenturret bottled in the same years by Berry Brother's Rudd (Cask #1 at 46% and cask #2 at 47.6%):

Cask #2 of the BBR version was reviewed by Oliver Klimek:
(he gave it an 86 - but he's notoriously tough).

Berry Brothers also bottled another cask of 1977 Glenturret the following year as a 35 year old at 46%:

I presume that "pallet" means that a single independent bottler owns and ages a bunch of barrels of the same vintage and then, rather than produce 6 different single barrel offerings, chooses to sell a number of them to other independent bottlers.  If you have any specific information about this practice, please let me know.

Glenturret, by the way, is the distillery expression at the heart of The Famous Grouse.  Because of this, the Edrington Group runs The Grouse Experience there.  Glenturret is well known as a sweet and lively Highland dram with some acid bite that typically reads of peaches, apricots, or oranges combined with a creamy quality.  Single malt expressions are offered by Gordon and MacPhail - particularly a MacPhail's brown label 11 year old which I've had the good fortune to pour and taste many times (review to follow).

Glenturret is particularly famous for its distillery cat Towser.  I'll let the epitaph on her monument do the talking:

Glenturret Distillery, Crieff, Scotland 21 April 1963 - 20 March 1987
"Towser the famous cat who lived in the still house Glenturret Distillery for almost 24 years. She caught 28,899 mice in her lifetime. World Mousing Champion. Guinness Book of Records"

That's a very good kitty!  As for the 1977 vintage Glenturret whisky: after 34 years in oak, a lot of maturation effects should be in evidence.  The one that really excites me in very mature whisky is esterification.  Acids and alcohols combine to form chemical compounds called esters which give additional fruity notes.  Consumption of acids lowers the pH of maturing whisky as well.  Angel's share evaporation further concentrates the sugars and flavor compounds that remain.  Oak influence and chemicals from the oak, including flavorful lactones, tannins and lignans infuse the whisky.  With hyper mature whisky you get all these maturation effects in greater abundance.  The question - as always - is balance.  Is this Master of Malt bottling a good kitty?  It's hardly news that it is.

Glenturret 34 year old 47.9% abv.

Master of Malt Single Cask bottle #3 of 247.  Distilled 28 October, 1977.  Bottled May 2012.  Refill Sherry Hogshead.  Non chill filtered.

Color:  Full Gold

Nose:  Rich estery malt: honey comb, ripe melon, paraffin wax, ambergris, tangerine, bourbon-like peach compote, mineral dust, and, deep within, some musky sex smells.  Basically - an orgy in a candle shop.

Palate:  Intensely sweet and fruity opening with honey drenched over-ripe apricots, tangellos and mangosteen.  Then a big broad mouth filling expansion with malt cakes in cream, tart citrus rind, overripe melon, paraffin, ambergris, and roobios tea.  The turn to the finish brings old oak tannic bitterness - but just a hint.  It's surprisingly light on oak for such as old dram.  The finish is malty and gentle and of moderate length - perhaps surprising it isn't longer given how intense the earlier phases were.

Whiskies like this tend to be swimmers.  A half a teaspoon of water enhances the spiciness - but but doesn't take the sweetness higher until substantial time is allowed for integration.  When it happens it integrates the added spiciness with the creamy citrus estery wax honey show.  It's pretty stunning. But, the achilles heel is the tartness can trend into bitterness in the finish.  You must experiment with water with this whisky - but it's not a grand slam winner over neat.  It's a bit deceptive in this regard.

It's a magnificent whisky overall - although you could nitpick that it's a little bit tart, the finish is a tad short, and it doesn't fully open with water.  But that doesn't detract enough from its considerable strengths to make me take any stars away.

Enjoy these old glut whiskies while you can.  The hot market is sucking them down quickly.  This is the topic of a rare diversion from tasting notes on Reuben's whiskynotes - a very thought provoking article you should check out concerning the end of the era of affordable hyper mature glut whisky:

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Smooth Ambler Yearling Bourbon - An Infant of Power and Grace.

Smooth Ambler is an exciting, relatively new whiskey project in the heart of West Virginia.  Unlike a lot of craft distillers these days, John Little, Master Distiller, wants to make good bourbon in the classic style.  This is almost a rarity in the Wild Wild West of craft spirits where everyone is trying to do something wildly inventive, iconoclastic, and "break the mold" in one domain or another.  For many craft distillers this mean rapid maturation in small barrels, and sometimes even additional tricks to enhance rapid maturation ranging from high heat, low frequency sound, wood chips and stave chunks to enhance surface area or even mechanical pressure to force the whisky through the wood.  There's also a diverse creativity in mash bills and experimentation with what should go into the mash.  Smooth Ambler doesn't do any of this.  They make traditional spirits in the traditional way.  And they do it well.  The biggest novelty here is that they are doing it in the mountains of West Virginia.

Now a big reason that so many other craft distillers are all about rapid maturation is that they want to start selling whiskey sooner.  Smooth Ambler, like many other craft distillers, also sells a variety of white (unaged) spirits, specifically Greenbriar Gin and Whitewater Vodka (and a barrel aged gin as well).  But whiskey is the primary angle.  Instead of selling young whiskey that has been rapidly "matured", like so many others, Smooth Ambler went the route of bottling casks of bourbon and rye selected ("Curated") from other distilleries to tide them over until their own distilled bourbon was ready.  Many other craft distillers sell bourbon or rye they got from another distillery too (and many of them do not actually distill anything of their own either) - and there has been a bunch of controversy about dishonesty among what Chuck Cowdery has labelled "NDP" Non Distiller Producers because many of them play games with the labeling laws and hide the fact that they are selling someone else's juice.  Chuck asked:

"why do business with someone who makes you play stupid guessing games about the basic question of who made their product?"

Smooth Amber doesn't do this either.  About a year ago I wrote about Smooth Ambler's "curated" bottlings of bourbons and ryes from Lawrenceburg Distillers of Indiana, now MGP.  They have taken pains to separately brand and label their "curated" whiskeys - labelled "Old Scout" and "Very Old Scout".  They are completely, refreshingly, honest and up front about acknowledging what and where.  In that post I pointed out that Smooth Ambler did the whole brokered bourbon thing the right way - and for the right reasons (i.e. to help finance the development of a native West Virginia true straight bourbon whiskey.)  I said that buying Smooth Ambler was essentially a "patriotic act".   I stand by that assessment just as much today as I did a year ago.

John Little - nice guy - but lethal to fish
John Little, himself, is extremely appealing, by the way.  Craftsman, redneck, intellectual, and what the Yiddish call "Mensch".  Little is a complete person: family man, thinker, passionate, full of integrity.  I enjoy every interaction I have with him.  And I've had quite a few thanks to social media.  John is a redneck who loves to shoot (and teaches his kids to shoot), fish, and build stuff.  He also likes to argue politics.  Being at the nexus of a number of communities (i.e. whisky epicures, drinkers, and his West Virginia small town community) these debates tend to bring together people from across the usual cultural and political divides.  Little is Solomonic in these things.  He sees the good in every position.  In the polarized world of American politics people who can do this are a rarity.  I must confess I have come to like him quite a bit.

But what about Smooth Ambler's native West Virginia bourbon whiskey?  Over the past year or so they have released a product called "Yearling" which is a young taste of their bourbon.  This is analogous to many other new distillery's "work in progress" bottlings like Kilkerran's "Work in Progress"; Ardbeg" "Young" and "Still Young", Kilchoman's "Inaugural", and Mackmyra's "Preludium".  Yearling is Smooth Ambler's "Preludium"

It's made with a wheated mash bill (corn, wheat and barley) and the new batches (batch 11 is the current one) are aged in full size new oak barrels.  Older batches reflect Smooth Ambler's evolution.  Early batches were aged in  small kiln dried barrels and a mash bill with more wheat and less corn .  As they went along they tuned the mash bill, upping the corn, and changed the barrel management to exclusively large sized barrels.  (Specifics of the mash bill follow in Little's comments at the end of this post).   The bottle I picked up and carried around for months and months is one of the old ones.  It's under two years old - too young to be called "Straight Bourbon".  Young wheaters aren't supposed to be particularly tasty - but the proof is in the glass.

Smooth Ambler Yearling Bourbon Whiskey 46% abv.  

375ml bottle.  Aged 1 Year and 10 Months.  Batch 4, Bottled 5/28/12 by TJH.

Color: light amber and dark gold with russet glints.

Nose:  Gentle bourbon aromas of stewed stone fruits, citrus, and candy.  Lightly floral with elements of violets and mint, with a vegetal and nutty quality like unroasted peanuts.  Underneath is a lovely exotic oak aromas that come off like patchouli or sandalwood incense.   The nose is lovely.  It takes 20-30 minutes to really bloom in the glass but when it does it gets bigger and sweeter than you'd think it could.

Palate:  Sweet and gently spicy.  The opening is sweet with treacle, peach, solvent, and corn syrup and spicy with red pepper flakes.  The expansion follows quickly with a prickly warm earthy musky quality I find reminiscent of Beam: loamy and farmy - like digging in the earthen floor of an old barn.  The whole mid-palate has an elegant lean lithe quality that reads "sophisticated spirit" to me.  There's some bready yeasty notes in the late expansion.  This is the area where I most notice the youth.  At the turn to the finish there's a bitter herbal turn that curbs the sweetness of the opening.  There are notes of new leather and classic herbal bitters here.  The finish is gentle with oak and char and earthy glow.  The herbal bitter aspect lasts longer than you'd expect for such a young whisky.

 The mouth feel is gentle and light - but flavor dense and never thin.  Despite the sweet opening the whole balance is almost dry.  This is lovely, nuanced, elegant bourbon already.  At 46% there's head room to experiment with water.  Water adds to the musk on the nose, but notches down the attractive incense aspects.  A few drops amps up the heat and spice on the palate, slightly enriches the mouth feel, but also adds to the bitters on the finish.  I prefer it neat - without water.

Final verdict:  delicious.


It's fine bourbon now and it shows enormous promise for the future.  Wheated bourbons, in particular, tend to age well.  This is a fine distillate.  With John Little's shepherding, there is no reason to expect anything less than great things from Smooth Ambler's own bourbons in the future.  

I discussed these points explicitly with John Little.  He described the evolution of Yearling's mash bill and barrel management as follows:

"Yearling started off as 60% corn, 20% wheat, and 20% malted barley. It was all originally barreled in small casks (5-15 gallons). It was kiln dried, I believe. I think it adds to the one real negative in small casks...popsicle stick or sawdust notes. Now the recipe is 73% corn, 15% wheat, 12% malted barley....all in big barrels. So, the first stuff we release will be the old recipe and we will transition into the new recipe...but all will be from big barrels."

My bottle here is the early mash bill small barrel stuff.  That means that later batches of Yearling should be even better.  I'm going to seek out a later sample and do a head to head.  As for when the flagship Smooth Ambler native bourbon will be coming out, Little says:  

"I think it's good now but we are going to wait until 2015 for the release of our "flagship". It will be named something else, but we can't quite nailed the name yet. Suggestions?"

I'll be thinking of names.  If you have any suggestions put them in the comments below and I'll be sure to pass them along.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Monkey Business

Monkey Shoulder is a blended malt (a mixture of malt whiskies from different distilleries, not containing grain whisky) that has been on the market for almost a decade (since 2005).  It sells for a very reasonable price - around $30.  Yet, somehow it had eluded me until recently.  Events aligned to make Monkey Shoulder a part of a number of evenings over this summer.  It all started a few months ago when I attended a Tasting Table barbecue with NYC food and whisky blogger Susannah Skiver Barton (@whattastesgood) of  She blogged about the event at:

One of the featured cocktails at the event was made with Monkey Shoulder (the "Summmer Jam".  See Susannah's post for the recipe).  Attending the event was a voluble and fascinating young Englishman named Freddie May (@oloroso) who reps Monkey Shoulder (among other interesting whiskies and spirits) for William Grant & Sons.  We had a fascinating conversation about whisky: maturation, mashing, barrel management and the William Grant operations.  Stuff like that.  My whisky geek monkey bone was tweaked.

Susannah Skiver Barton toasts a Summer Jam with Freddie May
I subsequently sought out Freddy May to see him do a tasting of the Tuthill Hudson line at The Astoria Whiskey Society (the subject of a future post).  Also at the barbecue was a young man named Nicholas Rotondi, who works at PR firm Exposure.  Nicholas has been a part of a lot of fun evenings lately (which is another story entirely).  Nicholas' role in this story was to express some surprise that I hadn't tasted Monkey Shoulder straight.  He kindly sent over a bottle for review (thanks Nicholas).  As in the manner of the Zeitgeist, I found myself encountering Monkey Shoulder again and again in the weeks that followed.  As it happens it's in my glass right now - and it's a value for the money champion with a few interesting wrinkles to its tale.

Nicholas Rotondi of Exposure: party meister
Monkey Shoulder is a blended malt composed primarily of whisky made at a small distillery near Balvenie (and operated by the William Grant & Sons - the same parent company) called Kininvie.  Kininvie, built on July 4th 1990 is on of the newer distilleries in Scotland - and Monkey Shoulder is one of the few ways to taste it (there are only a handful of single malt editions).  Most of its output initially went into Clan MacGregor.  Kininvie is only a few hundred meters away from Balvenie, and it doesn't have its own mash tuns.  It gets its mash piped from Balvenie.  Kininvie was mothballed in 2011 but then re-opened in 2012.  Now Monkey Shoulder is primarily Kininvie, but it also has malt whiskies from Balvenie and Glenfiddich as well.  It's a NAS vatting - but the age of the whiskies is around 8-9 years of age.  The "Batch 27" on the label apparently refers to each batch being vatted of 27 individual casks of whisky.  The casks used are exclusively ex-bourbon - and it shows in the color and the flavors which are honeyed and malty - without any sherry influence.  At $30 to $35, Monkey Shoulder is priced comparably with mid-range luxury blends like Chival Regal and is a few bucks less than  Johnny Walker Black Label.

Monkey Shoulder Batch 27 43% abv.

Color:  Full Gold

Nose:  Honey, malt, heather, floral bloom, wax, apple, green melon, hint of anise.  There's also a bit of distant musky almost meaty animal smell behind those sweet fruits.  All of these elements are gentle and light - yet sweet and satisfying.  It's a very pretty nose.  For the price it's stunning.

The palate after a sufficient amount of airing (20 minutes) is malt sweet on entry, with vanilla pods and florals.  Honey and honeycomb wax big - with an attractive aspect of Speyside classic apple pear and melon fruits.  Warm and malty on the expansion with some white pepper.  43% isn't the norm at this price and it brings some richness and a bit of intensity that I greatly appreciate.  The finish is gentle and relatively short.  But this doesn't come off as too young.  The spirit heat is well integrated into the malty richness.  Sweetness and fruits with a relative absence of oak tannins or bite are the hallmarks of youth here.  The palate isn't huge, but the sins are of omission rather than commission.  This comes off as a quality highland malt with a classic Speyside profile.  You can taste the Glenfiddich and the Balvenie in it in the green fruits, honey, and sweet balance.  It's a fine malt to relax with, at a price that you can use heedlessly. I've had the opportunity to dram it in a variety of circumstances and its gentle sweetness is immediately appealing with people new to malt whisky.  Yet there is enough going on to satisfy experienced malt fans (as long as they don't have their peat freak or thinking caps on).  Gentle, sweet, fruity and appealing.  Easily recommended.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Glen Grant Five Decades: A Mature Beauty With a Baby's Face. A Deceptively Simple Malt With Hidden Depths.

Glen Grant Five Decades is a deceptive dram.  A visual twin for the entry expression it also shares a similar nose.  But that's not the full story.
A limited edition Glen Grant is about to be distributed in the USA (September, 2013).  It is a special vatting of selections from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s, by Master Distiller Dennis Malcolm.  This occasion of this special blend is the anniversary of  Malcolm's five decades with the distillery since he began as an apprentice cooper in the early 1960s.  It's meant to be a statement expression and is priced accordingly.  MSRP in the USA is $250 for 750ml.

I'm a big fan of Glen Grant.  The Major's Reserve is a solid low cost single malt.  Recently, I've been plumbing the depths with an amazing sherried 12 from the 80s, and more complex refill sherry 16 and 37 year old single cask expressions all from independent bottlers (reviews to follow).  Glen Grant achieves classic Speyside white pear and honey flavors that take brilliantly to sherry and to aging.  Hyper mature Glen Grants are floral fruit baskets that just hit my monkey bone.  I was very excited to try this interesting blend of mature and young whiskies.

Glen Grant Five Decades 46% abv.

Color:  Pale gold - straw.

Nose:  Gently floral magnolia, heather and honey with fresh breezes of linen.  Deeper nosing reveals a bit of musky waxy ambergris way underneath.  It's lovely but rather shy nose.

Palate:  Sweet and lightly malty on opening.  There is vanilla, and florals, and treacle sugar and bit of honeycomb - but very light.  There is some white pear and melon too.  The expansion is gentle and brings an underlying structure of fresh malt, barley cakes, and white tea.  The finish is warming and gently malty, with some hints of oak and seed cake, but also of cardboard.  It's overwhelming light and feels more of immature malt than mature malt.

Adding two drops of water makes the nose even more shy - but amps up the sweetness and richness of the palate.  The entry fairly explodes with juicy treacle sugars.  The floral, vanilla, honey, and lightly waxy aspects are enriched and it becomes quite a tasty dram.  But it still feels quite a bit on the light and young end of the spectrum.

With some extended air things open even further.  I begin to get sherry notes: jammy fig cake, leather, olorosso woven into the honey and grass sugars.  This is delicious - but this extreme degree of evolution is, frankly, a little weird.  In my initial tasting the color and light balance on the palate and, in particular, the nose made me grab my bottle of Glen Grant The Major's Reserve (a whisky that goes for about 1/8th the price of Five Decades).  Initially I was finding a lot of similarities: youth, honey, treacle sugars.  But with two drops and water and more time to open the Five Decades, despite looking identical in the glass, achieved a dramatically richer, denser, and more complex palate.  The nose, however, remains strikingly similar.


My initial impression was 'this is way too light and young to be worth this price'.  However, time and water take Five Decades to someplace special.  It's not like the rich, mature, Glen Grants - and it's not like the young sprightly Glen Grants.  And it's not like what you'd expect a straight mixture would be either.  The result of Dennis Malcolm's efforts is a decepticon that comes off as young and simple when first poured - all the way from the light color to the gentle nose and the light creamy flavor balance.  But time, air, and a few drops of water unleash depths of richness and complexity that take their time to show up.  Then Olorosso sherry flavors and big sugars and honey floral aspects enliven the palate - but not the nose.  I found this coy fan dance delightful - like a color change gem.  But I won't be surprised if some folks are disappointed - particularly if they jump to conclusions.  Light and nimble isn't normally what people want from their expensive limited edition drams. It's confusing, but ultimately beguiling.

(2 oz sample provided by Nicholas from Exposure - Thanks!)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Illuminating and Unsung Batch Evolution of Balcones Texas Single Malt

Creative wood finishes affect color. Ex-bourbon, left, is copper.  Q.Robur, center, is red. And Q. Alba, right, is golden amber.
Balcones Texas Single Malt Whisky has been racking up awards and accolades left and right since its introduction in July of 2011.  A partial list includes:
  • Double Gold (best single malt & best whisk(e)y) at the 2011 New York World Wine & Spirits, 
  • Double Gold again at the 2012 San Francisco World Wine & Spirits, 
  • Chairman's Trophy at the 2012 Ultimate Beverage Challenge, 
  • Best in Category at the 2012 American Distilling Institute Awards, and 
  • Silver at the Wizards of Whisky Awards in London.  
But the one that really impressed me; the one that counted WAY more to me than all those namby-pamby industry awards was the award given by actual top flight whisky bloggers Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison of one of my favorite whisky blogs:  In 2012, in their 6th annual "Best In Glass" awards, they put Texas Single Malt up against the finalists of their broad survey - a group including some of the best from top names like Macallan, Johnny Walker, Glenmorangie, Cutty Sark, Nikka, Kilchoman, and Teelings - as judged by a panel of 11 of the top blenders, journalists, and major buyers; all people who really know their stuff.  The Texas Single Malt beat them all.  They conclude:  "A mighty whisky..."  The accolades don't stop with the awards either.  The blogosphere has reached unusual consensus.  Texas Single Malt has been widely lauded in numerous whisky blogs around the world - in posts dating from 2011 to the current day. It has a creamy vanilla sweetness that leads into a rich malty caramel quality and a powerful charred oaky hit at the tail that positions this malt somewhere between a bourbon's new charred oak flavor and a Scottish malt's delicate sweetness.  The robust flavors, helped by generous proof, and rich charred oak help communicate the American - and Western - provenance.  The rich caramel malt flavors and vanilla sweetness put you squarely in malt territory.  It's, frankly, delicious.  
Six different expressions of Balcones Texas Single Malt reviewed.
(warning - major whisky geekery ahead...)
However, there has been absolute silence concerning the issue of batch variation in this landmark craft distilling product - of which there has been a substantial degree.  This is particularly surprising considering that Texas Single Malt hasn't been experiencing conventional batch variation so much as a dramatic and deliberate batch EVOLUTION - with significant changes in bottling proof and wood management.  Here's what I'm talking about.  The following table lists different batches by batch number, % alcohol by volume, and the type of wood used in the initial small barrel and subsequent large barrel maturation.  

Batch % abv      Wood-5 gal barrels   Wood-60 gal. barrels
SM11-2 51.0% abv Yard aged white oak  Yard aged white oak
SM12-4 50.5% abv Yard aged white oak  Yard aged white oak
SM12-6 52.0% abv Yard aged white oak  Ex-bourbon
SM12-7 53.0% abv Yard aged white oak  Yard aged white oak
Cask 2417  Yard aged white oak  E. European (Q.Robur)
SM12-8 53.0% abv Yard aged white oak  E. European
SM13-3 53.0% abv Yard aged white oak  Yard aged white oak)

Let me explain in greater detail.  Texas Single Malt is initially aged in 20 Liter (roughly 5 gallon) bespoke barrels made of Balcones' Master Distiller Chip Tate's carefully prepared yard aged white oak seasoned for 2-3 years in Missouri where it can freeze over the winter.  After a period of initial maturation, the small barrels are dumped into larger 200 liter (53 gallon) or 225 liter (60 gallon) barrels for batch marrying and final maturation.  These second or "finishing" barrels are made of various different woods.  The majority of batches use the same Quercus Alba - custom yard aged American white oak as the small barrels.  However some batches used custom yard aged Eastern European oak, Quercus Robur - which added spice and gave the whiskies a red color.  At least one other batch used 53 gallon ex-bourbon barrels from Wild Turkey for the finishing / marrying maturation period.  Furthermore the proof climbed from 50.5% abv (101 proof) to the current 53% (106 proof).  The tale of the shifting proof can be seen in the printing on the case boxes - such as this one spotted in the loading area of Park Avenue Liquors in NYC:  What's that down at the bottom?  Take a closer look:  
Yes - apparently batch 12-3 was 105.8 proof and batch 12-7 had increased that to 106 proof.  Chip confirms that the 92 proof on the printing was never made - just an idea that fell by the wayside when palate testing dictated a stronger proof.

This diversity of proofs and wood management represents a searching for optimization in the expression.  Let me be clear: all of these versions of Texas Single Malt are quite similar to each other.  There is a real unity to the various batches in this expression, despite this tinkering with various parameters which may be why this topic has escaped mention until now.  Furthermore, the period of experimentation is now over.  The results are in and Chip and company have decided on a final and permanent configuration - as represented by a change in the labeling since batch SM12-9 as you will see below.  Despite the great similarity of these batches, however, the wood finishes add a detectable aromatic overtone to the distillate.  The experimentation in finishes is real and apparent to the palate and nose, particularly once you know what to look for.  What follows is a set of tasting notes and a concluding argument about what this represents in the wider context of American Craft Distilling.

1) Batch 12-4: 50.5% abv. All yard aged American oak:
Batch 12-4 labels: 'yard-aged American oak.' 50.5% abv hand written
Color: Light amber with coppery glints.
Nose: honeyed citrus, vanilla florals, burned spun sugar, charred oak.
Caramelized powdered sugar, big creamy sweet vanilla, and a ton of tangy citrus explode on the palate's opening.  The mid palate blooms with rich malt, tons of bourbon-like charred oak with plenty of sandalwood filigree, and a melding of the sugars and citrus tang.  The turn to the finish is gentle with fading muted malts, and an easy toffee fade. The finish itself is gentle and even easier.  It drops you off softly and leaves you with a kiss of caramel in your mouth. 
I found this particular array of flavors extremely seductive and after I tasted the subsequent varieties I decided this was my favorite and I put away a couple.  They didn't last.  Recently I cracked the last one for a VIP visitor:  Michael Kravitz, blogger of Diving For Pearls who wrote about it in his post describing our meeting.  

2) Batch 12-6 52% abv. Yard aged oak with an Ex bourbon barrel finish:

Batch 12-6 ups the proof to 52% and adds Ex bourbon barrel to the finish.
Color: Medium amber with golden glints:
The nose is noticeably drier with an earthy loamy musty quality - almost of young leather.  There are old papers and musty funk in the nose - in the place of the more exhuberant sugary sweet cream and char of the 12-4's nose.
The palate is drier too, with more oak spice in the expansion and more spicy burn in the finish.  It's a very relative the thing.  The opening is still richly sweet with plenty of vanilla sugars.  But the citrus is muted under the leathery loamy musty quality and the oak notes - already prominent - are amped up further.   This is my least favorite batch.  The barrels used formerly held Wild Turkey bourbon.

3) Batch 12-7 53% abv. - all yard aged American white oak.

Color: Light golden amber.
Nose: Gentle vanilla cream with floral esters. A regal and Scotch-like gentle citrus tang melds with the floral vanilla and musk and oak. The confluence of floral sweet, jammy citrus and oak perfume.

The palate entry is intensely sweet with powdered confectioner's sugar with an effusive explosion of vanilla and camellia floral notes. The mid palate expansion has a glow of spirit heat with white pepper and the emergence of gentle oak tannin. Butter toffee Maillard reaction caramel notes join with the fading sugars and emerging oak spice on the turn to the finish. The finish is malty sweet with tannin squeak and herbal bitter. Just lovely. It's a clear malt whisky with the intense powder sweet entry so characteristic of Balcones and a big big flavor amplitude with aggressive wood spice and citrus notes that read a bit of bourbon. Very much like the 12-4 - but takes it a bit further with higher proof and a leaner, sharper, and more elegant (if a tad less lush) presentation.


Balcones Brand Ambassador Winston Churchill Edwards explained to me that from 12-7 onwards, the proof was standardized at 53% abv.

4) Experimental cask 2417, proof not stated, Quercus Robur Eastern European oak maturation.  Aged in an Eastern European oak wood with a unique flavor profile, Quercus Robur, for 6 months and for about 8 months to a year in American White Oak.  This was one of the experimental casks that Chip brought to New York in Spring and Summer of 2012 and I had the opportunity to try and to take a sample.   It shows the evolution in Chip's thinking - that led to the Quercus Robur finished Texas Single Malt batch 12-8 that follows.   Color: rich reddish amber

Nose: Vanilla pods, sandalwood, solvent, a wisp of meaty parma ham, some soft apricot/citrus cognac-like citrus. A very refined and complex nose that tends towards a floral version of a bourbon presentation rather than a classic malt nose.

Quercus Rober European oak adds reddish color
Palate: Rich confectioner's sugar sweet on entry with floral vanilla and vanilla butter cream icing trending into a rich apricot citrus fruit compote at the end of the entry. The mid-palate arrives with a potent expansion bringing a major palate shift to filigreed oak sandalwood perfume and cinnamon-like heat from oak spiciness. The finish is lingering with the slow burn of the Quercus Robur's heat, oak tannin, and a bit of herbal bitter like hops. Big and sweet, with enormous flavor amplitude, but a refined and complex flavor mix with some major shifts and complexities as it moves across the palate. It's wasn't finished at time time I took the sample I'm re-tasting tonight, but already it's one of the finest American craft spirits I've ever tasted.


5) Batch 12-8 53% abv - with an Eastern European Oak (Q. Robur) finish:

Color: rich reddish amber, a near twin to the cask 2417 - perhaps a tad less red and more amber.

Nose: richer and broader than the 2417, but the rancio pointed cognac-like citrus aspect that is the distinct aroma signature of Q. Robur's addition is clearly in evidence.

The palate has the vanilla florals, toffee caramel, and rich charred oak of "regular" Texas Single Malt - but now there is a thread of the citrus rancio flavor like a fine cognac and the fierce cinnamon clove heat  of the exotic oak.  It's a rich flavor experience - very very good and quite different from the white oak Texas Single Malt varieties primarily because of the spicy heat.  It's the "Spice Tree" variety.  FYI - Oliver Klimek of Dramming recently reviewed this batch and writes a rich and evocative set of tasting notes that really outclasses mine:

"Nose: Dark caramel, resiny pine wood, fried banana, candied lemon, vanilla, cloves and nutmeg, hints of eucalyptus.Palate: Nutty fudge, burnt sugar, chestnut honey, just hints of lemon zest and banana, a rich mix of wood spices .
Finish: Medium long, spicy and slightly sweet.
Overall: Quite an unusual flavour profile here with strong emphasis on wood (in a good way)"

But then, despite his description of the Finish as "Medium long, spicy and slightly sweet" concludes, somewhat confusingly " It’s a very nice whisky overall, apart from the slightly shortish finish." and gives it an 84.

[On twitter the morning after this posted Oliver Klimek explained  "Medium long" is shortish compared to long which I consider standard. I expect a long finish, it's important for me. So "medium long" is too short to be really enjoyable."  This explains it to my satisfaction.  The finish on all the Texas Single Malts is gentle - which I enjoy, personally.  I'm certainly not going to quibble with Klimek's score.  I wager 84 is the among the highest that toughie has ever given for an American craft whisky...]

I found this elegantly cognac-like and richly spicy variety of Texas Single Malt elegant, delicious, and seductive.  It's a very different dram that the sunny, open, lush and juicy 12-4 - and really gives it run for its money in my opinion.


6) Batch 13-3 53% abv - all yard aged American oak.  

This new batch is represents the end of the evolution with the new label that no longer has a space for notes on the wood management and the printed (no longer hand written) 53% abv. statement on the front label.  This is a testament to the finality with which 53% is now the proof of Texas Single Malt and Yard Aged White Oak is the wood of choice for both phases of maturation.  Henceforth only the batch number and date will be recorded.

[The morning after this posted Dustin Slater @redbeartx tweeted pics of his bottled of batch SM12-10 bottled 12-13-12 which has the updated labels with no space for the wood finish on the rear label and the 53% printed, not written, on the front label.  So batch SM12-10 (and possibly 12-9) NOT 13-3, is actually the batch that "represents the end of the evolution".  Thanks, Dustin.]

[Winston Churchill Edwards, Balcones BA @BalconesWinston, further added:  "The proof was standardized at 12-8. In print at 12-9."]

The notes on 13-3 are nearly identical to those for 12-7.  Tasting them side to side there is hardly anything to distinguish them by.  The nose has added a bit of waxy estery quality - just a hint.  The sugars of the opening are intensified over 12-4 - probably by the additional 5 proof - yielding a leaner more lithe and elegant presentation.  There are aspects of high end rum weaving in among the rich malt and bourbon flavors in the form of turbinado sugars with the maillard reaction browning of oxidizing cane.  Creamy vanilla, toffee, citrus, baking spices, rich oak - we're hitting all the flavor elements that made batch 12-4 a stand out but with added intensity, elegance, and drive.  Batch 13-3, like 12-7 before it, take the flavor signature of Texas Single malt to a new level.  Again.  Big and brown, Batch 13-3 takes it a tad further in the finish.  The browned sugars and butter start trending into an almost cocoa flavor among the burnt spun sugars.

Ultimately though - so what?  So, Chip monkeyed around with the Texas Single Malt a bit in 2012 and nobody noticed.  Why am I making a fuss here?  I discussed this issue with the Balcones Brand Ambassador Winston Churchill Edwards, who acted distinctly like he'd rather I didn't bother writing this story.  He was more interested in emphasizing the common elements - the unity - of the brand.

The American Craft whisky movement is alternately reviled and celebrated. When it's being reviled the usual complaints go something like this:  "Craft distillers are rank beginners who don't know what they are doing. You don't just go up against the centuries of hard won experience of traditional distillers and suddenly do it better".  When it's being celebrated there is talk of creativity and thinking outside the box.  In the critical press and blogosphere there is plenty of acknowledgement that a lot of craft whiskies frankly just don't taste that amazing - even if they are conceptually interesting or are exploring important new ground.

Balcones Texas Malt is an exception.  Not only is it delicious, but this process of tinkering is a testament to Chip pushing to improve a product that is already very good.  It shows a level of perfectionism and craftsmanship that belies the negative stereotypes of American Craft Distilling.  This really isn't much of a surprise.  Good whisky is seldom an accident.  Hard work are care are required. The kind of thought, care and relentless experimentation that made Texas Malt good to begin with has driven Chip to make it even better now.  The fact that Batch 13-3, the one that ushers in permanent labels, tastes the best is more evidence that Chip Tate has deliberately crafted this improvement on purpose.

Chuck Cowdery's column in the Whiskey Advocate's Fall 2013 issue (page 33) ends with a paragraph that reads:

"All this is not to say that there are no American-made single malts.  There are several, like the ones from Balcones (Texas), McCarthy's (Oregon), and Wasmund's (Virginia). [and I would add Stranahan's (Colorado) and Tuthilltown Hudson (New York)].  They're all aged but nobody wants to talk about how long.  They're rarely compared to scotch, which may be the point.  These distillers show it is possible to make a successful malt whiskey within the American regulatory framework."

Balcones Texas Single Malt is a NAS product. Chip doesn't say how old it is, but given the time line of the distillery it must be well younger than 4 years and may be younger than 2.

But that misses the point here.  Texas Single Malt is uniquely American.  It has a flavor signature like no other malt whisky - and it's a darned good one.  It's one that has won me over, personally (not that I've stopped drinking and exploring the world of Scotch malt whiskies - not by a long shot.  But it has become one of my regular drams for sure).  And it's a flavor signature that has won over a whole ton of whisky award people, critics, buyers, and bloggers too.  This isn't just a matter of "localvore" market making or novelty.  It's a testament to the effort that Chip Tate has put in honing his single malt - effort that is visible in the evolution through the batches of 2011-2012. That's why I find this series of batches so fascinating and that's why I've taken you on this long road.  Texas Single Malt is a standout malt - and it has been relentlessly honed and crafted.  In my opinion that fact alone redeems the American craft whisky movement.

If you have information about other batches not mentioned in this post - please comment in with batch numbers, abv % (unless it's 12-7 or after, in which case it's known to be standardized at 53%), and the woods listed on the label.  I'm aware that I'm presenting a partial list.  Thanks so much.  FYI - I have also previously tasted batch SM11-7 and wrote some brief tasting notes in my post about Whisky Live 2012.  I don't have the proof - but it was clearly a white oak version in the low 50s.

Provenance statement:  (Samples of cask 1217 and batch 12-7 poured for me by Chip Tate of Balcones during a private interview.  All other samples taken from full bottles I purchased from local stores.)