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Monday, November 11, 2013

Old Ren Bonded Bourbon: An Antique And Delicious Mystery That Ranges From Chicagoland To The Ohio River To A Texas Tiki Bar And Back.

What is Old Ren?  It is a straight bourbon distilled at Graham Distillery Company (Illinois Distillery No. 6) in the Fall of 1936 and bottled in bond by a company called W.P. Squibb Distilling Co. Inc. of Vincennes Indiana (I.R.B.W. No. 9) in the Spring of 1944.  It was a one-off contract order for a magician whose name I didn't know  (but I sure found out) whose picture appears on the bottle, smiling in a top hat and tux and pulling a white rabbit out of a hat.  The magic theme is in the motto:  "There's Magic In Its Taste".  Apparently the magician used the bourbon for promotion of his magic show.  After his death a quantity of it was found in the basement of his home.

(see the more detailed bottle shots near the bottom of this post for the labels showing the distilleries involved and the years)

A case of Old Ren whisky showed up at Bonhams in the October sale in NY this year as lots 187-190.

http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/21015/lot/187/

There is definitely what I'd categorize as "a little mystery to figure out".   As it turns out, there is a ton of interesting tidbits to this story - and a kind of crazy low weave that seems to connect various bits and pieces of it in that "it's a small whiskey world" kind of way.

The Graham Distillery in Rockford Illinois appears in the text of a booklet titled

INDUSTRIAL AND PICTURESQUE ROCKFORD. 
EUGENE BROWNE AND F. FORD ROWE. 
PRICE, 50 CENTS. POSTAGE ON THIS BOOK, FOUR CENTS. ROCKFORD, llili.: Forest City Publishing Company.
June, 1891.


The online text has obviously been OCR'ed and not proofed.  It reads:
"Graham's Distillery. This firm consists of Julius, Freeman and Byron
Graham, with a capital stock of $150,000. They manufacture sour mash whiskies. The annual product is $300.000. They employ forty-five hands, with an annual pay- roll of $30,000."
http://www.archive.org/stream/industrialpictur00brow/industrialpictur00brow_djvu.txt


Their invoices in the first part of the 20th century look like this (from a recently completed auction on Ebay):


There is thread on Straight Bourbon where people are busy tracking down where in Rockford the distillery was located and where the locally famous Graham house is:
"The Graham-Ginestra House was constructed in 1857. The original owner, Freeman Graham, Sr., was a prominent local businessman who built the first sour mash distillery in the State of Illinois, and achieved a national reputation for his whiskies. Graham was also part owner of the Rockford Cotton Mills, and his home at 1115 S. Main Street was located approximately midway between the Mills (202 S. Main) and the Graham Distillery (1602-08 S. Main)."
http://www.waymarking.com/gallery/im...8-06df0d00f0a1



But there's not much I could find about the whiskey itself or how the distillery fired back up after Repeal - and when it stopped operating.  Rockford IL is in the greater Chicago region - a region that had a number of distilleries to provided that whiskey thirsty city.  The lingering reputation isn't really one of quality - but the proof is in the glass.

The bottler's story is a bit more iterated.  For the history of the Squibb Distilling Co. - the Indiana Brewing History site "IndianaBeer.com" has the following very dense paragraph.  I'm going to present it in its entirety because it's so redolent of the kind of connections among brands, names, cities, and history that turn me on so much in this field:

"William P. and G.W. Squibb started a distillery in Aurora in 1846. Kosmos Fredrick joined them in 1867 building a new distillery in Lawrenceburg that could process 300 bushels of grain per day. This was at 2nd St. near Main. Fredrick sold his shares to W. P. Squibb in 1871. He went on to form a new distillery with Nicholas Oester.
In 1885 they installed a continuous still. When the two Squibbs both died in 1913 they left the distillery to their seven sons and cousins.
By 1914 four of the sons and one cousin build a new distillery on the same site.
From 1937 until 1949 they also used the defunct Eagle Brewery in Vincennes.
This operation produced Chimney Corner, Old Dearborn, Rock Castle, and Gold Leaf Rye.
It was called the Old Quaker distillery. "Old Quaker Distilling Frankfort KY, Lawrenceburg IN, and Fresno, CA". The motto is "Old Quaker is in tune with today's growing preference for mildness and mellowness. You don't have to be rich to enjoy rich whiskey."
Just before prohibition ended Schenley bought the plant and rolled it into a new conglomerate along with the Schenley, Finch, Ancient Age, James E Pepper, Blanton, Old Stagg, and more distilleries.
Legend says they made 80 barrels of whiskey eight days before prohibition ended and the whiskey was ready in 1936.
During WWII they made penicillin at the plant."
http://www.indianabeer.com/History/IH-SE.html

So - the Squibbs started in Aurora, Indiana.  This is the next town downstream from Lawrenceburg, Indiana (which is, itself just a dozen miles barely over the State line from Cincinnati Ohio).  Then from 1867 on they were in Lawrenceburg, IN.  Yes, THAT Lawrenceburg, IN - the one where Seagrams made Bourbon and Rye and where LDI/MGP makes it now.  But this was bottled in the Vincennes plant - which was the former Eagle Brewery.  According to a 1998 history of the city, titled, eponymously, "Vincennes" by Richard Day and William Hopper, one Julius Hack was president of Eagle Brewery.  "Always well dressed, Julius was nicknamed "Dude."  When Prohibition came in 1919, "Dude" tried to convert to low-alcohol "near beer" but the brewery closed in in 1930.  From 1937 to 1949, it operated as W.P. Squibb Distillery, then was acquired by Vincennes University and used for classrooms until 1994."

The oval sticker says:
"Texas State Tax Paid / Liquor / 1/5th Gallon / 25.6 cents"
But what of Old Ren himself.  "Ren" is a nickname of "Reginald".  At first, searching for Chicago area magicians named "Reginald" went nowhere.  The key was the little tax sticker for Texas.  Ft. Worth Texas had a magician who was active at the time.  His name was A. Renerick "Ren" Clark.  A quick search hit instant undeniable pay dirt in the form of the exact same photograph that's on the whiskey bottle appearing as the cover of Genii magazine (a major magazine for magicians - and perhaps the oldest):

Ren Clark was featured on the cover of the June 1942
edition of Genii magazine - with the same photo that's on Old Ren



There is a richly detailed bio of Ren Clark in the MagicPedia. It reads as follows:

Ren Clark (1904-1991), M.I.M.C. with Gold Star, served as president of the IBM (1947-48) and was one of the founders of the Texas Association of Magicians.[1]

He received his Bachelor of Science degree from the Texas A. and M. College and later served as banker and as an executive for several oil and gas companies.[2]

He first became exposed to magic in 1910 when Willard the Wizard crossed through Cross Plains where he was growing up.

Clark moved from Kansas City to Rockford, Illinois, and helped formed a local magic club, which later bore his name during its active days.

In 1939, he joined the Society of American Magicians, Chicago Assembly No. 3. When he moved back to Texas and settled in Fort Worth, he transferred his membership to the Dallas Assembly.

In 1940, he joined the I.B.M. and later became the I.B.M. convention Chairman in 1942, overseeing the convention in Fort Worth. He then served as International President in (1947-48) where he worked hard to make a true international organization by visiting many countries.

With friends in Austin, Ed Deweese and Doc Mahendra, he helped form the Texas Association of Magicians in 1946.

Clark would entertain friends, perform for his fellow magicians, donate his services to church groups, boys clubs, civic and fraternal organizations, and during the war years to the entertaining of hospital patients and to military personnel. Ren developed an Oriental act due to the influence of his friend Herbert J. Collins (Col Ling Soo) of London.

At the age of eighty one, Clark was still attending local club meetings, and the occasional national conventions .

Clark was made an Honorary Life Member of the following magical organizations: Texas Association of Magicians; International Brotherhood of Magicians, the British Ring; I.G.P. Club de Azteca of Gaudalajara, Mexico; I.B.M. Ring No. 15 of Fort Worth, Texas, Swedish Magic Circle; Circulo Magico Argentino; El Circulo de Magos Mexicana, Mexico, D. F.; All India Magic Circle; and the Singapore I.B.M. Ring No. 115 of Singapore.[3]

The IBM Ring No 15 in Fort Worth, Texas is called the Ren Clark Ring in his honor. He was a member of the I.B.M. Order of Merlin, Excalibur (50 years) and the recipient of the highest award that can be bestowed by the Board of Trustees of the I.B.M., the Medallion of Honor.

He was featured on the cover of The Magic Circular, May 1990.[4]"


http://www.geniimagazine.com/magicpedia/Ren_Clark

(note, I.B.M. here refer to the "International Brotherhood of Magicians" - not International Business Machines).

Did you catch that he lived in Rockford, Illinois? I wonder if that influenced his decision to buy whiskey from Graham Distillery? Well, Ren Clark also shows up in the history of Tiki cocktail culture because of a restaurant he had called "Ren Clark's Polynesian Village". The following description appears in Humuhumu's Tiki-Wiki:

"Ren Clark was a magician, and held several posts in magician groups in the 1950s. For entertainment at his Polynesian Village resaurant he performed a magic act; as a souvenir, patrons could purchase a grotesque mug of a severed head -- this mug has become one of the more sought-after tiki mug collectibles, despite it not being really all that "tiki."

Ren Clark's Polynesian Village

Ren Clark's Polynesian Village was in the Western Hills Hotel. It is not known what years the Polynesian Village was open, but the hotel was open from 1951 until it burned down in 1969.

The location is currently a Winn-Dixie Marketplace."

http://critiki.com/location/?loc_id=56

Severed head mug?  Yes "ren clark severed head" pops up on Google as a frequent search and there are plenty of them on Ebay (with sale figures topping $800) and there's lots of history and commentary about them as a cultural topic.  

A Ren Clark Severed Head Tiki Mug (photo from an Ebay auction)
A couple of years ago Fort Worth Weekly did a piece on the Fort Worth Magician's club.  The piece is about the club now, and some recent events, but it cannot help but linger over Ren Clark - who really set up magic in that town.  Check out the details about Ren's magic act:

"In terms of magic’s history, the Fort Worth club is probably most notable for its founder, Fort Worth oilman and philanthropist A. Renerick “Ren” Clark. Remembered as a sprightly man with a bald pate and a penchant for oriental d├ęcor, Ren Clark first became acquainted with the art of magic as a young boy, via a traveling post-vaudeville magic show featuring a famous entertainer named Willard the Wizard.

Willard, known posthumously as “the last of the big tent show magicians,” traveled in an extensive caravan of trucks, touring small venues and conventions across the Southwest. Clark graduated from Texas A&M University in 1924 with a degree in electrical engineering and went into the oil business, but he never forgot his fascination with Willard’s show.


His career in the oil industry took him to Canada and across the Midwest. While living in Parsons, Kan., in the ’30s, Clark wandered into a magic shop and bought a coin trick. Soon he was skilled in the sort of sleight of hand that had thrilled him as a child. Before long, he had joined the International Brotherhood of Magicians and in 1940 started the Fort Worth club as its 15th chapter. As oil boomed, so did his business, the Double Seal Ring Company. The resulting wealth enabled him to treat his passion as something more than a hobby.


In 1947, the oil magnate-cum-man-o’-magic became president of the brotherhood and immediately began a five-month international jaunt promoting the art of illusion in clubs around the world. As his reputation as an ambassador of magic grew, so did the number of local magicians’ groups. Soon, magic clubs were appearing across the globe like doves out of a hat. Upon word of an upcoming visit by Ren Clark, club leaders would scramble to invite new visitors, hoping that the oilman’s personality and passion would inspire them to become members.


His enthusiasm for magic was at least as ardent at home as it was abroad. According to friend and longtime club member Bob Utter, Clark loved coin tricks. “He’d start with one and then all of the sudden he’d show 10 in his hands,” Utter said.


Clark was also famed for his Asian-themed productions. “Ren really liked Asian things. A lot of his tricks involved long, flowing Asian silks, umbrellas — he’d make umbrellas appear out of nowhere,” Utter recalled. “He went all out — he would dress in these Chinese costumes, put on the eye makeup, the whole nine yards.”


Clark’s act was more than just small-scale sleight of hand. “His production had all kinds of intricate folding boxes that he’d had made special in Japan, and he used a lot of birds too,” Utter said. Indeed, Clark’s home boasted an aviary, with a motley flock of exotic birds.

As if cockatiels flying out of kimono sleeves weren’t enough, Clark’s penchant for post-war exotica spread to other interests, particularly in the Western Hills Hotel (now long departed) on Camp Bowie, notable for its tiki-themed Polynesian Village restaurant and Sunken Galleon bar and equally famous for its “mermaid,” a woman who swam in costume in a giant aquarium behind the bar. Clark had a stage built in the Galleon, big enough for his elaborate act.

The hotel was a hit among socialites, in part because of its then-trendy design scheme, but also because of Clark’s business partner, none other than Desi Arnaz. In other words, Clark was one of those mischievous grandpas who produces quarters from a kid’s ears, except that he did it in a fantastic tiki room and the kid was Desi Arnaz Jr."


http://www.fwweekly.com/2011/10/26/fort-magic/

Well, Ren Clark really sounds like a fun guy and his act sounds like it was blast.  But what about the whiskey?



Light through shows the extreme color on this whiskey.

Old Ren 100 Proof (50% abv) 4/5 Quart

Color: Dark amber to chestnut with red copper glints.

Nose:  The nose is huge, pungent, and very very rich. Vanilla - iterated black greasy pungent aged high end bourbon vanilla pods.  Molasses.  Malted milk balls.  The wineyness of of malted milk trending into Cognac - but a nice rich old XO cognac dripping with rancio.   There are over-ripe squash notes and baking spices that made a guy at Bonhams exclaim "pumpkin pie"!  The longer it airs, the more the vanilla comes to the fore.  I've never encountered an aroma on a whiskey more hugely redolent of vanilla.

The vanilla and malt story are big on the opening.  Sweet, floral, and rich.  But the body surprises by being thinner and hotter than you'd expect - with a big hit of rye spice that comes across as the heat from cinnamon, cloves, and allspice and a big twist of cracked black pepper.  Time and air open and thicken the palate.  The progression is this:  molasses, malted milk, and vanilla extract sweetness jump all over the opening.  The mid-palate waxes big and spicy with rye heat and rye herbal notes, with plenty of leather and cured tobacco.  Oak begins to own the palate at the turn with oak tannins driving the drying at the finish.  As the finish fades all the powerful aspects of the nose return:  black greasy bourbon vanilla pods, malted milk balls, cognac rancio, black strap molasses, cloves and allspice.  They come back and then - 5 minutes or so after the sip ended, they paradoxically wax larger and larger.  You can't stop tasting this.  The finish gets stronger for about a good quarter hour after you stop drinking it.  Weird.  Weird and wonderful.



Something immediately jumps out at me as a result of all of this.  Normally, when you think about a guy buying a run of anything to be used as a promotional item you'd think it would be done on the cheap and maybe not be of the best quality.  I must admit that was my first thought when I heard that this was a run of whiskey for promotional use and it was distilled in Illinois.  But a couple of details don't fit that scenario.  1) Why use straight bourbon?  Blended bourbon was all the rage in those days and it was much less expensive.  2) Why use Bonded bourbon that was aged over 7 years?  This stuff is a full 7 and a half years in oak.  That had to add significantly to the expense.



The answer, having read Ren Clark's bio and the additional detail that he operated a Tiki bar and restaurant suggest something else.  Ren Clark probably loved bourbon.  That would explain why he selected a very mature bonded bourbon for his bottling.  The fact that he lived in Rockford during the period this bourbon was maturing suggests that he may have known, tasted, and enjoyed Graham's bourbon first hand.  Indeed, perhaps he even put the batch under contract at that time.  I have no idea, but the fact remains - Old Ren is very good bourbon indeed.  There IS magic in its taste.

FYI - an update to this post speculating about the word "Straight" canceled on the labels here with a pattern of red squares is blogged here:
http://www.cooperedtot.com/2014/03/old-rens-vanilla-flavor-conundrum.html

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Day With A Master Dusty Hunter ... driven by a pretty green liqueur and the Question of Bottle Maturation

Chartreuse, Bourbon, and Rye dusties.
Old dusties bring out the geeky and ornery as well as stupid and brave (all quintessentially American traits).   Part of the story might be best described by Steve Zeller's joke:

"How many whiskey snobs does it take to change a light bulb?  One hundred.  One to put in the new bulb, and ninety-nine to tell you why the old one was better."  

But what if the old ones really ARE better?  Not all of them.  Not all the time.  But some of them - a whole lot of them actually - and really, veritably better.  The question, as always, is WHY?  Production method changes?  Bottle maturation?  In the American whiskey world the story is complicated by the fact that the brands are shuffled around among corporations like playing cards at a poker game (which may be an apt analogy) and end up being made by one distillery after another - sometimes with respect for things like recipe and mash bill and at other times not.  In this situation it's very valid to say "Wow, I really liked Eagle Rare (for example) when it was made at the Old Prentice Distillery in Lawrenceburg Kentucky, but I'm not such a fan of the new stuff made at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort Kentucky.  Other than sharing a brand name there's very little actually in common between them.

These facts drive dusty hunters into terrible neighborhoods to seek out the worst forgotten liquor stores to find hidden gems in the dust.  But old neglected liquor stores have a lot more than Bourbon lying around.  There's also other stuff - like Scotch & Chartreuse.  Chartreuse?   Chartreuse, the effete, French, and undeniably feminine after dinner liqueur that makes an excellent glass rinse when making high end Manhattan cocktails?  Yet Bourbon and Chartreuse all became wrapped up together this last week for me.  The tale involves dusties, ambition, and exploration and ends up in the living room of a new friend:  a man with whiskey knowledge, enthusiasm, and the kind of welcoming friendliness and whisky camaraderie that earns the twitter hash tag #WhiskyFabric in my book.

It starts with the tasting for the Sunday October 13th Bonhams whisky sale.  I was lured by a rumor that Joe Hyman might be pouring a bottle of Prohibition era Monongahela rye whiskey from Ruffdale PA brand Dillinger that was distilled 1913 and bottled in 1923.  FYI: Sam Dillinger's story and an amazing travelogue blog post describing a visit to the site today is amazing reading on EllenJay.com:  http://www.ellenjaye.com/hist_mono4ryewhiskey.htm#samdillinger

The rumor turned out to be true and that remarkable whisky deserves its own post - here I need only say that it is remarkable, delicious, historic and very interesting rye whisky both from a collector's and a whisky loving drinker's perspective.  But amazingly - in the face of this very compelling sip, I found my attentions yanked way to an unexpected flavor that I had never tasted before and wouldn't have expected to love: yellow Chartreuse.  Among the amazing things Joe Hyman was having the pretty Bonhams' women pour that day was a 1940s bottle of Yellow Chartreuse.  As later auction results showed - this is a pretty precious bottle.  But I wasn't thinking about that at the time.  All I knew was that I was bewitched by the rich dynamic liqueur that brought big notes of honey, exotic herbs, and an elegant balance that wasn't cloyingly sweet, but came close - packed with a dense, sophisticated, and delicious complexity.  I couldn't help myself, I kept going back for more.  I mean more of the 1940s Chartreuse, rather than the 1913 rye.  OK, I went back for more of both of them - but I tasted as much of the Chartreuse.  And let me tell you there were quite a few other compelling whiskies on that table, too, to distract a gentleman for even looking at a yellow liqueur from France.

I came to taste this: Dillinger Mongahela rye


Fell in love with this: 1940s Yellow Chartreuse




I tried to forget her.  She wasn't "my type".  For one thing, she isn't barrel aged (except that modern VEP editions that are allowed to mature for 8 years in oak.  For another - it's an herbal liqueur for goodness sake!  But I couldn't get it out of my mind.  A few weeks later Mike Jasinski put up some lovely pics of some old dusty chartreuse that he had found hunting for dusty Bourbon.  I got interested and ended up creating a whole pinterest board to help date the dusties.  


I ended up bracketing the ages of Mike's bottles between 1965 and the late 1970s.  We struck up a conversation and proposed a trade.  But I knew I really wanted to taste Chartreuse from this era and compare it to the current stuff before going ahead with this madcap idea.  I described the situation to whisky/food blogger Susanna Skiver Barton and she suggested I visit an East Village bar called "Pouring Ribbons"  
1970s green & yellow Chartreuse at Pouring Ribbons
Jourdan Gomez executes precise pours.


Pouring Ribbons turns out to be perfectly suited for this exploration.  They have the full line of current production Chartreuse and an extensive selection of dusties by the ounce and half ounce.  They serve the good stuff in pro-level liqueur glasses.  The cheaper stuff come in shot flutes.  I brought Perfect Dram glasses (1/4 size glencairn shaped glasses).  All the Chartreuse was delicious, but the 1970s stuff was on a vastly different level than the current stuff.  All the areas where the current stuff runs a little hot or comes close to strident on the herbal flavors become honeyed, rounded, relaxed, and somehow better delineated - with tremendous flavor amplitude between the warm and honeyed backdrop an the powerful herb and fruit flavors that rise in sharp relief:  limes, bay rum, tarragon, lavender, oregano, rosemary, and verbena.
The barrel aged VEP version.

There have been quite a few recent discussions in the whisky blogosphere about the question of how much better whisky (generally Scotch - and blended Scotch in particular) was 40 and more years ago.  The questions tend to focus on the debate whether the public or the blenders bear the primary responsibility and whether production method changes or bottle maturation are why the old stuff tastes better.  Two blog posts that exemplify this debate to me are



Well, the Carthusian monks who make Chartreuse take special pains to make a constant product.  While history forced the monks to make their product in Tarragona, Spain for a while, the main French Voiron production's herbal component has been the same for centuries and the monks take special pains to keep it constant.  This is the antithesis of the situation with whisky- where distilleries modernized tremendously and changed production methods during the 1960s-1980s period both in the Scotch and Bourbon worlds.  Barreling proofs were raised.  Mashing periods were cut.  Higher yielding grain varieties were used etc...   Enjoying a Scotch from the 1960s entails a degree of uncertainty about whether the extra magic is in the old ways, or just half a century of bottle maturation.  Some debate whether bottle maturation even exists.  Oliver Klimek gives the excellent example of Kirschwasser as a place where bottle maturation is employed and is readily detectable.  Charbay's Marko Karakasevic famously devotes a portion of maturation time in this hopped whiskies to maturation in stainless tanks.  Presumably he has his reasons.  Well, Chartreuse is an excellent case study in the relative merits of bottle maturation because of the constant production methodology.   It does, however, enjoy the benefit of the way sugar enhances maturation according to Angus of Whisky-Online.  So the conclusion that I inevitably reached based on the Chartreuse tasting is that bottle maturation is a very real and significant improver of a given spirit given multiple decades to work its magic.

As Mike Jasinski and I spoke about old Bourbon - he kept pulling bottles out of odd corners and lined them up on the entry hall chest until it was packed solid (this picture was early in the process - less than halfway).  The bottles ranged in era from the 1940s to the 1980s.  An epic group of dusties.
So I paid a visit to Mike Jasinski out at his home in Pennsylvania to make our swap and to have a little visit.  Now, I've written about the warm and supportive #WhiskyFabric.  But the very active Bourbon community involves a cadre of dedicated dusty hunters and some of them come off as very business-like.  That's not Mike.  Mike is a true whiskey lover with an obvious depth of knowledge, experience, and passion for Bourbon and rye.  Mike isn't a hoarder (although his bunker is absolutely unbelievable).  No, first and foremost Mike is a drinker and lover of the juice.  He immediately welcomed me with unreserved generosity and a convivial whisky geekiness that we share and through which we instantly bonded.  And then ensued one of the best American Whiskey tasting sessions I've ever enjoyed.  And frankly it was about as luscious a tasting overall as any whisky from any part of the world.

We started with a nip of Old Ren, a bonded bourbon from Rockford, Illinios, distilled in the Fall of 1936 and  bottled in the Spring of 1944.  It has a rich, sweet, overloaded nose full of dark toffee, over ripe squash, parrafin, old books, and baking spice like pumpkin pie.  The palate is unexpectedly dry and lean, with a huge hit of rye spice.  The finish returns to the over-ripe caramelized squash note - but now it has morphed into malted milk balls and it's persistent.  The musky slightly winey malt flavor stays and stays.  Hour later - over huge burritos, Mike said, shaking his head, all I can taste even now is that Old Ren.  It is a titanic finish.  Schizophrenic?  Strange?  Yes - totally unique and kind of incredible.  I've since written a full post on this bizarre and compellingly drinkable mystery:
http://www.cooperedtot.com/2013/11/old-ren-bonded-bourbon-antique-and.html


Then on to Old Fitgerald Bottled In Bond 1966-1972 from a ceramic decanter (The "Irish Luck" bit of silliness).  Richly amber colored and a rich pudding of classic Stitzel-Weller flavors: caramel toffee baked apple with cinnamon, baking spices, and honey, rich sandalwood oak.  As it opens in the glass there are more layers of oak perfume and a complex interplay between the sweet candy and fruit flavors on the opening and the influence of tannins in the turn and the finish.  The mouth feel is rich and thick.  The wood management is a clear contributor to what was going right at Stitzel Weller at this time.  A wonderful and delicious dram.

1966-1972 Cabin Still decanter.
Stitzel Weller at its best. 
One of the most provocative things the Mike has said on line recently is that Old Cabin Still is both the best and worst Bourbon he's ever tasted.  He attributes this to the fact that it was sourced from Stitzel Weller glut stocks and, alternately, Seagram's lower end stocks.  My impression of this brand is the yellow-label stuff from the early 1980s which my college buddies and I used to shoot.  It's not a good impression so I was very curious to taste the difference.  Mike lineup up drams of both.  The 1980s Seagram NAS stuff was terrible.  Insipid, thin mouth feel, harsh alcohol bite, and a flavor dominated by wet cardboard notes.  The 6 year old age dated 1966-1972 Ducks Unlimited decanter Old Cabin Still, however, was very much in the mode of the contemporary Old Fitzgerald decanter I had just tasted - but if anything incrementally more honeyed, with a richer mouth feel.  All the classic Stitzel-Weller wheated bourbon flavors were in play:  caramel, toffee, butter braised brown Betty, demerara sugar and rum.  Sandalwood perfume, and, on the finish, a clear note of light and sweet coffee and cream.  Too much?  Not a chance.  Brilliance.

National Distiller's Old Grand Dad 114
 from the early 1990s
Next up was a shift into high rye mash bill Bourbon with an astounding duo of classic Old Grand Dad dusties distilled at the old National Distillers Old Grand Dad Distillery DSP-KY-14 (which is used solely for bottling by Beam these days): an 8 year old bottled in bond 100 proof from the late 1980s and an early 1990s bottling of the 114.  I've heard great things about the old Old Grand Dads but hadn't ever tasted them.   Rich, honeyed, with a complex and rich palate that melds herbal floral rye with bourbon caramel sweetness and blessed by a rich mouth feel.  The 114 was superb but the Bottled In Bond actually edged it with a more vivid presentation of the flavors and a bit more rye spice kick.

Not content to rest there, Mike brought out the imitation Old Grand Dads.  Check out Barton's Colonel Lee's label side by side with OGD.  Notice a resemblence?
Old Grand Dad BIB 8 year old versus 114 versus Barton's homage: Colonel Lee
Colonel Lee, represented here by a half pint with a tax strip and a "79" date mark in the bottom of the bottle was astounding.  Clearly a high rye mash bill, this had the same rich sweetness (caramel, honey, leather and tobacco) and iterated fully delineated rye flavor profile but with a bit richer mouth feel; more honey; and more vanilla.  We discussed the irony that Colonel Lee was a cheap knock off with bottom shelf pricing and, yet, in the right era with the right bottle maturation it emerges as an incredibly delicious pour - very close to the dram of the night because of the shocking surprise.
Ezra Brooks 7 yo 1979 from Medley
Next Mike produced a 1979 (by bottle mark) sealed tax stampled Ezra Brooks 7 from Medley distillery as another example of a high rye mash bill bourbon intended to play in Old Grand Dad's sandbox.  On the nose the wood quality was clearly inferior to me: with some "kiln dried" notes that I associate with craft whiskey small barrels.  But as it opened the nose evolved into a musky musty place and the palate became astounding: with tremendous flavor amplitude that exploded in the mouth with the many of the same flavor notes:  delineated rye spice, rich bourbon sweetness - but overlayed by a darker aspect with more leather, old barn, bottom of the pot caramel, and char.
Wild Turkey 8 year old - circa early 1990s
The turkey molded into the octagonal jug.


No discussion of high rye mash bill bourbon can be complete without including Austin Nichols' Wild Turkey 101 - which we tasted and which then led to a discussion and tasting of ITS imitators:  Eagle Rare and Fighting Cock.  The pour of Wild Turkey 8 was from an octagonal jug handled 1.75 L bottle from the early 1990s with magnificent molded panels depicting the Turkey.  This was my first taste of 8 year old age statement standard OB Wild Turkey and it was a revelation.  Really really big.  Oak char, herbal rye sweetness, big musky bourbon with tons of toffee, corn, peach compote, and a big fragrant sandalwood oak finish.  Despite all the steep competition that came before, Wild Turkey 101 stands tall and absolutely earns its reputation and popularity.


The original 8 year old age statement
Fighting Cock.
Yes, it's all that.
Fighting Cock is one of those underrated Heaven Hill 6 year old bourbons that is seen more, it seems, in shooter bars than in whisky snob environs.  It currently rocks 103 proof.  But in its original incarnation it was an 8 year old 101 proof - just like the Wild Turkey it was clearly meant to imitate.  Here, in its original form as a 1990s dusty it shows all those delicious flavor of "whit if Heaven Hill did a high rye mash bill" - a bit lighter and sweeter palate than WT101 - with more citrus and a cleaner brighter rye spice and less musky musty notes and darker caramel aspects.  Mike actually prefers it.

Probably the most famous imitation of the Turkey is Eagle Rare - which exists in a bicameral existence in Buffalo Trace's line up as a very inexpensive 10 year old, sold at a sleepy 90 proof, with a reputation for sweetness, softness, and simplicity, and an ambitious 17 year old that is part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.  But Eagle Rare has a long history - that begins with a Sam Bronfman marketing decision at Seagrams and master distiller Charlie Beam creating a WT101 killer in 1975 at Seagram's Old Prentice Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.  As the sepia photograph neck tag makes clear, Old Prentice is what we now know as the Four Roses distillery.  Sazerac aquired the brand in 1989, thus the labels with New Orleans - and that's how it ended up in Buffalo Trace (which is part of Sazerac).
Original Seagrams Version of Eagle Rare:
 Old Prentice, Lawrenceburg KY.
...better known as Four Roses Distillery

Left to right: Eagle Rare made at Four Roses, Ancient Age (Buffalo Trace), and New Orleans
We were drinking the Lawrenceburg, KY bottling (late 70s through late 80s).  It had a large molded decanter top.  This is utterly magnificent Bourbon.  Dram of the night?  The mouth feel is epic: thick, mouth coating, and rich.  The nose and flavors are loaded with malt, cognac, molasses, burnt caramel, leather,  and a huge finish of iterated genius boxwood and sandalwood oak that brings a whole barrister's world of overstuffed brown leather chairs with black brass nails and huge dark brown polished oak surfaces into your olfactory system.   I have to stop writing for a moment.  I've become speechless...  So this big thick malt candy loaded flavor signature is giving me deja vu.  It's Old Ren!  Where the evening began.  This stuff tastes like Old Ren - but better.  Better balance and bigger mouth feel.  Old Ren has the bigger finish, though - and distances itself by being utterly weird.

Old Overholt 4 yo rye - made in Pennsylvania
My interest in rye dictated a taste of Pennsylavia Old Overholt 4.  Suffice it to say it's a whole different animal than the current Jim Beam Old Overholt.  This, too, needs to be its own post.  Old PA Old Overholt drinks much more like Rittenhouse 100 - which really managed to make a convincing replica of that old PA style of red rye.

Willett 25 yo single barrel rye 50% abv. v.s. Hirsch 25 yo rye 46%
How do you end a tasting like that?  How about a head to head between two legendary recent bottlings of hyper mature rye that are rumored to be juice of the same distillery?  Willett Family Estate Bottled Single Barrel Rye 25 year old Barrel 1767, 50% abv. versus Hirsch Selection Kentucky Straight Rye 25 46% abv.  These beauties are dark walnut in the glass.  Freshly poured, their palates seem quite distinct: with the Hirsch going to darkly mulled wine: grapey and loaded with cloves; spiked with St. Joseph's baby aspirin.  The Willet tending more towards a baked apple loaded with the same spiced as the mulled wine.  As they open up with extensive time in the glass, the noses converge.  These are both really big flavor signatures - but weird.  The rye is showing signs of noble rot with the good things that implies (like rancio, density, and character) but also some of the bad things:  weird, intense, loaded with oak, hard to drink.  While the Hirsch lost the baby aspirin and settled down into a big dark presentation dominated by dark purple fruits and cloves... (wait, that's not it...) CLOVES!!!.  The Willetts edged it by doing a strong essence of the hard red candy on a candy apple combined with cinnamon, baked apple loaded with allspice, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.  Titanic tastes with epic long finishes.  Both unique and fascinating examples of the vanishing glut era.

The finishing pair was apropos as well because it help highlight the differences between barrel and bottle maturation that run like a central thread through the conversation.  The object lesson of the Chartreuse was the undeniable fact of bottle maturation - and its way of relaxing the flavor elements and allowing them to balance better with each other, all while bringing in a sweeter and more vivid presentation of the flavor elements.  I kept getting that feeling with the many examples of young (4-8 year old) Bourbon we were tasting that had sat around in the glass for 20-50 years.  Barrel maturation is, of course, a vastly different animal: concentrating flavors, adding wood influence.  Tonight, was all about how long bottle matured younger whiskies can be amazing.

And I haven't tasted any of the 40-50 year old dusty Chartreuse bottles from Mr. Jasinski's collection yet...