|Chartreuse, Bourbon, and Rye dusties.|
"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
- Billy Abbott (aka @cowfish)'s interesting view that consumer tastes are allowing these changes http://bbblog.org.uk/2013/10/who-decides-what-we-drink/
- Oliver Klimek's essay on whether bottle maturation happens: http://www.dramming.com/2010/03/21/does-whisky-age-in-a-bottle/
- And his refinement follow up with the compelling Kirschwasser example: http://www.dramming.com/2010/03/27/learning-from-kirschwasser-a-new-look-at-bottle-aging/
- Oliver Klimek's post about why whisky has become less complex: http://www.dramming.com/2010/09/06/has-whisky-become-better-worse-or-just-different/
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.
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.
|National Distiller's Old Grand Dad 114|
from the early 1990s
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|
|Ezra Brooks 7 yo 1979 from Medley|
|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|
Yes, it's all that.
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|
|Old Overholt 4 yo rye - made in Pennsylvania|
|Willett 25 yo single barrel rye 50% abv. v.s. Hirsch 25 yo rye 46%|
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...