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

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:

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...


  1. Amazing post. I'm totally chartreuse with envy about missing this tasting!

  2. This is the second time I've read this post and it makes me want to visit Mike myself one day. And that Colonel Lee looks mighty familiar :)

  3. Mike is compelling guide. And that Colonel Lee is just fantastic... Do you have one?

  4. Been searching for the history of Fighting Cock whiskey. Conflicting reports from the web, signs of confusion from the distillers. This journey started with two sealed bottles of 8 year old Fighting Cock found in a old barn here in east Texas. All the makers can say is that they switched from 8 yr to 6 yr. and changed the label about 10 years ago. On the other hand, I discover a better whiskey than my old favorite "Jim Beam Black". Any history you can share would be nice.