Monday, March 31, 2014

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10 v.s. Old Scout 5

Smooth Ambler has been selling Old Scout Bourbon for a couple of years.  It's Bourbon sourced from MGP/LDI and is generally available in 6 and 7 year versions.

I originally reviewed Old Scout Batch 1 - a 5 year old, a year and a half ago:

Last year a 10 year old version came out.  It sports LDI's high corn 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% barley malt mash bill. I encountered it when I volunteered to pour at the Smooth Ambler at Whisky Fest NYC.  I didn't do that purely out of the goodness of my heart.  I couldn't afford the ticket at the time and working the show was a way to get free admission.  When the show was over I took a 1/3rd full heel bottle of the 10 year old with the idea that I'd do a head to head with the bottle of Old Scout 5 I had bought a year earlier at Park Avenue Liquor.  Here it is.  The younger Old Scouts have LDI/MGP's high rye mash bill with 60% corn, 36% rye, 4% barley  Full disclosure - not only was this bottle of 10 year old Scout given to me by John Little, I also poured it for others at Whiskey Fest.  When I was doing so I described to people how John Little is distilling his own wheated Bourbon and white spirits in West Virginia but, while that matures, is also selling sourced Bourbon and rye from Lawrenceburg Indiana's LDI/MGP in a special brand "Old Scout" so that it is immediately apparent which of Smooth Ambler's whiskies are sourced.  I also talked up John Little's excellent palate in selecting casks.  This is particularly apparent in the VOS (Very Old Scout) bottlings, but it's clear in every sourced whiskey in the Old Scout line.  John Little knows his Bourbon and rye and picks good barrels to sell.

FYI - the 5, 6, or 7 year old versions of Old Scout street for around $35 in the NYC metro area.   The 10 year old goes around $50.  

FYI - by way of insight into the fairly mysterious distillery in Lawrenceburg, IN; the other day author, journalist, and photographer, Fred Minnick, posted a photo essay of what it looks like inside the MGPI distillery:

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10 year old - 50% abv Batch 5 6/11/13 (bottled by Sarah)

Color: medium amber with coppery glints.
Nose: musky loamy earthen notes melded to floral (marigolds and lilacs) fruity (sunny peach and citrus) and rich umami protein quality with a dose of salt.  There's also some darker Maillard reaction caramel notes in there underneath.  Like my other encounters with Lawrenceburg Indiana bourbon I'm put in the mind of roasted peanuts, cooking peach jam and marmalade in the midst of lilacs and gardens.

Palate:  Sweet and honeyed on the opening with a strong attack of stonefruit compote, acetone, oak and char on the quick expansion.  Vanilla floral - tangy zippy - a brief flash of mint, and then lovely oak char.  This is bigger, deeper, and has more flavor amplitude than the regular Old Scout.  Or so it seems.

A few drops of water opens this one up beautifully.  Like VOS bottlings I've tried, older Lawrenceburg, IN bourbons are swimmers and become more honeyed, vivid, and fruited with a bit of water.  The nose becomes even more earthy, farm-like, and fruity-floral.  The palate opens more gently and more floral.  The mid-palate's citrus melds with the sweet and dark to take on an old-cognac-like rancio note.  This is very nice bourbon with a drop of water.

The 10 year old is a bit darker than the 5 year old.

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 5 year old - 49.5% abv. Batch 1 10/27/11 (bottled by Nikki)

Color: light amber with golden and coppery glints.
Nose: sawn oak leads, with citrus compote, floral lavender.  Peanuts and violets again - but much lighter and lyrical.

Palate:  Sweet and floral on the opening which waxes more floral and fruity on the expansion.  It's all the same flavors: vanilla floral, tangy fruity notes of the stone fruit variety.  But the honeyed sweetness of the opening carries all the way through the mid-palate and into the turn to the finish.  The finish, when it arrives is more about herbal bitters fading away, with a bit of oak tannins and char in the distance.  Youth is an ally here: with sprightly honey, fruit and estery floral aspects dominating the darker notes that bourbon gathers with age: caramel.

With a drop of water the nose becomes, if anything, more salty, solventy, and fruity.  The palate become a bit more delicate, however.  Lilacs, peanuts, citrus and herbs gain in vividness, but the bourbon becomes more delicate and less gutty.  I'd skip the water on this one.

Conclusions:  The younger Old Scout has some of the charms of youth: a more fruity and floral nature.  The older one has more caramel and a bit more density of flavor.  They are both good and good values for the money in today's market place.  Tasting them side by side I'm more struck by their similarities than their differences, given the disparity between them in age and in mash bill.  They are clearly close kin.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Old Ren's Vanilla Flavor Conundrum

I've been drinking and thinking about Old Ren quite a bit lately since my blog post a couple of months ago and something has begun to bother me.  Is it possible that professional magician and founding-father of Texas IBM magicians Ring 15, Ren Clark, could have slipped an adulterating flavor into Old Ren as a parlor trick of some sort?  Well, banish the thought, Old Ren was bottled in bond in a government supervised and bonded warehouse - right?  But nosing and tasting Old Ren I have a very clear sense of vanilla extract riding on top of some good bourbon.  Vanillins are a natural flavor component of bourbon because of the requirement that bourbon be aged in new charred American white oak.  American white oak, in particular, is loaded with vanillins.  This fact would make the addition of vanilla extract a really great prank to play on bourbon drinkers.  The vanilla would hide exceedingly well, produce a remarkable flavor profile, and make a real conversation piece.  However, in one of the few blog posts out there that describes bottle maturation using references to peer reviewed scientific papers, Whisky Science's article about bottle maturation specifically mentions a build up in vanillin over long periods of bottle maturation:

Look at those colors again...
"Most phenols oxidize slowly, usually forming polyphenols, resulting in diminished astringency and probably less peaty whisky over years of bottle storage. An exeption in the phenol group is vanillin, which increases slowly independently of the oxidation/reduction state." (emphasis mine)

"Independently of the oxidation, tannins and antocyanins form bigger molecules, which stabilize the colour and usually turn reddish colours into orange, bricklike hues. Oaklactones tend to partially transform from trans- (spicy, incence) to cis-isomers (coconut, vanillin) in the bottle."

Later on it adds:

"Most likely the bottle maturation of whisky is more reductive than oxidative, producing more fruity, aetheral, peachy, vanilla, petrol, rubbery and metallic notes and less phenolic, bitter spicy and citrus notes. Rancio flavours might arise from pentose sugars derived from caramel colouring and/or a very extractive charred cask."

Old Ren has been resting in glass since the Spring of 1944 - exactly 70 years now.  That's long enough for bottle maturation to have full play.  This underscores the notion that this is just regular unadulterated Bourbon that has had the vanilla notes naturally accentuated by many decades of natural bottle maturation.  Indeed, vanillin's role in the flavor profile of Bourbon normally is part of what makes Bourbon good - and this aspect of bottle maturation - might explain the seductive flavors of old dusty Bourbon in general.  Vanilla sweetness enhanced, other rougher flavor compounds rounded out by gradual molecular breakdown and slow oxidation.  Plus that bit about pentose sugars and rancio.  That sounds a lot like what tastes good about dusty Bourbons in general.

So there's not much point wondering about vanilla in Old Ren...  But then I noticed something.  Look at that odd pattern of red squares just above the words "Bourbon Whiskey" on the label:

The word "Straight" has been cancelled out by a counter stamp of red squares.
Close examination of the pattern of red squares shows that the word "Straight" was printed above "Bourbon Whiskey" and was subsequently cancelled by a counter stamp printing of red squares.  Why didn't I notice this before?  Why would the bottlers of Old Ren do that?  I can't help but get the feeling that this is an acknowledgement of some kind of hanky panky.  

Let's look at the laws again:

§5.22   The standards of identity.

(b) Class 2; whisky. “Whisky” is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190° proof in such manner that the distillate possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky, stored in oak containers (except that corn whisky need not be so stored), and bottled at not less than 80° proof, and also includes mixtures of such distillates for which no specific standards of identity are prescribed.
(1)(i) “Bourbon whisky”, “rye whisky”, “wheat whisky”, “malt whisky”, or “rye malt whisky” is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.
(iii) Whiskies conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraphs (b)(1)(i) and (ii) of this section, which have been stored in the type of oak containers prescribed, for a period of 2 years or more shall be further designated as “straight”; for example, “straight bourbon whisky”, “straight corn whisky”, and whisky conforming to the standards prescribed in paragraph (b)(1)(i) of this section, except that it was produced from a fermented mash of less than 51 percent of any one type of grain, and stored for a period of 2 years or more in charred new oak containers shall be designated merely as “straight whisky”. No other whiskies may be designated “straight”. “Straight whisky” includes mixtures of straight whiskies of the same type produced in the same State.

There's nothing about flavorings in there at all.  The term "Straight" specifically applies to aging for 2 years or more.  It's an age requirement; not a purity requirement.  The law governing the nomenclature for Bourbons having flavorings appears further down:

(5)(i) “A blend of straight whiskies” (blended straight whiskies) is a mixture of straight whiskies which does not conform to the standard of identify for “straight whisky.” Products so designated may contain harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as set forth in 27 CFR 5.23(a).
(ii) “A blend of straight whiskies” (blended straight whiskies) consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky, and not conforming to the standard for straight whisky, shall be further designated by that specific type of straight whisky; for example, “a blend of straight rye whiskies” (blended straight rye whiskies). “A blend of straight whiskies” consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky shall include straight whisky of the same type which was produced in the same State or by the same proprietor within the same State, provided that such whisky contains harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as stated in 27 CFR 5.23(a).
(iii) The harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials allowed under this section shall not include neutral spirits or alcohol in their original state. Neutral spirits or alcohol may only appear in a “blend of straight whiskies” or in a “blend of straight whiskies consisting entirely of one of the types of straight whisky” as a vehicle for recognized flavoring of blending material.

§ 5.23 Alteration of class and type.(a) Additions. (1) The addition of any coloring, flavoring, or blending materials to any class and type of distilled spirits, except as otherwise provided in this section, alters the class and type thereof and the product shall be appropriately redesignated.(2) There may be added to any class or type of distilled spirits, without changing the class or type thereof, (i) such harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials as are an essential component part of the particular class or type of distilled spirits to which added, and (ii) harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials such as caramel, straight malt or straight rye malt whiskies, fruit juices, sugar, infusion of oak chips when approved by the Administrator, or wine, which are not an essential component part of the particular distilled spirits to which added, but which are customarily employed therein in accordance with established trade usage, if such coloring, flavoring, or blending materials do not total more than 21/2 percent by volume of the finished product.

So the law pretty clearly specifies that the presence of an added flavor, like vanilla (or a color - such as e150), would require that the label say "A Blend Of Straight Bourbon Whiskies".  That's not what the label says here at all.  The cancellation addresses the age statement portion of the label - not the presence of additives.  If vanilla were added, the word "Straight" would be A-OK.  The words "A Blend of" would have to be added.  The Bottled In Bond strip specifies the age of the whisky in detail - so there's no legal reason for the word "Straight" to be taken out.  I find the cancellation a fascinating detail that mystifies me.  But, there's not much point speculating further.  We will probably never know.  If you have any more information or suggestions on such label cancellations and what they mean I'd love to hear more. 

Of course, Ren Clark wasn't a regular guy like you or me.  He was a professional level magician.  I can't help but wonder if Ren might have played a trick on everyone, even the bottling company, with an act of sleight of hand...

Update:  several folks have made the point that the laws governing the nomenclature of "Bourbon", and "Straight Bourbon" were different prior to 1964.   I'm looking into what the applicable laws were in 1944.
Sku posted a close reading of the laws back in 2011 and wrote:

"This is really the same issue as with ageing. Straight whiskey may not contain any coloring or flavoring, but no such restriction is imposed on whiskey that does not carry the "straight" designation, 27 CFR § 5.23(a)(3)," ... "However, the TTB's Beverage Alcohol Manual states that bourbon of any kind (not just straight) cannot contain coloring or flavoring. The Manual is not an official regulation, but it is a guideline as to how the TTB interprets the regulation..."

This certainly implies that canceling the "straight designation might have been an attempt to approve an additive.

However New York lawyer and whiskey enthusiast Dan Zimmerman retrieved old copies of Title 26 of the Internal Revenue Tax code (26 USC Sec. 5233 (1964) and 26 USC Sec. 2903-2904 (1940)) which governed these things back in the day and has performed a close reading and it seems that the Bottled In Bond act provisions trump those distinctions. Here is Zimmerman's close reading of the older statutes directly quoted from his e-mail. I'll find a way to post images of the old legal statutes (probably as image files) later:

"(1) The Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM) that Steve links in his blog (tracing through my link above) states that the TTB (formerly ATF) views the "bourbon" designation as precluding coloring or flavoring additives. I agree with Steve's statement that the BAM is an agency interpretation, and this restriction does not seem to appear on the face of the regulations in 27 CFR. Going farther, I am not aware of when this interpretation was adopted and it is possible that in 1944, when the Old Ren was bottled, this restriction would not have been interpreted the same way for non-"straight" designated whiskey, as noted above in connection with the 1955 ruling. The BAM is at:

(2) The coloring and flavoring regulations now in 27 CFR 5.23 and 5.29 would, by their literal reading, allow up to 2.5% of "harmless" colorings and flavorings, except for "straight" whiskeys. These were in section 5.22 and 5.38 (1961); and 5.21(g)(5) and 5.38(c) and (d) (1938). The language of these provisions does not seem to have changed substantially over this period. However, as noted below, the BAM interpretations restrict some flavoring and coloring additives that a literal reading of the regulations suggest may be permitted. In the past, the interpretations may have been different, but such informal interpretations can be very difficult to research, as noted above.

The present regulations say, in relevant part:

§5.23 Alteration of class and type.

(a) Additions. ...

(2) There may be added to any class or type of distilled spirits, without changing the class or type thereof, (i) such harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials ... if such coloring, flavoring, or blending materials do not total more than 21⁄2 percent by volume of the finished product.

(3) “Harmless coloring, flavoring, and blending materials” shall not include (i) any material which would render the product to which it is added an imitation, or (ii) any material, other than caramel, infusion of oak chips, and sugar, in the case of Cognac brandy; or (iii) any material whatsoever in the case of neutral spirits or straight whiskey, except that vodka may be treated with sugar in an amount not to exceed 2 grams per liter and a trace amount of citric acid. [However, the BAM interpretations above also preclude additives for "bourbon", even if not straight, so this statement is not interpreted with its literal meaning.]

§5.39 Presence of neutral spirits and coloring, flavoring, and blending materials.

(b) Coloring materials. The words “artificially colored” shall be stated on the label of any distilled spirits containing synthetic or natural materials which primarily contribute color, or when the label conveys the impression that the color is derived from a source other than the actual source, except that:

(3) If no coloring material other than caramel has been added, there may be stated in lieu of the words “artificially colored,” the words “colored with caramel,” or a substantially similar statement, but no such statement is required for the use of caramel in brandy, rum, or tequila, or in any type of whisky other than straight whisky. [However, the BAM interpretations above also preclude additives for "bourbon", even if not straight, so this statement is not interpreted with its literal meaning.]

(3) Straight Bourbon. As you note, the straight bourbon requirements are in 27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(iii) presently and were in 5.22(b) in 1961 and 5.21(b) in 1938 (copies attached, these are the two closest dates I found to the 1944 bottling date). On their face, the "straight" regulations for bourbon are generally an age requirement, since the current BAM interpretations extend the prohibition on coloring and flavoring to bourbon generally, not just to straight bourbon.

(4) Bottled in Bond. The bottled in bond regulations and statutory provisions, on their face, seem to preclude any flexibility that could be gained by removing a "straight" designation.

Current 27 CFR 5.42(b)(3) sets out requirements for bottled in bond labeling. Chiefly:

(i) Composed of the same kind of spirits produced from the same class of materials;

(ii) Produced in the same distilling season by the same distiller at the same distillery;

(iii) Stored for at least four years in wooden containers ...;

(iv) Unaltered from their original condition or character by the addition or subtraction of any substance other than by filtration, chill proofing, or other physical treatments (which do not involve the addition of any substance which will remain incorporated in the finished product or result in a change in class or type);

(v) Reduced in proof by the addition of pure water only to 100 degrees of proof; and

(vi) Bottles at 100 degrees of proof.

This provision tracks statutory provisions that appeared at 26 USC Sec. 5233 (1964) and 26 USC Sec. 2903-2904 (1940) (copies attached). I have not exhaustively searched, but it looks like this requirement has been moved out of the tax code and into the TTB regulations in the past several years. In any event, all of these provisions substantially express the common understanding of the requirements imposed by the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. In particular, additives should be prohibited."

Bottom line: the fact that it's Bottled In Bond should prevent any additives - even back in 1944.  And this should obviate any need to cancel out the word "Straight".  This remains a mystery which doesn't make any legal sense.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Whistlepig The Boss Hog - A Rye Whiskey Monster Amid A Background Of Deception And Damage Control.

A few days ago Davin De Kergommeaux, Malt Maniac, leading Canadian whisky blogger, and noted author of the most significant book on Canadian whisky, wrote a piece in called "A Revealing Chat With WhistlePig’s Raj Bhakta" that contained the information that "the makers of WhistlePig rye were finally ready to “come clean and confirm that the whiskey they bottle is from Canada"
It also had the bombshell that Whistlepig will be a vatting of 5 different rye whiskies in the future (the Alberta Distillers it has always been bottling, plus "We are growing our own rye on site and contracting whiskey from three distilleries in the U.S. and two in Canada." Although Bhakta corrects this by stating that all the whiskey out now - and in the near future is the same Alberta Distllers only whisky it has always been since the brand launched in 2010.  The 5 origin stuff is aging and will on the shelves somewhere down the road.

Why come clean now?  Maybe it had something to do with the shock and outrage that followed upon Raj Bhakta's comments (more like a cavalcade of completely wrong, dishonest, and false statements) on Bloomberg TV February 13th:

In the brief television spot, Bhakta says that Whistlepig is the only "aged" rye on the market at 10 years old.  An interviewer point blank asks him about Sazerac and Michter's (who market rye whiskies aged 18 and 25 years old respectively) and Bhakta doubles down.  Later he reiterates the lie that Whistlepig is American and that it's patriotic American thing to drink it.  This is a howl because it's a Canadian product lock stock and barrel.  All Bhakta's crew does is rest it and then bottle it.  He also says that only aged (i.e. older than 6 to 7 years old) ryes are sufficiently aged and worth drinking.  As someone who loves younger ryes like Thomas H. Handy 6, Russell's Reserve Rye 6, Willett's Family Reserve Single Cask ryes as young as 3 and 4 years old, etc... I can attest that some of the finest ryes you can drink are quite young.  Rye's herbal spice, like peat's fiery kick, is fresher and fiercer in young whiskey.  Aged rye picks up lovely mature flavors at the expense of the herbal kick and heat.  Thus choosing a fine younger rye to get that freshness and power is a totally defensible epicurean choice.  Pretty much every word that came out Bhakta's mouth in that spot was wrong.

The weird thing is that Dave Pickerell was perfectly honest about the whiskey being Canadian - even back as early as 2011:

Although, certainly, in most of the interviews, Pickerell side steps the issue of origin and just talks about the whiskey - often leaving the incorrect impression that he's actually make it and that's an American made product.  But the fact that Pickerell plainly publicly told the truth for years explains why the true story was so widely known.  One wonders about why the lack of transparency sometimes and not others?  Certainly Whistlepig's label itself is part of the deception.  "Hand Bottled at Shoreham, Vermont" appears on both front and rear labels but not a word is there about where the whiskey was actually distilled.

The controversy is good in that it has brought the truth out and is a lesson for others who would hide the truth.  Other examples of this kind of thing, Templeton Rye, Michter's, Widow Jane have similar trajectories.  Some people will boycott because of the lack of honesty.  I can understand that, but I'm more interested in whats going on in the glass - particularly if you can't source the juice from the original distiller as is the case here - in the USA market.

A fascinating detail of De Kergommeaux's interview is the story that Pickerell had a line on a supply of extremely good aged 100% rye whiskey from Alberta Distillers and was in search of a a vendor to buy it and bring it to market.  Pickerell then found Bhakta who had a farm and was looking for a whiskey project and the WP thing was born.  This would explain the apparent paradox of a brand new company suddenly putting out richly flavored fantastic rye whiskey on day one.  And, make no mistake, the whiskey is certainly good.  In 2012 I did a double blind head to head of a number of Canadian 100% ryes bottled in the USA - a group that included Masterson's Rye 10, Jefferson's Rye 10, and Pendleton 1910 Cowboy Whiskey.  Thomas H. Handy and Old Potrero were also in there - not as blinds because they are so distinct.  In the finale, the Handy won overall, but of the ones that playing on the same level of proof I found Whisltepig the winner.

Dave Pickerell tells the story of the Frenchman asking Raj "Have you seen the Wheeestlepig?"
at Bottlerockets Liquors in New York

A few months ago I caught up with Dave Pickerell at Bottlerockets Liquors in New York where he was introducing a new limited edition version of WhistlePig called "The Boss Hog" that consisted of hand selected casks that were allowed to mature an extra couple of years.  The results were bottled at full cask strength.  The whiskey was interesting and I signed up for a bottle, but the critical reviews upon its release were mixed with complaints about cost and flavors.  I couldn't tell if it was a question of barrel variation (it's a single barrel product and a number of barrels were bottled) or just a question of people being able to handle the power and flavor of the product.  After having tasted a few of the barrels (6, 8, and 9) I'm leaning towards thinking it's the latter interpretation.

The Boss Hog  Barrel 9 12 3/4 years old 134.5 proof. 67.3% abv.

Color: golden coppery amber.

Nose:  floral honey, dusty cut yellow flowers, herbal lavender, cilantro, ivy, and oregano.  Plus there is a salty acidic note.  Sku describes it as "pickle juice".  It's hard not to see it that way after hearing that.

Palate: POW!  Honey sweet in the first seconds and then, rapidly, a huge expansion chock full of toffee-caramel roundness, cut ivy, alfalfa, cilantro, briny pickle squirt and floral herbals attack with abandon.  The mouth is completely filled.  The turn to the finish is marked by sweetness fading into complex herbal bitters with lingering anise-seed sweetness and nuttiness.  The finish is medium long on oak and herbal bitters all the way home.

This is the pure rye flavor profile on steroids.  It has a vividness and intensity that is all but unique.  Thomas H. Handy has the rye flavor profile at the same level of power, but with a mash bill that expertly melds in the toffee citrus of corn.  I give the nod to Handy overall, but as the pure essence of rye, this is pretty special.  That said, it's herbal, bitter, intense, and hard to take.  It takes water well, hanging on to a little bit of a darker richer note than the usual 10 even at comparable dilution - but the difference is slight.  Given the high cost (between $130 and $175 - the former at Shopper's Vineyard, the latter at Park Avenue Liquors) this is too expensive to justify the slight difference between this and the 10 at comparable dilution.  What you're paying for is the thrill ride of having it neat.  At full power this is intense stuff.  The Stagg of Pure Rye.


Given the news that Whistlepig is changing the formula in future batches, this might be the statement expression of the pure Alberta Distillers stuff.  If you are a fan of this flavor profile it might help justify the long green for you.

Whistlepig 10 - 50% abv.

This is very close to the same stuff all around - just taken down to a more humane 50% abv.  It's rich delicious heady whiskey and has been among my favorite ryes for years.  The nose is dramatically muted by comparison.  Everything is dramatically muted by comparison.   Still, this is redolent of dust, preserved citrus, and light florals. The entry is sweet with jammy citrus, spicy on the expansion with complex herbal ivy and cilantro notes. Well balanced tasty oak and herbal bitters on the finish.   Still one of my favorite ryes, but it steps aside when the Boss is on the same table.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Irish Revival

Irish whiskey is softer, sweeter and lighter than most Scotches, Bourbons, and other World malts.  It is a breed apart: particularly easy going, approachable, and lyrical.  It generally has a fresh and "green" aspect that conveys Ireland to me beautifully.  And like Ireland, it hides a history alternately ancient, noble, joyous, and also dark - full of pain, loss, and catastrophic death.  Ireland is the birthplace of whiskey.  Irish monks were particularly scholarly and wide ranging - helping to retain and disseminate classical learning through Islamic sources when this knowledge had all but entirely disappeared from the West - providing a vital link between the Classical and Medieval world.  Along with classical knowledge, the monks also brought Islamic advances in mathematics and sciences such as chemistry including the Alembic still in around 1000 AD.  The Alembic had been invented to intensify perfumes and tinctures in the Middle East.  Not surprisingly, the intrepid monks applied the method to barley beer (an art well practiced in Ireland as any drinker can attest), producing probably the first malt whiskies in the world in the 11th or 12th centuries.   Potcheen production became part of agricultural life, hospitality, and medical practice.  This topic is well discussed in Fred Minnick's Whiskey Women.  Ireland produced whiskey for export early as well in the industrial era - and was particularly popular in the US in the 19th century.  Whiskey production in Ireland boomed and there were dozens of distilleries thriving producing grain, blended, malt, and pure pot still style whiskey in the first decades of the 20th century.
Irish whiskey's heyday was before Prohibition. This ad is from 1897.

This 1904 sign says so very much.
But then a parade of disasters struck the Irish whiskey industry.  First Prohibition wrecked the US export market, which had been the largest market, in the teens and twenties.  The Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil war deeply disrupted local industry, agricultural production, and trade in that same period - a vicious double whammy.  Then a series of trade disputes with England following Independence led to the loss of export markets to the British Commonwealth.  As a result, virtually all of  Ireland's whiskey distilleries went bankrupt in the decades between the 1930s and the 1950s.  Ultimately leaving just two:  Bushmill's, in the Northern Ireland, and Midleton in the Irish Republic.

Lately the global whiskey boom has floated boats in Ireland too and there has been a boom in new whiskey brands and plans for new distilleries.  First Bushmill's and Midleton were joined by Cooley Distillery - John Teeling's resurrection of a native Irish owned distilling tradition dating to the late 1980s.  Cooley proved innovative and ambitious, reviving beloved and vanished brands such as Kilbeggan (and laying the foundation of the reopening of that distillery in the past few years - with spirit from there on the way) to creating interesting iconoclastic expressions such as Connemara's Turf Mor - double distilled and peated.  Cooley was purchased by Beam International in 2012.  Other recent projects (all within the last half decade) have started distilling, with spirit on the way, including West Cork Distilleries, Dingle Distillery, Alltech Craft, and Echlinville in Northern Ireland.

Like in the US whiskey market, the explosion of interest and demand has led to a number of companies issuing independent bottlings and using the proceeds to develop their own distilleries.  Examples include Teeling's - a new distillery project planned for urban Dublin, with a brand of whiskey rolling out in the USA on April 1st with juice from Cooley to pay the way.  Tullamore Dew - owned by the Scottish whiskey company William Grant - is selling whiskey from Midleton, but is also building a distillery in Tullamore to re-establish a once proud distilling tradition there.

There has also been a boom in independent bottlers getting whiskey from the existing distilleries - and experiencing a growth in distribution.  Some of these brands include Knappogue Castle, a brand created by Castle Brands, a company founded in the 1980s by American Mark Edwin Andrews (an oil executive and former Assistant Secretary of the US Navy).  Knappogue Castle was initially known for bottling some monster casks of very old pure pot still whiskey from vanished distilleries.  More recently  Knappogue Castle is known for vintage dated independent bottlings of what is supposed to be Bushmills.  My tastings certainly bear that out.  Castle Brands has recently started selling a blend too, called Clontarf 1014.  Another, older, native Irish IB is Mitchell and Son's - which has recently started selling Green Spot and the US (and is also known for it's older Yellow Spot).

In order to get a handle on this activity I've engaged in some tastings.  Coming off of a lot of Bourbon and rye tastings lately, the first thing that really comes home is how light and gentle Irish whiskey, generally, is.  Smooth, sweet, and creamy - Irish has spirit heat but little bite.  Irish whiskey is, generally, constructed from the ground up for this constellation of attributes - triple distillation, malting in sealed kilns, the use of malted and unmalted grain, etc... This balance once led Irish whiskey to be the most popular whiskey in the world and is trending in that way again.  Lightness, smoothness, creaminess, and uncomplicated sweetness are beguiling things for a certain kind of drinking.  But they aren't "kick in the pants" flavor bombs.  This is changing too with cask strength, over-proof, and more complicated offerings in recent years, with varying degrees of success.

Today's post will look at a selection of the resurrecting distilleries and IBs - just in time for St. Patrick's Day.  Happy St. Patrick's Day!  Why do so many whiskey bloggers post about Irish whiskey on St. Patrick's Day?  Certainly it's like Christmas for Irish whiskey brands.  But Irish whiskey isn't just for St. Patrick's day, people.  They are for when you want the green minty flavors of the Emerald Isle on your tongue and shining in your heart!

Mark Gillespie of WhiskyCast
enjoys a taste of Teeling

Teeling's Blended Irish Whiskey 46% abv.

The Teeling family's created and then sold Cooley - but grandfathered into the deal an arrangement to
purchase some of the Cooley stuff in an ongoing to way to help finance plans to build a distillery in Dublin.  As a twist, they are doing an Angel's Envy style barrel management scheme where the blended whiskey from Cooley is finished in ex-Nicaraguan rum casks.   The symbol of the phoenix on the bottle represents the resurrection of Irish whiskey.  The Teeling family brought it back to Ireland with Cooley, then sold it to Beam and is now doing it again with Teeling.  Given that Cooley was the most exciting thing in Irish whiskey in a century, I'm kinda psyched to see where this project goes.

Color: pale gold
Nose: Creamy vanilla, honey, malt, and a kiss of pineapple on nose. Floral talcum powder
Palate: White fudge frosting and floral vanilla opening, shifting into malty honey with a kiss of fruit tart acid.  I get caramelized pineapple - but gentle.  This is followed by a dry light tannic finish.  There is a good intensity of flavor here and a very pleasant drinkable balance.  This one works for me.  Expected to hit the US market around $50 on 4/1/14 it seems a tad pricey for blended Irish whiskey - but the wood management twist and higher ABV help take this one to a level where it doesn't seem stupid.


Tullamore Dew 40%

The base expression from William Grant owned, Midleton sourced Tullamore Dew - it promises to be in the Powers Gold wheelhouse of flavors.

Color: straw
Nose: Gentle malt, grain bubble gum, floral heather
Palate is unexpectedly firm with a sweet honeyed malt opening.  The mid-palate sees a handoff to light fruity grain whiskey flavors (gum, fruity jellies) and a light mint note.  The finish is short and ends on a slightly young grain note.  The opening is the strength here.  Light, sweet, sippable, and easy.  The grainy finish is common at the price point - and easily rectified by simply sipping more.

It's nice - but high in younger grain whiskey flavors and isn't particularly distinctive IMO

Tullamore Dew Phoenix 55%

An exciting wrinkle: blended Irish whiskey over proof at 55% and finished in sherry casks and says non-chill filtered.  On the down side it's NAS and doesn't mention color - so thus might have e150.   The phoenix in the name - and the rising bird symbol on the bottle strikingly like Teeling's - refers to Tullamore's recovery after a fire caused by a ballooning accident in 1785.  This is considered the world's first aviation disaster and is the subject of annual festival in Tullamore called The Phoenix Festival.  This is obviously a whole theme in Ireland, where resurrection from disaster is a national narrative.  This version is limited at 15,615 bottles.  This one is number 13 of 15,615.
(Update: Joe Gratkowski, blogger of showed me a dozen pictures of bottles of Phoenix and they all were 13/some other number). His inquiry with TD showed that 13 indicates the year.  The second number is the bottle number and apparently it isn't necessarily limited.  Thanks for the information and the help. Joe!)

Color: Gold with amber glints
Nose: Faint linseed oil, spirit, solvent, sweet white raisins.
Palate, bright and razor sharp.  Solvent, mint, oak.  Rich oak with a sherry aspect.  Then a bit of spirit heat and tannin spice.  The sense of oak cask is intensified with more air, time, and a drop of water.  The oak carries through on the finish too.  Intense, spirity, and strong,  Yet the classic Irish sweet and mint notes show clearly beneath the oak cask and sherry flavors.

The spirit heat on this is fierce.  It brings an intensity of flavor - but that doesn't mean a complexity.  There's plenty of oak here and some of the vinous sherry flavors, sweet and heat and a good volume of oak flavors.  On the whole this is a solid Irish sipping whiskey but comes off as a bit pointed and sharp.  More time would help take it into epic.  As it is, it's pretty darn decent.


Knappogue Castle 12 Single Malt 40%

Color: palest gold.
Nose: spring grass, malt, anise seed, fresh mead.
Palate:  Creamy sweet grassy mash.  The expansion hits with the green and minty note that screams "Bushmills" at me loud and clear.  This is a lot like the Bushmill's 10 single malt expression.  There is spirit heat and some gentle oak on the turn to the finish, which is exceedingly gentle and brief.  A delicate, acceptable Irish single malt, but without a distinctive angle.  It shares the strengths, and in my opinion, the weaknesses of Bushmill's Single Malt 10, with whose price point it shares, but brings a freshness and a bit more fruitiness to the flavor signature.  I'd take this over Bushmill's 10, but I definitely prefer the others in the line.


Knappogue Castle 14 Single Malt 46%

Color: Gold
Nose:  Grassy sweet aroma of heather, white frosting, some distant dried yellow flowers.

Palate: a sunny golden malt sweetness opens.  It's a beautiful moment.  Then the expansion waxes with the note of mint and the green flavors of Bushmills.  There is some greater density of flavors here than the 12.   Some citrus notes and wine gums.  Two years more in the wood, plus a finishing turn in sherry cask - and bottling at 46% all work in its favor. The turn to the finish is warming, with more oaky bitters flavors.  The finish is a longer too - but still fairly brief.  Yet it's a pleasant finish with tannin bitters fading amid lingering mint and wine gum sweets.  This is a pleasant and drinkable example of a Irish single malt:


Knappogue Castle 16 Single Malt Sherry Finish 40%

14 years in bourbon barrels, 21 months in sherry casks.  4500 bottles total.

Color: light amber.

Nose:  Grassy fresh, but joined by a bit of vanilla, citrus, fig, and notes of oak and sherry cask.  It's a light and pleasant nose - with distinctly more going on.

Palate:  The opening is more gentle than the 14 (40% as opposed to 46%) but the sherry finish actually shows up.  Sweet with some vinous raisins and fig on the opening.  The minty green shows on the expansion.  The turn to the finish shows oak spice and tannin spiciness which warms with clove-like heat.  But the shelved down intensity of 40% leaves me wanting more.


Knappogue Castle 17 Single Malt (1994-2011) Sherry Finish 40%

15 years in bourbon barrels, 21 months in sherry casks.  Bottle 4278 of 4500

Color:  light amber.

Nose:  Again, grassy and fresh with gentle hints of vanilla, raisins, lemon, and fig.  It's a soft and gentle nose.  In direct head to head nosing with the other Knappogue Castles it is distinctly darker and oakier than the others - but only in a relative way.

Palate: sweet and distinctly figgy on the opening.  The expansion gives a greater sense of sherry cask - but the minty green aspect of Bushmills is still readily evident.  No surprise, given that most of the maturation takes place in ex-bourbon casks and the sherry finish is for the last 21 months of maturation.
The extra time gives a bit of added richness - but this is still impressively light and fresh.  The main sign of the extra maturation is more oak in the nose.


Clontarf 1014 Blended Irish Whiskey 40%

From the cut sheet:  "Clontarf 1014 is  triple-distilled, filtered through Atlantic Irish oak charcoal, and aged four years  in bourbon barrels: ten percent is pot  stilled single malt whiskey; the rest of  the blend is a combination of pot stilled  and column stilled grain whiskey. The  whiskey comes from Dublin."

Color: light amber.
Nose: heathery, light talcum, honey, bubble gum, and distant iodine.
Palate: sweet vanilla fudge on opening, but immediately complicated by salty sea air, firm malt, and some lovely sweet chewing gum grain whiskey notes.  Soft and easy drinking, with a short sweet finish.  This has some complications and twists pretty unusual in a $20 bottle of blended whiskey in the form of those iodine notes and sea breeze.  In a head to head between Clontarf 1014 and Tullamore Dew the similarities are more apparent than any difference.  I give Clontarf the slight edge because of the complexity of salt and a bit of iodine.  But Tullamore Dew's gentle uncomplicated take on the same set of flavors might be more pleasing to some.  Personally I'll take this any day.  Enough going on to be worth sipping and cheap enough at $20 to be used heedlessly.


Green Spot Pure Pot Still 40%  

A classic triple distilled pure pot still (malted and unmalted barley whiskey - an unblended whiskey) from Midleton (Jameson's).  This has a long history - a contract production for a Dublin grocer.  The brand has a long history but Green Spot only began importation into the USA a few weeks ago.  This makes it part of the expansion story for me.  FYI, my pal Steve Zeller just reviewed this on his blog The Smoky Beast and has more background on why it's called "Green Spot":

For a deeper dive into the history of this brand, check out Peter Lemon's post today on The Casks.  Peter writes history beautifully:

Color: dark old gold with light amber tones.
Nose: cream caramel, honey, heather, light sherry tones of fig, and leather.  Underneath is fruity sweet floral tones.  Nosing deeper, you get more sweetness and complexity. For 8 year old whiskey this is pretty rocking.
Palate: big sweet creamy opening.  White fudge, honey vanilla cream, then mint, faint sherry notes of black raisins and figs.  The expansion has the green and minty flavor signature of Jameson's - so very Irish!  There are some light grainy alcohol notes at the turn, but malt and grain and seeds dominate the finish.  This one has a buttery aspect that takes it into a different level than most blended Irish whiskies.  It's a visceral creaminess - a textural thing - to go with the creamy flavors so characteristically Irish.  This is of a piece - and yet clearly something special.   It's been released at $45.  Definitely worth a taste at that level.


Yellow Spot Pure Pot Still 12 year old 46%

I've seen this in some exclusive stores in the USA (Park Avenue Liquors) but this is from a 700ml European bottling shared by my friend Eric Sandford (thanks, Eric!)

Extra aging to 12 years and higher proof at 46% are the edge here.  Yet, the extra years add wood and oak tannins, spice and heat and fruity intensity.

Nose:  Cream caramel, and honey malt made mellow by rich oak and fruity wine gums.  Figs, gooseberries, and something tropical (mangoes and papayas).  Nosing deeper, I'm getting some butterscotch.  Nice.  Really nice.

Palate:  Buttery, creamy, sweet, and candied on the opening.  Lovely viscosity in the mouth.  There is a big expansion of flavors after that sweet dessert-like opening: sherried and madeira'd flavors that include tart acids and lots of tropical fruits - creamy mangos, gooseberries, thimble berries.  Underneath is clearly the minty green of Jameson's and Ireland, but the tartness and fruitiness really put on a show.  Plus there is a big oak presence.  The turn shows this oak growing, but a goji-berry sweet-tart quality hangs on.  This fruity and oaky quality yields a fairly long finish.  This is a Red Breast 15 like presentation, but more fruit forward.  Pretty stand-out stuff.  Is it $100 stuff?  Tough competition from top Scotches at the price - but this is definitely a contender in the pure pot still style at a bit under.  I would definitely seek this out.


Full disclosure of sources:  My bottles: Tullamore Dew, Tullamore Dew Phoenix, Knappogue Castle 17, Green Spot.  Teeling's Sample graciously poured for me by Jack Teeling at a tasting I was invited to by the Baddish group, PR.  Knappogue Castle 12, 14, 16 and Contarf 1014 samples also provided by Laura Baddish - of the Baddish Group, PR.  Yellow Spot sample provided by my friend Eric Sanford.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Considering Michter's.

I love Michter's.  But which Michter's?  There are two.  There is what we'll call "old Michter's" the Pennsylvania distillery in Schaefferstown that people known as Michter's - and which marketed itself as Michter's but was actually named Pennco for most of the recent past and Bomberger's Distillery before that.  That distillery has been closed since 1990.  It is most famous for one particular 1974 contract run of Bourbon made for a guy named Hirsch and aged for a heck of a long time.  This became the subject of a fantastic book called "The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste - The True Story of A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey.  Distilled in the Spring 1974.  Made and Bottled in Kentucky" by Chuck Cowdery.  This book is a miracle, which somehow tells something profound and universal about the Bourbon business, the craftsmanship, and history by focusing on one particular legendary run of juice.  I cannot recommend this book more highly - it is a sweet and compulsive read and will teach you lessons about Bourbon that any enthusiast must know.  It will also make you crave a taste of A. H. Hirsch's Bourbon - and that's a bit of problem as it is not around except at auction and then at stratospheric prices - dozens of times what it sold for even half a decade ago.

Meanwhile, there is a brand of Bourbon, whiskey, and rye sold in many stores called Michter's which is made by an unrelated company - owned by Chatham Imports, a middle-tier importer/wholesaler.  We'll call that "new Michter's".  New Michter's has extensive distribution for a company producing small quantities - and an excellent reputation for quality offerings at the high end of their line.  You frequently see particular issues highly sought after in the Bourbon enthusiast community.

A few months back I visited the home of New York American whiskey enthusiast Jared Zuckman.  While his newborn son slept next to us, Jared graciously and generously led me through a tasting which spanned such Bourbon stellar bottlings Four Roses Small Batch 125th Anniversary, Jefferson Presidential Select 18, A.H. Hirsch 16 foil top ("old Michter's"), and Michter's 20 ("new Michter's") among others.

Jared Zuckman's bottles of new and old Michter's

My quick notes from that tasting for the two Michter's are as follows:

A.H. Hirsch Reserve 16 gold foil top Straight Bourbon 45.8% abv - 91.6 proof

Dark amber color
A beautiful big rich nose of Vanilla florals, brown sugar, sandalwood oak
The palate is thinner than you'd expect given the nose.  Thinner mouth feel.  Sandalwood perfume, citrus, and toffee bourbon flavors.  In the mid-palate there is a a pervasive but gentle mustiness.  The finish all about astringent oak.

Michter's 20 Single Barrel Bourbon 57.1% abv Barrel 2368, bottle 12 of 220

Hazelnut Chestnut color
Huge nose of dark oak perfume, deep musky loam, rich molasses and dark chocolate.  With air and a drop of water, raw chocolate chip cookie dough and pancake batter notes.
Huge sweet palate with thick mouth feel. Toasted & burnt coconut,  dark roasted cocoa, maple glazed roasted pecans.

In some ways it's not a fair comparison - the Michter's 20 is a barrel proof product.  But there's no point actually denying the fact that the "new Michter's" 20 is a superior pour - for whatever that's worth.  And pretty dramatically so.  Jared would be the first to say so.  He called the Hirsch 16, "historically interesting but overrated".  He called the Michter's Single Barrel 20 "the pour of the year" for him.  I had to concur.  Obviously the A.H. Hirsch is something more than just what's in the glass.  It's a "one year type" - like the 1793 Chain Cent is a one year type - rare and unique as a type - beyond just rare as an issue - functioning as a vanished symbol of something beautiful and gone.  Pennsylvania's demise as a distilling center is all tied up with the death of rye, the death of distilling in the North-East, and the decline of American Whiskey in general in the dark days of glut.  A.H. Hirsch's batch represents the "jewels in the darkness" - which came out of the rickhouses in the 90s as forgotten treasures, like the gold of King Tut's tomb.  More on Tut and Michter's later...  But for all that, what's in the glass (i.e. what you'd taste blind) is vitally important too.  And the takeaway here is that new Michter's 20 is a stunning pour - and a true leading product.

So, what is "new Michter's" and how does it relate to "old Michter's"?  I have my take on it, but here's how Cowdery describes it in "The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste":
"What about the Michter’s bourbon, rye and other whiskeys on store shelves today? What’s that and what is its relationship to the Michter’s Distillery and A. H. Hirsch Reserve Bourbon? After Michter’s closed, the Michter’s trademark was abandoned. A few years later, a Philadelphia company called Chatham Imports re-registered the abandoned mark and began to sell a line of Michter’s bourbons and other whiskeys. None of the whiskey they sell was made at the Michter’s Distillery in Pennsylvania. They are a non-distiller producer, which means they buy bulk whiskey made by one or more of the usual suspects and bottle it under the Michter’s brand name. Because they control rights to the Michter’s name, they can and do claim what is now (as of 2012) 259 years of Michter’s history as their own, even though they have just the name and nothing else that connects them to the distillery in Schaefferstown. Ironically, the Michter’s name itself is only about 60 years old. Over the years, the distillery was known by many different names."

"In 2011 , the new Michter’s announced its intention to build a micro-distillery in downtown Louisville, and they joined the Kentucky Distillers Association. That Michter’s had nothing to do with A. H. Hirsch Reserve and has no further role in its story."

Cowdery, Charles (2012-05-02). The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste. The True Story Of A. H. Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Distilled In The Spring Of 1974. Made and Bottled in Kentucky.

Everything that Chuck says in that passage is factual and these facts have led some people to be angry at the new company selling whiskey with the brand name Michter's.  But, as I'll explain later on, it's not quite the whole truth.  Yet the anger in some quarters is quite real.  For an example of this angry reaction you can't do better than the anonymous blogger of who writes under the pseudonym "Lloyd Christmas".  He rages at Non-Distiller-Producers (NDPs) like Jefferson's and others.  but he reserves a special vitriol for new Michter's:

"The distillery closed in 1990 for good and when the abandoned name finds its way into the public domain for Mr. “Sleaze of the Year” to take it as if it’s been his forever. The new Michter’s starts releasing Michter’s Rye, Bourbon and Whiskey under a very fake, very dishonest story. Washington’s troops drank it, you say? Bullshit, I say."

"Makes up a bunch of more crap that only a con man comes up with. Obviously this sleaze has never taken — or at least never paid attention in — an ethics class while at Yale, but I bet he aced Lying 101 and Advanced Greed."

"I’ll be honest and say I don’t know if he owns barrels he sourced, aged or if he bought them ready for bottling. What I know is that Kentucky Bourbon Distillers bottled most/all of it and, I believe, supplied the barrels. Many, if not all, are being bottled by someone new, I believe in California."

"To give some credit, there were some older batches of 10 year Rye and Bourbon that were great. Incredible 25 year and first batch 20 year bourbons as well. The rest is stuff you try at a bar and are glad you didn’t get a bottle. Chatham imports is not even second rate but they beat the Michter’s name they adopted from the scrap heap as the gift that keeps on giving."

Actually - "Lloyd" says some much worse things in that post.  His rants peel paint and often go way over the line.  I actually picked some of the more gentle areas to quote from.  I have issues with many of the things "Lloyd" says, but there are some legitimate beefs here.  If you go to Michter's web site the first thing you see (before giving your birthday) is the caption "Wine Enthusiast Distiller of the Year" and the following image:

Photoshopped barrel heads - see missing support cables at right and just left of center.
Michter's is, as Chuck reported, building a pair of distilleries - one in Shively, KY and another in urban downtown Louisville on the strip.  The one in Shively already has a pair of small test stills and a large 60' column still from Vendome is being fabricated and is expected to be delivered and installed this coming summer.  It will have a pot doubler - or "thumper" - as the old Michter's distillery did.  But Michter's isn't in full production yet - and that group of barrels in the photograph on the web site are a dream for the future rather than an actual group of physical barrels with that printing on the barrel ends. Michter's was, indeed named "Distiller of the Year" by Wine Enthusiast in 2012.  But those barrels in that photograph are photoshopped.  Lloyd rages that this photograph is a deliberately constructed lie - calculated to mislead people into believing that the whisky they buy is actually distilled, barreled and aged by Micther's.  That's clearly where Michter's intends to go - but they aren't there yet.

 Let's deal with "Lloyd"'s objections.  They are, to summarize:

  • Willie Pratt given the title "Master Distiller" while Michter's still isn't distilling
  • Wine Enthusiast awards Michter's "Distillery of the Year" in 2012 before their distillery operations are in production.
  • Michter's Celebration sold in a fancy box for $4000.  The idea is that is like Dalmore: elitist and ultimately based on hype.
  • new Michter's chose to base operations in Kentucky, rather than in Pennsylvania where old Michter's was located.
  • The assertion that early releases were wonderful - and had Stizel-Weller stocks, and have gone down hill as those stocks disappeared leaving current bottlings inferior to older ones.
  • new Michter's claims the mantle of centuries of history in their advertising, but are totally unrelated to old Michter's .  

Some of these points are straight up correct, and some are just wrong.

  • Willie Pratt's title is "Master Distiller" and he is already doing test distillation batches, and he is doing barrel selection and is vatting.  That's all some master distiller type stuff.  But the whiskey you buy on the shelves wasn't distilled by Willie Pratt.  So this is ambiguous at best.
  • The text accompanying Wine Enthusiast's award is a well written restatement of Michter's marketing literature.  It commits the mistake of confusing old Michter's and new the same entity.  It states that Michter's was "restarted".  This simply isn't true.  While the award text describes both of Michter's distilleries which are under development in the present tense - it also talks a lot about Michter's "making" whiskey.  This is clearly misleading.   It reminds me of the Nobel committee awarding Obama the Peace Prize - presumably in the hopes that he would be a force for world peace going forward.  Clearly new Michter's has some very well defined ambitions about being a distiller that they are sinking capital into.  But that's the future.  What you are drinking now wasn't distilled by Michter's - although some was contract distilled for them - and to their specifications including some unique mash bills.  I don't know if you can blame Michter's for the wording of the award - but it clearly confuses the truth of the matter.
  • Michter's Celebration is an exercise in fancy decanter type "ultra-premium" marketing, like you usually see high end Cognac or single malt Scotch whisky engaged in.  It's an ominous development for American whiskey - primarily from the price pressure perspective.  I don't like the decanter business, in general, in any market.  However, it was a tiny production run.  No one forced you to buy it.  It sold out quickly.  Who really cares?  If it's a matter of principal to you, then you do.  Otherwise, not so much.
  • Joe Magliocco, Michter's President makes clear that the decision to locate their new distilleries in Kentucky was a business decision based primarily on the culture and labor resources there.  It's hard to argue with that.  They didn't attempt to resurrect the old Michter's site because it's a rat's nest of liability. 
  • While Lloyd Christmas regularly asserts that Michter's is going downhill, I took part in a blind tasting held by Steven Zeller - The Smoky Beast - where we had three different bottlings of Michter's Single Barrel 10 year old Bourbon (and a Pappy Lot "B" thrown in for confusion).  I ended up picking the newest one as the best and, in fact, ranked them in inverse order of date.  In other words I liked the oldest bottling the least and the youngest the most - in order.  And that was tasting blind:
  • Lloyd's complaint about new Michter's deliberately stating that they have a multi-century history in their marketing (which is not true) is absolutely correct and is certainly troubling.

Joe points at old Michter's King Tut decanters.
A little while back, New York food and whisky blogger Susanna Skiver Barton of and I spent a very nice evening with Joe Magliocco, President of Chatham Imports and Michter's and Emily Malinowski who works with him.  (She blogged about the evening here).
Over the course of the evening we discussed a few of these issues, but mostly we talked about history and drank most of the Michter's line (and then kept drinking various other things late into the evening).  The first thing that popped out at me was that Joe Magliocco has a long history with old Michter's whiskey and has a real affection for it.  He tells a story about his first job, when starting at Chatham - his father's wine and spirits import and distribution business in 1976, was to move a large number of surplus King Tut decanters which old Michter's had produced to catch the fever of "Tutmania" that accompanied the traveling exhibition of King Tut's treasures.  He still has a good collection of King Tut decanters - among his extensive collection of Michter's decanters generally.  For example I had never seen some of these Michter's decanters before:

Some unusual 1970s Michter's decanters.
Joe Magliocco and Old Michter's
American Whiskey
Magliocco shows plans for the Louisville distillery.
Joe began our conversation by putting a tax stamped 1970s-80s dusty of old Michter's whiskey on the table and cited it as a frequent pour of his father's and an inspiration for a number of the things they are doing today.  This is the odd extremely high rye and high-malt corn whiskey that was almost but not quite Bourbon (because the mash was 50% corn.  1% too low to be legally Bourbon).  Joe said that his father drank and enjoyed it.  This old, unusual, classic Michter's form of American whiskey continues to be an inspiration for new Michter's today and is found in at least two of their expressions US1 American Whiskey and the Celebration bottling.  This effort at continuity with Michter's past is admirable.  Over the course of the evening we tasted much of the Michter's line up.  I'll post tasting notes for a few of those expressions below (the ones I took samples of, and/or have bottles of), but suffice it to say, there's some excellent cask selection and some very good palates on display at new Michter's.  The whiskeys, Bourbons and ryes in the US1 line are quite good and some of the single barrel offerings are state of the art.  Furthermore, as Joe made clear, and already noted Michter's isn't just an NDP and a bottler of contract runs made elsewhere.  They are actively developing two distilleries in Kentucky.  They aren't alone in independently bottling other distillery's whisky while developing their own distillery.  There are a range of examples. from Willett's (Kentucky Bourbon Distillers), to Smooth Ambler, Old Pogue, Widow Jane, and many others.  The fact that they are developing their own whiskey production and are members of the Kentucky Distillers Association should give them a degree of legitimacy and respect.

One of new Michter's test stills in their new Shively distillery.
image from:

The US-1 line up.
By the way, when we tasted that homage to old Michter's Sour Mash Whiskey, the US1 American Whiskey - I found that the new batch was considerably better than the one I had tried before.  It is butterscotchy, grassy, with nice jujubee juicy fruit flavors.  The other entry level expressions were good too. US1 bourbon was light, floral (marigold) with nice balance.  The US1 Rye (6 years old) had floral herbal spice but also a characteristic toffee note you'll find in all the Michter's ryes.  Michter's US-1 Sour Mash (little over 6 years old) is very nice with floral sweetness, but also some sophisticated notes of clay, dust, butterscotch & spice.

Michter's 10 (barrel 2340) 47.2%a abv

Color: dark amber with coppery glints.

Nose: Candy corn, blackstrap molasses, herbal rye, bourbon vanilla pods and char. Nosing deeper you get coconut, and beautiful sandalwood incense perfume. Musky, musty, earthy and spicy.

Palate: syrupy mouth feel, dark molasses sweetness, deep char, beautiful vanilla and coconut from white oak, and a lilting refrain of herbal rye spice dancing above the dark heavy brown cooked sugars and bitter char foundation.  That dark vanilla extract leads - with plenty of vegetal treacle and brightly acidic citrus preserves.  Notes of aspirin and ivy herbals speak to old rye.  The expansion is big and bold with dark toffee, caramel, and rich sandalwood oak.  The oak tannins wax on the turn - getting spicy and drying.  The finish is long, and complex with big old wet oak dominating, but also molasses, dark chocolate, black coffee, and aromatherapy oils hanging around.  It's a big, rich, darkly brown old style whiskey.  In some ways it's bigger, more darkly wooded, and more displays more dark cooked sugar Maillard reaction flavors than the 20.  But the 20 has greater complexity, bigger rounder sweetness, and more going on to tease apart.   It's oily heavy dark flavored whisky that feels like old fashioned whisky. It is very reminiscent of the style of the big Old Fitz's of the 50s (not the candy notes of a wheater, but the same dark malty feeling and balance).

Michter's Celebration 112.3 proof 

A vatting of 30 yr bourbon and 30 year old rye plus younger favorite casks
Color: medium amber
Nose: Honey, pecan, old musty oak.
Palate: Honey, citrus floral, rye spice.
Intensely floral, herbal, sunny and balanced.  There are sunflowers, lemon and candied orange peel.  Canola oil, almond oil, and orange rind.  Old rye's dark green aspirin and complex old herbal bitters flavor hang as a backdrop behind the sweet and sunny.  Added air brings out the sweetness and a bit of mineral dust.  This is big, complex, flavor dense stuff - but with a balance that is much brighter, sunnier, and less brown than the Single Barrel 20 or the 10.  The story is the vatting in of plenty of rye - both hyper mature and vibrantly young.  It's unusual, very good, and yet very much of a piece with the rest of the Michter's line.  It is, however, sold at a very silly price.

Michter's Single Barrel Bourbon 20 57.1% abv

Color Dark amber,
Nose: oak forward, qumquats, ambergris, caramel, marigolds and daisies, cooking oil
Palate:  Beautiful rich toffee and rancio roundness like old cognac, enlivened with tart acid citrus, which melds into rich sandalwood perfume and darker, mossier, old wet oak aspect.  Dark chocolate blooms at the turn which waxes into tannin spice.  This is a big bold dark brown flavor.  With extensive air, a beautiful sweet herbal flavor asserts itself - perfumed, darkly green, and complex.  This is a monster that opens with a drop of water too - becoming sweeter and more floral.  It's beautiful both neat and with a drop.

It's quite clear there there is a definite set of flavor preferences here.  There is a clear sense of aesthetic regarding  flavors across the line.  The preference is for full flavors - rich and dark and old fashioned.  There is also some excellent palates at work in barrel selection, batching, and filtering.  Why is it so good?  Joe Magliocco, not surprisingly, has some things to say on the topic.  Stuff they have contract distilled is barreled at 103 proof.  125 proof is standard.  They have barrels made using yard dried wood exposed to the elements for 18-36 months.  With their barrels they have them toasted them before being charred.  Their barrels come from Mcinnis in Cuba Missouri, Independent Stave in Lebanon Missouri and a 3rd source he cannot name.  They do a lot with filtering - which sounds like a dirty word to whisky enthusiast me - but Magliocco assures me that filtering a creative paintbrush that Willie Pratt can use to change the balance of flavors - executing creative control.  The unavoidable impression of all that is that there is some knowledge, palate, and crafting going on.  Good whiskey is seldom an accident.

Yet I find reactions like the one I got from EMT paramedic and bourbon afficionado, Ari Susskind, earlier this week at a whisky event who said that he doesn't buy Michter's because he doesn't like that they muddy up the identity of Michters.  Mr. Susskind is a leader of a whisky group, as well as someone who makes private cask selections for liquor stores in his area, not just a casual drinker - so this presents a troubling aspect.  It's not the whiskey - it's the branding story and it isn't just "Lloyd Christmas" howling in the wilderness over at BourbonTruth.  But many of the other examples I previously gave (Willet's Old Pogue, etc..) are apparently in the same boat:  old distillery brands resurrected with newly built distilleries, selling someone else's juice until their own is in full production and ready for market after barrel maturation.  You don't hear this complaint much about them?  So what's the deal?  Is it that Chatham Imports is a middle tier distributor  Shouldn't be.  There is a grand tradition of whiskey merchants becoming distillers.  Pappy Van Winkle himself was a wholesaler and distributor before he partnered with Stitzel and built a new distillery to resurrect a beloved old brand.  So what is it?

Part of it is that it's Michter's.  Chatham took the brand name because Joe Magliocco loved it legitimately and it was abandoned.  He might have bought it but the owners had literally fled the liability of the busted down site of the physical distillery.  Picking up that abandoned brand name looks like good business and Joe is certainly a good businessman.  But the story is deeply connected to a sense of Bourbon's history and new Michter's connecting piece to that history is lacking.  With Willett's, Drew Kulsveen is a 2nd generation member of the Willett family and the distillery is the same one.  With Pogue - it's the same blood of the old family name.  With Smooth Ambler it's a new brand with no baggage.  But with Michter's the ghosts are thick and Michter's marketing talk that attempts to blur the very real line between old Michter's claims to history (already a bit fanciful - even when they were in PA) and the new project.  Michter's is special because it's about the tragic death of Pennsylvania's distilling tradition - deeply connected with rye whiskey in America.  It's about A. H. Hirsch and the story of that one amazing batch that has come to symbolize the dark tomb of the Bourbon glut era in the way that King Tut's glorious golden death mask has come to symbolize the vanished glories of ancient Egypt.

Should you care?  I'm here to tell you straight up that Michter's Single Barrel 10 is one of the best Bourbons on the market you can actually find on a store shelf.  I actually picked it blind ahead of Pappy (thanks again, Steve Zeller).  You have to decide for yourself whether what's in the glass is more important to you than a marketing story that blurs the truth that old and new Michters are separate things.

Michter's 25 yo rye. Toffee, dark spice, kiss of baby aspirin. Caramel, ivy, rich

Update:  Great post from "Lloyd Christmas" @Bourbontruth about Michter's:  loaded with scholarship and detail about specific editions.  It's also loaded with a point by point rebuttal of this post.  But he tempers his tone, and loads the post with some much empirical and useful data that I'm left only feeling grateful.   I readily concede that Bourbon Truth's post has a lot more specific information that this post provides.  It's also among the best writing that he has done to date: