Saturday, December 27, 2014

Limestone Branch, Yellowstone Bourbon's Resurrection, and Craft Whiskey's Evolution to the Mainstream

A pair of 1970s Yellowstone 6 year old 86 proof minis
for the Italian market. Distilled at Glenmore Distillery.

Everyone agrees that change must be coming to Craft whiskey, but what form will it take?  Craft whiskey in the USA is full of effusive creativity: wild mash bills, whiskey sold underaged (or just white), and localvore flavor variations.  Infused and flavored whiskeys are on the table, and so is volatility and the potential for change.  Whiskey geeks love to discuss what's going to happen to Craft.  "The good ones will succeed, maybe with some mature stuff eventually, while the crappy ones will go belly up" ... is how a lot of these discussions go.  But the recent lesson of top Craft distillery Balcones - with the creative force and brand creator Chip Tate unseated from the company and a group of investors proceeding to develop Balcones' distillery as a larger scale more corporate entity while Chip goes off to start a new distillery suggests a different path of evolution for Craft whiskey; one pretty familiar in the Craft Beer arena: corporatization.  Is this really happening?

Well, another example of the movement from Craft to corporate in American whiskey is the interesting case of Limestone Branch which is turning 180 degrees from white dog Craft to classic Bourbon via a merger - news of which broke on December 2nd 2014 via Chuck Cowdery's Blog that liquor brand producer/marketer Luxco was buying a 50% stake in the small Lebanon, Kentucky craft distiller.  Luxco is a company that has bought brands and then bottles bulk sourced liquors labeled with those brand names.  Their best known products include straight alcohol brand Everclear and, in the whiskey end of things, Rebel Yell (once the light bodied wheated mash bill Southern market exclusive specialty product of Stitzel-Weller), and Ezra Brooks.  They also have the venerable brand "Yellowstone" which once was one of the bigger selling Bourbons in the pre-glut era; one with a very long history that stretches well back into the 19th century.  Yellowstone is still sold now with juice Luxco sources bulk - at a low price and quality level.  But from 1935-1991, though, Yellowstone was made at the Glenmore Distillery (where Kentucky Tavern was made too) and had a sterling reputation. Glenmore stopped distilling in 1993 (but still operates as a bottler and a rickhouse).

Partnering with Limestone branch is a big step for Luxco.  It marks their entry into Bourbon distilling.  It's also presages an ambition rebranding effort.  Luxco is going to try to have resurrect a fallen brand back into something special.  The partnership marks a big change for Limestone Branch too.  They have been making variations on sugarjack and this marks their entry into Bourbon distilling too.

Chuck reported:
After Prohibition, Yellowstone moved to a new location in Shively, south of Louisville. It was solely under the Dant family's control but Beam family members were employed there as distillers. In 1944, the brand and distillery were sold to Glenmore. It was a massive facility that made bourbon until 1991. In 1993, after Glenmore was sold to what became Diageo, Yellowstone was sold to Luxco where it became an unpalatable bottom-shelf brand made by one or more unnamed Kentucky distilleries.

A column still, additional pot still, automated bottling line, and barrel house will be added at Limestone Branch, which plans to begin distilling the original recipe for Yellowstone (their uncle had a copy) in early 2015.

Cowdery has provided more of the back story of Yellowstone in previous posts on his blog back in 2009, by the way.  It's a story that goes back to the roots of the industrial revolution in Bourbon distilling in the 19th century and includes some of the biggest names in Bourbon.  Period.
"The Yellowstone whiskey brand was created by the wholesale firm of Taylor & Williams shortly after the national park was established in 1872. Taylor was D. H. Taylor, who started the firm in Louisville about 1865. J. T. Williams joined the company in 1877. They were wholesalers and bought whiskey from various distilleries.
Sometime in the 1880s they contracted with J. B. Dant to make Yellowstone bourbon for them. Dant had a (then) new distillery in Nelson County, Kentucky, at Gethsemane Station. It was called Cold Springs Distillery.  
In about 1903, Taylor & Williams merged with the Cold Springs Distillery. Dant became president and the distillery was renamed Yellowstone, as that brand had become very successful."
Ad for "Taylor & Williams, Inc.'s Yellowstone - first years of the 20th century
"After prohibition, J. B. Dant and his sons built a new distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively to make the revived Yellowstone bourbon. Various Beams and Dants were involved in that operation too. Another Louisville-based whiskey maker, Glenmore, bought Yellowstone, brand and distillery, in 1944.

Yellowstone was a significant brand in its heyday, but as a mass or popular price brand, it suffered brutal share losses during bourbon’s sharp decline in the 1970s."
1948 Magazine Ad for Yellowstone Bourbon
Glenmore - the Louisville era

Dants and Beams made Yellowstone both before and after Prohibition.  You don't get more blue blood in Bourbon history than the names "Dant" and "Beam".  And Yellowstone was a leading and classic distillery and brand.  (Tasting notes below).  That name "Beam" is the thread that binds this history to Limestone Branch.

Meanwhile, Limestone Branch, a new young Craft distilling operation has been, up until now, all about making moonshine and sugar jack - a lot of it flavored.  This is iconoclastic stuff - very much not in keeping with the nature of a classic like Yellowstone.  But, yet, at Limestone Branch there are Beams making whiskey.  Chuck Cowdery, who reported as early as 2012 found a lot to like:
The brothers Beam make everything themselves with help from their father, who worked at Cummins-Collins in Athertonville, among other distilleries. They grew some of their own corn on the distillery grounds. They make a very clean spirit, with good flavor, and little harshness or burn. They're double-distilling. Their doubler is a 150-gallon handmade copper Hoga.
We don't just have to take Cowdery's word for it that they are doing good work.  Eric Burke (@arok) who did a detailed distillery visit recently with pictures of the charantais-type still and tasting notes of one of the flavored sugar shines they sell on his blog
This is a tasty liqueur. Tastes exactly like a baked apple pie that has been allowed to cool. Even the mouthfeel is correct since the liquid in an apple pie gets nicely thick and syrupy.
Stephen Beam and the line-up -
 from an article announcing the merger in the Lexingon Herald-Leader:
The focus on moonshine and sugar jack (i.e. white rum) at Limestone Branch a nod to the illicit local hill traditions and a play at the new trends in flavored whiskies.   It's classic "Craft whiskey" in the new distillery vein which is all about youth and added flavors and playful mash bills.  Here it's moonshine white dog with an interesting mash bill (here it's half moonshine sugarjack, and half white corn whiskey).

White dog in Craft is partly about the survival of small distilleries that need cash flow and need to sell unaged whiskies first when they start distilling.  Part of it is related to local traditions and the localvore market - thus Limestone Branch's big seller "Moonpie Moonshine" - where the flavors are as illicit and ironically downscale as the American South itself.  There's probably a reason that the Moonpie marshmallow cookie sandwich logo graces the Limestone Branch distillery and that it's the very first product listed on the company's web site:

As Eric Burke reported:
As you pull into the parking lot, the first thing you see on the side of the building is a large Moon Pie sign. One of the products they produce is a Moon Pie flavored moonshine that, my wife tells me, is scarily close to the real thing in flavor. 
The Moon Pie is junk food - but it's quintessentially Southern junk food.  The production of a sweet white unaged moonshine version of this is the epitome of one aspect of American Craft distilling that's analogous to junk food - and it drives some purists apoplectic.  But it's clearly a theme for Limestone Branch, which sells a bunch of flavored moonshines:  Apple Cinnamon Pie, Pumpkin Pie, Blackberry, Cherry, Strawberry.  Heck, there's even a barrel aged one - Precinct No. 6

Lisa Roper Wicker, who crafted the Moonpie Moonshine flavor adaptation,
here mixes up the Pumpkin Pie Shine flavors.
From TripAdvisor where Limestone Branch is listed as the #1 attraction in Lebanon, KY:
So, how is an effusive Craft distiller like Limestone Branch going to digest the change in becoming the resurrection of Yellowstone for Luxco?  That's the question.  There have been threads on various fora about the prospects.  Squire's comment on Straight Bourbon captures the tone:
"I'm pulling for them as well, this is the kind of partnership I can support. A new whisky based on the original Yellowstone recipe won't be the same of course but it is a great idea."
So, granted that Limestone Branch's recreation will be a new thing.  What did the old thing taste like?

Yellowstone 6 43% abv.  1970s dusty Italian market export.

Color: pale amber

Nose: Sandalwood oak, vanilla, salted caramel, butter, light solvent, and jelly candies.

Palate:  Candy up front - sugar dusted fruity flavored hard candy and more of those jelly candies.  Then, on the expansion, toffee, sweet cream, citrus, and lightly tanned leather.  At the turn, leather and char take over with some nice tannin spice and a ton of vanilla on the finish.  Nice vividness and intensity of flavor.  Floral and sweet.  But the finish is only medium long.  Also, not a huge body.  But it's a very pleasing set of flavors.  I'd like to try this in a higher proof expression, but I can understand why this was a popular leading Bourbon.  It's very tasty and accessible.  It's also a classic Bourbon flavor profile you don't see any more:  fruity candy.  It's something special that's gone.


Limestone Branch is going to have to take a hard turn from its effusive shines back to tradition to get this right.  I'll be watching with interest.  Is this a bellwether event in the evolution of Craft?  Time will tell.  

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Fascinating Transitional Bottle of Old Fitzgerald From the Dawn of the Repeal Era.

When Prohibition ended, Pappy Van Winkle, and his partners A. Ph. Stitzel and Alex Farnsley incorporated Stitzel-Weller and began building the legendary distillery by that name which has aroused such passions.  It was finished in 1935 and distillation began soon afterwards.  But in that year between the end of Prohibition on December 5th 1933 and whenever in 1935 distillation commenced, Stitzel-Weller existed as a company selling medicinal whisky distilled prior to Prohibition from their concentration warehouses where whisky from all over ended up under the watchful eye of the bondsmen.

The bottle you see at right is a window into that particular moment in history.  Pappy Van Winkle had purchased the Old Fitzgerald brand name from S. Charles Herbst.  He had originally called the brand "John E. Fitzgerald", distilled in Frankfort, KY for exclusive markets like steamships and private clubs.  It was the good stuff, named for the crooked bondsman who knew to pilfer the good stuff - a wicked inside joke.  Pappy must have loved it because he approached Herbst to buy the brand during Prohibition a number of times according to Sally Van Winkle Campbell in "But Always Fine Bourbon".  She writes that Herbst demanded $25,000, but ended up finally selling it to the persistent Pappy for $10,000.  According to the excellent timeline on the Bourbon Enthusiast forum Pappy's W.L. Weller & Sons bought the brand from Herbst for $2,000 in 1922 and then paid Herbst another $2,000 in 1925.

So, in the year 1934, following Repeal, Pappy's W. L Weller of Louisville produced this first quart bottling of Old Fitzgerald.  The whiskey inside was taken from medicinal pint bottles and rebottled into quarts.  The back label explicitly says so:

"100 Proof
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distilled Spring 1917 by 
Daviess County Distillery Co., Owensboro, Ky.
Originally Bottled Fall 1933 by
A. Ph. Stitzel, Inc., Louisville, Ky.
Rebottled by
Frankfort Distilleries, Inc. Louisville, Ky."

Back Label
Daviess County Distillery Co. was purchased by George E. Medley in 1901, according to Sam Cecil's book.  His son, Thomas A. Medley took it over when he died in 1910.  Thomas kept the company alive through Prohibition and distillation was moved to the Old Rock Springs Distilling Company after Repeal.  The whiskey in this bottle is from the old Medley's production at Daviess County and as such is a real piece of history.

I had never seen anything like this.  I put my question up on a number of forums.  Chuck Cowdery thought that it might have been a special bottling for share holders of the new Stitzel-Weller venture.  Joe Hyman (the whisky auctioneer previously of Bonham's and now of Skinner's) and Scott Spaid, blogger of both pointed out that quart sized rebottlings of medicinal whiskey were common in the first days of repeal.  Hyman mentioned the quart bottles of Dillinger Rye that Bonhams had sold in Spring of 2013.  Spaid pointed out quart bottles with 1933 BiB strips of Old McBrayer he had recently acquired (from the same originally owner as this bottle) - and also on Whisky Paradise: 

FYI - this bottle is going up for auction Wednesday 10/29/14 at Skinner's up in Boston.  Joe Hyman, the leading auctioneer of whisky in the USA left Bonhams when Bonhams cancelled the Fall NY whisky auction and moved to Skinner - as documented here"
In the absence of Bonham's, Skinner may be the best hope for a vibrant whisky auction business in the US.  I urge everyone who used to enjoy Bonham's auctions to make the move to Skinner.

Detail pics below show the BiB (Bottled in Bond) tax strip, age statement label (characteristic A. Ph. Stitzel red crescent), and the light shining through the whiskey so you can see it's good and clear.

(The consignor of this bottle chooses to remain anonymous).

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Four Top World Grain Whiskys Head to Head

A few weeks ago I gave a rave review to Suntory's Chita grain whisky in a blog post about the Hibiki 17 and 21 launch this fall.  I wrote: "Tasted head to head with Nikka Coffey Grain (45%) and Greenore 15 (43%) (the subject of an upcoming post) the Chita was definitely more intense and richly flavored. And while all 3 were delicious, the Chita took the grouping hands down. A really special and very tasty set of flavors."

Coffey Still at Kilbeggan - from the old B. Daly
Distillery at Tullamore. Planned to be restored.
(photo courtesy of wikipedia)
In the intervening period I had my 50th birthday (the celebration of which involved a lovely tasting of whiskies either distilled or bottled in 1964 - the subject of a future post, no doubt).  One of the bottles opened was a nice 1964 Invergordon from Scott's Selection which made it into the follow-up tasting for this formal review. It seemed right to have a Scottish grain on board.  

Grain whisky is malt whisky's less respected but more widely consumed little sister.  Much of the grain whisky produced ends up as the major component of blended Scotch whisky.  It's not often been sold by itself outside the UK until recently.  Even in the UK until recently there were only a handful of single grains widely available, such as Cameron Brig.  Some blended grains have been around in recent years, such as the Snow Grouse version of Famous Grouse.  John Glaser opened a lot of whisky enthusiast's eyes with his Compass Box Hedonism product.  Recently a number of other single grain have begun to trickle in, like the trio photographed above (granted the Invergordon is a UK bottling, others like it are available in the US, and the Chita is completely unavailable outside of Japan).  Irish grain whisky for decades meant Midleton, which sold it to Bushmills for Bush White and used it in its own blends.  Single grain Irish is a new thing.  Japan has also only recently come to selling single grain whisky - and it's apparent that they excel at it.  Bain's Cape Mountain grain whisky in South Africa is well regarded (and will be reviewed soon).  This is a major growth area recently and it's full of promise.

Unlike malt whisky the grain in grain whisky isn't sprouted (or malted) to release sugars.  It's made from a variety of grains, usually whatever is cheapest - which is usually corn.  Wheat is common too.  Grain whisky is distilled differently from malt too - in column stills which use fractional distillation to achieve much higher proof than malt whisky - or Bourbon, by the way, which shares the column still for the "beer still" phase but usually uses a pot still doubler or "thumper" for a second phase of distillation.  Like industrial alcohol plants, grain whisky distilleries can distill all the way to vodka levels in a single column, although hold back from 1-3% below vodka levels in practice to leave just enough flavor compounds to read as whisky.  Aneaas Coffey's original column was a two column affair, with linked beer and spirit columns, like the ones seen here at Kilbeggan distillery (where the Greenore grain whiskey reviewed here is produced, BTW).  David Havelin of the fascinating blog "Liquid Irish" had a lot of fascinating things to say about these stills at Kilbeggan:

"These columns came from the old B. Daly distillery in Tullamore, whose distilling assets Cooley bought. The big news is that Cooley has firm plans to get them running again.

Cooley already has a column still in Louth pumping out grain spirit. The raw material there is about 90% maize, 10% malted barley. The Kilbeggan grain spirit will be all barley, with a high percentage of malt. I assume some will be blended with Kilbeggan's pot still-produced whiskey but I'd put money on a new standalone grain whiskey to complement the existing Greenore, if the results are at all palatable.

Cooley has investigated the history of this Coffey still. Nothing is certain, but it was likely made by John Dore & Co in London in 1910. Destined for India, the still was commandeered by the British government for making fuel during World War I. Things get a little hazy at this point. The still might have spent the inter-war years in Czechoslovakia but by 1940 or 1941 it had fetched up in Tullamore.

It's not known for sure if it was used there. In fact its presence was kept rather quiet, perhaps because of the stigma attached to the use of the non-traditional Coffey still in Ireland.

It's quite a historical piece of industrial equipment because John Dore & Co is the direct successor to Aeneas Coffey's original company. John Dore worked for Coffey & Sons and took over operations in 1872. Happily, John Dore & Co is still in business and has cast its eye over the Kilbeggan stills. They found the original Indian order for the still in their records. The company will make replacements for some copper parts pilfered after Tullamore closed."

Havelin had indicated that Cooley planned to restore those stills and get them back into operation.  However, Cooley sold out to Beam.  Camper English of Alcademics visited Kilbeggan in February of 2014 and the Coffey Stills are still outside with the old giant pot stills.  So, obviously the plans to restore them have been put on hold.
Nikka puts a graphic of their old  traditional style Coffey still on the back label of their Nikka Coffey Grain whisky product's bottle which states it was imported from Scotland in 1963.

The graphic on the Nikka back label looks a lot like this old etching which appears to be from from the 19th century which appeared on  Teemu Strengell's great blog post about the history and science of fractional distillation and the development of the column still (highly recommended reading).  The post is called "History of the Column Still"   Teemu Strengell's history mentions the antecedents and the technical aspects of the column still's distillery, as well as some details about early adoption:

"The column still was much more efficient compared to the traditional pot still, producing higher proof (usually 86-95% ABV) spirit about ten times more in volume compared to medium sized pot still distillery. Since the malting, heating and maintenance costs were a fraction of those of a malt distillery, the column still grain spirit cost about 50-70% less compared to pot still malt whisky, even if the set-up costs were included. The northern Britons were not used to the light column still whisky and at the beginning large quantities were sold to rectifiers and gin distillers, who spiced the spirit and sold it as gin or imitation brandy or cognac. As shown in the figure below, the English rectifiers and distillers quickly adopted the Coffey still, but the more traditionalist Irish and Scots remained loyal to the pot still at least to some extent."

The other day Billy Abbot wrote a lovely blog post about Haig Club Single Grain Whisky on The Whisky Exchange Blog.  That interesting exercise in branding is made at Cameronbridge.  He made a number of good observations which apply to grain whisky in general.

"Grain distilleries are not the romantic, picture-postcard sites you often find in Scotland. They are very much industrial plants, and while some, myself included, may find such things beautiful, they are often not considered to be anything but factories. This is slightly unfair, as they produce a lot of whisky, and consistency of quality is of paramount importance." 
"After fermentation, the now alcoholic liquid is pumped through to the stills and distilled to 93.8%, described as ‘very low strength’ compared to the legal maximum of 94.8%. This keeps some of the grain’s flavour rather than pushing it to be a neutral spirit. The spirit itself is a lot more flavoursome than you’d expect from tales of new-make grain spirit, with a distinctive character."

The high proof output of grain whisky's column still production, rather like the triple distillation used in Irish and Lowland Scottish whisky, produces a spirit with a different character - so light and gentle that it was originally sold for gin.  This lightness is apparent in the high end products tasted below.
Chita Single Grain Whisky from Suntory
When you look up Chita Single Grain whisky on Google, one of the first hits is a fantastic guest post by a mysterious Japanese woman named Momoco on Draper Price's excellent Whiskey Detectives blog.  In the post  Momoco pays the distillery a visit (impressive, as it is not open to the public), and takes photographs of the incredibly industrial looking facility.
The Whiskey Detectives piece also offers many more photographs, tasting notes, and a discussion of the Japanese water & whisky drink mizuwari.  I'm grateful for the peek into the Sungrain Chita Distillery complex.

So, the purpose of this look was to confirm my earlier assessment that Chita is really something special.  It's also a further orientation into the nature of grain whisky with its properties of lightness, sweetness, density of mouth feel and herbal notes.

Chita Grain - 17 years old 55% abv 

This sample from the Suntory Hibiki launch - the special version only available at Yamazaki distillery tour bar - sporting extra age and higher proof.  "Chita Whisky is made by the Chita Distillery in the Sun Grain complex, a division of Suntory Brands. Located in Port Nagoya in a seaside industrial zone"

Availability only in Japan.

Color: gold

Nose: sunflower, honey, dust, vanilla, creamy custard, and some distant notes of red bean and sawn oak..

Palate:  lush sweet vanilla cream opening with creme broulle custard.  Light and elegant mouth feel.  Butter and creme broulle with some herbal aspects of sunflower and gorse.  The sweetness becomes incense-intense on expansion, waxing in buttery Scotch-malt highland flavors which open into rich malty and white oak.  The finish is moderately long and lightly herbal.  Just beautiful grain whisky - stunning and intense and as fully flavored as any grain whiskies under 30 years I've tried.

91  *****

Chita Grain 12 years old 43% 

I was able to put this head to head with a small sample (a "drample" in Suntory US West Coast brand ambassador Neyah White's parlance) received from the voluble and elegant Mr. White.  The sample was too small to formally review, but a number of comments can be made.  While the stock 43% Chita has less vivid intensity, the signature flavors of buttered popcorn, salted caramel, and creme broulle were clearly in evidence.  This stuff is just absolutely freakin' delicious.

89 *****

Nikka Coffey Grain 45% abv

"With the purchase in 1963 of its two Coffey stills, Nikka can now offer in addition to its single grain a whisky with an atypical profile: theNikka Coffey Malt, a malt whisky distilled in column stills."a non-aged single grain mainly composed of corn and distilled with two "Coffey stills" transferred in 1999 from Nishinomiya to Miyagikyo."

Color - slightly richer darker gold
Nose:  gently sweet, honeyed with a bit of creaminess and vanilla floral but also slightly herbal with a hint of nettles and distant mint.  
Palate: light and gentle with honey and pale malt, creamy vanilla bean custard sauce on the opening.  Darker caramel flavors come in with rich oak and honey cakes on the expansion.  A moderately long finish with oak and lingering caramel sweetness growing increasingly herbal as it tails off.  Air turns it more mellow and custardy.  There's some oil on the mouth feel.  Lovely, beautiful, tasty stuff.

87  ****

Greenore 15 Year Old Single Grain 43% abv.

Greenore is Cooley/Beam's single grain whiskey brand.  The standard expression is an 8 year old.  I tried that at an Astoria Whiskey Society tasting and felt it was a little light for my tastes.  I chose the limited edition 15 year old version when I came across it at Shopper's Vineyard because I figured it would have more intense flavors.  It does to a small extent.

Grain used: corn
Color - slightly paler yellow gold
Nose: gentle floral honey, slight whisps of modeling clay, distant dried flowers.  Soft, elegant, sweet and lightly floral.  
Palate: Sweet and floral on the opening with vanilla, herbal cut flowers, a gentle phenolic quality that is hard to pin down.  A faint vinyl bandaid note.   The mouth feel is unexpectedly firm and oily up front.  The expansion brings in honey cakes and some lumberyard oak.  There is squeaky tannin in the mouth feel towards the finish which is lingeringly sweet and in the end whisper soft and gentle with plenty of spicy oak tannins and that phenolic quality riding to the finish.  With air a beguiling sweetness emerges and some lovely minty notes.  As it progresses through the leisurely dram it becomes downright delicious.

86 ****

Invergordon Scott's Selection 1964-2012 (48 yo) 42.3% natural cask strength. 

Invergordon is a modern industrial alcohol production facility in the far northern Scottish Highlands.  Built in 1960, it is now owned by White and Mackay.  A smaller column still there produces grain whisky for White and Mackay's blends and, apparently, some barrels make it out to independent bottlers like Scott's.

Color:  light amber.
Nose:  cream caramel, old books, dried black figs, dried pressed flowers, an old cabinet drawer
Palate: lightly sweet on entry with treacle and rapeseed oil and caramel corn flavors.  The mouth feel is thin and light.  The expansion brings some dilute old sherry and some far off herbal bitters.  At the turn there are are some squeaky tannin on the palate, but surprisingly little oak flavor.  This must have been a tired refill sherry butt, or was managed through one.  Water does very little for or against this one.  Perfectly pleasant sipping, but a bit tired and faded compared to my expectations.  However in head to head tasting, the darker sherry flavors bring a depth and richness to this grain whiskey which stand up well.  It might not be outstanding compared to other hyper-mature grains I've had recently, but it doesn't suffer the comparison here at all.

87 ****

As an aside, and to defend Scottish honor, let me share an informal tasting that Malt Maniac Peter Silver did with me a little while back.  He had a small sample shared with him by Krishna Nukala at a recent visit.

Girvan 1964-2012 The Whisky Agency 49.5% 

487 bottles from a sherry butt. 

Color: dark amber
Nose: rich sherry and oak with some vegetal (artichoke) notes.
Palate:  rich sherry, fig, black raisin, and rancio.  Delicato cornflower sweetness on opening.  Oak comes on strong on the turn.  Tannins and spice on the finish - but an astonishingly lack of oakiness for the age (rather like the Invergordon).  
(not scored - but clearly in the 90s).  This shows that mature Scottish grain whiskies can be utterly exquisite.  

The Girvan 45 yo 1965 The Clan Denny (Douglas Liang) 47.3% I tasted back in August 2012 was also absolutely stunning and memorable (hmmm... Girvan, perhaps).  The point is that Scottish grain can operate at the highest levels with the right bottling.


On the topic of my earlier infatuation with Chita, my scores speak eloquently of how much I enjoy Chita's grain whisky, even in the face of still competition.  It's my sincere hope that Suntory will choose to produce some for the US market some day.  It took the field in this tasting.  It's also a confirmation that the simple presence of "grain whisky" isn't what makes a blended whisky good or bad or better than a single malt or not.  It's the quality of that grain whisky.   Single grain whiskies clearly have a different flavor signature from malt whiskies (or other column distilled grain whiskies like Bourbon).  Light, sweet, delicate while sometimes dense and oily, with herbal notes and surprising aspects.  They take aging well.  Definitely an area worth further exploration.

This is the diagram of a Coffey still that everyone uses...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Balcones Distilling's Investors Threaten To Dump Founder, Genius Master Distiller, Chip Tate.

Left to right: Winston C. Edwards, Chip Tate, Patrick Donehue, and Noell Michaels
enjoying Balcones Vth Anniversary Crooked Bourbon at LeDu's in New York in better days.

The whisky blogosphere is abuzz with the news that a restraining order has been passed against Chip Tate, master distiller of Balcones, to keep him out of the new 65,000 square food distillery Tate was building in downtown Waco.

Mark Gillespie posted the news on WhiskyCast:
Chuck Cowdery broke the news on Facebook.  And Clay Risen's Mash Notes put up a blog post too:

All of these notices are based on a piece by Tommy Witherspoon in the Waco Tribune, with colorful details taken out a court document, like Chip apparently wishing he had put a couple of caps into board chief Greg Allen: "'I should have put two in his chest,” referring to shooting Allen after their conversations about Tate’s actions"... A reason why is hinted at in this passage from the Waco Trib piece:Also in connection to the parties’ disputes, Tate has made statements pointing out how the distillery is full of combustible items and how easy it would be for the distillery to be destroyed by a fire and that it would be better for it to be destroyed than for anyone other than him to run it,” the petition states."

The latter threat strongly implies that Chip was angry that Greg Allen threatened to get rid of him at the helm of Balcones and replace him.  Balcones is Chip Tate's life's work.  The details of the argument may yet come out.  All we have so far is what the Waco Trib scraped from the court documents - and they only tell the board's side.  I would caution everyone not to believe these allegations without some skepticism.  They are part of a legal battle and just because an interested party alleged them doesn't make them necessarily true.  In any case, those are some very strong words, but as Clay Risen wrote yesterday:

"’ll say this: No one who has met him should be surprised that he would say such things, but equally so, no one would expect them to be anything but words. Some people are very passionate about what they do, and they don’t hold back when something gets in the way of their work. Tate is one of those guys."

Mike Rockafellow
Who is Greg Allen?  Greg Scott Allen is the former CEO of Advance Foods of Enid Oklahoma - which merged with Pierre Foods in 2010 to form AdvancePierre under new CEO William Toler.  Advance Foods was originally started by Greg's father, Paul Allen.  His partner in the business was David L. McLaughlin. According to this 2005 article:

"The Allen and McLaughlin families that owned Advance Foods now hold minority stakes in AdvancePierre."

So Greg Allen, Mark Allen, Paul Allen, and Rob McLaughlin were bought out of their large food processing company and found themselves with capital and spare time.  They picked up Chip Tate's Balcones distillery expansion project - an excellent opportunity.  It appears, however that they are trying to manage Chip Tate like an employee.  Anyone who knows Chip knows that he's an impresario of spirits production.  He's a perfectionist and an artist:  a rare genius prodigy in the field of American whiskey.  He clearly cannot be governed in the usual business way and it's a mistake to try.

Other people involved in the project mentioned in the Balcones' press release announcing the ground breaking of the new distillery (and one other - not mentioned - as found on Linkedin are:)

Mike Rockafellow  Owner, TBC Enterprises, Inc
Keith Bellenger - Chief Operating Officer Balcones
Noell Michaels - Charlottesville VA, formerly of Bold Rock Hard Cider,
Hawker Beechcraft Corporation,
The Maple Ridge Group
Patrick Donehue Oklahoma city Tax Director First United Bank

On Chuck Cowdery's FaceBook post the reaction from the Craft distilling world and whiskey enthusiasts was predictably pro-Chip.  Jackie Summers, the creator of the hibiscus and spice tincture Sorel opened the comments simply with "NO CHIP = NO BALCONES."

Dozens of others said similar things.  Late in the evening I amplified, writing:  "I, too, stand with Chip. Chip is the heart and soul of not just Balcones but everything that is right about Craft distilling. No one sweats every detail and works so hard to produce fine art in the mash, barrel, bottle and glass. I know Chip bent over backwards to arrange a deal where it was clear, up front, that things would be done HIS way. The investors need to get out of the way and let him lead. I told Noell Michaels and Pat Donahue as much last time I saw them. Get on board and let the Chip express run free. That's the only way the investors will reap their reward. Did the Pope lock Michelangelo out of the Sistine Chapel when the ceiling was half finished? Chip is making art. Let the Artist create!

...sorry if I'm over the top... I've been drinking excellent whisky tonight and the news is devastating. I've been counting on this project to bring sweet Balcones juice to my cabinet and America's. This isn't just about my pining desire for Rumble Cask Reserve, Brimstone, True Blue, and Texas Single Malt... but also about America's need to drink this true Texas nectar. This is about patriotism, Goddamnit!"

I remember when Chip was setting up the deal with the investors.  We had a couple of phone conversations.  Chip was very careful and didn't say much, but he emphasized that he was looking for a group who would let him lead the project with minimal interference.  Chip intensely valued his independence and ability to operate Balcones his way.  But, like other small businesses gripped with sudden success, he lacked the capital to adequately grow.  This is particularly true in whisky distilling because the capital needs of building a new distillery are so steep and the time to recoup so long.  Clearly there's been a breakdown in communication here and that's a shame.  I know this is a situation that Chip feared even before the deal was struck.

Chip talked personally with me about trying to find the "right group" of investors who wouldn't try to take over the company or push him into doing things in a way that he didn't think was best. Somewhere in this mess there was a difference of opinion about how Balcones was to be set up and Chip's worst fear was realized. Then his angry reaction ended up in court papers.  I KNOW this didn't stem from a lack of clarity on Chips part going in.

Chip Tate isn't just a distiller.  He's a genius who builds his own stills, develops completely new mash bills and ground breaking unique products.  As I once wrote: Chip Tate is a "Mad Geeky Genius".

No matter what the actual details of the legal proceeding and arguments actually are, it's crystal clear that Chip Tate is the heart and essence of Balcones and the investors would do well to put aside their pride and understand that Chip Tate, like Michaelangelo is a great artist that needs latitude.  Posterity will not remember Tate's business meeting attendance even if he has been hotheaded and tempermental.  It will remember whether America's top Craft whiskey's expansion project succeeds or fails.  This needs to get resolved and they need to patch it up with Chip because the project can't be done right by anyone else.

Previous articles about Chip Tate and Balcones whiskies on The Coopered Tot:

Chip Tate's Mad Geeky Genius

The Illuminating and Unsung Batch Evolution of Balcones Texas Single Malt

Tasting special unreleased casks of Balcones with Chip Tate and AllisonPatel at The Brandy Library

Balcones True Blue - a floral citrus blue corn eau-de-vie with kicking dusty Texas terroir.

Smoked Whisky: Balcones Brimstone and Corsair Triple Smoke

Rumble Cask Reserve is a delicious rarity that defies categorization

Update:  The court papers relating to the restraining order are posted and analyzed on the blog here:

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hibiki 17 and 21 Japanese Blended Whisky's US Launch And The Nature of Beauty

Hibiki 17 and 21, Suntory's blended whisky in the sweet spot age statements, will hit the US market this fall.  The announcement came in May, at a launch event in New York which was interesting in a number of ways.  For me, the whiskies (and the event) provoked an internal debate about the nature of beauty.  While it's subjective - and "in the eye of the beholder", there are some real philosophical issues.  Beauty is about ideas such as "harmony", "regularity", and "balance".  These are exactly the aims that whisky blenders strive for when making blends.  There is a tension between the individual and the harmonic whole in the notion of beauty - and it shows in a wide variety of domains.  It comes back to whiskey because Suntory chose to do something interesting in introducing the mature Hibiki 17 and 21 year old blends to the American market: they did a tasting with the major components tasted separately and then, at the end, together as the blended expressions.  G-LO over at It's Just The Booze Dancing... put it thus: "a Deconstructed tasting of Hibiki":
The structured tasting treats each of the components as an individual instrument in an orchestra.  Then you finish with the ensemble.  Suntory spoke a narrative of obsessive perfectionism in the crafting the many components and, indeed, the individual whiskies, from the grain, to the ex-bourbon, sherry cask, and Japanese oak all were stellar.  Indeed, they overshadowed the ultimate blends in some ways.  And this got me to thinking - as I have many times before, about the divide between the individual and the collective and the issue of averaging when it comes to beauty.

For example, in Bach's Violin "Double" Concerto BWV 1043:  I Vivace and III Allegro particularly - the 1960s version with  Itzach Perlman and Isaac Stern and Zubin Mehta and the NY Philharmonic - all these elements are laid bare.  
(you can hear the first movement, Vivace here: )
(and the third movement, Allegro, here: )
Bach's piece, among the most brilliant and beautiful pieces of music ever written in my opinion, features a tension, fire, and relentless drive in an aching minor key.  The melody shifts back and forth among the orchestra, and two dueling violins.  In this case we have the youthful brilliance of Itzach Perlman ascendant taking on the old master, Isaac Stern.  Some times they play together and other times taking turns with the same melodic phrases, each one challenging the other to match the virtuosity, timbre, and verve just laid out.  Beauty happens in the massed strings.  The solos are not timbrally as rich, but they are more exciting, delineated, and clear.  Each is a tightrope act.  It's the solos I remember and why I put this track on over and over again.  The sonics of the recording are pretty flat, but the energy these two geniuses bring to celebrating (and out-doing) each other produces the finest performance of this amazing piece.  Is it more powerful and beautiful when they play together or when they are alone?  It's subjective, but I find the moments when they are alone to be more affecting.  But it's the contrast of the back and forth that really makes it that way.

This put me in mind of the topic of averaging and the study of how humans perceive beauty in human faces. I wrote about how this relates to whisky several years ago in a guest writer post on Rachel MacNeill's that was about how carefully tasting whisky can transport you, intellectually and emotionally, called "Whisky is a Time Traveler":

"Blends can be delicious but the definite sense of terroir is lost. For example, when I drink Johnny Walker Black Label I enjoy the sweet heathery Highland opening, the firm malt foundation, and then the whiff of peat smoke and oak in the finish. But the lightness and glossed sameness of each encounter I sense the blender’s art in barrel averaging and expression blending as a way of making beauty exactly like the way a number of faces computer averaged looks very pretty – but not like any one human’s actual face."

"These averaged faces are attractive, but they are not real. Real faces have imperfections that reflect their actuality, their history, their individuality. These faces are more attractive than most people, but somehow cannot match the great beauties who have real character. The same thing goes with whisky. Barrel averaging and blending produce a smoothed impression, more perfect and beautiful than the average barrel, but without the depth of character and individual fidelity that you can find in a great cask.

Lisa DeBruine and Ben Jones, who run the Face Research Lab at the University of Glasgow Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology run a web site as part of their research into face averaging and perceptions of beauty.  In the historical summary area they write:

"In the 1800s, Sir Francis Galton created composite images of faces by projecting face photographs of many different individuals onto a single piece of photographic film. This was done in an effort to visualise the facial characteristics that were common to a particular group of people (e.g. to represent the typical face of criminals or soldiers). When Galton showed these images to his colleagues, however, they unanimously agreed that these composite faces tended to be more attractive than the individual face photographs from which they were manufactured (i.e. the composites tended to be more attractive than their constituent faces)."

The great thing about this site is that you get to try it out for yourself - here:
Here's an example.  I selected the 3 faces on the left, below and then averaged them and got the face on the right.  It's rather stunning.  
These three faces combine to yield this...
...averaged face.

The individual faces are each distinct, unique and individual.  They include features that are deviations from the norm.  The averaged face pulls all these deviations towards the mean - a "regression to the mean" which produces more average proportions, angles, and sizes, to the features.  Our human interpretation of this is "beauty".  By picking flawed faces it highlights the improvements.  If you tossed Grace Kelley's face in there, or any other face you love (Meryl Streep), you might consider the end result a step down, however.  But take the point: beauty is harmony and averaged to the mean is harmony.

Her's the interface where can select many faces to average, exploring the process.
This is, in a visceral and immediately comprehensible visual way, what's going on with barrel averaging and good blending.  Individuals - "warts and all" become beautiful when they regress towards the mean in large batch averaging and blending of whisky.  This was the genius of 19th century Scotch blenders like John Walker, John Dewar Sr., and Archibald Ballantine, who took individual malts that were inconsistent and sometimes unpleasant and produced blends which created a happy medium that possessed, somehow, more beauty than the average component.

(right): Sarah B. of
Sarah B. and Allison Patel watch the presentation by Suntory chief blender Seiichi Koshimizu
The Hibiki 17 and 21 launch event in New York in May was designed to emphasize the beauty of the blend, not from the point of view of averaging out the flaws - but from an obsessive artisanship that is about making each of the components perfect.  Elegant simplicity in the layouts and graphic elements which included references to trees (with the connotations of the seasons - fall being the launch date) and visual reference to the simplicity and art of classical Japanese calligraphy.  Suntory's Chief Blender Seiichi Koshimizu spoke eloquently about the crafting that goes into the component whiskies that make up the Hibiki blends.  These components formed the body of the tasting.  On the tables were 6 selections:  Chita Grain Pure Whisky, Yamazaki American White Oak Malt Whisky, Sherry Cask Malt Whisky, Mizunara Cask Malt Whisky, followed by Hibiki 17 and Hibiki 21.  It wasn't clear if the Yamazaki White Oak, Sherry, and Mizunara were the OB bottlings of these expressions sold in Europe and the Far East, as reviewed by Alwynne Gwilt in October of 2012 on her blog
Alwynne provides fantastic tasting notes and some insights into those expressions - which jibe very well with what we drank.  It's also possible that they provided examples of what went into Hibiki - which would have been older.  Update: Thomas Øhrbom of just provided a photo of a menu at the Yamazaki Distillery bar which showed that Suntory does sell the Hibiki 17 ingredients (fully 17 years old and over-proof) as pours there.  I will use the age and proof statements from that menu in the post below.  One thing is for certain - these Yamazaki wood examples were superb - and they were clearly a higher proof than the Hibiki blends which followed them.  

The following tasting notes are a composite of notes taken at the event and follow-up tasting sessions at home using samples I took from the event.  I'm providing composite star and points ratings to underscore fine differences in how I rated these excellent whiskies. 
Sarah B.(left)  and Allison Patel of Brenne (right) get into the Chita grain.

Chita Grain - 17 years old 55% abv

The intensity of flavor definitely indicates a bit higher proof than 43%.  Tasted head to head with Nikka Coffey Grain (45%) and Greenore 15 (43%) (the subject of an upcoming post) the Chita was definitely more intense and richly flavored.  And while all 3 were delicious, the Chita took the grouping hands down.  A really special and very tasty set of flavors.
G-LO of Booze Dancing
Color: gold
Nose: sunflower, honey, dust, vanilla, creamy custard, and some distant notes of red bean and sawn oak..
Palate:  lush sweet vanilla cream opening with creme broulle custard.  Light and elegant mouth feel.  Butter and creme broulle with some herbal aspects of sunflower and gorse.  The sweetness becomes incense-intense on expansion, waxing in buttery Scotch-malt highland flavors with a hint of salt.  The expansion continues into rich malty flavors and white oak.  The finish is moderately long and lightly herbal.  Just beautiful grain whisky - stunning and intense and as fully flavored as any grain whiskies under 30 years I've tried.

91 *****

Yamazaki American White Oak - presumably 17 yo 54% abv 

Color: gold
Nose: floral vanilla, coconut, creamy tropical fruits (papaya, and mandarin orange)
Palate: honey and floral vanilla on the opening - which was big, sweet and explosive.  Honey, brown sugar, stone fruits and rich malt on the mid palate.  The bourbon barrel's influence is clear, but the Yamazaki distillate is in command with fruitiness, and Highland malt flavor fully in the Scotch whisky wheelhouse. The turn was full of rich oak.  The finish long and satisfying with oak tannins, herbals, and a hint of char.  Stunning.

90 *****

Yamazaki Mizunara Oak - presumably 17 yo 52% abv.

Color: dark gold with an amber tint
Nose:  Complex and sweet with floral perfumed intensity, stone fruits and cherry and a nutty (almond or pecan) quality that rode over a buttery aspect.  Hatbox oak lurked underneath.
Palate:   Big, intense, and stunning on the opening with candied citrus and rancio.  The expansion brought tropical fruits and darker complexity of tobacco, some coastal iodine notes, and a bit of char.  Spiciness and herbal bitters blossomed on the turn and the finish - which was incredibly long and amazingly satisfying with herbs and  a touch of smoke.  This was the pour of the night for me.

A drop of water took the spiciness higher, and enriched the mouth feel and sweetness.  Stunning.  The spiciness had a clove/nutmeg spice aspect, rather than peppers.

93 *****

Yamazaki Sherry Oak presumably 17 yo 49% abv.

Color: dark amber.
Nose:  sweet sandalwood, cocoa powder, mashed dates, old polished oak furniture.  Deeper, some plum fruit and magnolia florals.  
Yamazaki Sherry Oak
Palate:  The opening is unexpectedly dense and dry, with focused oak, dark and tannic, up front with bittersweet chocolate, raisins, and prune essences.  The mouthfeel is light.  The expansion brings a ton of congnac-like rancio, old sherry, and oak furniture.  The turn is bitter with tannins.  The finish is long with dark oak, bitters, rancio, and some residual spiciness.

Adding a few drops of water introduces a kiss of sweetness up front, more body to the mouth feel, and a note of malty molasses to the mid-palate and finish that is beguiling.  The finish takes on a vibrant spiciness that I have come to associate with Spanish oak.  This is downright luscious with a drop of water - strongly evocative of great Glendronachs.

92 *****

Hibiki 17 - 43% abv.

Color pale gold
Nose: floral plum blossom, magnolia, and honeysuckle.  Richer aromas of honey, honeycomb, tropical fruits, linen, light oak and mineral.
Palate:  sweet and floral on the opening, with honey, vanilla, and the characteristic Japanese musky sweetness I used to call "orchid" (until Sarah B. challenged me that most orchids don't have an aroma).  Purple fruits (plum and fig) and light hints of lighter green fruits (quince, green apple, and mango) and malt richness on the expansion.  Rising spiciness and oak on the turn.  The finish is fairly long with spiciness, oak tannins as light bitter, lingering toffee and hints of floral fruitiness.  Just lovely.

A few drops of water increases the sweetness and, particularly, the spicy notes in the mid-palate and finish but reduces the floral intensity of the nose and opening.  It's worth trying with a drop, however, as it ends up making Hibiki 17 a tad more lush and involving overall.

89 *****

Hibiki 21 - 43% 

Color: dark gold with amber tints
Nose: richly floral:  magnolia and roses, dates, honeyed cakes, tropical fruits, linen, and sharper notes of dark oak.
Palate:  big dark fruity sweet opening with plum jam, some complicated filigreed incense sherry or port dark vinous sweet, and toffee.  There is also that particularly Japanese complex sweet fruitiness which I have trouble putting a name too, but is diagnostically Japanese.  The mid-palate expansion brings clove-cinnamon spiciness, a mixture of dark fruits like plum and fig and lighter acidic fruits like green plums, green apple, pineapple and mango and clear note of sherry with cocoa.  Oak tannin shows up too in the mid-palate and the turn adds sheery-like rancio, dark oak, and herbal bitters.  The finish is long, sherry rich - nutty and cocoa - and lightly herbal as well.

92 *****

Conclusions:  The big issue with Suntory in the US is the availability of the good stuff in the US.

When Suntory took over Beam International earlier in the year I wondered aloud (i.e. on this blog) whether this would mean more availability of the top expressions here.  There was little reason for hope - given the limited quantities.  The timing of the Hibiki 17 and 21 introduction in the US indicates, to me, that it was probably in the works even before the purchase of Beam.  But it's clear the US market matters to Suntory and that's great.  Maybe part of it is that Anchor is now importing a big portion of the Nikka line (and we American's are all the richer for the competition).  Last fall brought Hakushu Heavily Peated to the US, now this Fall we get these Hibiki gems.  However this tasting left me pining for Chita Single Grain and the Yamazaki Four Woods series which are not available in the US.  They were the unintended stars of the show.  They were introduced as examples of the quality crafting that goes into Hibiki, but, tasted head to head, they rivaled, and in some areas exceeded the Hibikis.  Part of this almost certainly is because they were bottled at higher proof.  This left me pining for Hibiki at higher proof.

On The Nature of Beauty

The tasting underscores the issues between the beauty of the individual voice and power of the massed chorus introduced earlier.  Just like those moments in the Bach Double Concerto when Perlman and Stern took solos, the Yamazaki individual wood expressions were direct, powerful, and compelling.  The Hibiki blends filled in with greater complexity and balance, but less compelling interest overall.  Part of this I firmly believe is the fact that Hibiki's are lower proof.  But part of it has to do with the nature of blending itself.  It is intuitive that a combination made of fantastic components will be fantastic - and the Hibikis are.  But it says something to me that the brilliance of the individual components is not immediately additive to yield a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  In the blending to yield Hibiki something is gained and something is lost.  Gained is complexity, a cohesive beauty, and evolution across the palate.  The Hibikis are glorious.  But lost is the power and distinctive natures that made tasting the Yamazaki woods thrilling.

After the tasting the Hibiki launch event was glorious too.

The Hibiki 17/21 launch event was a party with lots of friends and Exposure's consummate production which included gourmet food bites, superb Japanese style mizuwari, highballs, and ice balls.  There was a superb demonstration of a new ice ball called the Ice Diamond (I refer you to Mark Gillespie's WhiskyCast video and interview - links below).  Incredibly impressive to me, the correct glassware was used to serve what seemed like limitless quantities of the top expression: Hibiki 21.  This top notch event spawned a number of interesting blog posts and conversations.  Here follows links and some pictures to give the flavor:

Mark Gillespie prepares to interview Seiichi Koshimizu - on WhiskyCast episode 480
Malt Maniac, Mark Gillespie, produced several posts from this event on his top podcast and blog  
The Hibiki 17 & 21 launch notification:
An interview with Seiichi Koshimizu, chief blender for Suntory:  
A WhiskeyCast HD video of  Hidetsugu Ueno of Tokyo's Bar High-Five cutting ice diamonds:
and an interview with  Hidetsugu Ueno about his bar and the Tokyo whisky bar scene:

G-LO and Miracle Max
G-LO wrote up a consummate description of the entire event, including cooperatively blogged comments from most of the #WhiskyFabric in attendance including Allison Patel, Susanna Skiver Barton, Miracle Max, and Sarah B:
Sarah B. and G-LO
Sarah B - a correspondent of It's Just The Booze Dancing... blog as well as a gifted photographer took the best pictures of the event:

Mark Gillespie and G-LO enjoying Hibiki 12 ice balls.  Mark also has a Hibki 21
The author meets up with with Allison Patel (left) and Sarah B., right.
Bram Hoogendijk from Holland meets Edrington Group rep Nicola Riske
Bram and Allison meet Seiichi Koshimizu
Susanna Skiver Barton and Allison Patel enjoying Hibiki 21
Hidetsugu Ueno of Tokyo's Bar High-Five pours Hibiki 21 on a hand cut ice diamond