Friday, September 25, 2015

Tasting A 1970s Dusty Cabin Still

Josh Peters' 1970s Cabin Still

A year and a half ago I wrote about how the Cabin Still brand was murdered by Norton Simon corporation. It had been the entry level product of Pappy Van Winkle's legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery. Norton Simon had struck out with Canada Dry Bourbon, their attempt to enter the Bourbon market in the 1960s. Canada Dry Bourbon was produced at the Nicholasville, "Camp Nelson" distillery in Jessamine county, KY and apparently there was a musty flavor because of a problem with storage. Stuck with the tax liability of whiskey they couldn't sell, they bought Stitzel-Weller in 1972 and proceeded to dump the problem whiskey into the base expression - Cabin Still. You can read the full post here:

When, exactly, the dumping happened, isn't clear. I have had people tell me that higher proof examples of Cabin Still from after 1972 were perfectly good. I've been assembling samples and planning to try to nail down the date of the transition as best I can from taste alone (i.e. make an educated guess based upon tasting). Furthermore, the evidence is inconclusive about how the dumping occurred. Was Camp Nelson juice simply substituted for Stitzel-Weller? Were the two mixed together? If so, were the proportions constant or did they vary? I don't know. What I did know was that 1960s Cabin Still tasted like lovely Stitzel-Weller (cherry cola, dusty honeyed malt and light and sweet coffee) and the 1980s Cabin Still I knew from college and subsequent tastings was a musty, cardboardy, nasty pour. Those experiences were the visceral support that made me a real believer in the tale.

So, when Josh Peters of The Whiskey Jug blog offered a taste of 1970s Cabin Still I was anxious to participate and find out if it tasted the pre-1972 good stuff or the inferior later stuff.

First of all, let's date the bottle. Let's use the tips found on The Whiskey Jug's excellent page on dating dusties:

Josh Peter's photos of the bottle are at left and below. We see:
  • No UPC code - thus prior to 1985 at least
  • Imperial measurement ("One Pint" impressed in the glass). This suggests the bottle was made prior to 1980.
  • "Series 112" on the tax strip just below the eagle. No volume markings on the end of the tax strip. This narrows it in to 1973-1976.
  • Series 112 below eagle and no volume marks on the ends.
  • As Sku notes in his post about this bottle: "a 1974 copyright appears on the label".  
This complex of attributes would put the date of this bottle pretty specifically to 1974-76.  That's just 2-3 years after the Norton Simon takeover of Stitzel-Weller.  If this stuff has the cardboard flavors of Camp Nelson / Canada Dry Bourbon then that lends more support to the notion that Norton Simon began the dumping right away.  Tasting is subjective, though, so it's circumstantial evidence at best.  But that's still evidence in my mind.  Here we go. 

Cabin Still 40% abv. Louisville 1974-76

Color: Medium amber.

Nose: sweet with hard candy, candy corn and cola with an earthy musky note.  Not bad
Palate: Opens sweet with citrus and cherry.  Good so far!  The expansion adds oak char and then it gets salty. It's more the suggestion of salt with a mineral and iodine aspect. At the turn a musty cardboard note enters. The finish has a bitter note that keeps calling up cardboard.  There is some heft to the mouth feel.  This feels very much like a vatting of Stitzel Weller and Camp Nelson juice to me.  But the Stitzel Weller flavors are in evidence in the cherry and cola flavors up front.  The opening is this whiskey's best part.  The finish, however, very much ruins it for me.  Prickly, bitter, cardboard... just unpleasant.  This is easily remedied by another sip which refreshes the pleasant flavors of the entry.  A real case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.  How do I score it?  The fore-palate is definitely four star / 80s territory, but the finish drags it way down in my opinion.

** 76

This stuff is clearly way better than the 1980s Cabin Still I tasted in my formal review in early 2014.  But with dusties the manner of storage matters.  Was the whiskey better in the mid 70s?  Or is this just a nice fresh bottle?  More tasting is necessary.  But this bottle confirms, in my mind, that:
  1. Norton Simon was mixing Canada Dry bourbon into Stitzel-Weller, at least at first.
  2. That they started this mixing pretty early after they acquired the brand.
Thanks again, Josh, for the opportunity to taste this fascinating whiskey and also be a part of a group whiskey blogging thing that involves some very distinguished bloggers.  Definitely check these guys out:
The four bottles Josh Peters sent samples of.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Old Crow New Versus Old: Tasting 1970s Against The Current Stuff In Very Good Blogger Company.

Josh Peters' 1970s bottle of Old Crow
Tasting dusty Bourbons and pitting them against the current expressions to learn about what has changed and, all too often, what has been lost, can be poignant because the dusty often represents a vanished distillery.  That's the case here with the 1970s Old Crow.  These exercises are often educational though.  By knowing history we come to a deeper appreciation of the current state of the art.  It's even better when you get to share the experience with others of a like mind.  Today we have a special opportunity to do all that courtesy of Josh Peters of The Whiskey Jug blog. Josh sent a quartet of samples (seen below) to a quintet of whiskey bloggers.  None of use communicated anything beforehand, other than Josh sending us the samples and bottle shots.  Now we get to enjoy reading all their perspectives about the same whiskies.

The blogs involved are:
I'm honored to be among such a great group of bloggers. Let's get started with a head to head of 1970s Old Crow versus the new stuff.

The samples. The Old Crows are in the two in the middle.

Old Crow is one of the greatest brand stories in all of whiskey.  It has the most noble and legendary of beginnings but the recipe is lost at least twice along the way and it's currently a bottom shelf item.  A classic American Rust Belt tale.  Named for Dr. James C. Crow, a Scottish physician and chemist who emigrated to the US in the 1820s and who had come to work for Oscar Pepper in 1838 in Woodford county, Kentucky.  He is generally (and probably incorrectly) credited with inventing the sour mash process where some of the spent mash from the previous batch is reserved and used as a starter in the next batch where it acidifies the mash and provides continuity of yeast and fauna.  He also barrel aged his Bourbon in era what that wasn't the norm.  And he properly cleaned his mash tuns and washbacks and tended the recipe with a careful and scientific manner.  All this gave early Old Crow an admirable level of quality and consistency which made it beloved.

James Crow died rather suddenly in 1856, apparently taking details of his recipe to the grave with him.  Oscar Pepper continued to make Old Crow, but passed away himself a few years later.  A group of investors, led by E.H. Taylor bought the brand and all remaining stocks.  They called the company W. A. Gaines & Co.  Old Crow of this era was famous.  Supposedly it was the whiskey of choice of probably the 19th century's most famous heavy drinker, General and President Ulysses S. Grant.  Jack Sullivan (of the brilliant history blog Those Pre-Pro Whiskey Men!) wrote:

"In his book, The Social History of Bourbon, Gerald Carson recounts that during one night during the long and stressful siege of Vicksburg, General Grant said to his aides: “See here, before we go to bed, let’s have a nightcap. Stewart [an aide] has got some prime Old Crow whiskey around here somewhere.” Stewart got the bottle and then watched as Grant filled a large goblet with Old Crow whiskey and tossed it down. ”It was a whopping big drink...”'

In 1878 the brand had grown to the point that a new, larger, and more industrial distillery was built further down the same road, South of Frankfort Kentucky, on the Kentucky river.  It would be made there for almost a century.  But in the 1960s sometime a tragic development happened where the amount of setback was changed and the original recipe forgotten.  Then the brand was sold and the the original recipe completely abandoned.  Chuck Cowdery, in his masterful book of whiskey history Bourbon Straight writes of Old Crow:

"After the war, whiskey-making resumed and Old Crow became one of the world's top selling bourbons. Until 1952, it was sold only as a bond, i.e., 100 proof. In that year, an 86 proof version was introduced.         In the 1960s, with sales still booming, production capacity at the Old Crow plant was increased significantly. According to a former National Distillers employee who was the last master distiller at Crow before it was acquired by Jim Beam in 1987, it was during this expansion that the original formula was accidentally changed. The error was in the percentage of backset returned to the new mash. This is ironic because the use of backset to condition new mash is the very essence of the sour mash process introduced by Dr. Crow. Despite falling sales, many customer complaints about the product’s new flavor, and even negative reviews from the distillery’s own tasting panels, the plant’s managers were either unwilling or unable to correct the mistake until just a few years before Jim Beam closed the plant in 1987. But by then the damage had been done.         Sales of almost all bourbon brands declined during the 1970s and 1980s, but none worse than Old Crow. In addition to losing sales, it also lost market share. Formerly number one, today it does not even rank in the top ten. For most of the period between Prohibition and Old Crow’s fall from grace, the brand’s chief rival for the position of best-selling bourbon was Jim Beam. As a final irony, the Old Crow whiskey in stores today is Jim Beam. That is, it is whiskey made by Jim Beam from the standard Jim Beam bourbon mash bill."

Cowdery, Charles (2011-05-20). BOURBON, STRAIGHT: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (pp. 114-115).

Interior of Distillery Building
Old Crow overgrown rickhouse.

Old Crow Distillery Building

After the 1987 sale to Beam, the Old Crow distillery where Old Crow had been made since 1878 and through the glory days of the 50s was closed and allowed to become a ruin.  There is a wonderful web site with many photographs of this ruin circa 2014.  Here are a few pictures from that site for color:

So, what we're tasting in this head to head is Old Crow from the last decade or so of the Old Crow Distillery (that gorgeous ruin) - which was part of National Distillers Corporation at the time, and the new stuff from Jim Beam.
Josh's new (Jim Beam) Old Crow (left), 1970s National Distillers Old Crow (right)

Old Crow 40% (Current bottling - Jim Beam) 3 years old.

Color: Pale gold
The nose is grainy (grassy, sour) with some blue cheese and plastic.

A bright, sweet sugar opening.  There is some light corn and citrus on the expansion and then a lightly sour and bitter finish with a nice doughy after glow.  With air it opens sweet gentle and not so bad.  Young and light, but certainly drinkable.

** 74
An undistinguished but inoffensive young Bourbon.

Old Crow 1970s 40% National Distillers

Color: Medium amber
Nose: Cream and butter. Vanilla. Citrus. Blonde tobacco. Something musky and little earthy.

Palate: sweet marmalade. Citrus compote. Dynamic and honeyed. Strong buttery texture and sweet butter flavor notes join hard candy at the mid palate expansion. Light leather and gentle charred oak turn and short finish that ends slightly bitter.

**** 86

Way more vivid and intense than the new stuff.  Classic mid-century style Bourbon in the light and candied mode.  And this is the decade after the setback amount was accidentally changed and the recipe lost.  Earlier versions had a richer darker aspect.  Also this is the 80 proof version.  86 an and BiB (100 proof) are no doubt even better.  I have some of those lying around.  I look forward to following this up at higher proof.

Allan Roth poured this pairing at
Char No. 4 a couple of years ago.
So, it's clear that the old National Distiller's stuff was leagues ahead of the bottom shelf younger version of Jim Beam White Old Crow has become.  A sad legacy indeed, for one of America's top brands.

A bit of personal history:  I had this head to head poured by Allan Roth, then of Brooklyn's terrific restaurant and whiskey bar Char No. 4 (now sadly closed) back in January, 2014.  I was having dinner and whiskey flights with a friend when Allan, beverage director, brought out a lovely early 1980s tax stamped dusty bottle of Old Crow (see photo at left) and poured my companion and I the National Distiller's dusty and the new stuff as complimentary pours.  It was a highlight moment.  BTW, our impression of these two whiskies was identical to my impressions in the current tasting:  National Distillers Old Crow was a lovely and flavorful pour which bears little resemblance the current stuff.  It's no surprise given that only the name is the same.  The long and proud legacy is lost.

Thanks for the samples and the opportunity to play along, Josh.  Be sure to check out the other bloggers reviewing this same stuff.  Here they are again:

Monday, September 7, 2015

Westland Is Kicking Butt - Particularly In Recent Single Cask Nation Releases.

Westland single barrel selections vatted to create the
Single Cask Nation Third Jubilee Festival Bottling

Westland, a five year old distillery in Seattle, is producing interesting single-malts that aren't trying to imitate the Scots. Instead, they're taking cues from the American Craft beer movement, using intriguing malts and yeasts from craft brewing.  A creative vatting of the range of flavors they are working with lately deserved to be the third of the adventurous bottlings the Jewish Whisky Company selects for their annual Whisky Jewbilee.

American whiskey production tends to focus on corn and rye.  Malt whisky is more often associated with Scotch, Irish, Japanese, and the new malts emerging in places like Scandinavia, England, Wales, Brittany, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the like.  But American Craft distillers are making single malts too, such as Balcones' Texas Single Malt, St. George Single Malt, Sons of Liberty Uprising, Stranahans, McCarthy's Oregon Single Malt, Lost Spirits, and Hudson, among others.  An interesting aspect of the American single malt movement is that a number of them show signs of emerging from the Craft beer movement.  Some, like Charbay, Corsair Rasputin, Sons of Liberty seasonals, and Pine Barrens (among others) are explicitly hopped, having been distilled from finished beer.  That's not the case here - but signs of evolution out of craft beer brewing are all over Westland's stuff.  They have an interesting story about using complex mash bills which involve a lot of different malts, the kind usually used in craft beer, such as Washington Select Pale Malt, Munich Malt.  Pale Chocolate Malt, Brown Malt, and also Peated Malt.  They further amp the flavor in the mash by using Belgian Saison brewer's yeast - a variety normally used in craft beer.  They claim the yeast produces a lot of esters and creamy flavor compounds.  I was initially skeptical about this claim. However, my early tastings of their standard expressions showed me that the whisky was rich, sweet, dark and musky in a way I really enjoyed.   Given that Westland is choosing to bottle their stuff young, typically 2 to 3 years old, I view this as a minor miracle.  It makes me inclined to believe the story about mash bill and yeast.  How else to explain the richness and apparent maturity in such a young malt?  This stuff is mostly too young to be legally called "whisky" in Scotland, but it drinks a lot like the real deal - and has its own set of flavors which are worth exploring.  

Part of the Anchor Distilling's portfolio - a sweet distribution platform - Westland joins excellent whisky peers like Nikka, BenRiach, Kavalan, GlenDronach, Glenrothes, Glenglassaugh, and Anchor's own Old Potrero.  The urban downtown distillery features a very Scottish looking setup with two substantial pot stills from Vendome for wash and spirit two part distillation (with column tops, although the plates are only used on the spirit still) and a beefy gorgeous spirit safe,  There's clearly some money behind the outfit.

Nima Ansari, spirit buyer at Astor Place Liquors in NYC tweeted this photo of Westland's stills & spirit safe.

Plus, see a great set of photos of Westland here:

I had my first taste of Westland at the June 2014 Whisky Jewbilee in New York, poured by Matt Hoffman, the master distiller and co-founder of Westland. A big bearded man who looks like a lumber jack, he comes off as warm and very knowledgeable with much to say about his production philosophy.. . A few months later, I got to taste some amazing Westland sherried and peated malt whisky barrel samples poured by Single Cask Nation's Josh Hatton with whiskey enthusiast Ari Susskind's crew last fall (later bottled by SCN and reviewed below). So when I heard that Hoffman was leading a master class this year (June 2015) and presenting the third Whiskey Jewbilee bottling, I signed right up. The first two festival bottlings, a 15 year old Heaven Hill single cask Bourbon, at barrel proof; and a custom vatting of rye whiskies and LDI Light whiskies, selected and blended by David Perkins of High West, had quickly attracted a cult following.  

(above: the first and second Jewbilee festival bottlings.  The first, left, a rich and intense Heaven Hill 15 yo single cask, had a young Jewish man sitting on a NY building stoop on the label.  The second, right, was a vatting of LDI rye and light whiskies by David Perkins of High West, has a label depicting the same young man, this time sharing a pour with a beautiful woman.  The bottle they are drinking is the first festival bottling depicted in miniature on the label).  The depiction of the previous bottle labels is now a "thing".

Matt started off by explaining about the Westland production story (the cool rainy Scotland-like climate in Seattle; their use of two large pot stills, full sized barrels; carefully selected woods, the many malts, the yeast, etc...) Then we dove into 6 different selections starting with the base OB expression and then through the single cask components of the Third Jewbilee Festival bottling.

OB Westland Single Malt - 2010 distillation 46% abv.
Barley grown locally: Washington Select Pale Malt
Munich Malt, Extra Special Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, Brown Malt, Belgian Saison yeast.  #3 char air cured barrels by Independent Stave and 24 month maturation.  
Dusky malty and sweet on the nose with cocoa and malt, cocoa and milk chocolate. The palate starts malty and honeyed, like malted milk balls. On the expansion things move to candied citrus fruit and rind.  The turn is moderately oaky and pretty well balanced.  The finish is moderately long, with char and herbal notes.  There is some of the brashness of youth, but there's a whole lot going on and most all of it is good.
**** 84

Left to right: Westland casks 539, 193, 90, and 189

Next we hit the single barrel selections used in the vatting to come. I didn't note their alcohol by volume percentages, but these are all barrel proof - around 62% abv for all of them. These were tasted at the event, so I'm not giving formal tasting notes or scores - but they were outstanding. Each of them were delicious and would crack ***** 90 point (+) territory. The following brief notes were taken at the tasting.

Cask 539 New American Oak Peated

(left in the photo above) 
Amber color
Peated malt. 2 years old.
Nose: bacon or smoked ham. Smoke. Nutty sweet meats.
Sweet elegant opening. Honey candied meat. Smoke.  Addictive.  Delicious.

Cask 90 New American Oak - 6 Malt Mash

(second from the right in the photo above)
Amber with red glints.
Nose Buttery oak. Cream. Untanned skin. Pork fat (procutto) panne cotta.
Palate: intensely fruity (lychee, chardonnay, banana, apricot), creamy, blond leather, soft mouth feel. Clove heat. Finish is lightly fruited, oak tannin,  Water amps the sweet.  

Cask 189 62.6% abv. 39 months old ex bourbon 

(right, in the photo above)
Pale gold.
Nose Sawn oak, fruity, vanilla, malt.
 Palate: honey, herbs, white fudge, and citrus.  Substantial intensity and long finish.

(Note. This barrel is also being bottled as a Single Cask Nation selection:)

Cask 193 pale malt ex bourbon

Same batch as cask 189. Even lighter. Crisp floral honey clover candied citrus oak.

The beautiful lady has returned on the third bottling, happily bearing the previous two bottlings, depicted in miniature, in her hands. 
She is greeting the man from the first two labels.  He is bringing flowers and behind his back a wedding ring and crossed fingers indicating his secret intention to propose marriage.
Then Matt's tasting advanced to the the vatting for the Jewbilee festival bottling itself.  Along the way, Matt described his motivation for the vatting as a marriage story.  He was inspired by the narrative progression of a romance leading to marriage on the bottle labels and chose to marry together peated and unpeated, and new oak and ex-bourbon barrels of Westland to make a marriage of a bunch of Westland's different flavor signatures.    

The redish color is from new oak maturation.

Whisky Jewbilee Third Festival bottling: Westland single malt vatting.  59% abv.  150 bottles.

Color: dark gold with reddish tints.
Nose sawn oak, honey and vanilla.  Then red fruits, mineral and cedar pencils, distant roses, flax seed oil, phenolic notes of young whiskey, animal skins, wood smoke, and smoked meats,
Palate:  sharp and hot and big with young grassy sweetness up front.  Then rich toffee, cocoa, vanilla, musky rich malt with cocoa notes, candied citrus, and also hefty syrupy richness.  The expansion admixes dusky notes of animals with a pointy spiky young oak that I associate with young craft whiskey.  The turn brings char and herbal bitters like an Amaro.  Oak tannins and bitter on the finish which is long but a little dark.  With a teaspoon of water and a good 15-30 minutes of air time some magic happens.  It becomes more open, sunny, honeyed, and rich.  Head to head blind, I'd be hard pressed to differentiate the palate from this one from a lightly peated Highland Scotch, sherry cask matured, and at full cask strength.  Yet, there's something about the oak in the nose that communicates that this is an American Craft spirit.  This is very good stuff, knocking on the door of extraordinary.  I might have preferred some of the components on their own to the vatting together, but there is a lot of complexity here.  This is a significant achievement.

**** 89

Single Cask Nation has other bottlings of Westland too - including a previously released cask strength sherried and peated 2 year old:

Single Cask Nation Westland 2 year old 60% (current edition)  Sherried and peated.

Color: rich medium amber with some coppery tints.  This looks a lot like Bourbon in the glass.  But the nose instantly gives this away: it's a darkly peated malt whisky.  The nose is honeyed and loaded with warm bbq smoke, animal skins, prunes, black raisins, balsamic vinegar then a big load of some very active first fill ex-Olorosso sherry barrel.  The palate is explosive at cask strength - beware.  This is a Churchill ring cigar of a whiskey.  It comes on sweet and malty and dark purple fruity and leathery and rich and then gets aggressively oaky fast.  The turn is a char attack - but char with depth of flavor.  You can taste the red line behind the char here. Caramel and toffee notes in a fierce battle grip with all kinds of dark licorice and black herbal flavors.  Sherry sweetness plays above the very intense and iterated wood.  This is an unbalanced whiskey.  The finish is bitter.  This gives this whiskey a very dark aspect.  It has a spiky quality to the interaction between the young whiskey's hot body and sweet attack, and the smoldering earthy smoke and oak char.  It's strong meat and a lot people will find this a young brash young whiskey a little bit out of control with flavoring aspects (peat, sherry, and oak) that were applied pedal to the metal.  But some will applaud and I'm one of them.  This whiskey is big, insanely rich, and incredibly fully flavored.  It has some of the roughness of youth but, by virtue of tons of rich complexity baked into the flavor up front from the way it's malted, a sinful, pudding like mouth feel and big tannin effect, it exceeds thrillingly.  A big Black Christmas pudding of a dram with extra cloves and nutmeg.  An 85% cacao dark chocolate bar with nibs paired with a slightly oversteeped but very high quality black tea.  This isn't for every day.  But it certainly fits a certain mood: (i.e. wanting a big smoke encounter like having a massive dark leaf cigar).  It is a HUGE sweet, young brash smoke bomb dessert feast that takes a long time to open.  And it's a two year old single malt whiskey.  It definitely pushes the boundaries of complexity of flavor in a young whiskey.  I mean, this kind of thing isn't rare in the worlds of Rhum Agricole, Tequila, or Mezcal.  But it is in the world of malt whiskey.  It mostly suffers sins more commonly seen in old whiskey: (i.e. borderline over oaked). Yet, it's so young that in the UK it can't be defined as whisky at all until it's at least three years old.  So, that this very young whiskey plays so big and sweet and dark is a mammoth achievement.  This stuff is an adventure.  How do you score it?  Who the hell cares?  (I'm going to dock it for being so dark and tannic, but that shouldn't discourage those of you who know you have to have it.  This stuff is among the peaks of the American craft whiskey movement at the moment in my opinion.  It'll all be gone in a heartbeat, of course, but it's more testimony that the Jewish Whisky Company really knows what the hell they're doing.

**** 89

Single Cask Nation bottlings have a very cool bottle closure with a glass stopper.
In conclusion,  Check out Single Cask Nation.  Great palates are making great cask selections.  And Westland is an American craft distiller making young single malts with a surprising and impressive degree of complexity and refinement.  The future of American malt tastes pretty good.

Source disclosure statement:  I bought all bottles reviewed here and paid for all events described, including my own membership in Single Cask Nation.  I'm a consumer of all this stuff purely as a whisky enthusiast and a fan.