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.


  1. Interesting post ~ you are now a WhiskEy Detective, to add to all your other talents :-)

    1. Thanks, Rachel! In my heart, I've been a whiskey detective for years. But it's very special hearing it come from you. (You with your many brilliant whisky and human talents!)

  2. Interesting, but a pedantic question. It isn't really an "Imperial" pint, is it? Imperial pints are 20% larger than U.S. measure. Imperial measures were used in the British commonwealth but not by American bottlers as far as I know.