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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Sipp’n Corn Review – Alberta Premium Dark Horse (“Dark Batch” in U.S.)

Thanks to some friends north of the boarder, I was able to get a bottle of two Canadian Whiskies, one of which is only available in Canada (Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye Whisky), and Alberta Premium Dark Horse Canadian Whisky, which was released this past spring in the U.S., but called “Dark Batch.”

Some people have wondered why the name “Dark Horse” would be abandoned in this land where horses are featured on so many whiskey labels.  The answer probably involves the new craft distillery in Kansas, Dark Horse Distillery (http://www.dhdistillery.com/), or maybe the existence of the Dark Horse Wines in Modesto, California, or perhaps Dark Horse Brewing Company in Marshall, Michigan.  Either way, it’s “Dark Batch” to those in the U.S.

Dark Horse is a bit hard to explain, even before getting to tasting notes, so maybe this table describing its four components will help: 

45.5%
100% Rye Whisky distilled in a pot still, aged 6 years in new #4 char American Oak barrels

45.5%
100% Rye Whisky distilled in a column still, aged 12 years in used Bourbon barrels

8%
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon (age and proof undisclosed, though)

1%
Oloroso Sherry

Dark Horse hasn’t followed the trend of finishing barrels, and instead it goes right to blending in a small percentage of fortified wine.  As you might imagine, even at 1%, the Sherry notes are much stronger than merely being Sherry finished.

Details

Whisky:
Alberta Premium Dark Horse Canadian Whisky

Distillery:
Alberta Distillers, Ltd.

Age:
Undisclosed on label

Bottled:

Beam Suntory

Proof:
90 proof

Cost:
$29.99  - $34.99 locally for U.S. version

Tasting Notes

Color:
As the name suggests, it’s dark, but it still hangs on to a glint of amber and reddish tones.  It looks darker in the bottle because (at least the Canadian version) uses the Stagg Jr. trick of a big black back label.

Nose:
The nose was more herbal than I expected, along with sugary-syrupy sweetness, honey, dark fruit, pine nuts, and dark, earthy aromas.  But there’s more than just that; there’s enough going on that I found new scents on each re-taste (cinnamon, clove, furniture polish), and I expect to find more every time that I go back to it.  I’m not exactly sure that I like the roller coaster ride, however.

Taste:
This is complex and coating:  root beer immediately, and then honey, vanilla, and rounded out with coffee, oak and smokiness.  The Sherry is prominent, and sometimes it’s tough to grasp.  Some of the favors complement each other, but others compete.  It never quite hooked me.

Finish:
Peppery but sweet flavors linger and fade softly for a moderate finish.

Bottom Line

I enjoy my whiskey neat, or sometimes on ice, but that’s not where Dark Horse necessarily shines.  In fact, it’s a little puzzling neat.  I’m also puzzled in trying to decide whether to give bonus points for innovation and originality, or deduct points for blending scraps together.  I will say, however, that Dark Horse grew on me through my course of tastings.

I’m perfectly pleased to have this bottle, but I’ll be experimenting with cocktail recipes, hoping that the rye shines through.  I won’t go back to it neat right away, but I will eventually.  As perhaps the true test, I don’t really think that I will replace my bottle when it’s gone.


Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale: 3.0

The Sipp’n Corn Scale™:
1 – Wouldn’t even accept a free drink of it.
2 – Would gladly drink it if someone else was buying.
3 – Glad to include this in my bar.
4 – Excellent Bourbon and even worth its high price.
5 – Wow.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.



Monday, August 31, 2015

Sipp’n Corn Review – Virgil Kaine

Virgil Kaine is a South Carolina non-distiller producer with three whiskey offerings including a ginger-infused whiskey (with locally-grown Yellow Hawaiian ginger and young Bourbon as the whiskey), a high-rye recipe Bourbon, and a high-rye recipe Rye Whiskey.  Virgil Kaine sources its whiskey from various undisclosed sources, some in Kentucky and some not.  All three whiskies are young and come with the “aged at least four months” age statement.

The mash bill for its Bourbon is 60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% barley.  Virgil Kaine touts that its Bourbon is young “for a brighter flavor,” and is not chill filtered.  The ginger-infused whiskey uses the same mash bill, but is infused with locally-grown “heirloom ginger” (not exceeding 2.5% by volume).  Technically, 27 CFR § 5.22(i) might have classified this as a “flavored whisky” instead of “ginger-infused,” but TTB approved the label, and it sure has a better ring to it.

Additionally, Virgil Kaine’s Rye offering, “Robber Baron Rye Whiskey,” is actually a blend of a Rye whiskey (with a mash bill of 94% rye and 6% barley), with a small amount (4%) of its standard Bourbon.  I’ll need to research the complex web of labeling laws and the federal standards of identity a bit more, but I’m wondering if this 4% blend of Bourbon into the Rye, changes its classification as “Rye Whiskey” under 27 CFR § 5.22(b)(1)(i).  Regardless, like the Bourbon, Virgil Kaine Rye Whiskey is non chill filtered.

The marketing story is that Virgil Kaine was a Civil War era railway conductor by day traveling the eastern seaboard, and a bootlegger by night, who built a still inside his train car.  He eventually was caught and was shot by government agents, and while on the mend, he discovered that infusing ginger into his whiskey “soothed bourbon’s bite.”  Rest assured, this is a marketing story, but Virgil Kaine isn’t pretending that it’s anything other than that.  Marketing aside, I wanted to know how these young whiskies from South Carolina fared:
Virgil Kaine Review

Disclaimer: Virgil Kaine kindly sent me 100 mL sample bottles of its
three varieties for this review, without any strings attached. 
Thank you.

Whiskey:
Virgil Kaine Ginger infused Bourbon

Distillery:
Undisclosed

Age:
“aged at least four months”

Proof:
80 proof

Cost:
$25 - $32 / 750 mL

* * * * *

Whiskey:
Virgil Kaine High Rye Bourbon

Distillery:
Undisclosed

Age:
“aged at least four months”

Proof:
90 proof

Cost:
$28 - $35 / 750 mL

* * * * *

Whiskey:
Virgil Kaine Robber Baron Rye Whiskey

Distillery:
Undisclosed

Age:
“aged at least four months”

Proof:
91 proof

Cost:
$27 - $35 / 750 mL

Tasting Notes

Color:
The ginger-infused whiskey was the lightest of the three, and a little cloudy.  The three ranged from light amber to medium amber, with the Rye being the darkest, comparatively, but all still yellowish on an overall scale, which is perfectly age-appropriate.

Nose:
There was absolutely no mistaking the ginger in the flavored whiskey.  It was very distinct, and perhaps too strong for some, but it’s delightful.  Sweet vanilla was a solid second, and then it was rounded out with some corn sweetness and a little citrus zest.  The Bourbon’s nose was medicinal, and showed its high rye content, along with pine nuts and maybe slight smokiness; but overall I was not a fan of the Bourbon’s nose.  The Rye’s nose was similar, but not nearly as sharp, with some cedar and peppery rye spice.  It also had some medicinal qualities, indicating to me its young age.  Still, overall and in peer comparison, the Bourbon and the Rye had some indication of being young, but not nearly as much as other young whiskies, which can have terribly medicinal or airplane glue noses.

Taste:
As predicted by the nose, the flavored whiskey was strongly ginger, especially until my palate adjusted to it.  Instead of a pungent ginger, it’s actually very similar to a Kentucky Mule, which is one of my favorite summer Bourbon cocktails, or at least the ginger beer used in a proper Kentucky Mule (not the zippier ginger ale).  There’s not much warmth or rye spice.  It’s a very sweet drink focusing on ginger, vanilla, and candy flavors, making it refreshing.

Thankfully, the Bourbon lacked the harshness that is so common in young whiskies.  While it still had some of the characteristic medicinal bitterness of young Bourbon, it was not distracting.  It has some warmth, but not much.  There’s a fair balance between sweet (especially butterscotch) and dry flavors, but they’re subtle and underdeveloped due to the age.

The Rye was pretty remarkable for being so young and against peer comparison.  There was some slight dry puckering, but predominantly the flavors are citrus, pepper, and ginger.  I don’t think that the ginger note was from remnants of the flavored Bourbon because I still noticed it on re-tastings when I saved the ginger Bourbon for last, and when I didn’t try the ginger Bourbon.  There’s also some light fruit, but it’s very faint.

Finish:
Perhaps predictably, the finish was pretty short on all three.  The flavored whiskey, again, was dominated by the ginger, but not off-putting.  The finish on the Bourbon was the shortest of the three and was the most subtle.  The Rye had the most interesting finish and was the longest of the three (but still very short).  It was still a little one-dimensional (dry), but certainly a decent finish given the age.

Bottom Line

It’s pretty remarkable that Virgil Kaine avoided the harshness contained in so many other young whiskies.  It’s easy to understand how the ginger infused whiskey could mask young characteristics, but it’s harder to understand how they managed this with the Bourbon and the Rye. I wondered whether – because none of this whiskey is “straight whiskey” – Virgil Kaine could be adding coloring / flavoring / blending materials not to exceed 2.5% by volume of the finished product without needing to disclose anything, so I asked.  Virgil Kaine responded that neither the Bourbon nor the Rye contain any additives whatsoever.  In other words, there’s no masking.

I think that the flavored whiskey would be a great mixer, although at 80 proof, ice and other liquid ingredients will quickly move the ABV to a standard beer level, which of course isn’t a bad thing.  The ginger and vanilla would shine through, so this is a keeper for mixologists and the cocktail crowd.  Even adding to crushed ice with a squeeze of a ½ lime can create a version of a Kentucky Mule without needing ginger beer.  Additionally, I’ve always tended to think that wheated Bourbon works better with ginger, so it was a pleasant surprise that Virgil Kaine’s high-rye recipe might end up shifting one of my presumptions.

The Rye serves well for sipping, but I could also see this in a cocktail.  The Bourbon was third of the three for me, although it has potential.  While many of my friends and fellow whiskey enthusiasts love the sharp qualities of younger whiskies, I tend to want the mellowness and layers of more age, so I hope that as Virgil Kaine develops, they’ll have a chance to offer Straight Bourbon and Rye that has lived a little longer in the barrel. 

In the meantime, Virgil Kaine is currently available in South Carolina, Georgia and New York City, and is in the midst of launching in North Carolina and Tennessee, and it could be available online depending on whether your state allows shipping.  Especially because of the market’s fixation (and often my fixation) with extra-aged Bourbon and Rye, Virgil Kaine is a contrarian move to consider.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Woodford v. Ridgewood – A Court-Ordered Label Change for Barton’s 1792 Bourbon.

There’s no shortage of lawsuits in bourbon history over brand names and images.  Many of those have dealt with using a family surname (link here), or calling a brand “Millwood” and trying to pass it off as “Mellwood” (link here).  While “Millwood” and “Mellwood” might be an obvious case of misappropriation, yet another Bourbon case helped make the gray line a little wider.

In the past year, consumers have noticed that Barton’s 1792 Ridgemont Reserve (owned by Sazerac) received an updated label design and name change.  Now “Ridgemont Reserve” has been abandoned and replaced with the words “Small Batch Bourbon.”  Sazerac explained the name change as being designed to emphasize “small batch” (which of course has no legal meaning) and because they wanted a “modern, sophisticated, and stylish package” so that it would “appeal to consumers who have a discerning taste for premium bourbon, and want a glamorous package too.”

I’ve seen this referenced as 1792’s first label update since it was introduced, but there was actually an earlier label with a slightly different name – “Ridgewood Reserve” – that allegedly tried to misappropriate Woodford Reserve’s logo, trademarked label design and flask-shaped bottle. 
The evolution of 1792

Brown-Forman (the owner of Woodford Reserve in Versailles, Kentucky) took exception to Barton’s new brand that had the look, feel and sound of Woodford Reserve, and it sued Barton in federal court in Louisville in October 2003.  After only about six months (which is ludicrously fast for lawsuits) a trial was held and the court issued its ruling:  Barton had infringed on Woodford Reserve’s trademarks. 

In Brown-Forman Corp. v. Barton Inc., No. 3:03-cv-00648-JBC (W.D. Ky.), the evidence showed that the marketers for Barton decided the best way for Barton to launch a new premium brand would be by “tying the product to geographic locations, historical figures or to bourbon history.”  Since the word “Ridgewood” was pulled straight out of thin air, the marketers “named” the existing still at the Barton Distillery the “Legendary Ridgewood Still.”  That’s right – overnight the still became “legendary” and had a name, all for the purpose of “legitimizing the Ridgewood Reserve name.”

Additionally, instead of creating a new and distinctive bottle or label, Brown-Forman found proof that the marketers were going for the “Woodford feel,” “with a goal of having a design equal to or better than Woodford Reserve or Jefferson Reserve.”

A company faced with a trademark infringement claim has a few options; Barton chose to go on the offensive with a countersuit.  While denying all along that it had infringed upon any Woodford Reserve trademarks, Barton decided to make its own claims which upped the ante and threatened the very essence of Woodford Reserve.  Barton brought to light a fact that it alleged was hidden from Woodford’s website or other marketing efforts:  the real source of the Bourbon in your Woodford bottle.

Barton alleged that Woodford Reserve had been touting its three copper pot stills, its cypress vats, its local limestone spring water, and its historic location, but that those marketing efforts were false, in violation of the Lanham Act (a federal law which prohibits any “false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representations of fact which … in commercial advertising or promotion, misrepresent the nature, characteristic, [or] qualities … of goods, services, or commercial activities.”).  Barton argued that these marketing efforts were exponentially worse than the “puffery” of Barton calling its still “legendary” or naming it the “Ridgewood Still” just before the launch of its new premium Bourbon.

Barton based its allegations on testimony from a Brown-Forman executive that Bourbon sold as “Woodford Reserve” was actually a blend containing some Bourbon distilled in pot stills at the historic Woodford Reserve Distillery, but mostly Bourbon distilled in a column still at Brown-Forman’s distillery in Louisville, using Louisville water, and also aged in Louisville before being relocated to Versailles for additional aging.  Moreover, Barton alleged that until May 2003, every single drop of Woodford Reserve actually originated from Brown-Forman’s distillery in Louisville.  Basically, Barton alleged that Woodford Reserve was Old Forester in disguise.

It was true then – just as it is still true today – that Woodford Reserve and Old Forester share the same mash bill (72% corn; 18% rye; 10% malted barley) and yeast strain, and that Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select contains Bourbon distilled both in Versailles and Louisville.  Chris Morris has acknowledged this many times (although, in my personal experience, some tour guides at Woodford Reserve have been evasive about the subject). 

Even though Barton alleged that regular consumers were misled about “the true facts regarding the making of Woodford Reserve,” Brown-Forman was able to come up with enough proof of its disclosures to fight back against Barton.  For instance, the side label on Woodford Reserve at the time disclosed that Woodford Reserve is “distilled for, aged and bottled by Labrot & Graham Distillers Co., Versailles, Kentucky.”  The “distilled for” disclosure is yet another lesson in closely reading Bourbon labels.
Matured in the heart of Kentucky’s horse county”
doesn’t mean that it was distilled there.

Brown-Forman was so successful in its defense that Barton ultimately dropped its countersuit against Woodford.  And then Brown-Forman refocused on its own claims.  After trial, the Court entered an injunction against Barton for violating Woodford Reserve trademarks, it barred Barton from selling, shipping, advertising, or marketing Ridgewood Reserve, it ordered Barton to stop distributors and retailers from selling Ridgewood Reserve, and only allowed bottles currently in stock at retailers to be sold for 60 days.  “Ridgewood” became “Ridgemont” and the old name and legend vanished.

That’s the real story of the first label change for Barton 1792, and the so-called “Legendary Ridgewood Still.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – Willett Family Estate Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (22 yr. wheated)

The Willett Distillery has gradually become a favorite of Bourbon enthusiasts, even creating some genuine fan boys of the distillery and Drew Kulsveen.  Unfortunately, the demand from Bourbon enthusiasts played right in to the existing secondary market where flippers (i.e., people who buy purely to profit on an immediate resale) buy as much Willett Family Estate as possible and then list it online for 2 or 3 times an already high retail price.  Willett has even had to take steps to counter this practice, such as limiting the number of bottles it releases at any given time.

Luckily, my timing was perfect at the Gift Shop on several occasions, and I was able to buy multiple bottles from two different 22-year old barrels, both with wheat as the secondary grain.  I tend to think that wheated Bourbons often take extra aging better, so I was very excited for these purchases, despite the retail price.  Were they worth it?

Details

Willett Family Estate 
Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery:  Undisclosed
Age:  22 years
Proof:  139.2 proof
Cost:  $315.00 (gift shop)
Barrel No.:  C14D
Total Bottles:  108

Willett Family Estate 
Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Distillery:  Undisclosed
Age:  22 years
Proof:  141.8 proof
Cost:  $315.00 (gift shop)
Barrel No.:  C17D
Total Bottles:  112
Tasting Notes

Color:
Both are age-appropriately dark, and for both that means silky brown with rich reddish hues.  C17D might be slightly darker, but they’re essentially the same color.
 
Nose:
I could sit down and smell C14D all day long; it’s fantastic.  The high ABV is not distracting in the slightest, so you can enjoy polished wood, leather, old barn, dark chocolate, and dark plums.  It’s definitely oaky, but there’s also a rich sweetness (instead of candy sweetness, think about that triple-chocolate desert that is so rich you have to share it). 

C17D has more heat evident in the nose; don’t inhale aggressively with this one.  The nose has a sharper oakiness, so instead of polished wood and old barn, it’s more of a peppery oak.  It’s also a bit sweeter, but otherwise, it’s very similar to C14D.

Taste:
In previous Bourbons, I’ve certainly tasted flavors of cocoa, dark chocolate, and milk chocolate.  But with C14D, I was in for a surprise of an unmistakable specific cocoa flavor:  tootsie rolls.  It’s really incredible.  The tootsie roll flavor, along with other rich sweetness, adds a nice balance to the otherwise dominant oaky flavors.  There’s no discernable cherry (which I get in another older wheated Bourbon that shall remain nameless).  Water opens it nicely to lush caramel, buttery toffee, and increases the creaminess, although leather and oak are still the backbone.  Even neat, C14D is warm but not hot, never revealing that it’s 139.2 proof.  Still, after trying C14D neat, you need drink it with a splash or two of water, or better yet, a single large ice cube or ball in order to experience its progression with slow melt.

C17D doesn’t have as strong of cocoa notes when drank neat, but water brings out fantastic dark chocolate and rich salted caramel.  C17D also has plenty of oak, and even less dark fruit.  The oak reminds me of leather and an old library (mahogany walls and leather-bound books on hardwood shelves).  Additionally, whereas C14D masks its high ABV, the very slightly higher ABV of C17D slaps you in the face.  Proof this high is bound to make itself known, but it’s magical when it sooths instead of hits.  Air and adding a splash of water to C17D really helps tame the beast, so like C14D, take the proof down with water or ice, and be patient after a pour.

While oak characteristics should be expected in any extra-aged Bourbon, it’s rare after all these years to not have a one-dimensional “oak bomb” that causes a major drying pucker.  Those old barrels usually need the life filtered out of them before they can be concealed in a large batch.  So it’s unique here for Willett to have several barrels offered as non-chill filtered barrel strength single barrels; there’s absolutely no hiding here.

Finish:
C14D has a fantastic, long oaky, dry finish, with some nice remnants of the tootsie rolls and dark fruit.  Surprisingly, the finish seemed to last longer with a few drops of water.  C17D was long in a slightly different way, leaving a lasting impression of heat, while still delivering robust flavor (again, especially oak, but not overbearing).  A little water cut the oakiness of the finish in both, and helped bring out black tea, cinnamon, caramel apples, and dark chocolate, so again, take the proof down.

Bottom Line

A valid question here is “why review bottles that most people are unlikely to ever be able to try?”  As opposed to many of my reviews, which in the best case scenario might actually help people decide to try a new Bourbon, or might help people choose between two similarly-priced Bourbons, I hope that my occasional reviews of hard or impossible to find Bourbons can help narrow the hunt for some people, help others decide if they’re really tempted to spend this kind of time or money, or at least give credit where credit is due.

Additionally, tasting single barrels is fascinating to me.  I’ve had private barrels that were from the same distillation run and were aged literally right next to each other for the same amount of time, that turned out pretty different.  And now with Willett, some lucky people have been able to get C14D, C16D, C17D, and C18D, which have all been 22-year wheated Single Barrel Bourbons with typical similarities and differences. 

Buying and reviewing these types of Bourbons reminded me of another lesson:  price and hype won’t always give me a Bourbon that I subjectively believe was worth the cost.  That’s C17D for me; it’s a fantastic Bourbon that I’m excited to have, and which I don’t have any regrets for purchasing, but I would not pay $315 for a second bottle, much less the $650 I’ve seen demanded on the secondary market.  At north of $300, both C14D and C17D should get dinged on any “value” analysis, but these both have so much more character and depth when compared to many of the $100+ limited releases over the past few years, so it starts getting harder to argue with Willett’s pricing.

For me and my money, I expect any Bourbon over $100 to absolutely blow my socks off, and that’s what C14D did for me.  I know that all 108 bottles are long gone and that I’ll never have the chance to stock up, but this experience will keep me looking for the next outstanding Bourbon.  Even if I’m not quite as captivated with other single barrels along the way, I know that my perfect Bourbon is out there, so I’ll keep trying.  Visit the Willett Gift Shop and who knows, maybe Drew will have just set out a few bottles of magic.

Scores on The Sipp’n Corn Scale
Willett 22-year C14D:           4.5
Willett 22-year C17D:           4.0


The Sipp’n Corn Scale™:
1 – Wouldn’t even accept a free drink of it.
2 – Would gladly drink it if someone else was buying.
3 – Glad to include this in my bar.
4 – Excellent Bourbon and even worth its high price.
5 – Wow.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sipp’n Corn Bourbon Review – Kentucky Vintage Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey

Kentucky Vintage is the least expensive brand member of Willett’s “Small Batch Boutique Bourbon Collection,” with Pure Kentucky, Rowan’s Creek, and Noah’s Mill rounding out the line.  The bottle states that it is bottled by “Kentucky Vintage Distillery” in Bardstown, Kentucky, although that distillery only exists on paper.  It’s really Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd., which of course is now better known as Willett Distillery (another assumed name of KBD).  They’re doing great things at Willett, but does this moderate / low-priced brand keep pace?

Bourbon:
Kentucky Vintage – Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey
Batch 14-11

Distillery:
Undisclosed

Age:
Undisclosed (but for those who can believe it, the bottle states “This Bourbon has been allowed to age long beyond that of any ordinary Bourbon…”)

Bottled:

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd. d/b/a Kentucky Vintage Distillery

Proof:
90 proof

Cost:
$22.49

Tasting Notes

Color:
Light amber.

Nose:
Major corn sweetness, but overall subtle in all respects.  There’s slight walnut, ginger, and light fruit, but it’s all very faint.

Taste:
Lots of corn sweetness and not much rye balance, but rye spice does show eventually.  It has decent warmth, but also some bitterness and it seemed a little thin instead of creaminess that I enjoy.  It really does not have any complexity or much character, but it’s inoffensive.  In order to check my impressions, I arranged a double blind tasting and three out of four guessed that this was corn whiskey. 

Finish:
Short and unremarkable with drying pepper spice.

Bottom Line

Even for Bourbon in this moderate price range, you can do better.  Kentucky Vintage has an attractive bottle and label, and a high-end implying wax stamp and black wax dipped closure (screw top, however).  Options that spend less on appearances but are better choices at similar prices include Four Roses Yellow Label and Old Weller Antique 107.  And for about $8.00 dollars more, you’d be in the range of some of my “price performers” like Elijah Craig 12, Elmer T. Lee and Four Roses Single Barrel.

Kentucky Vintage is still more-or-less fairly-priced, but with so many other options, this one is likely to get lost in the shuffle.  While I don’t plan on buying another bottle, I know that I will be tempted by future batches, based solely on Willett’s reputation. 

Score on The Sipp’n Corn Scale:
Kentucky Vintage:  2.0

The Sipp’n Corn Scale™:
1 – Wouldn’t even accept a free drink of it.
2 – Would gladly drink it if someone else was buying.
3 – Glad to include this in my bar.
4 – Excellent bourbon.  Worth the price and I’m sure to always have it in my bar.
5 – Wow.  I’ll search high and low to get another bottle of this.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Kentucky Bourbon Affair 2015 – Blending (and more) at Four Roses.

When I saw the chance to get behind the scenes at Four Roses and try my hand at blending as part of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association Bourbon Affair, I knew that I had to be there.

My previous posts have probably made it clear that I’m already a fan of Four Roses and its Master Distiller, Jim Rutledge.  Jim has been the Master Distiller at Four Roses for 20 years, and before then, he already had 30 years of experience with Seagram’s where he started in Research & Development in Louisville, before moving with Seagram’s to New York and finally to Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.  I’ve been able to meet Jim at a number of private barrel selections and Four Roses events, but this Kentucky Bourbon Affair offered something that I might never experience again:  I ended up sitting right next to Jim as we worked on our own personal blends of different Four Roses recipes.

I had also already met Bourbon Hall of Famer Al Young too, and I enjoyed his 2010 book Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend about the history of Four Roses, but I’d never had access to him like this before.  After a light breakfast and a greeting from Jim, Al himself took a small group of us on a behind-the-scenes tour.  Al regaled us with stories from when he was Distillery Manager and how a sixth sense is needed to operate a distillery.  He also answered some technical questions that true enthusiasts need to know, like the proof of new make and proofing it down before barreling; speculation about whether a Four Roses Rye is in the works; the number of barrels and recipe percentages in the Four Roses Small Batch; and much, much more.

We walked from the gazebo to meet with Ashley Jones, Quality Control Manager, who took us through tastings of new distillate of OBSQ, OBSV, OESO, OBSO and OESK.  Even as distillate, we could really tell the differences between the floral and perfume notes of the Q yeast, the fruitiness of O and V, and my favorite, the spiciness of K.  We also learned about the yeasts, quality control, and the tasting panel that reviews each run.

Al took us from Quality Control to the Grain Quality Laboratory, which is a big name for a pretty tiny building, where we learned about the non-GMO corn, rye, and barley used by Four Roses.  Next up was the Control Room and the Fermenter Control Room, where we learned the finer details of fermentation, temperatures, and the magic task performed by the yeast.  We toured the production equipment, learning along the way that because Cypress is endangered, a move has been made to Douglas Fir, learning the proper way to stick your finger into a stream of mash, and tasting the difference in mash sweetness when it is pumped in versus its sourness later in life.

When we reached the tail box, a run of OESV was coming off the doubler.  We measured it at 73 degrees, with a 147 reading on the hydrometer, and using an archaic-looking Gauging Manual, we calculated the proof at 142.  There have only been a few times in my experience when “white dog” off the still is anything other than harsh fire in the mouth; this OESV was one of those good experiences.  This distillate even had a flavorful finish beyond the expected warming sensation.
The best was still to come after lunch, however.  The boardroom had been set up with half-pints of an 11-year OBSV, an 8-year OESO, a 6-year OESK, and a 15-year OBSO for each of us to create our own individualized small batch.  Jim also gave us the inside scoop on blending his different recipes, and he shared stories about how different recipes can complement each other, can do surprising things to each other, or can be difficult to fine-tune.  For instance, the 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch took upwards of 70-100 test blends (depending on who you ask) before it was finally selected.  This year, however, the 2015 Limited Edition Small Batch was set after only 16 test blends.  I was hoping for an advanced tasting of this 2015 Limited Edition – which will be a 16-year OBSK, a 15-year OESK, a 14-year OESK, and an 11-year OBSV – but sadly, it was not to be.

In the meantime, I had my own Very Limited Edition to create.  As a blending novice, I gravitated toward the yeast strains that I knew I preferred – the K and the V – so my first few test blends were heavier on those components.  I landed on 40% OBSV 11-year, 40% OESK 6-year and 20% OBSO 15-year, which, unabashedly, I thought was excellent.  However, I was sitting right next to the master himself, and he whipped up a concoction in a single attempt that blew away my blend.  Jim used 50% OBSO 15-year, 35% OESO 8-year, and 15% OBSV 11-year for a blend that was absolutely phenomenal.  Needless to say, he knows what he’s doing folks.

We ended our day back at the gazebo with a Bourbon and food pairing “flavor wheel.”  This is something you should definitely try at home; we paired the three Four Roses brands with the following small tastes:

Yellow Label:  red apple, country ham, white cheddar cheese, white chocolate, and walnut.

Small Batch:  orange, raspberry, bacon, aged parmesan, milk chocolate, and cashew.

Single Barrel:  dried cherry, pepperoni, smoked gouda, dark chocolate, and almond.

This fun exercise involves taking a small sip of Bourbon (neat) to acclimate your taste buds.  Then take a small taste of one of the foods followed by another sip of Bourbon.  Each of the foods accentuates existing flavors of the Bourbon in its own special way.  Some cheeses can coat the tongue and mute the sharpness or burn, while at the same time helping you identify rich caramel and cocoa flavors; fresh or dried fruit will lead you to very different sensations; nuts can help you identify toasted, vanilla and shortbread flavors; chocolates coat the mouth and, surprisingly, aren’t limited to just identifying sweet notes; and the saltiness of fatty cured meat can help you identify drier, oaky and nutty flavors.

You can explore flavor wheels with different foods in these categories, although I strongly recommend switching out the cured meat for sorghum or fresh local honey, which can accentuate orange, caramel, and sometimes earthy or grassy flavors.

Again, these flavors are already in Bourbon; these small tastings just help you identify those flavors that perhaps you’ve previously found hard to describe.  This exercise is also useful in creating “flavor memories” and helping you decide on pairing certain Bourbons with different appetizers or meals.

The flavor wheel closed our Bourbon Affair at Four Roses.  It was a more than a full day supply of Bourbon adventure, with incredible experiences and memories.  This also set the bar pretty high for the Kentucky Distillers’ Association and future Bourbon Affairs.  I suspect that each Bourbon Affair will try to out-do previous years, so I highly recommend that you mark the 2016 Kentucky Bourbon Affair on your calendar.



Monday, June 22, 2015

Kentucky Bourbon Affair 2015 – Crab & Crawfish with Bill Samuels, Jr. and Maker’s Mark.

Now in its second year, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association Bourbon Affair (held this year June 3-7) is already firing on all cylinders.  Events this year ranged from fishing with Fred Noe, blending at Four Roses (post coming soon!), sampling Bourbon from all over Heaven Hill, culinary events, polo on the riverfront, and much, much more.  The vast majority of people I met at the Bourbon Affair were from out of state – one extremely fun group was in from Canada – and they were here to enjoy daily events.

Instead of the full immersion of attending events over the better part of a week, my plan has been more akin to dipping my toes, with the goal of selecting one or two once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  For 2015, that meant the Maker’s Mark southern style crab and crawfish boil hosted by Bill Samuels, Jr. and his wife, Nancy, at their home on the Ohio River near Louisville.

I’ve already written about Bill, Sr.’s exit from, and immediate competition with, Country Distillers, and the resulting necessity of coming up with a new name since the Kentucky Court of Appeals prevented Bill, Sr. from using his surname in any material way associate with his newly planned Bourbon (link here).  I’ve also already written about the more recent legal fight with Diageo over the iconic dripping red wax seal (link here). 

Litigation tells a great story about the Samuels family, but after getting the chance to talk with Bill, Jr., I saw firsthand how his family has made its mark.  Bill’s affability and charm held his audience gripped for the next story.  And Bill’s family pride – without being boastful and without false modesty – gives him an impressive command of the room.  Combine those people skills with his knowledge of the Bourbon business, and it’s no wonder that Bill, Jr. was able to pick up where his father left off.

The evening started with greetings from Bill, Jr. and informal tours around his home, which had rooms more reminiscent of museums and art galleries.  The vaulted ceiling entryway was dominated by contemporary art, but after moving into the parlor and other interior rooms, the mood became purely historical.  That’s where Bill, Jr. showcased Marker’s Mark memorabilia, historical furniture, and oil-paint portraits from a bygone era.

The historical Maker’s Mark treasures included things like the very first Maker’s Mark bottle, and non-Bourbon historical pieces included the actual desk where Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” a checker’s set owned by Thomas Jefferson, and Robert E. Lee’s pistol in a shadow box.

Some of the art wasn’t to my taste (posed mannequins enjoying tea and pie on the sun porch), but that scene led to some tremendous conversations.

The family-style crab and crawfish boil, followed by more time on the sweeping back lawn overlooking the Ohio River, together with Bill, Jr.’s graciousness, made for a perfect evening.