In recent years, the marketing side of the whisk(e)y business seems to have taken center stage with more emphasis often being placed on “The Story” behind the whisky and the “exclusivity” of the releases than, at times, the actual whisky itself. Its a sad statement, but “The Story” becomes the be-all, end-all….can you say Ardbeg?
Going hand-in-hand with this marketing-centric approach is the proliferation of “LIMITED RELEASE” whiskies that routinely hit the market, even though many of these “Limited Releases” consist of thousands upon thousands of bottles with worldwide distribution! And then these same whiskies show up on the shelves each year…..still labeled as a limited release…..
So today, flying against the headwinds of global conglomerate-owned, mass-produced, and frequently over-hyped, story-driven whiskies, I have something unique to present……a truly limited release of a whiskey whose entire production is under ONE gallon….TOTAL!! Now that is kind of cool!
What we have today is something that I euphemistically named “Pappy Trevino” in honor of the increasingly rare, and ever-more difficult to find (at least at any semblance of reasonable cost), Pappy Van Winkle bourbons. The actual “working title” applied by the whiskey’s creator is 4-Grain Bourbon in recognition of its four component grains: Corn, Rye, Barley, and Wheat. This 4-Grain Bourbon is a small batch, private-label, not-for-retail, blended straight bourbon, finished in a very small barrel and bottled at 50% alcohol by volume (abv). This whiskey was created by The Liquorhound, who so kindly provided small sample bottles to his fellow whisky fiends (and friends) at one of our North Texas Spirit Society meetings.
Before we continue, though, it might be helpful to provide a definition and a few clarifications about Bourbon that will help us understand the what, how, and why behind our Pappy Trevino sample.
To start, let’s get the official definition of Bourbon. Yes, there is an official definition of Bourbon and it was established on May 4, 1964 by none other than the United States Congress. Congress recognized Bourbon Whiskey as a “distinctive product of the United States,” and the definition serves to protect the integrity of bourbon as a product.
The technical definition is very specific. The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 C.F.R. 5.22) state that bourbon must meet these requirements:
* Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn (maize).
* Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume).
* Neither coloring nor flavoring may be added.
* Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
* Bourbon must be entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).
* Bourbon, like other whiskeys, may be bottled at not less than 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume.)
* Bourbon that meets the above requirements and has been aged for a minimum of two years may (but is not required to) be called Straight Bourbon.
* Straight Bourbon aged for a period less than four years must be labeled with the duration of its aging.
* If an age is stated on the label, it must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.
* Only whiskey produced in the United States can be called Bourbon.
Okay, so now that we know exactly what constitutes Bourbon, and Straight Bourbon – the Kentucky part should be self-explanatory! – we need to understand a few clarifications that carry a significant impact on the resultant aromas and flavors of individual bourbons because they are a major part of the whiskey in this review.
It is important to understand that while the definition of Bourbon mandates a minimum of 51% corn (maize) most mash bill recipes run higher than that percentage – corn provides the core sweetness that is recognizably Bourbon. But individual distilleries have unique and proprietary recipes using various other grains, in different ratios, over and above the foundational corn component – rye, wheat, sometimes oat, and barley – with almost all mashes consist of a small portion of malted barley (+/-5%) which facilitates the start of fermentation.
Rye is a very frequent component to bourbon mash bills. Rye introduces floral, grassy and spicy notes to the flavor profile that complement the sweetness that the corn provides. Furthermore, there are bourbon recipes that are defined as using low-rye and high rye mash bills. For reference, Bourbon expert, author and industry observer/commentator Chuck Cowdery defines Low Rye as under 12% and High Rye as over 30%. (http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/2011/11/what-do-terns-high-rye-and-low-rye-mean.html).
Buffalo Trace, for example, produces bourbons using two primary mash bills with one Low-Rye mash bill that runs less than 10% rye, while the second recipe falls into the “standard” range of 12%-15% rye. Four Roses, Basil Hayden’s and Old Grandad are bourbons with high-rye recipes, with Four Roses having one mash bill that has an approximately 35% rye content, while Basil Hayden’s and Old Grandad run around 30% rye content.
Bourbons like Weller, Makers Mark, and the famed Pappy Van Winkle, are known as “wheated” bourbons for their high wheat component. Wheated whiskies tend to offer a softer, creamier profile.
Obviously the ratio of the rye or wheat (or other grain component) influences the final smell and taste.
Pappy Trevino – 4 Grain Bourbon
Alright, enough background and miscellaneous drivel, let’s get to it! So exactly what do we have here? The 4-Grain Bourbon is a blended bourbon consisting of three component, off-the-shelf, Kentucky Straight Bourbons that are relatively inexpensive and commonly available in most liquor stores: Four Roses Yellow Label ($18.99), Buffalo Trace ($19.99), and Weller Antique 107 ($21.99).
Chris took the three component bourbons and blended them at a ratio of roughly 35% Four Roses Yellow Label, 35% regular Buffalo Trace, and 30% Weller Antique 107. The blend was then put into a 1.5 gallon oak barrel with a number 3 char to marry and age.
This was Chris’ second blending experiment using this same barrel; the first attempt used just the Four Roses and Buffalo Trace. In Chris’ own words, “that combo quickly became too woody and spicy – and it had a burnt popcorn thing going on – not good)!” For this second effort, Chris added the Old Weller to the recipe in the hopes that the soft wheat influence would “mellow out the two rambunctious rye recipes.”
For the most part, the barrel of aging whiskey was kept inside in temps averaging 70-73 degrees, although Chris moved it around during temperature extremes, spending a day or two in the garage on really hot Texas summer days, or setting it outside under the patio during really cold temps. The changing temperatures, heating and cooling the barrel, causes the wood to expand and contract, pulling and pushing the resting liquid into and out of the wood, the fundamental aspect of wood-maturation. After a year of aging, Chris suffered about a 40% loss (very happy Angels!)
During the year-long maturation, the whiskey was routinely sampled (once a month) to gauge its process. I’m not sure if Chris had a target time-in-barrel when he started the experiment, but when his sampling deemed that the whiskey was ready, he removed the liquid, diluted it to 50% abv and bottled it. Chris is already contemplating another experiment, but is considering using a bigger barrel (maybe 3-5 gallons). I’m going to get in line now!
Review: “Pappy Trevino” 4-Grain Bourbon
Color: Typical Bourbon bronze
Nose: (Neat) Floral, sweet corn, brown sugar, and maple syrup, orange marmalade, cherries, butter cream, along with a good dose of rye spiciness which grows bolder with time. A bit earthy. (Water) The floral, grassy and rye spice notes pick up with water, hints of fresh oak. The fruits are more subdued, but add a nice depth. More vanilla now. As it sits in the glass, the sweeter aromas start to make a return. Molasses and corn syrup, touches of the brown sugar improve the balance. Cherries and berries return. Warm bread shows up again.
Palate: (Neat) The arrival starts a bit hot and citrusy, then some sweeter flavors start to assert themselves. Pepper, tangerine, berries, warm bread with butter. (Water) Much more subtle arrival with the addition of water. Sweet corn syrup, vanilla, still that citrusy note – more tangerine than lemon, bready, and more herbal. French toast with cinnamon and butter. The longer this one sits, the better it gets. More brown sugar and maple notes show up, bringing back some of the needed sweetness.
Finish: Softly citrusy, buttery, delicately fruity. A very dry, delicate, almost evaporative aspect in the late finish which is quite intriguing. Moderately long.
Overall: This is an interesting experiment. The nose shows some very good complexity as aromas ebb and flow in the glass. Water, and several minutes, definitely helps this one grow. The palate starts too hot neat, but the water, calms it, creating a rather elegant, delicate arrival. The rye is a factor, but time brings out the bourbon-esque sweetness that this one needs to fully blossom. I can see how the introduction of the wheated Weller really helped – the creaminess and subtle flavors it brings really take some of the bite out of the high-rye content of the Four Roses component. Time is important to this one; as it settles in the glass, it expands, balances and becomes very enjoyable.
Distillery(ies): Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Weller (Buffalo Trace distillery)
Type: Blended Straight Bourbon
Age: minimum of four years (based on component whiskey Straight Bourbon standards)
Maturation: American charred new oak. Finished 1 year in 1.5 gallon oak barrel with No. 3 char.
Availability: only if you know the ultra-secret NTSS club handshake!
Sample Source: Chris, The Liquor Hound