This past month has been very busy (and fun) on the whisky front. Not only did I have the two events at Trinity Hall (Blind Tasting and Glenfiddich 21 Deconstruction Tasting), we also had our Newcomers Whisky Club meeting in November (trying to get that written up, too), and then a week ago Saturday our North Texas Spirits Society decided to have one last gathering before the holidays.
Fourteen of us met, as usual, at Kabobi, our friendly little BYOB Mediterranean restaurant in Addison, just off 75. The theme for this tasting was American Whiskies, and it turned out to be a lot of fun, with some excellent whiskies offering a great deal of diversity….there is so much more to offer than just “bourbon”!
Firestone Walker Velvet Merkin 2014
As we usually do, we started with a shared bottle of beer – to freshen or set our palates…..and just to enjoy! 😉
This evening we started with a bottle of Velvet Merkin 2014 release, a bourbon barrel aged Oatmeal Stout brewed by Firestone Walker Brewing Company out of Paso Robles, CA. This beer is a creamy, rich coffee-espresso-chocolate stout that has a beautiful, subtle vanilla and soft spice note from the bourbon barrel aging. Firestone Walker makes some really good beer, so if you’re looking for something you haven’t tried before, I highly recommend you consider one of their offerings! I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Palm Ridge Reserve, Handmade Micro Batch Florida Whiskey
Our first whisky of the evening was a rather interesting, albeit very unknown, whisky, the Palm Ridge Reserve, from the Florida Farm Distillers located near Umatilla, FL that Sean N. brought to share. This whiskey is labeled as “Handmade Micro Batch Florida Whiskey”, and is the first whisky from Florida that I’ve tried. It is young…no, it is YOUNG! The labeling clearly, and proudly(?), tells us that this whiskey is aged less than one year! It is bottled at 45% abv (90 proof) and runs approximately $50. Sean picked this up at the distillery during a visit to the Sunshine state.
Florida Farms is a very small operation, producing approximately 500 cases per year. Their whisky is non-chill filtered, “mellowed with toasted orange and oak woods, and left to finish in small charred oak barrels.”
On the nose this is softly, with a sugary vanilla note, but it is also bit on the spirity side – a tad sharp – some soft dark fruits, then oaky notes take over showing the whisky’s youthfulness. I suspect that this may be aged in lightly charred barrels, but perhaps it is just the small barrels combined with the Florida heat and humidity that produces the aromas I picked up. As you sip this whisky, the oak spices remain dominant, but the dark fruits, some herbal/grain notes, and perhaps it is the power of suggestion, but we did pick up some orange notes. Water brings out more spices and seems to enhance the subtle orange note we were picking up. The finish is sweeter, with more hints of vanilla than showed up previously. I will say, somewhat surprising, this is not bad stuff, just a touch overly oaky for me. Given a bit more aging, perhaps not in the smaller barrels, this could be quite decent.
Charbay R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey (Lot 3)
Since we started our whisky selection with a unique, very young whisky we decided to continue with the “odd balls” and the Charbay R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey (Mark H) really fit the bill. Cost is about $90 and it is bottled at 49.5% abv.
The Charbay Distillery & Winery is one of the forerunners of the California distilling scene, having begun operation in 1983, and make brandies, whiskies, and vodka. Owned by Miles and Susan Karakasevi who run the distillery along with their son Marko and his wife, Jenni, the Charbay Distillery distills their spirits in traditional Alembic pot stills.
According to the Charbay website R5 Whiskey (Lot No. 3) is double-distilled from Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA beer and aged for 28 months.
The nose is very floral, with a strong citric element – limoncello, grapefruit zest – along with some soft herbal spices and a floral bitterness. There are distinct notes of the ale throughout. On the palate I found this very interesting. The lemon note was described as effervescent Limoncello, which I thought hit the nail right on the head. There was some vanilla, adding a touch of (needed) sweetness, and hints of fresh leather. It was slightly hot on the tongue, but not overwhelming and water doesn’t really do much. The finish is somewhat short, drying, floral and very “hoppy.” If you like IPA’s, as I do, you’ll probably enjoy this whisky as a one-off tasting, although, I’m not sure this is something I’d want as a routine pour.
Blood Oath Pact No. 1
Thanks to Trey who brought this bottle of Blood Oath, a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from the creative blending talents of John Rempe. Rempe, who does not distill the whiskies, purchases various barrels from different distilleries and blends them together to form his Blood Oath whiskies. Retail price is approximately $75 – if you can still find it on the shelves – and it is bottled at 49.3% abv. The bottling date on this bottle is 2/15/2015.
The nose of this whisky is very much a traditional bourbon-esque nose, not an incredible feat especially after the first two we tasted. This whisky is full of wild cherry, vanilla, some cinnamon, butterscotch, soft oak spices and pepper. Neat, the arrival is sweet, but also quite hot. Vanilla and peppery spices, bread dough, ripe berries, and leather. Water brings out more of the stone fruits and ripe berries, the vanilla is creamier and the whisky becomes overall sweeter, rounder, and richer. The finish is sweet vanilla cream and pepper, ripe berries, ending on a softly bitter, tannic note.
High West “A Midwinter’s Night Dram” Act 3 Scene 1
Another release of this very interesting whisky from High West Distillers in Park City, UT. Helping us to understand how this whiskey is made, the High West website contains very specific information (Kudos!) about the blend. This is a blend of a 6-year old straight rye whiskey made with a mashbill of 95% rye and 5% barley malt sourced from LDI (now MGP); and a 16-year old straight rye made with a mashbill of 80% rye, 10% corn, and 10% barley malt from the Barton Distillery. The whiskeys are blended and then finished in port and French oak barrels, before being bottled at 49.3% abv. If you can find this anywhere, the retail price is in the $70 range. Thanks to Sean H for bringing this one!
On the nose: full of baking spices, dried fruits, berries, toffee, cinnamon, leather, menthol – quite a big note! – and oak. This is a full on spice drawer of a nose! For me, the oakiness is slightly out of kilter with the rest of the aromas. Sipping this neat, the arrival is sweeter than the nose hinted at. Vanilla frosting, lemon juice, and some soft herbal notes. The baking spices carry through from the nose. There is a touch of heat in the mid-palate that rises up and then drops off fairly quickly. Water mellows the heat very nicely and brings out more vanilla and caramel sweetness, while the dried fruits, menthol, some milk chocolate, berries and a touch of leather add some beautiful complexity. Having tried a previous batch, this one seemed softer, with a less-pronounced port influence.
Jefferson’s Presidential Select Rye 21-year old
This was my contribution to the evening and was a bottle I’d been itching to open, but just hadn’t found the right occasion…until now. I’ve become a huge rye fan, but most of the ryes currently on the market are rather young as the rye renaissance is relatively new. So here was a chance to taste a very old rye whisky! I picked this up from Dallas Fine Wine & Spirits and the cost was $180.
We know that this is sourced whiskey because Jefferson’s is a non-distiller producer, and the side label states clearly that this was “bottled for” McLain & Kyne, Louisville, KY. The label on the bottle also tells us that this is a 21-year old Straight Rye Whiskey, Batch 2 and bottle 2292, and that it was “Distilled from North American Rye.” From the bottling stamp we know that it was bottled in 2013. It is bottled at 45.2% abv.
Coming back to the “Distilled from North American Rye” statement on the label, as we try to pinpoint the distillation source of this whisky we have two logical options, MGP in Indiana, or it was produced by our northern neighbors in Alberta. Given that the standard Jefferson’s 10-year old is listed as Canadian whiskey, and that Alberta Premium has produced other highly aged ryes, my bet is that this is sourced from Canada.
The nose shows immediately that this is a well-developed whiskey. There is a richness and depth to the aromas coming from the glass. It is much fruitier and sweeter to start than I expected it to be, which has to be tied to the aging and good casks. With a few minutes, the rye spice notes start to assert themselves, bringing out a lovely, sweet floral aspect, some butterscotch, just a hint of nail polish remover, and a touch of warm bread dough. The palate is creamy, and here, more of the expected rye notes show up. Boldly spicy, floral, softly tannic and drying but with an offsetting, complementary vanilla sweetness. There are soft notes of ripe berries and a drop of lemon juice tartness. The finish is long, the rye spices are foremost, but all throughout the finish there is an underlying vanilla sweetness adding a delicacy to this one. Frankly, I never got around to adding water to this one as it was wonderful as it was, so I will have to pour myself another glass and see what a drop or two of water does. Ah, yes, the joys of research!!
Turley Mill, Cask Strength Single Barrel Straight Rye Western Whiskey
This is a 5-year old straight rye whiskey bottled by KGB Spirits out of the booming metropolis of Alcalde, NM. Alcalde, with a reported population of 377 (per the 2000 US Census), is situated about an hour north of Santa Fe along the rugged, and very beautiful, Santa Fe National Park. Founded in 2009, KGB’s Rancho de Los Luceros Destilaría is distilling bourbon, rye whiskey, gin, vodka, Absinthe and orange liqueur and plans to also produce rum. Sean H brought this whiskey to share, and said it retails for about $68.
This particular bottle of Turley Mill Straight Rye Whiskey is bottled at a hefty 55% abv and is listed at Bottle 16 Batch 5 with a date of 5/15. It is difficult to discern from the information available on their website whether this is a whiskey distilled by KGB or whether it is sourced. Theoretically, this could be distilled by KGB, given their 2009 start, however, the label states “Bottled by KGB Spirits”, which leads to the conclusion that this is likely sourced whiskey.
The nose is quite grassy with an accompanying very delicate vanilla sweetness and a hint of pepper spice. The high abv is very evident and the nose is hindered by it. Behind the initial notes there are very soft notes of berries and just a touch brown sugar, Sadly, this comes across as very young and rather unrefined; it is light and a tad superficial. Because of the high abv, the nose is closed. Water just seems to accentuate the floral/grassiness and the peppery spice notes. On the palate you are greeted with a hot, sharp alcohol bite on the arrival. Once you get past the initial shock, the soft vanilla sweetness, perhaps some toffee, and just the slightest hints of fruits peek through, but this remains very grain-forward. As with the nose, water pushes the grassy/spicy notes up front. With some time, the alcohol bite is mellowed and the palate starts to get sweeter, but this one lacks some depth and complexity to be really exciting. It will be interesting to try another sample in a few years to see if this one starts to develop real character.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Bottled in Bond “Cured Oak”
Next up was the Colonel E.H. Taylor “Cured Oak”, a Small Batch line produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery. This bottle was brought by the one-and-only LiquorHound himself, Chris T! While this bottle retails around $100, by now it is probably somewhat difficult to find on the shelf. This is a Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, Bottled in Bond, and bottled at 50% abv.
A quick note about the Bottled in Bond designation. In order for a whisky to be labeled as Bottled-in-Bond or Bonded, it must be the product of one distillation season (January to December) and one distiller at one distillery; it must have been aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years; and it must be bottled at 100 U.S. proof (50% abv). Furthermore, the label must identify the distillery where it was distilled and, if different, where it was bottled. Finally, only spirits produced in the United States may be designated as bonded.
So, now that we’ve concluded our short history lesson, is this any good? The quick answer is….Oh, Baby! Yes! This has a great nose, possibly the best of the evening. Rich. Full of berries, a hint of lemon adding a sharpness and detail, dried, tanned leather, bread dough, and a beautiful, warm caramel. On the palate, the initial arrival is a bit hot, but that settles quickly. Lemon zest, caramel, ripe blackberries and blueberries, menthol, and a delicate dose of oak spices. The finish is beautiful. Deep and long-lasting, subtle, following the palate with the caramel sweetness, ripe berries, the lemon, menthol and oak spices bringing it to a close. This is worth every penny, if you can find it!
George T. Stagg, JR, Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Next up was the George T Stagg, Jr; another Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky from Buffalo Trace. The Stagg Jr is barrel-proof, unchillfiltered, and bottled at a whopping 66.10% abv! Priced around $70, I think that this can be found with some careful shopping.
When nosed neat – and carefully – this is very closed and the high abv is very evident. I got some oak spices, a rather pronounced hit of oak char/smoke, and brown sugar. As they say, water tames the savage beast, and here that held true. Adding a healthy dose of water brings out caramel and brown sugar, candied orange, mint, toffee, ripe berries, a hint of black cherries, vanilla, and a very nice spice note. As with the nose, tasting this neat was an adventure not for the faint of heart. The high abv really blocked the flavors, but with water, it undergoes a nice transformation. Vanilla toffee, lemon juice, mint, a dusting of black pepper spice, the candied orange – which was very nice in this whiskey – brown sugar and the berries and black cherry notes. The finish again followed the palate, with the candied orange and vanilla toffee sweetness, then a rising spice/black pepper takes you to the end.
Whistle Pig Boss Hog 12 yo Rye Whiskey
Whistle Pig, like Templeton Rye, is another whiskey with a checkered history as it relates to truth in advertizing. Labeled as coming from the Whistlepig Farm, Vermont, the owners made a big deal about its origins as a Vermont based, craft-distilled whiskey, only to have those stories shredded to reveal that this was sourced whiskey out of Canada. I won’t go into all the messy details here – that deserves its own post – but if you want an interesting and very thorough read dissecting Whistle Pig’s less than truthful beginnings, I urge you to check out the article writing by Josh Gershon Feldman on his blog, The Coopered Tot (click here).
This is the 2013 (1st) release and the label lists this as the Spice Dance Series. Brought to the tasting by Greg G, the Boss Hog is a barrel strength, single barrel release aged 12 3/4 years, and it is a bruiser of a whiskey, being bottled at a booming 67.3% abv. Retail price at the time was $180.
A word of warning….approach this one with caution! The very high abv is very evident and the whiskey is very closed when neat. Behind the alcohol I got some grassy notes and a lot of oak. Similarly, when tasted neat, it was hugely hot and very hard to get past the sting and burn of the alcohol. So I added some water….then I added a little more water…before I added even more water! I probably added enough to get this down to maybe 45%-48% abv, in a very non-scientific manner. Anyway, once the water had a chance to settle the whiskey, the nose started to become clearer and much more appealing. There were some very nice sweet floral notes, rye spice, mint, and vanilla. Lemon juice and pepper, some spiced honey, something like vinaigrette, and bread dough. With enough water this becomes a very good rye whiskey, bringing a true rye’s bold, spicy nature to the glass. Perhaps a tad expensive for a 12-year old whiskey, but if you put the price aside (and add water) this is very enjoyable.
Four Roses, Limited Edition Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 2015 Release
The Four Roses Limited Edition Annual Releases have become a much sought after bottling because these are routinely exceptional whiskies. Retail pricing is approximately $125, but at this point, most of these bottles are sold to high-value customers or via lottery because of the demand. The Limited Edition is a Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon, bottled at 54.3% abv – this one is bottle 6,694 of 12,672, and is made from a vatting of four different recipes.
Somewhat uniquely with Four Roses, you can find out a lot of information about the various recipes used by the distillery. Four Roses utilizes 10 distinct recipes that are variations of two mashbills – the (E) mashbill is their “low-rye”, containing 75% corn, 20% rye and 5% malted barley, and the (B) mashbill is their high-rye mashbill which consists of 60% corn, 35% rye and 5% malted barley – and five different yeast strains (V), (K), (O), (Q), and (F). In fact, this past year they released a series of bottlings each with a different recipe, giving buyers an opportunity to compare all the variants! (Click Here to view the recipes) For this particular release, Four Roses used casks of 16-year old OBSK, 15-year OESK, 14-year OESK, and 11-year OBSV. The (O) denotes that the whiskey was distilled at the Four Roses distillery, and the (S) indicates that the mash is “straight” bourbon.
Nosing this one is a real treat; this is an absolutely beautiful nose. Rich and deep notes of candied orange peel, tanned leather, subtle caramel, a hint of cigar ash. This is surprisingly “dry” on the nose. After a few minutes more stone fruits, berries and creamy vanilla. This is delicate, yet very complex, and there are no real signs of the high abv when tasted neat. Tasting this whiskey, it has a softly sweet arrival full of vanilla, ripe berries, caramel, that beautiful candied orange, and a nice peppery spice. Here, when neat, the abv does make its presence known, although not too much to enjoy as it is. Adding water brings out some mint, a little more of the rye spiciness, and just a hint of barrel char on the nose. With water the arrival is creamier, sweeter and the abv bite is all but gone. The finish is quite long, sweetly spiced and fruity. This is a very traditional bourbon, but a VERY good one!
Blade and Bow, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
George M brought this bottle and our next one to share. Retail price is around $45 and I believe you can still find this one with enough searching.
In typical Diageo fashion, the marketing story behind this whiskey is highly crafted, based in historical fact/fiction. With Blade and Bow, Diageo’s marketing team is leveraging the famed Stitzel-Weller name, Stitzel-Weller being the distillery responsible for the rare and highly prized Pappy Van Winkle whiskies.
How are they leveraging the connection to Stitzel-Weller? Here’s their marketing blurb about Blade and Bow:
An homage to the legendary Stitzel-Weller distillery, Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey uses a unique Solera System aging process to preserve some of the distillery’s oldest whiskey stocks, including some of the last bourbon produced there before it closed in 1992.
The solera liquid is mingled with other fine whiskies aged and bottled at Stitzel-Weller. Aged in new charred American white oak barrels, this bourbon has a subtle aroma of fresh fruit and a taste that includes hints of dried apricot, ripe pear and a sweet roasted grain. The finish has notes of charred oak and warm winter spices.
As you can see, Diageo is clearly trying, literally, to milk every last drop of Stitzel-Weller distilled whisky for every penny that they can squeeze from it! Both by using the “Solera” system (which isn’t all that unique, by the way) to hold on to the claim of having whiskey that was produced before the actual distillery closed in 1992, and by referencing the “other fine whiskies aged and bottled at Stitzel-Weller”, inferring that some sort of magical result occurs simply by storing a cask on those hallowed distillery grounds, Diageo is tugging on the heart and purse-strings of whiskey fans desperate to have tasted Stitzel-Weller whisky.
The nose is very nice. Soft and delicate, fruity, but not overly ripe-sweet fruits: berries, apricot. Caramel, a rather pronounced oakiness – think oak shavings, soft herbal spices, lemon zest, and something like cherry liqueur. There is also this interesting “yeasty” note that sort of hangs around throughout. Sipping this whiskey, it tastes like it noses: soft and delicate with notes of sweet vanilla, cream soda, berries, a hint of leather,caramel and a delicate lemony citric sharpness, and still that yeast/bready note. The finish starts and finishes with a soft vanilla sweetness, with just a hint of the spices and fruits in the middle. The Blade and Bow website does not specifically state that this is a wheated bourbon, but given the Stitzel-Weller references and that near-constant yeasty note, I suspect that Blade and Bow is a wheater. And I will say that this is good, but it is a rather indistinct whiskey, for me that. I will also say that, in my opinion, there are other wheated bourbons currently available that are as good or better (Bernheim, any of the Wellers) for less money.
Elmer T. Lee, 2015 Release, North Texas Select Barrel, Sour Mash Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
George also brought along this bottle of Elmer T. Lee, labeled as a 2105 Release, North Texas Select Barrel. Produced by Buffalo Trace, Elmer T Lee bourbon, named in honor of their renowned master distiller, is a Sour Mash Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey. Bottled at 45% abv and with a retail price in the $40 range, Elmer T. Lee is, unfortunately, another one of those limited/restricted releases that can be very difficult to get your hands on.
Nosing the glass, this is possibly the fruitiest of the bourbons we’ve tasted this evening. Full of mixed, ripe berries, strawberries was a unique note I picked up here – as well as dark fruits and dried apricots. A warm vanilla grows with time in the glass, making me think of Nestle Quick Strawberry milk, of all things! Brown sugar, melted butter. This is really sweetly fruity but with a complementing herbal-ness of cloves and nutmeg, and delicate white pepper spice that is very appealing. On the palate this has a very delicate arrival with soft, warm vanilla, the cloves, dry leather, oaky spices, and all those beautiful fruits. The finish has a nice length, softly sweet vanilla cream over berries with a dusting of baking spices. This was my first Elmer T Lee bourbon and I was very impressed. Where some bourbons can be big and bold, like a meal at a Mexican restaurant, all salsa and spice and loud mariachi music, this is reserved and elegant, like sitting in a comfortable chair in a cabin in the mountains watching the snow fall. (OK, enough babble!)
While the Elmer T Lee was supposed to be the last whiskey of the evening, the maniacs that I call friends can never seem to exhibit sufficient self-control and additional bottles always seem to magically appear on the table with their owner’s insistent that you try them! But by this time it was getting late, so I tried to pass, however I did get convinced to taste one last whiskey. Because we were wrapping things up, I’d put away my pen and notebook, so the notes will be short, based on my memory alone!
Michter’s 10-year Single Barrel, Bourbon Whiskey
Michter’s Distillery, based in Shively, KY, is a reincarnation of the Michter’s name. The first Michter’s actually started life as Bombergers and was located in Schaefferstown, PA. The original Michter’s distillery closed in 1989 and it is believed that it might have been the oldest US distillery at the time of its closing!
In 2004, the Michter’s brand was acquired by Chatham Imports, Inc. who has built their new facility in KY. At this point. the Michter’s releases are all sourced whiskies, but the bottling and labeling are done at the new Michter’s Distillery. The good news is that with the 2014 addition of a column still, Michter’s has begun producing its own distillate, now maturing, so we should soon start to see their own produced whiskies in another few years.
This particular Single Barrel release is 10-years old and was bottled at 47.2% abv. This bourbon was “traditional” in nature. Like my reference above about the Elmer T Lee, the Michter’s is more “Mexican restaurant” than “ski lodge.” Bold, sweet with notes of rich toffee, a hint of smoke, soft spices and hints of dark fruits, with brown sugar and vanilla sweetness.
Once again, we had a very enjoyable evening full of good – or just interesting – whiskies, good food, and fun conversation and camaraderie. As we wrapped up the evening, we did take a moment or two to get a sense of how everyone rated the whiskies and which were the tops for each person. By consensus, and we were surprisingly consistent with our choices, the Top Four, in no particular order, were the Four Roses 2015 Release, the EH Taylor Cured Oak, the Elmer T Lee, and the Jefferson’s 21-year Rye.