Thursday, April 17, 2014

COLA Watchers Beware

Since I'm no regularly posting news of new COLAs on the site, I wanted to make sure to state a few caveats that you should keep in mind when reading my COLA of the Week Posts.

First, as I've stated before, just because a COLA is issued does not mean the label will end up on the shelf.  Sometimes a company submits a label and then decides against using it.  Other times, the submit the label just to create a record of their use of the name for trademark protection.  And for imports, label approval is just one step on the way to getting the whiskey into the US.  Most labels do seem to end up on the shelf, but not all.

Second, there is a whole list of things on the label that companies can change without submitting a new label.  The list includes changes to the abv, age statement and many other label components.  While whiskey companies usually issue a new label for an age statement change, one of the most common things that gets changed without a new submission is the abv.  In many cases, the abv on the COLA is just a place holder. I've seen labels that say 50% abv for whiskeys that are later released at cask strength.  Given that, I would suggest taking the abv on a COLA with a grain of salt.

So have fun looking at the COLAs (more tomorrow!) but do keep these warnings in mind.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Five Eras of American Whiskey

Thinking and reading about the post-prohibition history of American whiskey, I find the period breaks down into 20 year increments.  These aren't perfect, of course, as history doesn't include bright lines, but there are certainly some undeniable trends.  So I present the Five Eras of American whiskey.

1933-1950:  The Rebuild.  After the repeal of prohibition, American whiskey tried to get back up on its feet again only to be knocked back down by World War II which saw another prohibition on beverage alcohol production.  It really took until the late 1940s to get things moving again.

1950-1970:  The Classic Era.  The whiskey flowed in the Mad Men era.  For the most part, the juice wasn't fancy, but it was good, strong and plentiful.  This is the era when Maker's Mark was founded and Jack Daniel's got big with the help of Frank Sinatra.  It was the heyday of National Distillers with Old Crow, Old Taylor and Old Overholt. And some of the best bourbon ever made came out of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in the Classic Era.

1970-1990:  The Glut.  This was a tough time for American whiskey as the baby boomers became America's first wine drinking generation.  Distilleries were consolidated and closed, and the industry looked toward gimmicks like light whiskey to try and increase sales to the me generation.

1990-2010:  The Renaissance (aka the Golden Age).  As a new generation of drinkers came of age, the whiskey industry fought its way back to prominence.  It started with a few small batch and single barrel releases and blossomed into the era that brought us A.H. Hirsch, Pappy Van Winkle, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Four Roses' triumphant return to the US market.  It also saw the birth of the craft distillery movement and the revival of rye whiskey.

2010-present:  The Bourbon Craze.  I don't have to tell you about today's market.  The Renaissance of the last era led to a full-on craze.  Every other day there's a new special edition from the majors, the craft distillery movement has exploded, and everyone's experimenting, but demand for old, high quality whiskey has far outstripped supply and scarcity is a major issue. Prices are climbing while age and proof are falling.

What's next?  The crash?  The Second Revival?  A New Classic Age?  Time will tell, but based on the timelines above, I'm guessing the current era will last for a  while.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Pappy Van Winkle Time Line

Given the popularity of the Van Winkle whiskeys and the number of detailed questions I see about these bottles, I thought it would be helpful to put together a chronology of the various Van Winkle releases.  I've attempted to list all the key release dates and have also tried to document changes to the appearance of the bottles so that people can better date their Van Winkles.

As you'll notice, this list includes general releases only, not private bottlings, of which there were a number in the early days.  In addition, it deals only with bottle appearance and release dates, not with where various releases were distilled.

Our chronology begins in 1972, the year the Van Winkle family sold the Stitzel-Weller distillery to Norton-Simon but kept the rights to the Van Winkle name.

1972:  Old Rip Van Winkle 7 yo 90 and 107 proof released.

1983:  Old Rip Van Winkle 90 & 107 proof changed from 7 to 10 yo.

1989:  Old Rip Van Winkle 15 released, barrel bottle.*

1990-1992:  Van Winkle 16 and 17 yo released for export only.

1991:  Van Winkle 12 yo Lot A and Lot B released (Lot B would continue).

1994:  Pappy Van Winkle 20 released.

1997:  Old Rip Van Winkle 12 Rye released, barrel bottle.

1998:  Pappy Van Winkle 23 and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 yo released (Rye might have been released in '97).

1999:  Regular bottles for Van Winkle series changed from (very light) green glass to clear glass.

2002:  Address on Van Winkle whiskeys changed from Lawrenceburg to Frankfort when Van Winkles partnered with Buffalo Trace.

2003:  Second release of Pappy 23 (late 2003/early 2004).

2004:  Old Rip Van Winkle 15 (barrel bottle) replaced with Pappy Van Winkle 15 (regular bottle).

2007:  Digital bottle codes showing date and time of bottling begin appearing on each bottle.

2009:  Old Rip Van Winkle 23 decanter released.

Fall 2011:  Last release of Old Rip Van Winkle 10/90.

Spring 2012:  Last spring release of Van Winkle whiskeys.

2013:  Old Rip Van Winkle 10/107 changed from barrel bottles to regular bottles.

It's harder to pin down this information than you would think, and I had lots of help on this list so my thanks go out to everyone who assisted.  Particular thanks go to the Van Winkles for digging through their records to find some of the more elusive dates.

*"Barrel bottles" are the squat bottles that were used for the Old Rip Van Winkle and Old Weller lines, so called because the base of the bottle looks like a barrel, sort of.

Friday, April 11, 2014

This Week in COLAs - The New Woodford Master's Collection & Kentucky Slush

This week in COLAs saw the approval of a label for the newest Woodford Reserve Master's Collection release which will be a triple distilled bourbon finished in Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir barrels.  This, of course, hearkens back to the 2007 Woodford Reserve Master's release finished in Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay barrels. (Woodford's parent company, Brown Forman, owns the Sonoma-Cutrer winery).

And if you're looking for something a bit more Slurpee like, look nor further than Evan Williams Kentucky Slush "with the taste of lemonade, orange juice and sweet tea."  It's labeled as bourbon "with natural flavors and caramel color" and it's "ready to freeze or pour!"

The big question is...which of these will be better?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Resurrecting Closed Distilleries: So Many to Choose From

The results of this week's reader poll asking which closed distillery people would magically resurrect are in and they are....all over the map.  There were certainly some votes for predictable favorites like Brora, Port Ellen and Stitzel-Weller, but there were a wide range of suggestions including Lochside, Millburn, Ben Wyvis, Old Hermitage, Karuizawa, Monumental (home of Maryland's Pikesville Rye), Samuel Dillinger (PA), A. Guckenheimer (also PA), Oscar Pepper, Old Taylor, John's Lane, and even someone's grandfather's moonshine still. Reading the comments was a kick, so many thanks to all of the very creative commenters.

As one commenter pointed out, for many of these distilleries, it's hard to know what the whiskey would have tasted like when the distillery was operating since, for Scotch in particular, the only exposure most of us have had to them are super aged indie bottlings.  Indeed, for many of the closed Scotch distilleries, nearly 100% of their production went into blends (which was fairly typical of all malts back when most of them closed). Who's to say that if Caol Ila and not Port Ellen had closed in 1983 we wouldn't now be wishing against all hope that it could reopen because of all the great, super-old and rare Caol Ila we'd have tasted?  I've tried one of the standard, Japanese releases of Karuizawa, and while it was good, it tasted nothing like the old sherry monsters that have been released by the Number One Drinks Company which bought all of the old stocks when the distillery closed.

With American whiskey, we have a bit more of a sense due to the availability of dusties.  Surely, though, the general perception of Pennco/Michter's is almost wholly shaped by the A.H. Hirsch bourbons which consisted of a one-time run that is not likely representative of the distillery as a whole.

Interestingly, there were lots of prominent distilleries that didn't receive any votes, including Rosebank, St. Magdelene, Glenugie, Hanyu, Caperdonich...and Malt Mill.

Thanks for playing!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Reader Poll: Resurrect a Distillery

With this poll, it's your turn to play re-animator and resurrect a dead distillery, but you only get one.  This will involve your magical powers, so you are free to resurrect a distillery that has been completely torn down, and you can assume that the quality and style of whiskey will match that at the time it ceased production.

So what will it be?  I'd have to think that the big three here will be Port Ellen, Brora and Stitzel-Weller, but I'd guess we'll see seom votes for Rosebank, St. Magdelene, Pennco/Michter's and who knows what else, maybe even Malt Mill.

So wave your magic wand and tell me in the comments which distillery you are bringing back to life.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Kilchoman Machir Bay 2013

The second edition of Kilchoman's Machir Bay was released in 2013 and, according to the website, consists of a "vatting of 4 and 5 year old ex-bourbon casks, with the 4 year casks being finished in Oloroso sherry butts for 4 weeks prior to bottling."

Kilchoman Machir Bay 2013, 46% abv ($55)

The nose is exactly what you expect it will be, sock you in the face Islay peat and brine.  Big and peaty and oceany.  The palate mostly follows suit but with a trace of sweetness.  You can definitely taste the youth.  Very little of the sherry finishing comes through.  The finish is a very nice blast of peat.

This is a good, solid Islay malt.