Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Export Maker's Mark: Black and Gold

Since I tried the new Maker's Mark Cask Strength earlier this week, I thought it would be fun to try some of their earlier experiments.  Maker's Mark used to say it had only one product (before Maker's 46 was introduced), but in fact, they had additional products for export.  Maker's Black was slightly higher proof than the regular Maker's and included older whiskeys.  Maker's Gold was regular Maker's at 101 proof. Both of these bottles were exports for the Japanese market.

Maker's Mark Black, 47.5% abv (circa 2001)

The nose is all candy bourbon.  The palate is much less sweet than standard Maker's with some oak notes.  Toward the end it gets bitter and medicinal with a medicinal finish on the palate and some nice oaky bourbon notes on the nose.  This is very different from today's standard Maker's and has a lot of commonality with lower end Stitzel-Weller bourbons. In fact, tasting blind, I would have been likely to guess that it was one of those Stitzel-Wellers, maybe a Cabin Still.

Maker's Mark Gold, 50.5% abv (circa 2000)

The nose is light with some Christmas spice, unusual in a wheater, and maybe a touch of BO (or maybe I just need a shower). The palate has honey, tea, some spice and a touch of lemon rind; it ends with lemon rind and mint.  The finish is slightly medicinal.  The spice is nice and unexpected element of this one.

Both of these were certainly an improvement on the standard Maker's Mark of today.  While neither was amazing, they were solid and interesting bourbons, definitely worth a try. That being said, I thought the brand new cask strength Maker's was better than both of these older bottlings.

Many thanks to Kevin A. for the photo and samples.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Maker's Mark Cask Strength

The last few years have been a bit tumultuous for Maker's Mark.  In 2010, they released their first new product in many years, Maker's 46.  Then, in 2013 they famously announced that they would lower the bourbon's proof from 45% to 42% abv, then reversed course after a public outcry.  Earlier this year, Maker's parent company, Beam Global, was purchased by Suntory.  Now, Maker's seems to be going in a different direction and has announced the release of a 113 proof cask strength expression, though for now, it's only available at their gift shop and only in 375 ml bottles.

Maker's Mark Cask Strength, Batch 14-01, 56.6% abv ($40 for 375 ml)

The nose is much less sweet than the regular Maker's, with more wood notes. The palate starts sweet but with plenty of wood balance.  It grows in complexity as it goes down, showing some strong oak notes, wood spice, light medicinal notes and even some old red wine type tannins. The finish is sweet on the nose but oaky on the palate.  This is a wonderfully balanced bourbon with a lot of complexity.  It's hard to believe it's Maker's Mark.

This is something they should have done long ago.  Hopefully, they will release it in larger quantity because it's far better than anything I've had from Maker's.  UPDATE:  Apparently this will be in general release soon.

Having tried the newest Maker's, I'll try some classic Maker's later this week.

Many thanks to Kevin A. for the photo and sample.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bourbon Legends: Doug Dog Philips Part 2

This is the continuation of Monday's piece on Doug Dog Philips.

A lot has changed since Doug bottled the original green and black ink ryes in 2006.  For one, Doug left California.  Seven years ago, Doug decided he wanted to be closer to where they make the whiskey; he considered moving to Scotland but settled on Kentucky.  Now he lives not far from the Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto where he generously hosts friends on his porch.  He continues working as a glass worker, including doing some work on distilleries throughout Kentucky.

But the whiskey world has changed too.  Willett, which had been Doug's source for all of his barrels, discontinued its private barrel program. After being impressed with the barrel of Smooth Ambler Old Scout bottled for Kenwood Liquors, Doug contacted them about doing a private barrel for him.

Old Scout is Smooth Ambler's brand for its sourced whiskey from MGP in Indiana. Doug liked the idea of trying some Indiana bourbon which he finds to be a different animal than Kentucky bourbon, lighter and more refreshing with finesse and complexity but still with those dark, brooding qualities that he favors.

Doug picked an eight year old from Smooth Ambler that he felt had that same room-filling aroma that has characterized his favorite picks.  He liked this one because it had a comfortable entry but then grew warmer and into a very long finish.  In that way, he admits, it's a bit out of balance, but he likes a whiskey that improves as you go.  Instead of 10 points each for the nose, palate and finish, he prefers a progression of 8 points on the nose, 9 on the palate and 10 on the finish.  He also likes a whiskey that starts sweet and finishes dry because it keeps you going back to renew that sweetness on the next sip.

Doug kindly sent me a sample of his new Smooth Ambler bourbon, titled DougDogz and emblazoned with green ink in a tribute to his original "green ink" whiskey.

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 8yo ("DougDogz"), Barrel 900, distilled 4/21/06, 122 bottles, 61.9% abv

The nose has lots of sweet candy, like caramel covered candy corn, with some strong oak notes mixed in. The palate maintains all of that candy and more with a good measure of oak. Toward the end, it develops spicy and savory notes. It's meaty! The finish is long and rich with a little bit of everything all mixed together - sweet, spicy and even some umami. With a few drops of water, the nose becomes less sweet and much more spicy, but the palate sacrifices some of its complexity.

True to Doug Dog tradition, this is a big, bold and unique whiskey, and as he suggested, it moves from sweet on the first sip to a long, dry finish. It's delicious, and tasting blind, I never would have guessed that it was only eight years old; it tastes much older.  Like the Van Blankle, this isn't something that will be available to anyone who doesn't know Doug, but it sure is good.

I've had a number of Doug's other bottlings, both bourbon and rye, and I've definitely liked some more than others.  I join the chorus of praise for that first green ink rye, which was one of the best whiskeys I've ever had (I never got to try the "black ink" rye).  Most of his Willett bourbons have been quite good, but they are very oak forward, and one was just too woody for me (and I have a high tolerance for oak).

The Smooth Ambler certainly isn't at the level of the original rye (despite the green ink), but it is of comparable quality to Doug's better Willett bourbons.  That being said, my tastes in bourbon tend to align with Doug's love of big, bold, oak monsters, and all of those whiskeys are distinctively Doug Philips in that way, products of the bourbon legend who started out as a bonsai enthusiast.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Bourbon Legends: Doug Dog Philips Part 1

A few months ago I wrote about Randy Blank and his legendary Van Blankle private bottling of Van Winkle Lot B.  Just as legendary are a series of rye whiskeys bottled for Doug Philips (aka Doug Dog) a few years later.  Unlike Randy Blank, Doug Philips kept buying barrels and recently bought a private barrel of Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbon distilled at MGP.  For folks who have only heard the legend of Doug, I thought it would be fun to tell his story, so I chatted with Doug about his life in whiskey.

People come to whiskey from all different directions, but Doug Philips may be the only person who came to it through bonsai trees.  Yes you read that correctly, bonsai trees.  In the late '80s, Philips was a Northern California glazier whose hobby was bonsai trees. Doug was quite well known in that field, teaching classes and giving lectures around the world. One of his fellow bonsai enthusiasts was a single malt aficionado who turned Doug on to the world of Scotch.

For the next decade, Doug became entranced with single malt, tasting everything he could.  One day, while perusing the Scotch shelves around 2002, he happened upon a bottle of Joseph Finch bourbon, a brand he'd never seen at a price point that was more similar to Scotch.  Intrigued, he started learning about American whiskeys, formed a tasting group and, around 2005, joined the forum.

He was one of a small group of early dusty hunters, pledging to visit each one of California's nearly 6,000 liquor stores, though he only made it to about 3,400 of them before he moved out of state. Those were the salad days of dusty hunting; Doug remembers picking up A.H. Hirsch 16 year old with the blue wax cap for $45 a bottle when they were five deep on the shelves.

As he got to know American whiskey, Doug developed a taste for big, bold, oaky, cask strength bourbons, but in those days, there were very few American whiskeys on the market fitting that description.  He knew about Randy Blank's Van Blankle and decided that he too should buy his own barrel.  But it wasn't that easy.  He couldn't find anyone who was willing to work with him on an uncut, unfiltered bourbon.

One night when Doug was in Kentucky for the 2006 Kentucky Bourbon Festival Bardstown Sampler, he was hanging out with Randy Blank, Willett's Drew Kulsveen and LeNell Smothers, proprietor of a much loved but now defunct Brooklyn liquor store.  He overheard Kulsveen and Smothers talking about tasting some ryes for a private barrel for LeNell's (what would later become the famous LeNell's Red Hook Ryes).  Doug told Kulsveen he was trying to find a good barrel of uncut, unfiltered whiskey and wondered if Willett could help him out.

At 10:30 the next morning, Kulsveen picked Doug up at his hotel and took him to the Willett warehouse for a tasting of some rye whiskeys from the old Bernheim Distillery. Philips remembers very distinctly the second barrel of rye they opened. As soon as Drew knocked off the bung, the aroma of rye filled the entire warehouse. Doug sensed immediately that this was exactly what he had been searching for and that barrel was his first pick.  Back home, he put it in a blind tasting for his whiskey group with George T. Stagg and some other high proof whiskeys, and that cask of rye was the unanimous choice as the best of the bunch.

That cask became the legendary "green ink" bottling of Doug's rye, so named only because Drew Kulsveen's sister, who was labeling the bottles, happened to grab a green pen on the day she filled out the labels.  Doug would select a second barrel based on samples Drew sent him that would become the "black ink."

While he was waiting for Kulsveen to bottle his whiskey, Doug was surprised to see that Malt Advocate magazine (now Whisky Advocate) had rated his rye, a private barrel he had purchased, and awarded it 96 points.  Worried that someone had absconded with his barrel, Doug immediately called Drew Kulsveen who told him that the Malt Advocate crew had been in the warehouse while they were bottling Doug's rye, and Drew had poured them a sample...and so the legend began. [NOTE: See the comments for Whisky Advocate editor John Hansell's version of these events].

Over the next years, Doug bought a total of seven barrels from Willett:

1.  Kentucky Straight Rye, 22yo (Green Ink), Barrel 618, 136.7 proof, distilled 4-10-84, 263 bottles.  Labeled: Ed Ledger's Liquors or Doug Philips.

2. Kentucky Straight Rye, 22 yrs-11months-3weeks (Black Ink), Barrel 8, 136.7 proof, distilled 4-10-84, 216 bottles. Labeled: Neal & Dougz.

3. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 4yo (Doug's Gold Wax), Barrel 2, 125.4 proof, distilled 4-30-91, 216 bottles. Labeled: Toddy's & Dugz Fall Festival 2007.

4.  Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 17yo, Barrel 1564, 148.4 proof, distilled 4-30-91,71 bottles.  Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

5. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 17yo, Barrel 1605, 145.8 proof, distilled 4-30-91, 98 bottles. Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

6. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 18yo, barrel 8550, 118.4 proof, distilled 3-26-90, 147 bottles. Labeled: Dougz&Willyz.

7. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 18yo, barrel 8551, 117.2 proof, distilled 3-26-90, 99 bottles. Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

Doug's taste is very specific.  He likes big, bold, woody whiskeys.  He loves whiskeys that fill the room with their aroma, just like that first barrel of rye, and he enjoys a long, dry finish.  While he has high standards, he doesn't just drink his own stuff.  Among recent releases, he's been impressed with the Elijah Craig 12 year Barrel Proof bourbons.

In part 2 of this story, we will learn about and taste the newest Doug Dog whiskey.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Whiskey for Idiots: Kentucky Hummingbird

Do you like to pay a premium for whiskey you know nothing about and have never tasted?  Do you believe the more expensive a whiskey is, the better it will taste?  Are you an idiot?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then Kentucky Hummingbird is the whiskey for you!  Kentucky Hummingbird is a mixture of barrels of Kentucky bourbon.  Each barrel is being used exclusively for Kentucky Hummingbird, so this is your only chance to taste this special bourbon.

Some folks have said Kentucky Hummingbird tastes suspiciously like Pappy Van Winkle.  Others swear it could be Four Roses.  A prominent Master Distiller tasted it and said, "to be frank, I've had worse bourbon."  Will you agree?  For $200, you can decide for yourself.  And keep in mind, if you don't buy it, some other idiot will buy it and try to sell it to you for $400, so this is a bargain!

Kentucky Hummingbird:  It's so expensive, it's got to be good!

Friday, September 19, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Diageo's Special Releases and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Beam cleared a label for Ardmore Legacy, a no age statement mix of peated and unpeated whisky.

Diageo announced it's new special releases this week after they cleared a number of the labels with the TTB, which include:  Clynelish Select Reserve, a cask strength release; the 14th release of Port Ellen, a 35 year old distilled in 1978; Strathmill 25 year old; Caol Ila 30 year old; Cragganmore 25 year old; Benrinnes 21 year old; Rosebank 21 year old and Brora 35 year old.

Joining the ranks of Glenfiddich's storm surviving Snow Phoenix and E.H. Taylor Tornado Surviving Bourbon, Hudson steps into the disaster-whiskey genre with Double Charred, a fire surviving whiskey.  Of course, Hudson is owned by William Grant, who also owns Glenfiddich, so they know their disaster whiskeys.

Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky is a South African single grain whiskey.  It's been around for a while, but as far as I know, we haven't yet seen it in the US.

Label BS Award: According to the label, Homestead Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon (I love when they are single barrel and reserve!) is a "small batch handcrafted rare that only four barrels of it exist and there will not be anymore of this special juice for at least 4 more years."  And, of course, it was distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, home of all of that really rare, handcrafted bourbon in short supply. 

But that's not all.  The same company brings us William Walker Reserve Bourbon (also distilled in Indiana), a bourbon named for the man most famous for trying to create a massive slave state in Central America.  These guys are winners!

And speaking of winners, Templeton Rye, under massive pressure, agreed to disclose the fact that it is distilled in Indiana on its labels.  The new label indeed makes that disclosure, though it still contains the origin myth that it was Al Capone's favorite whiskey and is now "available legally for the first time ever." 

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

More Bourbon from Japan: Martin Mills 24

This is another legendary bourbon for the Japanese export market. Japan became interested in aged American whiskey about a decade before the US, so there were many aged whiskeys that went to the Japanese market that we never saw in the US.

Martin Mills was a Heaven Hill bourbon distilled in 1974 and bottled in 1999.

Martin Mills 24 yo, 53.5% abv

The nose is deep and rich with espresso notes.  The palate is both rich and savory with red wine notes, and the finish is sweet and candy like.  This one is terrific, changing in flavor from nose to finish with the emergence of sweeter notes toward the end.  It's really well done and quite wonderful.