Monday, December 22, 2014

Worth the Chase? Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch 2014

I've come to hate the fall whiskey season.  I just can't bear the lotteries and craziness, the flippers and gougers, the speculators and the folks who couldn't name the last bourbon they drank but know they must have a bottle of Pappy.  I was lucky to taste my share of Pappy and BTAC when it was easy to get, and I feel bad for the folks who are newer to the hobby, legitimately love whiskey, but have to put up with all this shit just to try a bourbon they have heard so much about.

So I don't chase whiskey anymore. I just don't have the stomach or the will to do it...with one exception.  For at least the last two years, the Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch has been the highlight of the fall whiskey season.  Unlike Pappy (well, some Pappy) and BTAC, it's a different blend of whiskeys each year, and each year so far, it's been pretty great.  So I make an exception for it and try to chase down a bottle every fall.

This year's Small Batch is a mixture of 13 year old OBSV, 12 year old OESV, 11 year old OBSF and 9 year old OBSK (E is the lower rye mashbill, B is the higher rye; V, F and K are yeast strains). The oldest whiskey is quite a bit younger than past years, so we'll see how it stacks up.

Four Roses Ltd. Edition Small Batch 2014, 55.9% ($100)

The nose is bursting with caramel and wood notes.  The palate starts with a nice spicy notes, then develops some acid notes which trail off with it. The finish brings back some of the wood from the nose.   This one needs some elements.  Air and water work well with it, bringing out more caramel on the palate as well as some chocolate and mint.  Even more water reveals some pineapple notes.

This is a nice bourbon, but it's not in the same league as its two most recent predecessors. It lacks the complexity and layers of flavor we saw in the 2012 and 2013 Small Batches.  It's certainly worth picking up if you happen to see it, but it's not worth an extensive chase.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dusty Thursday: Old Hickory 20 yo (circa 1969)

Old Hickory was once a very well known Pennsylvania bourbon made by Publicker in Philadelphia. The distillery went out of business in the early '80s and was later abandoned. The brand currently survives only as a blend made by an unrelated company.

Today, I taste a 20 year old which appears to have been bottled in 1969.  You don't see many 20 year old bourbons from that era, so I was very interested in this one.

Old Hickory 20 year old, 40% abv

Some bourbons tell a story; this one told a story right from the nose, a story of how old bourbon used to taste, a story of how it's changed.  One whiff of this stuff brought me back to every great dusty bourbon I've tasted.  The first sniff hit me with sweet butterscotch - liquid candy, followed up with some spice.  It was a little musty, but it was one of those that makes you wonder why they don't make them like this anymore. I could happily nose it for hours.

Unfortunately, the palate didn't measure up to the incredible nose.  It was light and sweet with honey and a bit chewy, but it felt diluted and lost some of the magic.  The finish was spicy and slightly bitter. Shockingly, for a 20 year old, there was very little in the way of oak or wood, and no signs at all of it being over oaked.

The nose on this was incredible, but it just didn't hold up.  Still, I think I'd be happier just nosing this than drinking most current bourbons.

Thanks to Tim Puett for the sample and photos.

Monday, December 15, 2014

2014: The Year in Whiskey

The year in whiskey 2014 was a tumultuous one.  It started with buy outs and consolidation, shortages and the continuation of what seemed like a boom market that would go on for years, but there was trouble ahead.  By the middle of the year, some unsavory aspects of the American "craft" industry garnered a lot of mainstream press, and the year ended with diminished sales and expectations in the world of Scotch. 

Major business news came early this year.  In January, Japanese beverage giant Suntory purchased the iconic Jim Beam company for $16 billion.  Then, in March, Campari purchased Canadian craft distillery Forty Creek.  Meanwhile, the Bladnoch Distillery, a lowland Scotch distillery with a cult following, went into receivership.

While the American craft revolution continued, there were some bumps in the road.  The issue of whiskey sourcing, well known among the whiskey crowd for years, went mainstream due to a Daily Beast article that went viral.  This led to further publicity and lawsuits targeting well known producers such as Templeton Rye and Tito's Vodka and curiously, a suit against Maker's Mark, which has never misled about its product.  All of this tumult led to some results with  Templeton and Bulleit changing their labels to more clearly state the source of the whiskey.  Meanwhile, other sourcing companies went further in the direction of distilling their own with Willett releasing its first in-house whiskey and Michter's building a real distillery in Kentucky.

Then there was a melt down at Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas, one of the most successful American craft distilleries.  The Balcones Board sued founder Chip Tate, and the suit exposed some of the tensions that can arise among investors in small distilleries.  The battle appeared to end earlier this month with the Board buying out Tate's share of the business.

Demand for aged whiskey continued to outstrip supply in the US, leading Sazerac to drop age statements from Very Old Barton and Old Charter, but there were signs of a slowing market as well.  A crackdown on bribery in China led to diminished sales of Scotch in a market that many had seen as limitless, and this fall, Diageo announced that it would halt some expansion plans after their quarterly report showed a drop off in sales.

 My guess is that the whiskey frenzy, on an international level, is going to start to wane in the next few years.  American whiskey joined the frenzy later than Scotch, so it probably has a few years of insanity left to go, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a continued slow down next year that extends to the American market as well, though the companies will probably be able to make up any difference with sales of flavored whiskey, which remains wildly popular.

All in all, a rocky year for whiskey, but let's see what the next year holds.  Any predictions?

Friday, December 12, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: New Jack Daniel's, Old Glenrothes and More

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

Brown Forman cleared Jack Daniel's Sinatra Century, a 100 proof JD to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Ol' Blue Eyes (proof on label approvals is often just a placeholder but I assume the 100 proof here is a tie in to the 100th birthday).  The label states that the whiskey was "matured with grooved oak barrels for boldness and depth."

A few months ago I wrote about a series of new Ardbeg labels celebrating the 200th anniversary of the distillery: Continuum, Bicentennial, Atmosphere and Anniversary.  They are now joined by another, Perpetuum, which has the same tasting notes as the other four.

A label cleared for a distillery bottling of a 1968 single cask Glenrothes that was bottled in 2013.

WhistlePig released a label for a single barrel version of their 10 year old Canadian rye which appears to be for retailers or other private parties and may be cask strength.

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.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Brandy Gifts

K&L and Nicolas Palazzi again dominate my brandy gift recommendations, and for the second year running, some of the best spirits I tasted this year were brandies.

Cognac: I just reviewed Palazzi's great, single barrel, cask strength Gourry de Chadeville ($150), which is as bold and intense as any spirit I've had. If you're looking for a more traditional Cognac with sweeter flavors, K&L's 2002 Claude Thorin ($60) and 1996 Giboin Fin Bois ($55) are great picks that are super-drinkable.  These are great holiday party picks.

Armagnac:  This year, K&L brought back new Armagnacs from what have become two of my favorite houses: Domaine de Baraillon and Chateau de Pellehaut.  One of my favorites of this year's Baraillons was the 1988 ($110) which is still available. At a bit cheaper price point, I also enjoyed the 20 year old ($70). My favorite of the Pellehauts was the 1994 ($70), but they were all good and are all still available.

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Whiskey Gifts You Can Actually Buy

The end of the year means lots of "best of" lists and gift recommendations. I get exhausted with some of these lists which typically read like this:

1.  Port Ellen 35 year old
2.  George T. Stagg
3.  Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old
4.  Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition
5.  Brora 35 year old

It's all well and good to taste rare and ridiculously expensive whiskey.  I'm thrilled when I get to taste that kind of stuff, and I'm glad some people have the access and/or funds to do that and write about it so the rest of us know what they taste like, but the truth is, lists like that aren't helpful to 99% of the folks out there.  That's why I've tried to spend some time this year on good affordable whiskey you can actually buy.

But what if you want a special gift for your whiskey loving friend who already has plenty of Henry McKenna?  Well, this year saw some very good new whiskey releases that you can actually walk into a store and buy for a fairly reasonable price.  So here are some of my favorite whiskeys of the year.

Scotch:  I've been very impressed with the Springbank owned Kilkerran Whiskies, distilled at the Glengyle distillery.  I especially liked the bourbon barrel aged expressions, but the sherry casks are also good.  They go for around $60.

Bourbon:  One of the best new release bourbons I tried this year was the Maker's Mark Cask Strength.  While it's not as easy to find as some bourbons, it seems to be more available than many of the other new releases.  It goes for around $40 for a half bottle.

Rye:  It was a good year for finished rye.  High West's Midwinter Night's Dram ($80) is their Rendezvous Rye (a blend of Barton and MGP rye) finished in new French oak and port casks. Willett XCF ($150) is an MGP rye finished in Grand Marnier casks.  These were both good whiskeys that successfully balance spicy rye with a sweet finish.

Irish: At $20, Clontarf 1014 is a great deal for a solid Irish Whiskey.  The slightly pricier Teeling ($40) was a nice, light, drinkable whiskey.

Other:  For a delicious but completely different bourbon, the Corti Brothers Mission del Sol aged Exquisite Whiskey was a real hoot and is still on shelves in California, though its sherry like notes may appeal more to Scotch and brandy fans than bourbon lovers.  It goes for $50 or $30 for a half bottle. 

Splurge:  It is the holidays, so what if you do want to splurge on something?  One of the best whiskeys I tasted this year was Charbay III, the third release of Charbay's original, massively flavorful, hoppy distilled pilsner.  It is definitely a splurge at $400, but Charbay Whiskey is one of a kind and it's still on the shelves after a year on the market.  If you want to try Charbay style whiskey without the big bucks, the R5 (distilled Racer 5 IPA) and S (distilled Big Bear Black Stout) are aren't as good as the pilsner, but they are a lot more affordable at $70 and give a good view of the house style. 

Books:  The good thing about whiskey books is they don't get bought up by whiskey flippers.  This year was another fantastic year for whiskey reading with great books for every level of whiskey lover.  For the beginning whiskey fan, Heather Greene's Whisk(e)y Distilled is the perfect introduction to all types of whiskey; for the intermediate whiskey lover, Lew Bryson's Tasting Whiskey goes a bit more in depth; and for the advanced bourbon geek, Chuck Cowdery's Bourbon, Strange drills deep into the world of bourbon. And if you're a real whiskey nerd, just do what I did and buy them all!

And while it wasn't a whiskey book, Jeffrey Morgenthaler's The Bar Book deserves heaps of praise as the best bartending book to come out in years with great instruction on ingredients and techniques.

Happy holidays!

Later this week:  Brandy Gifts

Friday, December 5, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: More from Diageo and Rebel Yell

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

Diageo cleared a label for a new whiskey in their Orphan Barrel series, Forged Oak, a 15 year old Kentucky bourbon.

Luxco cleared a new Rebel Yell label for a two year old bourbon/rye blend that appears to be a combination of Kentucky bourbon and Indiana rye.

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.