Monday, October 12, 2015

The Flavoring Game

A few months ago, Templeton Rye announced that it settled a lawsuit which had alleged that it had used misleading labeling.  This brouhaha largely dealt with sourcing issues and was one of many lawsuits filed after a Daily Beast article about sourcing whiskey went viral last summer.

But whiskey geeks have known about sourcing for years. One of the biggest revelations to come out around the Templeton Rye lawsuit was not that Templeton sources its whiskey from MGP in Indiana, we all know that, but that they also use flavoring additives provided by a Louisville company called Clarendon Flavors. This was revealed last year on an episode of Mark Gillespie's WhiskyCast.

While few of us guessed that Templeton was adding flavoring, it's all perfectly legal because Templeton is not labeled "straight" whiskey.  As I've noted before, according to the TTB regulations, rye, wheat and malt whiskeys that are not labeled "straight" can have up to 2.5% "harmless coloring, flavoring, or blending materials."  27 CFR 5.23. These can include caramel, sugar, oak chips, wine or other whiskeys.

I was curious as to what other whiskeys were adding flavoring and what exactly they were adding, so I started looking into it. The most important thing I learned was that no one wants to talk about flavoring.
For instance, I contacted a number of other producers of non-straight rye whiskey to ask if they use flavoring.

Knob Creek Rye is now labeled as straight but initially was not.  I asked if they used flavoring in the non-straight rye. The company did not respond.

George Dickel Rye, which like Templeton is sourced from MGP, is not labeled straight. Interestingly, Diageo's other MGP rye, Bulleit, is labeled straight. That being said, none of the Dickel line of products is labeled straight. In any case, the company did not reply to my inquiry.

Angel's Envy markets a straight bourbon finished in port casks and a non-straight rye finished in rum casks.  I had numerous exchanges with Angel's Envy's Wes Henderson but could not get him to give me a  "straight" yes or no answer about whether they use flavoring in the rye.

Unlike rye, bourbon, even if not straight, may not include flavoring additives without disclosing them as part of the label description. Recently, Sazerac has cleared new labels for "bourbon whiskey with natural flavors" for Kentucky Tavern, Ancient Age and Ten High.  I asked why they were adding flavoring to those whiskeys and what exactly they were using as flavoring. I was told that information is "proprietary and confidential."

Jeez, you'd think I was poking into a matter of national security.  I can't understand why whiskey companies are so unwilling to tell customers about the ingredients in the whiskey we purchase. There is no legal issue here as they are allowed to use a certain amount of flavoring and coloring additives. Presumably, the companies that use flavoring believe it improves their whiskey or else they wouldn't use it. Other whiskeys are known to use additives, including Scotch (coloring) and Canadian Whiskey, and their sales don't seem to suffer, but something about flavoring makes American companies go dark.

Are there flavoring and coloring additives in some American whiskeys? Clearly there are. There are flavoring companies that are in this business, and we have at least one documented case in Templeton. I would appeal to the companies to exercise a bit more transparency and let us know what they add and why. Meanwhile, keep in mind that any rye that isn't labeled straight can legally include additives.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Dusty Thursday: Bellows Club Bourbon 1977

This is another dusty bottle courtesy of The Whiskey Jug.

Bellows is an old brand that was purchased by National Distillers in the 1940s. As with Old Crow, it passed to Beam when Beam purchased the National Distillers brands in 1987. In 2013, Beam sold the brand to Luxco in St. Louis who still sells it today.

This handle of Bellows Club Bourbon (Built-in Pourer!) dates from around 1977 and thus was likely distilled at one of the distilleries National Distillers owned at that time: Glencoe or Old Grand-Dad.

Bellows Club Bourbon, 1977, 6 years old, 40% abv

The nose on this is really quite nice. It's rich with cherry and berry notes along with the typical caramel notes from bourbons of that era. The palate has good flavor, with tons of vanilla, but it tastes a bit watery. The finish is minty.

On the whole, this is quite pleasant and very drinkable.  Fun stuff!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Why I Don't Review the BTAC

A reader asked:

How come you never review the BTAC? Every year, they are the hottest releases (along with Pappy) and most other folks seem to review them but not you. What gives?

For those of you who have been spending your hard earned money elsewhere, BTAC is the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the annual release of three bourbons and two ryes: George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Eagle Rare 17, Sazerac 18 and Thomas H. Handy. Well, there are three reasons I don't review the BTAC anymore (and these all apply to Pappy Van Winkle as well):

1.  I can't get them. I don't have any magic whiskey blogger powers that get me free stuff. While I get the occasional free sample from a small producer, I don't get samples from any of the big whiskey companies. The vast majority of my reviews are from (1) whiskey I bought; or (2) whiskey that a friend shared with me, and like everyone else, I can't get the BTAC. But even if I could get the BTAC, I wouldn't review it because...

2. No one else can get it. It's the proverbial tree falling in the forest.  If you review a whiskey that no one can drink, does it matter? It's true that I do my share of reviews of rare and hard to get whiskeys, but there has to be something interesting or unique about them. I know my readers can't go out and buy a 1930s Maryland rye, but I figure they might want to know what it tastes like. If I can find them, I will also review other hard to get annual releases like Parker's Heritage Collection or Four Roses Small Batch, but the difference between them and BTAC is....

3. The BTAC doesn't change from year to year. I don't review it every year for the same reason I don't review Elijah Crag 12 every year. It's the same whiskey (and for Sazerac 18, which has been in steel tanks for around ten years, it's literally the same whiskey). Sure there are some variations from year to year, but that's true of lots of releases of the same stuff. If you like Stagg or Weller, you'll probably like it every year, plus or minus a year or two, but since you can't find it anyway, who cares?

Now, that being said, there are a number of folks who are able to review the BTAC every year and do a good job of it which is all the more reason for me not to bother with it. For me, it's just not something that's worth the effort.

Friday, October 2, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Ardbeg, Ancient Age and More

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

Ardbeg cleared a label for Dark Cove, "The Darkest Ardbeg Ever." It is a blend of Ardbeg aged in bourbon and "dark sherry casks."

A label cleared for a peated Glendronach aged in bourbon casks and finished in sherry casks.

Sazerac released a new label for what appears to be an extension of the Ancient Age brand line. Ancient Age Five Star, a bourbon "with natural flavors."

And perhaps nothing epitomizes modern whiskey label BS more than Old Dominick, an 8 year old bourbon released by a three year old company to celebrate its 150th anniversary or something like that.

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, September 30, 2015

Teeling Single Malt & Single Grain Irish Whiskeys

Stephen Teeling from the Teeling Whiskey Company was in town a few weeks ago tasting folks on his line of Irish Whiskeys. I reviewed his Teeling Small Batch blend last year and, it's become one of my go-to Irish blends for tastings. Since then, the company has introduced a single grain whiskey and, most recently, a single malt. While Teeling now has a Dublin distillery which ran its first spirit in March of this year (and they are working on a second distillery for grain), the Teeling whiskeys being sold come from Cooley, the distillery founded by Stephen's father Jack which was purchased by Beam in 2011.

Teeling Single Grain, 5 years old, bottled October, 2014, 46% abv ($50)

The Teeling grain whiskey uses a mash of around 95% corn and 5% malted barley and is aged in California Cabernet casks. It has very light cereal notes on the nose followed by sweet cereal on the palate. Mid-palate turns to wood spice notes, and it finishes with dry hay notes.  I'm not a huge fan of grain whiskeys of this type, but this one was quite pleasant and comparable to the better Scotch and Irish grain whiskeys I've had.

Teeling Single Malt, 46% abv ($55)

The new single malt carries no age statement and includes barrels treated with various finishes. The nose has light grain notes, sweet white wine and grapes.  In contrast to the rather sweet nose, the palate is quite dry with some spice leading into a spicy finish. There was a nice contrast between the sweetness of the nose and the dry palate on this one. Interestingly, it lacked much in the way of traditional malty notes. If anything, the Teeling Small Batch blend tastes more like a single malt than this one does, and while the Small Batch might be more approachable, the single malt is a bit more complex.

Teeling is doing some good work in the world of Irish Whiskey, and they aim to continue. Currently, they have a number of older, age stated single malts (21, 26 and 30 years old) available in Europe. They are looking at bringing some of those to the US next year and possibly some single cask bottlings as well. I know I'll be interested to try whatever they release.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Here Comes the Judge: My First Spirits Competition

I've reviewed over a thousand whiskeys and participated in numerous tastings through the years, but until a few weeks ago, I had never judged a formal spirits competition. I've been invited to judge some competitions in the past, but it just never worked out, so I was excited to give judging a try.

When distributor/importer Nicolas Palazzi asked me to be a spirits judge at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco, my first question was how many medals they give out. I'm very skeptical of the spirits award circuit where medals are handed out like candy to nearly every entrant (each of whom pay a sizable fee). Then the companies prominently advertise that they won the triple bronze medal. Not to worry, Palazzi assured me, there are no medals. They either get a Good Food Award or they don't, and only the ones the judges think merit it, based entirely on quality, get the award. There are entry fees, but they are low ($60 per entry compared to over $400 for some competitions).

The Good Food Awards defines "good food" as being "tasty, authentic and responsible." The criteria for entrance are quite strict. In the spirits category, which includes spirits as well as modifiers (bitters, shrubs, syrups, mixers, etc.), the products are required to be free of artificial additives, grown and sourced "responsibly," and largely free of pesticides, GMO ingredients and synthetic fertilizers (I say "largely" because the criteria are very detailed, but the whole thing is very San Francisco). Given those criteria, I'm not sure how many spirits would qualify to enter, but that's not my job to figure that out. I was just there to taste.

And taste I did.  In the morning session, we split into three groups, each of which tasted ten to fifteen spirits and another ten to fifteen mixers.  Each table decided which items from the first set of tastings deserved to be tasted in the second heat, which would be the awards scoring panel. That afternoon, we tasted the items bumped up by one of the other groups, scored them and recommended which we thought merited awards.

For the tastings, we were only told the type of spirit and proof.  I tasted everything from cucumber vodka (which was surprisingly good) to ginger liqueur. In my usual style, I was very conservative with my scoring, and that seemed to be the approach most of the judges were taking.  Of the 40 or so products I tasted that day, I think I recommended four for awards. Among the best things I tasted were a raspberry shrub syrup and an apple brandy. There were a handful of whiskeys, but none of them made the grade. They tasted like typical, small barrel craft whiskeys. Of course, based on the structure of the awards being divided into three groups, I didn't taste every spirit that was being judged.

I still don't know what I tasted or what will win awards. That will be announced in January along with the awards for the many other categories, from cheese to honey to cider, but I'll be interested to see what we came up with, and it was a fun way to spend a Sunday.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Dusty Tasting: 1970s Cabin Still

Today we have another dusty tasting sponsored by The Whiskey Jug. Yesterday's dusty tasting showed the decline of Old Crow over the years. Another bourbons that was famously ruined after being sold off was Cabin Still. Josh Feldman, over at The Coopered Tot, did a fantastic post tracing the decline and fall of this former Stitzel-Weller brand. He notes that at some point after Norton-Simon purchased the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in 1972, they started dumping low end Canada Dry bourbon into it.

The bottle provided for this tasting is likely from the mid-1970s (a 1974 copyright appears on the label). The label states that it was "distilled, aged and bottled by Cabin Still Distillery."  That puts it after 1972, when Norton Simon purchased the distillery and stopped using the Stitzel-Weller name, but before the later incarnation, which states "distilled for and bottled by Cabin Still Distillery." Does that mean it could still be old Stitzel-Weller, before the dump of Canada Dry began. Who knows? Let's taste it.

Cabin Still, 4 years old, 40% abv

The nose is caramelly but very light. The palate starts with some nice caramel, but fades away very quickly, and there is only a very faint finish. This isn't bad, but there is very little to it. I actually think this could be Stitzel-Weller, or have some in it, because it has traces of those sweet and creamy caramel notes, though it's very watered down. People forget that not all Stitzel-Weller was great, and Cabin Still was their bottom shelf brand.

Overall, if it was the '70s and I was perusing the bottom shelf, I'd go for the Old Crow.

This was another group tasting, so be sure to check out The Whiskey Jug, The Coopered Tot, It's Just the Booze Dancing, Axis of Whiskey and Bourbon & Banter for more reviews.