Friday, November 30, 2012

CORRECTION: Trader Joe's Bourbon is Barton

Earlier this week, I reviewed Trader Joe's new bourbon and noted that it was distilled by Buffalo Trace. While it is a product of the Buffalo Trace company, BT contacted me to let me know that it is actually distilled at the 1792 Barton Distillery, which Buffalo Trace owns. Thanks to BT for the correction.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Old Grand-Dad BIB 1945

Old Grand-Dad is another bourbon with a long heritage, going back to the nineteenth century. For years, it was made at the Old Grand-Dad distillery which was closed after National Distillers sold the brand to Beam in 1987.

This very dusty Grand-Dad is bottled in bond and was distilled in 1945 and bottled in 1949.

Old Grand-Dad BIB, distilled 1945/bottled 1949, 4 years old, 100 proof.

This one has an amazing nose that starts with a big blast of rye then moves to toffee, butterscotch and brandy. The palate isn't quite as strong as the nose. It has very dry, spicy notes with cinnamon and wood. The finish is pleasantly briny and spicy.

The nose on this is absolutely fantastic. The palate is good but lacks the sweet notes that balance the nose so well. Water mellows it nicely, bringing out maple syrup, citrus and honey.

See the LA Whiskey Society reviews of Old Grand-Dad BIB 1949.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Trader Joe's Bourbon

Trader Joe's has done a number of private label whiskeys, but never a bourbon, until now. Trader Joe's Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a new product on their shelves. It is distilled at Buffalo Trace's 1792 Barton Distillery and goes for a typically TJ's affordable price of $15.

Trader Joe's Kentucky Bourbon, 45% abv ($15)

The nose is very nice, woody with a nice rye kick, burnt caramel and cloves. The palate is much less complex with lots of vanilla, and some spice on late palate, but it fades to bitterness in the end which lasts into the finish which is quite bitter.

This one starts well but doesn't hold up. Even for $15, there are better bourbons on the shelf. I expected more out of Buffalo Trace/Barton, but maybe there is a reason they aren't releasing this under their own label.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Holiday Whiskey Gifts

Happy holidays! Here are some gift ideas for that loved one who loves whiskey. There were a number of good new releases this year which would make excellent gifts for the booze lover in your life.

Top Picks

For single malt Scotch, my pick of the year is definitely the Balvenie Tun 1401 ($250), a vatting of whiskies aged in bourbon and sherry casks that is a wonderfully balanced sherried malt. There are two distinct batches of this that have been released in the US, batch 3 and batch 6, and while both are excellent, batch 3 is a bit better, so grab it if you can.

For bourbon, the Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition 2012 ($87) is an easy pick. It's a big, complex bourbon bottled at barrel strength with notes of briny rye, tobacco and even some fruit. If you know someone who drools at the thought of George T. Stagg or Pappy Van Winkle, get them a bottle of this. It's probably the best bourbon I had all year. Apparently, though, it's become hard to find in California, so you may have to dig a little.

Something Smoky

If you know someone who likes their whiskey smoky, you might want to get something a bit out of the ordinary instead of that usual bottle of Ardbeg or Laphroaig. Two of my favorite smoky whiskeys of the year were fun and off the beaten Islay path. High West's Campfire ($55) is a blend of bourbon, rye and peated Scotch. It's unlike anything else around with a flavor that is at once sweet, spicy and smoky. Balcones Brimstone ($50) is a corn whiskey smoked with Texas scrub oak. It's deeply smoky with a sweet edge, and it's unlike any other smoky whiskey I've tasted.

Budget Booze

If you're looking for a less pricey gift, there are several good options. Trader Joe's Single Malt Irish Whiskey ($20) was probably the best Irish Whiskey I had all year, with a nice combination of peat and sherried sweetness. Distilled at the Cooley distillery, it still seems to be readily available, and the price is right.

One of my favorite new bourbons of the year was Hooker's House ($36), a high-rye Kentucky bourbon finished in pinot noir barrels. It has a nice, fruity disposition and is a pleasure to sip for a reasonable price.

Canadian Whisky

If you know someone who loves Canadiant Whisky, you could get them one of the excellent ten year old Canadian straight ryes, WhistlePig ($70), Masterson's ($65) or Jefferson's ($40), but what you really should get them is Davin de Kergommeaux's excellent book Canadian Whisky, the Portable Expert ($15) which answers any question anyone has ever had about Canadian Whisky, its history, style and production.


Lastly, for those of you who might be looking for a whiskey alternative, look no further than the Famille Esteve Selection Coup de Coeur Cognac ($90), part of K&L's exclusive selection of Cognacs. Equal parts sweet and spicy, this is a wonderful Cognac to sip anytime and better than some Cognacs that go for nearly double the price.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving: Whiskey Edition

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are ten things in the whiskey world that I'm thankful for.

1. Four Roses, Balvenie, Glenfarclas and other producers that continue to release great whiskey at reasonable prices without gimmicks or excessive bling.

2. The death of whiskey on ebay. I was pretty neutral about ebay while it was selling whiskey (and I never bought or sold whiskey on ebay), but I have to admit, I'm relieved at not seeing the latest Pappy Van Winkle 15 to go for $800. For a while, it was probably a good thing for folks who don't have a great selection of whiskey where they are, but by the time they shut it down, the prices were so ridiculous that I can't imagine it was helping consumers.

3. Craft whiskey. I give these guys a lot of grief, but on the whole, the craft whiskey movement is a good thing, and I think we'll eventually get a number of really great whiskeys out of them.

4. K&L. Those guys give 110%. I'm lucky to have them as my local shop.

5. All those amateur bloggers who spend their own time and money to keep all of us better informed, including (but in no way limited to): Serge, Oliver, Davin, Jason P., Tim R. and many, many others.

6. Jefferson's Ocean Aged, Red Stagg, Dalmore Constellation, six figure whiskey, sourced whiskey that pretends to be something it's not and all the other absurdities that provide fodder for my satire. I'm thankful for them the way political satirists are thankful for Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden.

7. That there's no whiskey Black Friday...yet.

8. A little known LA liquor store I frequent with a huge selection, no web presence and no email list that just sticks everything out on the shelf...first come first served, like the old days.

9. All those folks who make the whiskey, not just the distillers, but the distillery workers, coopers, folks on the bottling line and other unrecognized people who show up every day to do the unglamorous work of making whiskey.

10. Everyone out there who bothers to read my ramblings or comment on them. Thanks to all my reader-pals!

Happy Thanksgiving! What are you thankful for, whiskey or otherwise?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Beam's Finest: Booker's Bourbon

In my review of Knob Creek Rye I noted that I'm not a big fan of Jim Beam products. I particularly dislike their ryes but also don't care for the basic Beam mashbill that goes into Jim Beam label bourbons as well Knob Creek and Baker's. The only bottling of this mashbill that I have enjoyed is Booker's, the barrel strength version of the Beam mashbill. It's been years since I tried Booker's, and I've never done a formal review, so I thought it was a good time to revisit this member of the Jim Beam small batch collection.

Booker's Bourbon, 63.7% abv ($50)

The nose has nice caramel notes and maple syrup with some decent wood on it, as well as tobacco and red wine notes. The palate is distinctively Beam, syrupy sweet but then it has some nice, spicy, tobacco type notes, then it gets a bit soapy and ends on a cloyingly sweet note which fades into a sticky finish.

Well, this is definitely better than most of the Beam mashbill, but while I remember it fondly, I wasn't very impressed with this one (and of course, there is always the possibility that the composition has changed over the years). It's far too sweet for my taste, though I like the spicy/tobacco note that creeps into the mid-palate. If you like Beam, this is definitely a step up, but there is a lot better bourbon to be had for $50.

See the LA Whiskey Society review of Booker's Bourbon.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The New Batch: Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 6

This spring, I was very impressed by the first US release of Balvenie Tun 1401. That Batch (Batch 3) is still on some shelves, but Balvenie has now sent another release to the US: Batch 6, so I thought I'd compare them.

Whereas Batch 3 was composed of a blend of seven bourbon cask aged whiskies and three sherry cask whiskies, Batch 6 is composed of seven bourbon cask and two sherry cask whiskies.

Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 6, 49.8% abv ($250)

The nose has those really nice sherry notes with mixed berries. The palate is a drier sherry that trails off with some baking spices, including cloves and allspice. Then there is just a wee bit of iodine and some medicinal notes more reminiscent of a coastal malt.

This is quite different from the first US release, Batch 3, which was fruitier. It's still a great whiskey though perhaps not as transcendent as Batch 3 was.

See the LA Whiskey Society Review of Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 6.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dusty Thursday: Very Old Fitzgerald

For the next few weeks, I'll be spending my Dusty Thursdays on a series of mid-century bourbons I tasted as part of a phenomenal tasting at the LA Whiskey Society. The Society manages to hunt down some amazing bottles, and I'm lucky to be able to partake.

We will start with one that is one of the holy grails of dusty bourbon: Very Old Fitzgerald distilled at Stitzel-Weller. One good thing about bottled in bond whiskies is that they take much of the guess work out of dusty hunting. They are required to list the distillery that produced the bourbon and the older bonded whiskeys listed the date of distillation and bottling right on the tax stamp. This particular example of the renowned wheated bourbon is an eight year old that was distilled in 1948 and bottled in 1956. According to the label, this bottle was made expressly for Howard Cook. Whoever he is, I raise a glass to him.

Very Old Fitzgerald, 8 years old, distilled 1948/bottled 1956, 100 proof.

This has a beautiful nose with big candy notes including candied orange peel. The palate opens with a sweet dessert wine note, moves on to orange flavored baby aspirin (you'll remember those if you're over 40) and some floral notes. The finish is fleeting but slightly spicy with more of those orange notes.

This is a very unique bourbon and very different from other Stitizel-Wellers I've had. Those dessert wine and the floral notes separate it from other, more recent Stitzel-Wellers, though the orange and candy notes are more familiar. Of course, this is the oldest Stitzel-Weller I've had by a few years. While this was very good, I think I prefer the flavor profile from the late '60s and '70s.

See the LA Whiskey Society review of Very Old Fitzgerald 1948/1956.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rye Wars: Are Bulleit & Knob Creek the Coke & Pepsi of Rye?

There's been a big change in the rye market this year. As I've noted previously, some of the old reliable rye whiskeys have been hard to find. Rittenhouse 100 and Sazerac have become scarce. Wild Turkey 101 was "temporarily" discontinued to make for a lower abv 81 proof version. Into this gap have stepped two major contenders from two of the largest spirit companies. First Diageo stepped up with Bulleit, and then Beam with the new Knob Creek Rye that I reviewed last week.

Faced with the shortage, Bulleit seems to already have become the right rye at the right time. I can't find Sazerac or Rittenhouse many places, but Bulleit is everywhere, including Trader Joe's for $19.99. I've seen it on bar and retail shelves across the country. In a matter of just a year, it's managed to fill the void left by the more established ryes and become the most ubiquitous rye whiskey. Clearly seeing this success, Diageo introduced a second rye, George Dickel Rye. While it carries the name George Dickel, the whiskey is distilled in Indiana at LDI, the same distillery that makes their Bulleit Rye. Clearly, Diageo has made a very calculated bid on the rye market.

Beam's Knob Creek rye is just hitting the shelves in California, but I have no doubt that it will also see big sales. Knob Creek is a top selling brand and Beam was smart to reboot their silly (rī)¹ whiskey under a more familiar label (and at a higher proof). The lighter, barely spicy taste of the Knob Creek will appeal to people who aren't ready for the spicy kick of Bulleit. Lots of people who hear about rye and want to try it, but can't handle the spicy LDI profile will undoubtedly become fans of Knob Creek.

Diageo and Beam saw a vacuum and stepped in. The issue for Sazerac, Rittenhouse and Wild Turkey is how much of their sales will be gobbled up by these behemoths before they can increase supply. My guess is that Bulleit and Knob Creek will quickly become the Coke and Pepsi of rye whiskey, with other brands playing to more of a niche role.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Bon Voyage: Jefferson's Ocean Aged

The story of Jefferson's Ocean Aged is one of the more curious bourbon stories of the year. It started out with a slightly gimmicky release by McLain & Kyne, makers of the Jefferson line of bourbon. They took a sourced Kentucky bourbon and aged it at sea, in the hull of a ship, for four years. The theory was that the bourbon would slosh around at sea, getting more contact with the barrel. This is not an entirely original concept, having already been done with Kelt Cognac. They originally announced that they would release 600 bottles at $90 each.

Well, apparently some of the bourbon disappeared at sea. There would be fewer bottles and they would cost more like $200. The allocation to retailers was cut way back. As a result, one retailer, K&L here in California put the bottle on auction. Shockingly, it sold for over $1,000. You read that right, a current bottling that was originally priced at $90 went for over $1,000 at auction. As I remarked at the time, this, more than any single event, marks the end of the golden age of whiskey and portends the crash.

To their credit, K&L gave the proceeds to charity, but what about the bourbon? Could it possibly be worth that amount? Lucky for me, I was able to taste some that was acquired for a far lesser amount.

Jefferson's Ocean Aged, 41.15% abv ($1,000?)

The nose has a nice spicy characteristic, but the palate is a bit flat. There is banana and some spice that trails into the finish. Not unlike the standard Jefferson's bourbon, this is a decent but totally unexceptional bourbon. There's just not much to it.

Having tried this, I'm even more shocked that it could sell for a ridiculously high price. This is a totally average bourbon. We are truly living in whiskey bubble which may be close to popping, and this is the of bourbon.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Reader Poll Results: A Landslide for Buffalo Trace

The results of our Election Day Reader Poll about which company makes the best American whiskey are in, and the crowds at the Buffalo Trace victory party are jubilant.

Sazerac/Buffalo Trace cleaned up with 18 votes, Four Roses was second with five, followed by Heaven Hill with four, Beam with two and Brown Forman with one. Interestingly, seven of the votes for Buffalo Trace mentioned their sadness at losing Four Roses.

I suppose conventional wisdom (and maybe Nate Silver) would have favored Buffalo Trace, but I was surprised by the lopsidedness of the result. BT makes some excellent whiskey and a wide variety of it, but of late, they've had some criticism for brands that some consider not up to par. Even with those criticisms, though, it's clear that BT is still close to the hearts of whiskey lovers.

I was also surprised that Heaven Hill didn't perform better. They make a wide range of products at a reasonable price, though for the most part, they have shied away from some of the more limited releases and high end offerings of some of the other companies (the exception being Parker's Heritage Collection). Are we whiskey geeks obsessed with bling and undervaluing a solid producer?

And woe is to Wild Turkey, a once beloved brand that didn't get a single vote. My guess is concern over their recent output, including the proofing down of their rye, has turned people away from them.

Of course, people will analyze these results for years to come, considering the impact of Hurricane Sandy and the October Surprise of Dickel Rye, but Buffalo Trace clearly has a mandate. Now let's see what they do with it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Election Edition Reader Poll: Best American Whiskey Company

The election is upon us, and that means a big decision for everyone: If you could only drink whiskey from one of the major American whiskey companies for the rest of your life, which would it be?

Here are the rules. You must pick one of the companies below. All of the other companies will cease production and there will be no whiskey available from them. Make your choice in the comments. Please mark your ballot carefully to avoid election night discrepancies.

Below are your choices with a sampling of what you get with each vote (if you want to know all of the brands made by each distillery, check out my Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands).

  • Beam Global (including Maker's Mark): You get the full Beam line, including Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Booker's, Old Overholt Rye, Maker's Mark, Old Grand-Dad...and Red Stagg too!
  • Brown Forman (including Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve). You get Old Forester, Early Times, Jack and Woodford (including all those Master's Collection bottlings).
  • Diageo: Diageo owns the George Dickel distillery and the Bulleit label, so that's what you'll get.
  • Four Roses: Single barrel, small batch and limited editions, but no rye for you.
  • Heaven Hill: Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Old Fitzgerald, Rittenhouse Rye, Bernheim Wheat, Mellow Corn and Parker's Heritage Collection among others.
  • Sazerac Co./Buffalo Trace (including Barton, Bowman, Van Winkle and Age International products): Lots of stuff here; you get the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, the Van Winkle bourbons, Very Old Barton, Weller, Sazerac Rye, Blanton's, Elmer T. Lee, E.H. Taylor, all those single oak bottlings, etc., etc.
  • Wild Turkey: You get Wild Turkey bourbon and rye plus the Russell's Reserve bourbon and rye.

Footnotes for the whiskey geeks:

1. Van Winkle is an independent company and not all of their whiskey is made at Buffalo Trace, but I'm making the call to include them with Sazerac (which doesn't mean it will be any easier to get a bottle, by the way).

2. Current releases of Rittenhouse Rye are still made at Brown Forman but it's a Heaven Hill product and is now being made at Heaven Hill again so it goes with Heaven Hill.

3. If Diageo wins, Four Roses will stay open for the sole purpose of making the bourbon for Bulleit.

4. LDI isn't a choice because they don't market anything of their own, but if you love LDI rye, you can still get it in Bulleit and Dickel ryes if you pick Diageo.

5. Assume no independent bottlings will be available other than those produced by the companies listed above, so don't assume you will still get plenty of Heaven Hill from Willett's or other independent bottlers.

6. Be sure to let me know if you're from Ohio so I can make sure your vote counts more than everyone else's.

The polls are open!