US whiskey at The Whisky Show: standing tall, but standing still

The Van Winkles were at The Whisky Show this year!

I repeat: the Van Winkles were at The Whisky Show this year!

They weren’t the best US kit there though. They weren’t even the best US kit on their table.

That being said, as I trawled through the show bottle list, feeling, in the words of Blackadder “as excited as a very excited person who’s got a special reason to feel excited”, those Van Winkles stood out as the US headline act. Particularly since they weren’t flagged with a Dream Dram marker. They were open for all to taste.

This, I felt, marked a clear progression in how UK whisky festival attitudes had shifted. Where once the focus had been scotch, scotch, and more scotch, with a few token bourbons tucked in the corner like some embarrassing cousin, the presence of Pappy demonstrated that Britain was a country where the best of the US could stand up proudly beside Caledonia’s finest.

There was more cause for West Atlantic cheer as I drifted through the stands on the opening day. The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection was in fine fettle; Eagle Rare has improved out of recognition in the last year; Weller is very nearly as good as 2016’s was, and considerably more of it has been bottled. Stagg, which for the last few years has been overbalanced by brutish alcohol, seems to have reined in the booze and ramped up the flavour to fire (nearly) on all cylinders again. (And the same can be said for its often-unruly younger sibling; 2017 is a very good Stagg Jnr vintage.)

Other tables were just as exciting. The single barrel Russell’s Reserve rye on the Wild Turkey stand was probably my rye of the show – and yes, that includes Handy. Smooth Ambler had a five year old rye they had distilled themselves that was also superb, and festival newcomers King’s County were showing strongly too. (Though I still think they’re far too expensive.)

The standout table though was Balcones.

Not so much for their official offerings, though True Blue 100 and their standard Single Malt are excellent, and my soft spot for Brimstone grows softer every year. Where they really moved ahead of the pack was with the real-enthusiasts-only pours stashed under the counter. There was a wheated bourbon that was decent, if not earth-shattering, but the other four were magnificent.

A high-rye (seriously high – 39%) bourbon that I’d take over Stagg. A 100% rye that had Wellsy senior in raptures. (Made with Texan rye too – I didn’t even realise it could grow there.) And two single malts.

Such single malts! The first had done 40 months in ex-Four Roses casks. 40 months sounds like nothing, but by Balcones standards it’s ancient, and the result was phenomenal. Like a late-teen or early-twenties Speysider that had been put on steroids and had a V12 engine installed. Utterly roaring with tropical fruit complexity; bitter over-oaking a non-issue thanks to refill, rather than virgin, casks.

The second was even better, and inspired by distiller Jared Himstedt’s love of malts like Glendronach. Aged entirely in virgin French oak, the result was an opulent, spicy, fruitcakey glassful of sheer hedonism. A single barrel only available at the distillery itself. It was my father’s pick of the whole festival – and he’s a man who has been a scotch malt devotee since the seventies. All I can say is that the folk down in Waco don’t know how lucky they are.

American whiskies tend to show very well at whisk(e)y festivals. Tasted among a crowd their size and intensity gives them a natural edge when met with a hard-worked and embattled palate. Whilst my “pour of the show” came from elsewhere, the lion’s share of the most memorable overall stands tended to carry a US accent. What’s more, with about sixty expressions available, not including the “unofficials”, I can’t recall a broader selection open for enthusiasts to taste.

So far, so good. As always, however, there is a “but”.

I missed Westland and Corsair. If that seems like an odd nit to pick, having just attested to a biggest-ever selection, it isn’t. The reason I missed them particularly was the diversity they brought to last year’s Team America. Westland with their elegant and individual trio of malts, Corsair with their “you’ve-never-tasted-anything-like-this-before” joie de vivre. (Pardon my French.) 

Looking down my list, there really weren’t many new faces for 2017. King’s County seem to be the only one (do correct me if I’m mistaken) and whilst their whiskey is delicious, it doesn’t pack sufficient USP to fill the void left by Corsair and Westland.

What’s more, I think there’s room for some of the tables to broaden their offering a little. The Brown-Forman stand, in particular, missed a trick I feel, by presenting only a fairly basic range of JD and Woodford Reserve bottles. The Whisky Show is a chance for them to push the generally-overlooked Woodford Master’s Collection slightly, for example. Not to mention Old Forester, which many enthusiasts would love to see more of in the UK, and which didn’t have a presence whatsoever.

I realise that the overarching purpose of The Whisky Show is for The Whisky Exchange to sell bottles. And there’s no short-term benefit of presenting whiskey which consumers cannot immediately buy. But right now there is a surge in Britain’s interest in, and thirst for, American whiskey. Numerous brands are actively looking for UK distributors, and there is a loud clamouring (not least from the British Bourbon Society) for more of the interesting stuff to be shipped over. We can pretty much guarantee that we would drink it all.

Tasting those two exquisite Balcones malts, as well as the terrific high-rye bourbon, was soured slightly by the knowledge that there was no way for me to purchase them. As wonderful as such tables as Wild Turkey and Buffalo Trace were, they didn’t really offer anything that I hadn’t tried before. (Except for that Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel, and I couldn’t buy that either.)

I realise that the show isn’t just for me. I realise that the majority of consumers don’t taste as many US whiskeys as the most enthusiastic BBS members, and that the show offered the bourbon newcomer an abundant treasure-chest of potential damascene moments. But those same moments, on the whole, were available last year. And indeed the year before.

The Whisky Show offers more open bottles to aqua vitae fans than any other weekend in the UK calendar. No one who visits, and tastes thoroughly, can be left in any doubt that American whiskey is as good as that from the stills of Scotland; the quality of US juice is clearly on show.

It is time that America’s increasing diversity was given similar limelight.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Tales of the Dusty (Part 2) - Old Grand-Dad

In the next instalment of my continuing ramblings about vintage bourbon, I’m not straying too far from the last. Old Taylor, Old Crow, Old Overholt and Old Grand-Dad have a lot in common aside from sharing 50% of their brand monikers.  Marketed as ‘The Olds’ all four have followed the same change in ownership through the years when National Distillers sold to Beam Suntory in 1987. Old Taylor eventually flew the coup in 2009 moving to Sazerac for a bourbon makeover, injecting a new lease of life into the Colonel whilst the others remained to inspect their ‘Old Crow’s’ feet in the mirror.

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For every Dolly Parton though, there’s a Sean Connery wearing age like a boss and Old-Grandad is that brand and subject of my latest literary tribute. Today, OGD (let’s use its acronym from now on) is one of the ten best-selling straight whiskeys in the world and comes in three different bottling proofs: 80 proof, 100 proof (bottled-in-bond) and 114 Barrel Proof, all Beam juice and all stellar drinkers with the 114 up there as one of the best liquor store bargains around, punching way above its $25 price tag.

The brand itself was created by Raymond B. Hayden and named after his grandfather, Basil Hayden, Sr who was a well-known distiller in his lifetime and eventually honoured further with another Beam brand in 1992 when ‘Basil Haydens’ was created. The OGD label has remained relatively unchanged through the decades, maintaining a picture of Basil on the front of every bottle, representing the head of the Hayden family, their ‘Old Grand-Dad’.

It’s a brand that has stood the test of time, surviving 125 years from the birth of the Hayden family’s first commercial distillery in 1840 to present day. The first sale of the brand happened in 1899 to the Wathen family who later went on to create the American Medicinal Spirits Company which became the foundation for the National Distillers Group, producing ‘medicinal whiskey’ for sick patients during prohibition with operations in Cincinnati, Ohio and Frankfort, Kentucky.

It is the glut era in the 1970’s-early 1990’s that provides perhaps the greatest testament to the brand’s resilience. Through a period where the bourbon industry suffered extensively as a result of popular culture favouring trendier drinks, Old Grand-Dad was not something the ‘yuppie-du-jour’ would feel comfortable ordering at a bar. Whilst brands such as Four Roses and Jim Beam attempted to appeal to younger demographics with notably cringewothy advertising campaigns, the Mad Men of Old-Grand-Dad held steadfast and true to its loyal fan base assured in the knowledge that when America eventually woke up nursing their vodka fuelled hangovers, it will be Old Grandad-Dad they would come back to. Quality remained the focus and USP of Old Grand-Dad, with this advert from the 1980’s a shining example of product confidence:

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It was at a tasting hosted by the JW Steakhouse in London with Tom Fischer of Bourbonblog.com where I caught the bug that has now developed into a terminal condition. We tasted (amongst many others) an OGD distilled in 1960 and bottled in 1968 that just blew me away and instantly rewrote the script that my palate had been working on with bourbon up to that point.

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On an evening of epic pours, this for me stood on the shoulders of giants and I needed to climb the proverbial beanstalk for more. I’ve since acquired a number of bottles from various years and can say with a confidence in line with their own, that Old Grand-Dad from the National Distillers era is some of the best bourbon you’re ever going to have the fortune of tasting. What makes it so special is that it has a flavour profile so unique that you could pick it out in a gallon of water. Deep, rich caramel, vanilla and baking spices leading into a butterscotch finish that you’d be forgiven for pouring over your breakfast pancakes. Having tasted most of the National Distillers iterations, it’s Old Grand-Dad that wins the beauty parade and I don’t think it’s any accident. The best juice simply went into the best brand.

Words by TheBourbonator

BBS Single Cask Number 2: Whistlepig

The first BBS barrel pick was chosen in tumult. A yammering, hammering, market-stall maelstrom of bellowed insistences and table-thumping certainty. Four bourbons, each one chalk and cheese to the next; two standouts and one obvious pick. A thundering rollercoaster with an inevitable destination.

We came to our individual conclusions about the second BBS barrel in almost utter quiet. Because it was close. My God it was close.

Burger & Lobster on Threadneedle street played host to our second barrel pick. Twenty 50ml bottles – four from each cask – were laid out upon arrival, alongside a full-sized bottle of the distillery’s flagship expression. Whistlepig 10 year old rye.

A smidge of background, for those uninitiated. Whistlepig are Vermont-based distillers, who, in the interim between their first spirit run and the emergence of the first bottle-ready whiskey from their casks, have been independently bottling rye from the distilleries of Alberta in Canada and MGPI in Indiana.

Age dated, and generally bottled at a respectably solid strength, Whistlepig have achieved cult status to the degree that their special releases have become some of the highest priced American whiskies on the market. Questions and issues to address in another post, perhaps. Today was about the contents of those 50ml bottles, and the first rye that BBS would ever put our name to. Only the second Whistlepig to be independently bottled in the UK, and the first by a private society.

So. To the pours.

Funny thing, but just as with the selection of the BBS FEW, Sample 1 was the dog of the day. Particularly when tasted next to the clean, fruity and vibrant Whistlepig 10 year old it felt a trifle dull; a little muted and underwhelming.

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After that, everything became rather difficult, because the following four samples were proof of Alberta’s credentials as perhaps the finest distiller of rye in the world, and of Whistlepig’s credentials as having a very, very good eye for a cask.

Sample 2 had an exceptional nose. There were those in the group who compared it to the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye … and went so far as to buy a double of the latter for frame of reference. The palate was a little quieter, but all told it was a mellow, mature and rather sophisticated number.

Sample 3 had me from first sniff. A proper, rip-snorting, full-blooded, no-holds-barred thoroughbred of a rye; the grain unabashedly bellowing its unique idiosyncrasies too loudly for alcohol to offer any distracting burn. As complete and intense on the palate as it was on the nose, and as balanced as you’d like, this was going to take some beating.

Sample 4 was all about the viscosity. A rye that nodded in the direction of bourbon, there was a fatness of nose and palate; an aspect of butterscotch that didn’t appear in the other samples and that pointed away from Canada and Vermont, and towards the plumper charms of Kentucky. A degree or two more of focus and intensity, and this could have been a winner. Alcohol crept up a little excessively though, and the balance of Sample 3 wasn’t quite there.

Finally, Sample 5. It shared many of the aromas and flavours of Sample 3, but the alcohol seriously overwhelmed; a little too much burn, especially on the palate, and a touch too much bitterness on the finish.

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After 10 minutes of silent consideration, number 1 was agreed to have been ruled out, with the over-vicious sample 5 shortly behind. There was a degree of horse-trading and beating about the bush, but eventually a section of the group admitted Sample 3 to be our favourite. Samples 2 and 4 had their proponents too though, and rightly so, and so the bottles once again were passed around the table for a second nosing.

Sample 4 was the next to be eliminated, at which point @london_liquor and @The_Bourbonator marched off in search of comparatory Van Winkle to set against the remainders (which makes something of a statement in and of itself!) Cases were made, opinions were offered, and eventually it was put to a vote. By a majority of around two thirds, Sample 3, at 57.8% abv, won the day.

The bottom line was this though: once Sample 1 had been eliminated, it wasn’t a question of a “wrong answer”, only of which was the “most right”. Our second bottling lives up to, and to this taster, pushes past our first, and I’m thrilled to say that many more will be available for whisk(e)y lovers to purchase. And they should do so. It’s terrific.

Two barrels down, and this really is just the start. The bottlings will continue, and BBS will only get better and better at picking them. Exciting times lie ahead. Watch this space.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

'Ethical Auctions': Tackling Fakes, Flipping & Unfair Markets

By @LondonLiquor

As secondary market prices have soared in the past few years, all manner of whisky auction sites have sprung up to cater for demand. Major UK players with an international reach include Whisky.Auction, Scotch Whisky Auctions, Whisky Auctioneer, Whisky Hammer, Just Whisky, and Whisky-Online. Royal Mile Whisky's plans to enter the fray in the next month or so show the industry isn't going away anytime soon. Indeed, the UK has emerged as something of a global hub for online whisky auctioneering, no doubt aided by the strict restrictions on alcohol sales in the US.

The proliferation of whisky auction sites is not surprising: their commission-based business model can be lucrative. A Bitter Truth 24 Year Old Single Barrel Rye Whisky sold for £4600 in March netting the site a cool £1157 in commission and auction fees. Not an insignificant sum for facilitating the sale of a single bottle. With thousands of bottles going under the hammer each month, there's real money to be made.

And the benefits flow both ways. Auctions offer consumers the opportunity to buy and sell 'dusties' that haven't been seen on retail store shelves for years. British Bourbon Society members rave about 1980s and 1990s Wild Turkey obtained at auction.

So far, so good. But there are a few areas of concerns.  

First, are auctions doing enough to weed out fakes?

Second, do auctions offer a fair marketplace? Rumours abound of questionable business practices on certain sites, including credible claims that sale prices are artificially inflated to generate additional commission.

Third, are auctions doing anything to combat the 'flipping' of brand new whisky releases at many multiples of RRP? While not as obviously toxic as fakes and artificial price inflation, flipping is bad news for consumers who want to drink new releases as @The_Bourbonator explored on the BBS Blog back in January.

In sum, can consumers trust UK auction sites? Let's find out.

Fakes:

High profile cases of Scotch whisky and Wine forgeries have emerged all too frequently over the past few years and the past few months have shown that American whisky is not immune. In June 2017, an individual was revealed to have been purchasing empty bottles on eBay before refilling and reselling them on US-based Facebook groups. This hit the close-knit bourbon community hard as he had been a well-known figure and prolific seller, shipping over 1200 packages in 24 months with 77% of those packages containing more than one bottle. The total number of fakes is not known. Next time you see empties of Pappy Van Winkle and other hyped whiskies selling on eBay for over 100 dollars, you know why.  

So, it's risky to buy whisky from platforms that don't have robust anti-forgery measures in place. Auctions sites fortunately appear to be taking their responsibility to weed out fakes seriously. Whisky.Auction is one of several auction sites with a clear anti-forgery policy. Their discovery of a sophisticated whisky forgery operation in February 2017 suggests its being applied properly. Whisky Auctioneer's website also features a detailed policy on fraudulent whiskies that adopts a commendably cautious approach: "[w]hisky auctions are on the front line in combating whisky fakers and here at Whisky Auctioneer we frequently reject whiskies that are either not authentic, or that we simply deem questionable or problematic".

Taking a step back, whisky auctions can't win the battle against forgers alone. Upstream action is also urgently required: distilleries need to start doing more to combat fakes. Anti-forgery technology originally developed for the wine industry has fallen in price and it's hard to see why it couldn't be used on high-end whisky releases. Even Ralfy incorporated anti-forgery measures into the bottles of his excellent Port Charlotte Meteorite Single Cask release! BBS Members, bars and restaurants can also all play a part by destroying or defacing high-end empties.

Unfair markets:

All auctions expressly ban shill-bidding. To take Scotch Whisky Auctions' Bidding Policy as an example: "Sellers are expressly forbidden from bidding on their own bottles. Any bottles found to have been subjected to this will be withdrawn. Anyone found to be "bidding up" the prices of bottles will be removed from the site and banned from Scotch Whisky Auctions".

That's all well and good in theory but the devil is in the detail. Few auction sites provide any information on their business practices or the ethical guidelines by which the auctions are run. For example, most auctions don’t disclose whether employees are permitted to bid. But employee bidding raises clear conflicts of interest given the potential asymmetry of information between employees and other bidders.

Let's imagine a scenario where a bidder puts down £1000 on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old and sets a 'maximum auto-bid' price of £1800. Maximum auto-bid prices are accessible to employees who place a bid of £1790, ostensibly because they want to purchase the item, but with the real aim of automatically increasing the maximum bid to £1800. The bidder ends up paying an inflated price while the auction pockets greater commission. Far-fetched? Not really. I've received credible information that at least one site turns a blind eye, to put it charitably, to this type of behaviour.

To get greater clarity on this, we contacted multiple auctions to ask whether appropriate safeguards were in place to ensure a fair marketplace. The responses were not reassuring. While conduct of the type mentioned in the above scenario would run contrary to internal Staff Codes of Conduct and, in particular, the prohibition on shill-bidding, employees were generally permitted, and in some instances actively encouraged, to bid on auctions despite having access to information on other bidders. BBS Members: be extremely wary of setting auto-bids.  

Royal Mile Whisky Auctions has chosen to do things differently. Its recently announced 'strict ethics policy' adopts a commendable position: "Staff of Royal Mile Whisky Auctions or any partner/subsidiary companies are not permitted to sell or bid on our auction website […] Bidders know they are bidding in a fair marketplace, and not competing against the company providing the auction service itself, or the staff that work for them. All bidders have the same information when choosing to bid". A refreshing approach.

Flipping:

Back in January, @The_Bourbonator noted that "auction sites voluntarily implementing a policy of not selling new releases for at least 12 months is perhaps wishful thinking but at least such a step would force flippers to take a longer term financial risk than they do today".

Well, take a bow Royal Mile Whisky Auctions: "Royal Mile Whisky Auctions will not accept for auction any limited edition whiskies within one year of their release […] Whisky fans know that prices are not artificially being driven up, especially those new releases being ‘flipped’ immediately after release". This is an excellent initiative that, once again, marks Royal Mile Whisky Auctions out. None of the other auctions have implemented comparable policies.

Ultimately, however, flipping is another issue that can't be tackled by auctions alone. It requires a co-ordinated response by distributors, retailers and consumers. There have already been a few steps in the right direction. Notably, Milroy's of Soho and Hedonism have both collaborated with Hi-Spirits to put on events where Pappy Van Winkle is sold at RRP provided the buyer immediately 'defoils' the bottle to prevent resell. You can read more about these initiatives, which took the form of a tasting raffle and a tasting competition (won by BBS' very own @MCRBourbon) on the BBS Blog.


So, we asked at the start whether consumers could trust UK auction sites. The jury is still out in my opinion, particularly in respect of those auction sites that fail to disclose their business practices and/or the ethical guidelines, if any, by which they operate. This enigmatic approach could ultimately backfire on the whole industry: why should consumers blindly stump up substantial commission and fees when it's not clear whether the market is fair?

Auctions need to become more transparent or they risk losing consumer confidence. While it's still very early days for Royal Miles Whisky Auctions, their decision to enter the auction market arena with a 'strict ethics policy' is a commendable development. Indeed, Whisky Auctioneer has recently made its Code of Ethics publicly available for the first time. Although arguably not as far-reaching as RMWA's, it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Here's hoping there's now a shift towards 'ethical auctions' across the industry, with a greater focus on transparency and self-regulation, before a couple of bad apples ruin it for everyone.

BBS meets Reservoir at the Lexington

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Between us we’ve a pretty formidable “US whiskies tasted” rap sheet in the BBS. So it really isn’t often that almost none of us have tried any of the pours at a tasting. But on Saturday 29th July we trooped over to the inimitable Lexington for just such a rare occurrence.

The distillery behind these untasted whiskies was Reservoir, a craft setup based in Virginia. In fact it was complete serendipity that led to the event in the first place; BBS founding member @edkingUK happened to meet distiller Dave Cuttino in Gerry’s Wines and Spirits a while back, and, as is often the case with the BBS, one thing led to another.

Reservoir take an unusual direction with their whiskies, in that the flagships are all 100% mashbills of their individual grain. So they’ve a 100% wheat, a 100% rye, and a bourbon made from 100% corn. (Perfectly legal; what would make it a corn whiskey as opposed to a bourbon would be if they were using uncharred or refill casks).

David had generously added three limited edition treats to the lineup, and agreed to talk us through all the whiskies via skype.

Confession time: before the event I had my doubts. Especially of the wheat whiskey. I’ve been tasting a lot of craft whiskey lately, both for the reviews page, and out of personal curiosity. Quality and style has varied immensely, but the one relative constant was that young wheat-recipe kit was generally slightly unripe, unready, uncompromising stuff. So with no corn whatsoever keeping the wheat in check, how was Reservoir’s going to taste?

Well, first of all, let’s talk about Reservoir’s casks. They’re tiny. I’m talking miniature. Your standard bourbon barrel weighs in at about 53 US gallons, which in real money is about 200 litres. The casks at Reservoir are less than a tenth of that. What’s more they’re charred to within an inch of their lives. The upshot of which is that they flavour the whiskey at breakneck speed.

So, glasses filled and passed around: what did we think?

“Good grief.” That’s what I thought. “This is not the young wheat that I know and don’t love.” Instead, it’s super barrel-focussed, heavily intense on flavour and as clean as a whistle. No distracting spirit acetone here; this was a story of caramel and char and orange and brown sugar. Big on flavour; perhaps not the most complex beast in the world, but with a nice balance of the sweet and the savoury, and bags of intensity. Absolutely not what I was expecting, and seriously tasty.

On to the bourbon, where things continued to impress. A shade more one-dimensional than the wheater for my taste; sweet corn and caramel with not too many layers, but again that big flavour intensity and personality; again that influence of small casks. Opinion differed on the favourite, but I’d say three-quarters of the room were team wheat. Still, if you taste this bourbon without context, it’s a cracker.

The rye was the standout though. Reservoir make an intense style of whiskey, and when it came to the rye that intensity reached its peak. More of that orange; seemingly a theme with Reservoir – perhaps the result of their Armagnac still. Mainly though, this was about the fresh ryebread and nutmeg and caramel and marzipan. Pracically popping with flavour and spice, perfectly structured and supported by alcohol levels. Awesome stuff.

Being 100% “varietals”, David encouraged us to do a little of our own blending, and there were certainly those in the group whose pour of the day was a mix of the wheat and the rye. Personally I was more of a fan of them individually, but mixing was still a delicious exercise, and a great new direction for a whiskey tasting to take. Nicely reflected the spirit of experimentation and sense-of-fun that Reservoir seem to be about, and David’s enthusiasm for his whiskies was palpable and infectious.

The mixed-mashbill whiskies that followed were an intriguing bunch. Hunter&Scott, a wheat-recipe bourbon, was more along the lines of what I’d expected at the start. A little more acetone; less influence of cask. Some brioche and bananabread on the nose, but slightly overwhelmed by estery grain. Still tasty, and the palate had a nice, silken caramel aspect, but this one was probably my least favourite of the day.

Holland’s Ghost is a brand new release and a bit of a curiosity. Single barrel bourbon finished in a stout cask. It’s a collaboration between Reservoir and local restaurateur Mac McCormack, with the stated aim of replicating the flavour profile of Stitzel-Weller-era Pappy Van Winkle. Right. Well. Erm...

For my money they should do away with that rather ambitious mission statement. Holland’s Ghost was really excellent stuff on its own merits. By my mileage the most complex of the whiskies we tasted, though oddly felt less intense than the opening trio, despite being higher proof. There was a real creaminess to it, and even an aspect of chocolate orange crème to the nose. Perfumed stuff, with a wisp of smoke on the palate amidst the creamy caramel. Something to sit with in an armchair at the end of the day, rather than something with the directness and intensity of the rye or the wheat.

Finally the Grey Ghost, one in a series of special releases by the Reservoir chaps, for which they play around with mashbills a little. This one was 80% corn, 20% rye apparently. The most “classic” bourbon profile of the day, though with a strong rye accent of crunchy, woody rye. Lots of char influence and a delicious balance of sweet cinnamon and dryer nutmeg on the palate, all overlaid with thick caramel and that splash of orange.

In short, Reservoir’s lineup seriously impressed me. Most of the bourbon I’ve been tasting in the last month has been from craft distilleries, and this was right at the top of the tree. In fact I preferred it to every craft whiskey I’ve had this month besides Balcones True Blue Craft Strength. The rye and the Grey Ghost in particular were outstanding, and I was absolutely gobsmacked at how well they’d managed the wheat, but really the whole range was more or less rock solid. Hunter&Scott was the only one that I’d personally take or leave, but it certainly had some big fans among the group when preferences were compared at the end.

I don’t know how these whiskies are going to be priced when they arrive in the UK. I’d like to see the core range around the £50 per bottle mark, at which rate they’d be no-brainers. Peeking at US prices makes me think I’m being a little optimistic though – I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. But the bottom line is that I’m looking forward immensely to seeing them this side of the pond, and if you get a chance to give them a taste, don’t pass it up.

For what it’s worth, my order of preference was: Rye, Grey Ghost, Wheat, Holland’s Ghost, Bourbon, Hunter&Scott. Though I can’t speak for anyone else, and the Wheat and Holland’s Ghost are probably tied. Maybe someone needs to send me a bottle of each so I can properly make my mind up...

Huge thanks to David for staying with us so long on skype and taking us through the range. What he thought of the spectacle of 15 or so BBS-ers becoming increasingly “enthusiastic” on the strength of his whiskies I’ve no idea. But it’s always fantastic to meet the people behind the pours, and hopefully we’ll see David and Reservoir in the UK again soon.

A cracking tasting all round then, after which, in true BBS and Lexington fashion, we proceeded to behave responsibly for the rest of the afternoon, and nothing particularly noteworthy happened whatsoever...

On to the next one. Once we’ve all recovered from getting so responsible.

Thanks to David Cuttino, Reservoir, Stacey Thomas, the Lexington staff and the BBS founders for another cracking event.

Tales of The Dusty (Part 1) - Old Taylor

Words by The Bourbonator

There is a romance attached to anything old and whiskey is no exception. That point in which a bottle moves into a decade granting it the title of ‘vintage’ or to coin the colloquialism, ‘dusty’ is something that has created a sub-genre within the American whiskey community of which I have fallen for hook, line and sinker. It was a sample of Wild Turkey 8 Year Old 101 from the 1970’s a few years ago that peaked my interest. “This tastes fanstastic” I thought as I pondered why it tasted so far removed from today’s iteration. Though this was no isolated example, many of the bourbons of the 1970’s-mid 90’s I have tasted since have a richness in flavour that coat the palate with a paint roller soaked in butterscotch and now I’m smitten. What’s the point of being in love though if you can’t shout it from the rooftops? Like a Shakespearean play, I’ll be using this blog as my sonnet and regaling you with ‘Tales of the Dusty’ from my balcony in Verona laptop at home.

Part 1: Old Taylor

Old Taylor is a brand that has stood the test of time, changing hands a few times through the decades whilst remaining synonymous with exceptional bourbon. Colonel Edmund Hayes Taylor Jr. was a pioneer of American whiskey. A descendent of two U.S. presidents he had originally pursued banking and political interests before leveraging from his 16 year tenure as Mayor of Frankfort to revitalise a flailing whiskey industry that had little to no confidence from consumers due to lack of regulations around quality. He used his connections within government and the state senate to pass the Bottled-In-Bond-Act of 1897 mandating a higher set of standards that the industry would adhere to. Taylor started and owned seven different distilleries throughout his career, the most successful being the O.F.C. and Carlisle distilleries, the beginners of today’s Buffalo Trace Distillery.

The Old Taylor Distillery, located South of Frankfort was built by E.H. Taylor in 1887 and was known for being the first to produce one million cases of Straight Bourbon whiskey. It later became a showcase for bourbon making in Kentucky with an ornate construction made from limestone with castle-like turrets and beautiful gardens making it a tourist attraction to the public.

Colonel Taylor passed away in 1922 and National Distillers purchased the Old Taylor Distillery in 1935 where they continued to produce there until 1972 when It was sold again to the Jim Beam Corporation.  Beam continued to store and age bourbon in the warehouses there until 1994 when the space was declared surplus and remained empty for many years. After a few failed attempts by outside investors to reopen the now dormant and decaying distillery, it was eventually purchased in 2014 by ‘Peristyle’ who announced plans to restore and reopen the distillery under the name ‘Castle and Key’ whilst employing the first female Master Distiller since prohibition. Marianne Barnes, former Master Taster for Brown-Forman has set to work producing a native Kentucky botanical gin there to be released in 2018 prior to releasing their own Bottled-In-Bond bourbon.

Today, the Old Taylor brand is owned by Sazerac who purchased it from Beam Suntory in 2009 with distillation continuing at Buffalo Trace. The label on the bottles remain relatively unchanged and have retained that nostalgic aesthetic, though each one now comes in a presentation tube that prevents any of these from becoming ‘dusty’ again.

As you can see, whilst the storied history behind the label has remained unchanged, the juice has been subject to the interpretation of three separate distilleries. In my humble opinion, the bourbon was at its best at the original Old Taylor (Castle) distillery operated by National Distillers, exemplifying that  deep caramel and maple sweetness that causes even the hardened bourbon drinker to go weak at the knees. This was released at 86,  bonded 100 and a rare 101 proof all with an age statement of 6 years but as was typical of the glut era would contain distillate above its years.

If you find yourself in the boondocks of some far flung US town and stumble into a liquor store stuck in time with no access to the internet, look for those yellow labels, turn the bottle on its head and look for the year, is it pre-1994? Then look at the back label and locate the first 5 digits above the barcode, does it read ‘86259? If not, is there a distillery code DSP-KY-19 on the front label? If you can check off any one of these, it’s pretty much guaranteed that what you have in your hands is juice from the National Distillers era. Then buy a lottery ticket and make sure you’re not struck by lightning when you step outside.

 

Spotlight on Sonoma County

BBS co-founding father @london_liquor has been enthusing about Sonoma County whiskey for literally as long as I’ve known him. In fact, the evening I joined BBS – before I was even in the Facebook group – he was talking about the distillery, and the trip he’d taken there a month before. I tried the whiskies amongst hundreds of others at The Whisky Show, and even spoke briefly to Adam, the distiller, but beyond that I’d never really got to know the brand, and when BBS did a tasting back in October I was in France indulging my love of fermented grape juice.

But Sonoma kept coming up in conversation; both with @london_liquor and with other members of the group. Naturally I’d earmarked their bourbon for our month of reviews, but it struck me that this might also be a good place to begin a series of articles looking at some of the craft distilleries around America. One thing led to another, and last Sunday I found myself sitting down with five Sonoma whiskies and my little blue notebook.

Adam Spiegel founded Sonoma County Distilling Company in 2010. Back then they were one of 200 distilleries in the US. Which sounds like a fair few, but compare that to the 1,300+ operating in the country today. My God we’ve got a lot of articles to write… Sonoma itself is more known for its vino; in fact my first encounter with the name was on a bottle of Pinot Noir, but Adam’s all about the grains, bottling bourbons, ryes and a wheat whiskey.

A great deal of that grain is grown close by in California; even the idiosyncratic smoking of the malted barley over cherrywood is now done in nearby Petaluma.. There’s a good deal of positive information about sustainability on the distillery website, which is always nice to see; equally heartening is the lack of any fluffy marketing story. It genuinely seems to be an operation concerned with making the best whiskey they can in as sustainable way as possible.

The grains, once fermented, are double distilled in old-school alembics, heated by direct fire; a hot topic with scotch nerds at the moment. The upshot of this, in theory, ought almost certainly to be a less consistent product, but there’s a strong argument suggesting that direct-fired stills lend more character to the juice.

Which leads us to the tasting.

Before me I had the 2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey, The West of Kentucky Bourbon #1 and three ryes. But were they any good?

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

Well, the wheat was young. Rather overtly so. I tend to struggle with wheat when it hasn’t had much time, and whilst there were certainly plenty of vibrant flavours of green fruit and vanilla, the esters hadn’t properly had time to harmonise, and the cask needed longer to exert influence and flavour. Vanillas and honeys on the palate wrestled against pretty sharp alcohol, drying to a grain-focussed finish. Unquestionably good, characterful spirit, but a work in progress rather than a finished article for my money.

The bourbon, however, was very interesting indeed. It’s a mashbill of corn, rye and that Cherrywood-smoked barley, and the nose was a citrussy fruit-basket of caramel-slathered oranges, lemons and freshness. There was a woody smokiness that complemented the herbal rye very nicely indeed, before buttered corn and red berries joined in on the palate. The texture had lovely roundness; a velvety voluptuousness that offset the high notes nicely. Young, certainly, but crucially not immature.

Things got even better with the rye. First up was the standard Sonoma County. Pungent, earthy and spicy; no slouch in leaping from the glass. But what really dazzled was the mouthfeel. Unbelievably full-bodied and mouthcoating; and this is a 100% rye, usually the leaner, more medium-bodied cousin of bourbon. In fact, this is probably the first rye I’ve ever tried in which the spirit’s body was bigger than its flavour intensity … and it’s certainly not short on flavour.

I wasn’t quite so keen on the cherrywood rye. Still nice, but not quite scaling the heights of the “standard”. It’s a mixed mashbill, with elements of wheat and cherrywood-smoked barley, and personally I’d consider leaving the wheat out, as it reaffirms the youth of the spirit in a slightly distracting way. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still not bad, and it’s an interesting attempt to mimic the flavours of a Manhattan in a spirit. Just my tuppenceworth. But what do I know? And hey – anything that tastes like a Manhattan suits me.

Finally, the black truffle rye. Back to a 100% rye mashbill, but this one rested for a few months atop French black Périgord truffles. Nope, I don’t know either, but they sound expensive.

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

Photo Credit: East London Liquor Company

What a contribution they made. I tried a black truffle vodka last year that was utterly vile, but here the rancio notes of the truffles matched the signature earthiness of Sonoma’s rye spirit. Certainly they were the primary flavour, but they didn’t dominate; the rye was still clear and characterful. That stunning mouthfeel was back, and the flavours, amplified by truffle, were all the more intense. If anything it made the whiskey seem older than its years; there were flavours that reminded me more than a little of mature red burgundy. If you don’t like truffle, this definitively isn’t for you, but if you’re open to trying something a bit different then this might be very much your jam.

A mixed bag then, but one with far more positives than negatives. My gripes were largely confined to the wheat whiskey; I think it’s a very rare wheat whiskey that can provide interest in youth, but perhaps I’m just an unsympathetic audience. I think Adam and Sonoma are genuinely doing something interesting and idiosyncratic; they’re very much making their whiskies their way. The rye, in particular, is a must-try for the mouthfeel alone; I can only imagine how good it would be with an extra two years in cask.

1,300 distilleries is a heck of a crowded market, even considering today’s whiskey boom. The sad truth is that many are likely to be short-lived, especially given struggles with pricing. That’s one area that’s tricky for Sonoma; certainly in the UK they’re priced upwards of £50 a bottle, which isn’t cheap.

That said, I do hope that Sonoma survives and continues to thrive, and properly tasting the standard and potential of what they’re producing makes me almost certain that they will. The quality of their bourbon, and especially their house rye, shows that they do the staples very well, and their innovations elsewhere are only likely to keep getting better and better. I’d love to see them make a single malt using their cherrywood-smoked barley, and my inner wine-nerd would be fascinated to see what happened to that rye in an ex-Pinot Noir cask … but that’s up to Adam!

If they can keep the prices steady as the age of their whiskey creeps up, Sonoma County should be on to a winner. And so should consumers of American whiskey.

Fair enough @london_liquor – good tip!

Word by WhiskyPilgrim

BBS reviews a month of bourbon...

Our reviews section is looking a little sparse at the moment.

“A little sparse” might even be being kind. It currently sits at a grand total of four; a batting average of one every two months, with the first having been written on 5th December. Which feels a little unambitious for the British Bourbon Society.

What’s more, the four reviewed are hardly thick on the ground; ready to be scooped off shelves by eager punters keen to make good on newly-read information. Three are upwards of £150 (two of them by miles) and the fourth isn’t available in the UK. Which is hardly consumer friendly.

So this month we’re changing all that. Starting today we’re reviewing 31 different bourbons*, from 31 different distilleries*. (Yes, the asterisks denote that we will be cheating slightly on both counts. But only slightly.)

We’ll be covering a range of prices, availabilities, ages, and mashbills, from the dizzyingly rare to the on-offer-in-Asda. Which hopefully means that there’ll genuinely be something for everyone. The only two rules are that they’ll all be at least 51% corn, and they’ll all be distilled, matured, and bottled* in America.

No scores I’m afraid; you’ll have to actually read the words, though hopefully the quality and value verdicts will be pretty clear. And, as with all things review-y, caveat lector and caveat emptor.

Enough of the Latin already. Let’s taste some bourbon.

BBS tastes seven whiskies from Luxco with Woolf Sung

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

The good ship bourbon just keeps gaining pace in the UK. So it’s no surprise that new brands keep heading across the Atlantic for their share of sterling. The Luxco raft isn’t entirely new, per se, but their whiskies are certainly rare beasts this side of the pond, newly given a push by Woolf Sung. I’d only previously tried one of them, so it was with great curiosity that I headed to Greek Street on 3rd July for a tasting led by Milroy’s alumnus and Woolf Sung ambassador Angus Martin.

First up was the value end of their offering. David Nicholson is a brand that has been knocking around for a long while; owned by the Van Winkle family until it was purchased by Luxco in 2000, and therefore afforded a measure of the lustre associated with that most fêted of bourbon names.

The two we were trying were the rye-recipe Reserve, and the wheat-recipe 1843. Both cost somewhere around the £40 mark from the most obvious channels.

The Reserve was an enigma, with a decent, if not spectacular, nose that improved out of recognition on the palate. High rye and very enjoyable indeed. I’d have no hesitation in picking a bottle up.

The 1843 was very young. I’ve had this discussion with a few BBS members now, and I’m yet to be convinced that a wheat-recipe bourbon can avoid tasting a little young and “spirity” without at least 6-8 years of knitting itself together in a cask.

This was rather borne out by a side-by-side tasting of the old 1843, with its 7 years age statement. Instantly there was a gulf in aroma class; where the current entity features fairly basic cereals and caramel over a slightly distracting estery character, the 7 year old comes across as far more the unified whole. Richer, fuller and more harmonious in every respect. A slight estery character did return on the finish; 7 years is hardly ancient, after all, but whilst your mileage may vary, my own view was that the previous 1843 is in a different league to the NAS offering.

Next up, Bower Hill Reserve Rye. Which absolutely screamd MGPI. All the herbs (“dill,” said Angus) and spice and pine and florals associated with that distillery. If you’re a fan of that style (I am – immensely so) it’s mouthwatering stuff.

But then a shock. A couple of us had been chatting, and had assumed it was the usual 95% rye recipe. Until Angus revealed that it was in fact 51% rye, and 49% malted barley. Which begged the question: where was the barley? Everything about the aroma screamed rye. Screamed “very high rye.” At a real stretch, the palate was perhaps a smidge more voluptuous in body than one might encounter on a 95%, but the seemingly total absence (or possibly masking) of any barley character was astonishing.

A revelation then; and a very tasty one. But here’s the rub: it reminded me of Bulleit 95. That’s not a bad thing – Bulleit’s a cracking rye. But I can pick up Bulleit on offer at Asda for £22. At £70+, Bower Hill’s rather ambitiously priced. Worth seeking out by the glass rather than leaping straight into a full bottle purchase perhaps. After all, it may be exactly your cup of tea. But at the RRP, there’s an awful lot of competition – Pikesville 101 jumps to mind, for example – so caveat emptor and all that...

Which leads fairly neatly into the final trio of the evening. Blood Oath Pact No.2 was overlaid by a nice splash of red fruit; had a tasty, spicy rye core and a certain amount of complexity. Yellowstone 7 years old was very good indeed; unquestionably the pick of the bunch; whistle clean, hugely well-defined flavours of classic middle-aged bourbon (though I’m not sure how much of its wine finish showed...) Bower Hill Cask Strength was a brawny, nutty, woody, muscular beast of a bourbon; the sort of thing you want slid to you across a frontier saloon’s bar.

Very tasty, impressive stuff. Yellowstone in particular drew great admiration from the majority of those assembled (indeed one or two BBS members were practically cooing!) But it is worth bearing in mind that all three of these whiskies are priced more or less in line with Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection (at RRP). All things considered, I’d probably take Yellowstone over the last few editions of Eagle Rare 17. But I’d still be a little hesitant before buying a bottle. There are a lot of excellent bourbons and ryes that are considerably more affordable than the Luxcos; to my mind they’re overreaching themselves ever so slightly.

That said, I enjoyed every whiskey I tasted on 3rd July. They’re a diverse bunch with several points of difference, and they’re more than worth seeking out by the glass. Your position may differ where opinion on pricing is concerned; I only offer my tuppenceworth as a slight caution.

Thanks to the BBS, Milroy’s, Angus Martin and Sebastian Woolf for a very enjoyable evening.

 

NAB: Tasting Canada’s Pike Creek 10 year old Rum finish, J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old, and Lot 40 Rye.

Words by @WhiskyPilgrim

Something genuinely massive happened in the whisky world on 13th June, and hardly anyone seemed to notice.

In fairness, there wasn’t much fanfare. Three new whiskies popped up on The Whisky Exchange’s website. Pike Creek 10 years old Rum finish, Lot 40 Rye, and J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old. The significance? They are a trio of Canadian whiskies, and their appearance this side of the pond marks a watershed moment in world whisky appreciation and opportunity.

Considering it makes more than any nation other than Scotland, Canadian whisky is terribly poorly understood outside of its homeland. Relative to its size, it barely gets a passing mention in most whisk(e)y tomes; the only time it really made UK headlines was when Jim Murray named Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye his “Best Whisky in the World.” To which the near-universal response was “nonsense”.

For a clearer picture of the Canadian whisky scene, the only obvious comprehensive resource is Davin de Kergommeaux’s “Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert”. And as far as the UK consumer goes, good luck getting hold of it. I’ve had nothing but grief with my copy; a cautionary tale featuring 3-month delays, accidentally leaving it in coffee shops, and dropping it when fleeing a mugger. Hey ho. Perhaps he picked it up and educated himself.

The upshot is that misconceptions and sweeping statements surrounding Canadian whisky are rife. “It’s full of stuff that isn’t whisky” and “it’s all a load of rubbish” being the main generalisations. On top of which you have whiskies being called “rye” when they are mostly made from corn, myriad brands whose name bears no relation to the distillery that made them, and no real stylistic “signposts” such as mashbills to help guide the unwary consumer through profiles. (Canadian distilleries tend to mash the grains separately, blending them together as new spirit or mature whisky.)

Add to that the fact that Canada keeps most of its best juice “in house” and it is perhaps not surprising that Canadian whisky doesn’t command the legions of UK devotees enjoyed by Scotch or Bourbon.

A shame. Because Canada unquestionably boasts some of the best distilleries in the world, capable of making premier league whisky in a fascinating, unique and inimitable style. And three of the most well-known (over there) are Pike Creek 10, Lot 40, and J.P. Wiser’s 18yo.

Which brings us back to the 13th June.

More or less as soon as they appeared on TWE I hit the “buy now” button. Partially from excitement at finally seeing them, and partially because they are extremely handily priced. £25 for Pike Creek. £30 for Lot 40. £40 for J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old. Try and find another 18 year old whisky – from anywhere – for £40. I dare you.

So, American whiskey fans, the big question. What does the stuff North of the border taste like? And does it compare to the juice we’re more familiar with?

Pike Creek 10 year old, Rum finish. 42%ABV

Intriguing nose. Rum makes itself known straight away, adding a splash of tropical fruit and bite. There’s also a perfumed wood aspect, and a spicy – almost botanical – lift. Rye is a presence, but not an overwhelming one. It’s one of those noses in which there is no single dominant characteristic. Medium intensity.

Even more rum-like on the initial palate. Viscous, oily and sweet. Brown sugars and caramels. After which a firmness, reminiscent of blended Scotch, creeps in. Wheat? Tasty stuff, if a little short and simple. Think a Scotch blend, but in caramel and rum sauce.

J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old. 40% ABV

Takes a while for the nose to get going. Doesn’t leap from the glass. Needs time and warmth, but patience is rewarded, because what emerges is terrific stuff. Woody, with cigar tobacco, cedar, leather and musky aftershave. A touch of pine too – really nice balance of the deep and the lifted.

Big fat, oily palate – surprisingly full-bodied for 40%. Flavours come in a couple of waves; sweeter than the nose initially – this is where the brown sugar and caramel makes itself known – after which rye spices, wood and musk return. Unctuous texture, but those deep, woody, chocolatey, nutmeggy flavours feel slightly muted and shortened. I’ve never wanted a whisk(e)y to be another 6% stronger more. (I promise that’s not just me being an alcoholic...)

Lot 40 Rye Whisky. 43%

Boom! Rye! Bounds from the glass, but not in a sharp, MGP-esque style. This is elegant and floral (crazy floral) – full of violets and gently lifted. A slight candied orange rind too, and a little sawn pine-wood. Most intense nose of the trio by miles – don’t need your nose anywhere near the glass – and beautiful stuff.

Palate effectively a continuation, thought the rye becomes spicier and extra-lip-smacking. Would make a fascinating side-by-side with Bulleit. Switched on, poised and lean; still very floral indeed, and with a big hit of rye bread. Probably my favourite of the trio, and quite simply spectacular value.

Conclusions

 My initial reaction on tasting this trio was: tasty, but I want more engine. More oomph. The Wiser’s, in particular, seemed crying out for another 6% - those flavours are outstanding, but it feels as though someone’s turned the volume down. I was reminded of how I feel about Dalmore; another whisky with a thick, unctuous texture that seems to cruise along at 40%, dropping tantalising hints of just how special it could be.

But here’s the thing. The whisk(e)y industry is not built on high ABV, fasten-your-seatbelt stuff. Those might be the whiskies venerated online and flogged on the secondary market for megabucks, but they aren’t what bring people to the whisky table initially.

What really impresses me about these whiskies is how much they manage to deliver at such a modest alcohol level and, more significantly, such a modest price. J.P. Wiser’s, and particularly Lot 40, have plenty to offer the long-in-the-tooth whisky drinker, whilst also being supremely approachable, delicious whiskies for new consumers to get stuck into. As for Pike Creek, I can’t think of a blended Scotch on the market that can touch it for the price. And with its element of sweet new oak it makes a nice bridge in style from America to Scotland too.

These are serious, important whiskies. They are a platform from which Canadian whisky can grow in the UK. And I want more. Gooderham&Worts Four Grain was one of the most exciting whiskies I tried at Whisky Live in April – I want to see that on UK shelves too. Alberta distillery make some of the best rye in the world – let’s get some of that over here, and not just in overpriced WhistlePig bottles. And that’s before I’ve even mentioned the Single Malts popping up in distilleries across the country. I want to taste them all.

Hiram Walker, the distillery behind the trio I tasted, recently announced that they would be launching some special editions in the autumn. Amongst others, a J.P. Wiser’s 37 year old and a cask strength Lot 40 12 year old. I remember reading an article about them with longing, tempered by the disappointing certainty that none of those whiskies would make it to our shores.

Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves. They probably still won’t. In real terms, Canadian whisky has just dipped its toe into the UK market. There’s a long way to go before we start seeing special editions. But let’s hope that the three new arrivals are a statement of long-term intent. The Canadians are coming to Britain. And you need to get to know them.

I can’t wait.

  

Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Washington D.C.

Words by @JordanHarper

There are 2,700 whiskies on Jack Rose Dining Saloon’s menu, which means that the first big challenge for any patron is choosing what to drink first. 

A mixture of FOMO and choice paralysis meant I spent about 20 minutes flipping through the menu before settling on a pre-fire Heaven Hill from the 1980s.

Even after all that thought, I got it wrong.

A couple of minutes after ordering, one of the many knowledgeable staff approached our table:

“Sir, if you’re willing to spend $5 more, there’s a Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond from about five years earlier that’s one of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted from there.”

And that’s when — like every smart wine drinker with access to a sommelier — I stopped trying to be clever and decided to hand my fate over to the experts who know their way around that enormous list better than I ever could.

Starter

Heaven Hill ‘Old Style Bourbon’, 100 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Bottled in Bond circa 1982.

Genuinely one of the most perfectly balanced whiskies I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste. A rich and complex nose, nice little kick as it hits the tongue before hitting 90+ on every classic bourbon flavour note. Caramel, vanilla, butterscotch, charred oak and a bit of spice.

I could have climbed into the empty glass and lived there happily for a long time.

Having just arrived a couple of hours earlier on a long haul flight from London, I wasn’t just there to drink whiskey, and the food at Jack Rose is almost as good as the drink. Deciding to opt against a traditional glass of wine with my venison and to stick with whiskey, I sought the advice of resident expert Chris Leung.

Main Course

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2015

I’ve never really paid that much attention to Old Forester. I’ve no good reason why, it’s just never drifted onto my radar. That all changed earlier this year when I got hold of a bottle of their 1920 Prohibition Style KSB — I’m not sure there’s a better non limited-release bourbon on the market right now.

So when Chris recommended I pair Old Forester’s actual limited release product — the 12 year Birthday Bourbon — with my venison, I jumped at the chance to try it.

Compared to my pre-fire Heaven Hill starter, this was a whole different experience. Brighter, more vibrant and full of bruised bananas and high notes. I was dubious how any whiskey would pair with a fairly delicate venison dish, but it worked an absolute treat (particularly with the parsnips, oddly enough). One to note for the future.

Also to note: I’m not sure Birthday Bourbon is actually any better than Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style — that stuff is superb.

Dessert

Willett ‘808' 14yr old barrel proof (126.6) bourbon

On to dessert — beignets with chocolate sauce and dulce de leche — and on to as good a reason to visit Jack Rose as any…

Jack Rose has an obscene number of Willett bottlings, thanks to owner Bill Thomas’ long standing relationship with the Willett Family Estate, he’s been picking barrels there from back long before they were one of the bourbon world’s most coveted single barrel releases.

The ‘808’ is a stunner. Like pouring liquid salted caramel over your tongue — holding its 63.3% alcohol with no trouble at all, warming but full bodied, syrupy and rich. Its 14 years in the barrel have given it a colour like a varnished mahogany bar top, and it tastes like a couple of those were ground down and added to the mash. There was probably complexity here, but I was too busy melting into my chair to notice.

If you like Willett, you need to go to Jack Rose.

Digestif

High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21yr

While my colleagues sipped decaf coffee, I opted for a slight change in gear: a rye digestif.

Presented with three options by Chris: a dusty Old Potrero; Lock, Stock & Barrel 16; and the High West. I’m a big fan of High West’s core stuff (less so their barrel finishes) and was keen to try the oldest whiskey they’ve put out.

Sourced from Barton, Rocky Mountain Rye is described on the bottle as ‘whiskey distilled from a rye mash stored 21 years in reused cooperage’ — the reused bit meaning they can’t legally call it an American Rye Whiskey, which mandates new barrels only. This means we have a pretty unique whiskey here, not only because there’s not much rye lying around that’s this old, but that by using second or third fill barrels, the whiskey is going to be less heavy on the oak and retain a bit of character after a couple of decades.

I half wonder if someone at Barton didn’t accidentally dump this into used barrels, because I can’t think of a good reason that they’d do this on purpose, given the regulations around American whiskey (and the state of the industry 21 years ago). Maybe someone was drunk. Maybe it explains why it sat there for 21 years.

Either way, I really enjoyed Rocky Mountain Rye, a perfect end to the night and a nice bit of spice after all that smooth, smooth bourbon. It reminded me of Thomas H Handy — which is both a compliment to Handy, aged just 6 years, and to the brightness retained in this 21 year old — full of baking spices, sweet wood, a silky smooth mouthfeel and seamlessly integrated alcohol. More than anything else it’s just a smooth and enjoyable dram, very sophisticated and well balanced.

1982 Heaven Hill Old Style Bourbon, BIB · Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2015 · Willet KSB 14 yr 126.6 proof · High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21 yr

To be anywhere near Washington DC and not visit Jack Rose would be a big mistake if you’re a fan of whiskey. The staff are incredibly friendly and helpful — no matter what your level of spirit knowledge — and the food is pretty great too. Thoroughly recommended.

Bonus DC tip: A1 Wines & Liquor, 1420 K St NW. A pretty great selection of whiskey for a downtown liquor store and solid prices on pretty much everything I saw on the shelves. I spent about half an hour chatting to Eric and came away with a bottle of Rebel Yell Single Barrel 10, Lot 40 Canadian rye and Bowman Brothers Small Batch; and more importantly a bit more knowledge and wisdom on the subject of American whiskey.

Cheers!

First Look at Kaleidoscope, SMWS' New London Outpost

Words by @LondonLiquor

Central London is well served for great whisky bars as a glance at the BBS Bar Map demonstrates. Head out East, however, and there aren't too many inspiring options (with a handful of notable exceptions such as Black Rock and Bull In a China Shop).

Enter the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's new Kaleidoscope Bar located in Devonshire Square (close to BBS-favourite Pitt Cue) behind Liverpool St Station. It's still in the soft launch phase but initial signs are positive. The selection of SMWS Single Casks is unsurprisingly vast and pricing isn't too extreme, particularly with the 20% discount available for SMWS members.

Kaleidoscope also hits other key BBS Bar features: a range of tasting flights, interesting cocktails (although Penicillin is a striking omission), a decent beer selection and, perhaps most importantly, knowledgeable and unpretentious staff. Being situated underneath Mac & Wild also ensures that the snack menu is excellent with a Scotch Egg that's hard to beat.

The American whisky selection is currently tiny but that may change: SMWS has bottled several American whiskies in the past so fingers crossed some of those make an appearance! It had previously been announced to some fanfare that Dave Broom would be curating a non-SMWS whisky collection at the bar but this seems to have fallen by the way side for the time being - hopefully it appears in the future. 

BBS will be back at Kaleidoscope in a few weeks once it's fully opened to see if it warrants a coveted spot on BBS' Bar Map!

Celebrating LMDW's Sixtieth Anniversary with Blanton's Single Barrels and Pappy Van Winkle

By @LondonLiquor

On 20 March 2017, BBS hosted a unique tasting event at Milroy's of Soho: four Blanton's Single Barrel releases bottled exclusively by La Maison Du Whisky to celebrate their Sixtieth Anniversary. This was to be followed by a much anticipated Pappy Van Winkle raffle ... but first the Blanton's tasting.

All four Single Barrel releases had been bottled on the same date (15 August 2016) at the same ABV (60%) from barrels that had been stored next to each other on the same rick (15) in the same warehouse (H). In other words, the barrels were practically identical to all intents and purposes. But how different would they taste? Following a brief introduction to the Blanton's range and its unusual history from Simo and @londonliquor, as well as a couple of drams of the Blanton's Original and Gold releases to get warmed up, we got to find out.

Now, if BBS had learned one thing from selecting the first BBS FEW Single Barrel a few days earlier, it was to expect significant flavour variance. And we were not disappointed. Although all four displayed the core characteristics of Blanton's that has made the range a standout BBS favourite, different elements stood out across each barrel, particularly once a few drops of water had been added to temper the heat of the alcohol. More than one member was seen desperately searching the LMDW website to see if their favourite barrel was still in stock only to be disappointed!

After the tasting was all said and done, it was time for Milroys and BBS' much anticipated Pappy Van Winkle raffle. Now, there's no easy way to allocate rare releases. The fact that such releases are often immediately flipped on online auction sites for multiples of their RRP only complicates the situation further.

Thanks to Milroy's support, BBS was able to do something a little bit different to help fulfil one of our core aims: making sure that whisky goes to people who will actually drink and enjoy (rather than flip) it. The premise was simple: everyone who attended the tasting had their name put in a Glen Cairn. The first three names pulled out by Simo were offered the chance to buy a bottle of either Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year Old, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 Year Old or Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year Old for RRP. So far so usual. The twist was that each winner was asked to remove the foil from the bottle there and then to prevent any temptation to sell it. BBS was fortunate enough to have dinner with Preston Van Winkle a few days after the event who turned out to be a huge fan of our anti-flipping concept.  

In true BBS spirit, the winner of the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 Year Old immediately shared the bottle round the room so that everyone could see whether the hype matched reality. Having not been a fan of the 2015 release, I was blown away by the 2016 release – an epic bourbon.

Thank you to everyone who attended this event. Milroy's next tasting (the 1792 range) and Pappy raffle will take place on 18 June 2017! Sadly, it's already sold out.

BBS Awards 2017

The British Bourbon Society was proud to announce the winners of our inaugural Awards at BBS' First Anniversary Celebrations on 22 April 2017. We received a huge number of votes from BBS members and the results really speak for themselves. Congratulations to all of the 2017 Award winners!

Best Bourbon:

Honourable Mention: Rebel Yell 10 Year Old Single Barrel

Best Rye: 

Best Barrel Proof:

Best Allocated Release: 

Honourable Mention: Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 Year Old (2016)

Best NAB (Not a Bourbon):

Honourable Mention: Kilkerran 12 Year Old.

Best Whisky Bar: 

Honourable Mentions: Black Rock, The Lexington

Best Whisky Shop: 

Honourable Mention: Gerry's

Best Online Retailer:

BBS 1st Anniversary

Words by: The Bourbonator

The BBS train has offered up a wild ride over the past twelve months with more highlights than the Orient Express and a promise of even more beautiful vistas to come. We could think of no better way to celebrate our one year anniversary than with a monumental opus of a bourbon tasting at Milroys of Soho, the filling station where it all began, to be held on Saturday 22 April 2017. 

Our first anniversary tasting attempted to answer a question posed by many, “was bourbon better back then?” In preparation for the answer, we were able to source the question with a number of old bottles from Old Spirits Co. to pit against their modern day equivalents for a side by side tasting in a battle of ‘Old vs New’. The bottles entering the Thunderdome were:

Four Roses Yellow Label 1970’s VS Four Roses Yellow Label 2017

Evan Williams Black Label 1974 VS Evan Williams Black Label 2017

Wild Turkey 8 Year Old 101 1970’s –Wild Turkey 101 2017

Blantons Single Barrel 1988 – Blantons Single Barrel 2016

Old Taylor BiB 100 proof 1960 and Old Taylor 86 Proof 1984

In our quest for the truth, we were joined by over 25 BBS members as well as representatives of the European Bourbon and Rye Association, over from Zurich for the weekend on the return leg of our ‘bourbon cultural exchange program’. It's fair to say that the EBRA team had tasted more than their fair share of American whiskey and had a well-informed opinion on all things whisky. Whilst we all dream of driving that DeLorean on a whiskey shopping trip to 1984, their heaving bunkers are proof that they’d gotten there first!

Two by two, the whiskies were introduced and poured for the room to get their palates around with a show of hands determining which was preferred. Whilst it was not unanimous, the majority voted in favour of ‘old’, which did not come as a surprise to me. My dice might have been loaded from the start with the knowledge that older bourbons from the 1960s and 1970s are generally accepted to have been some of the best ever produced although it was interesting to see that, with the benefit of tasting side by side, this was a view supported by the majority of the room.  

What made bourbon better back then? This is still very much up for debate as over the years mash bills have changed, distilleries have closed (or burnt down), processes have become more industrialised, climate change has had an affect on water, wood and ageing and of course, time in the barrel all could have contributed to the taste that seems impossible to replicate in the whiskies of today. What is agreed is that due to the glut era, where supply outstripped demand by some margin, entry level bourbons most likely contained well aged stock over and above even the statement on the label. Today, with demand as high as it is, age statements are being removed from labels to ensure that distilleries are only obliged to bottle at the minimum 2 (or 4 years if a straight bourbon) which is most likely the contributing factor in the difference in quality. To be clear, it does not mean that the product today isn’t good, I would not have the obsession I have if it wasn’t, just that the product, from a taste perspective back then was on average nicer to drink. 

With the tasting concluded, it was time to deliver the first annual British Bourbon Society awards, given to BBS's favourite whiskies, retailers and bars as voted for by our members.  We'll have a post on our blog about that very soon but, if you can't wait, check our twitter or Instagram pages for the deserving winners that we were privileged to honour. 

Ten Brown Bottles

Words by @JordanHarper

If you could only have 10 bottles of (American) whiskey in your home bar, what would they be?

One of my favourite wine bars in London — 10 Cases — has a brilliant but simple premise: they only ever have 10 cases of each of their 10 red and 10 white wines for sale. When they sell out of one, they replace it with 10 cases of a completely new wine. As someone who has always favoured constantly enjoying new experiences over the comfort of a ‘favourite drink’, this approach appeals to me.

As a fan of American whiskey in all its forms, I have some fifty bottles of bourbon, rye and ‘other’ whiskey from the USA in my drinks cabinet, and it’s getting unwieldy, not to mention stifling me with the paradox of choice. What would happen if I took the 10 Cases approach and shrank it down to just 10 bottles? Not necessarily whittling down to the rarest or most expensive, nor trying to compile a comprehensive ‘lesson’ in American whiskey, but the ones I’d buy if I were building a collection right now (April 2017).

As an added constraint (and to make it more than just a vanity project), I’m going to try and conjure up a list of 10 whiskies available right now in the UK for a total price of £500 or less for a ’10 Cases’ refresh of my imaginary home bar.

Note: prices have been rounded-up in some cases for brevity, are subject to change based on availability and (apart from number 7) are generally available from all good whiskey specialists.

1. Elijah Craig 12, £32 (Amazon)

Heaven Hill, 47%

A long, long, long time favourite of mine. Probably the whiskey that got me into American spirit in the first place many years ago. Full bodied, sweet, charred oak, vanilla, toffee, a little bit of spice; the very epitome of what makes whiskey from the US unique. At 47% ABV you’re getting some serious bang for your buck, too — this is the biggest bargain in the bourbon world for me and is incredibly versatile.

Get it while you can though, it’s been discontinued in the US (to be replaced ‘Elijah Craig small batch’, no age-statement) but for now is still widely available in the UK.

Drink: When you just need a big old glass of chewy barrel juice.

2. Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye (£85, Nickolls & Perks)

Michter’s Distillery, 54.6% (varies per batch)

The resurrected Michter’s distillery make some seriously good juice, but none of it matches the bang-for-your-buck of their barrel strength rye. This stuff is a phenomenal example of what rye whiskey brings to the table and I can’t get enough of it. Spicy, but full of caramel and vanilla notes, a touch of orange and cherry and a huge finish.

It’s a little tricky to get a hold of as it’s a limited release, but their regular single barrel rye (42.4%, £55 from Milroy’s) is a more than adequate replacement if you can’t find it. There’s probably only one rye I’d take to my desert island over this one, but that‘s not exactly easy to get hold of.

Drink: When your palate is feeling adventurous and like you deserve something special.

3. Wild Turkey Rare Breed (£52, Master of Malt)

Wild Turkey, 56.4% (barrel strength, varies per batch)

I find Wild Turkey whiskey has one of the most distinctive flavour profiles in the bourbon world. A high rye mashbill, low barrel entry proof (like Michter’s) and a real talent for consistency means that you’re always getting a smooth, butterscotch, vanilla, maple, cinnamon and ever so slightly spicy whiskey when you buy WT – and their Rare Breed is a fine example of what they do so well, blending a mix of 6–12 year old whiskies to create their signature flavour.

If you wanted to save £20, Wild Turkey 101 is an only slightly diluted version of their barrel strength expression (50.5% ABV), keeping all of the classic WT flavours but with slightly less body and mouthfeel.

Drink: After a hard day at work and you want something spicy and punchy to knock some sense into yourself.

4. Eagle Rare 10 (£37, Master of Malt)

Buffalo Trace, 45%

 

Less than £40 for a ten year old bourbon is something not to be sniffed at, and when that whiskey comes from Buffalo Trace — where over 200 years of distilling expertise produces some of the best and most sought after whiskies in the country — then it’s a no-brainer.

Eagle Rare 10, like Elijah Craig 12, is a classic example of Kentucky bourbon — rich and full bodied, full of maple syrup, orange peel, oak and vanilla — and is my go to bottle when I’m too tired to scan my cabinet and just want a glass of something I’m going to enjoy. They also have a lively single-barrel program (with Single Barrel selections available in BrewDog and The Cocktail Trading Company in London), which without fail I’ve always enjoyed even more than the off the shelf juice.

Drink: When you’re feeling content, and need a nice, straightforward dram to see the night off.

5. Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Straight Rye (£35, Nickolls & Perks)

Heaven Hill, 50%

 

If Elijah Craig was the whiskey that piqued my interest in American spirits, it was Rittenhouse that made me realise why rye whiskey was very much the spirit of America (pre-prohibition).

There’s not a lot of subtlety to Rittenhouse 100, for £35 you get a big spicy rye punch, full of cloves and a hint of citrus. So full bodied and packed with oak and vanilla it’s like a mouthful of bourbon-soaked peppercorns. Pretty much the Elijah Craig of rye whiskies – almost improbably great value and there aren’t many ryes better at twice the price in this author’s opinion.

Drink: when you fancy a manhattan, or just being warmed into a night of excess.

6. Four Roses Small Batch (£33, Milroy’s of Soho)

Four Roses, 45%

 

Ahh, foam bananas doused in whiskey and set alight! Four Roses limited edition bourbons have become extremely sought after, and their method of blending up to ten recipes (5 yeasts, 2 mash bills) is now somewhat legendary. Given all that geekery, it’s easy to forget that at the more available and affordable end of the scale, with their Small Batch (and Single Barrel) offerings, you can pick up pretty much the same flavours but at a fraction of the price.

FRSmB is a blend of four of the ten ‘recipes’ (details here) to create a smooth, rye heavy but incredibly sophisticated and well rounded bourbon that’s quite savory — think honey on toast (and the aforementioned foam bananas doused in whiskey). It’s the John Lennon to Elijah Craig’s Paul McCartney.

Drink: When you’re feeling like something a little different, or want to show your friends that not all bourbons are created equal.

7. FEW Delilah’s 23rd Anniversary (£62.50, The Whisky Exchange)

FEW Spirits, 50%

Image Credit: The Whisky Exchange

I’m a huge fan of FEW Spirits. For a young distillery, it’s genuinely remarkable how much depth and flavour Paul Hletko and his team are getting out of their barrels. I’m beginning to think that they’re concealing a time machine on the shores of Lake Michigan somewhere.

FEW’s regular Bourbon and Rye offerings are pretty great, but this very limited release to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of Chicago institution Delilahs really is something else. My first attempt at tasting notes were that it tasted like dark chocolate digestive biscuits and spiced toffee. It’s absolutely delicious and super-limited, but if I was restocking the bar now, I’d be making sure I grabbed one of these before they’re all gone.

Drink: When you’ve switched the Jazz for Blues and are seriously considering polishing off an entire bottle.

8. Blanton’s Gold Edition (£65, Master of Malt)

Blanton’s 51.5%

Blanton’s is a funny old beast. For the most part, every whiskey on this list is cheaper and more easily available in the US. Blanton’s have a very unusual distribution arrangement: thanks to the brand being owned by Age International (but distilled by Buffalo Trace) and being Big in Japan, they are focused heavily on the export market.

As such, bottles like Blanton’s Gold (and their Straight From the Barrel release) are almost impossible to get a hold of in the US — and when they are available are generally more expensive than buying them abroad — so for once, it pays to be a bourbon fan outside of America!

Essentially, Blanton’s Gold Edition is just an extra selective version of their Single Barrel release (widely available everywhere). It’s a lot drier and more tannic than a lot of other bourbons, but packs a HUGE oaky punch as a result. Along with a ton of vanilla and toffee, and a richness that’s almost overwhelming. This is a last drink of the night kind of bourbon, but it really is pretty great.

Drink: When you just need that one last hit before bedtime.

9. Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey (£45, Milroy’s of Soho)

Buffalo Trace, 45%

Image credit: Gear Patrol

A crisp and spicy New Orleans style rye, a little more subtle and aromatic than Rittenhouse, unsurprisingly a great choice if you’re making a Sazerac cocktail.

You could argue that you only really need one of this or Rittenhouse in your line-up, but I think having them both here really highlights the versatility of this style of spirit.

Drink: When you’re making pre-prohibition cocktails, or fancy something spicy but gentle on your tastebuds.

10. High West Double Rye (£43, The Whisky Exchange)

High West blend of MGP + Barton 46%

And finally, something a little bit different. High West’s double rye is a blend of a sweet 16-year-old 53% rye whiskey from the Barton distillery and a much fresher and spicier 2-year-old 95% MGP rye. This results in a delicious blend of old and new: with oak and age bringing a bit of sophistication to a more vibrant younger whiskey.

It’s a great example of the interesting stuff happening in the US and a great value dram to have in your cabinet. It’s not always easily available, so grab a bottle while you can.

Drink: When you fancy appreciating the spirit of American adventure and rebelling against the age-statement chasing fanboys (and girls).

That’s it! In summary, then ten bottles you’d find hitting my shelf first if the burglars robbed my spirits cabinet blind, are:

  1. Elijah Craig 12 (£32)
  2. Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye (£85)
  3. Wild Turkey Rare Breed (£52)
  4. Eagle Rare 10 (£37)
  5. Rittenhouse BiB Straight Rye (£36)
  6. Four Roses Small Batch (£33)
  7. FEW Delilah’s 23rd Anniversary (£62.50)
  8. Blanton’s Gold Edition (£65)
  9. Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey (£45)
  10. High West Double Rye (£43)

That’s just under £500 for four ryes, four bourbons and one brilliant blend – if I never had to drink an American spirit outside of that selection again, I’d still spend the rest of my days drinking some really great whiskey.

 

BBS & FEW Barrel Pick Artwork

A FEW weeks ago, BBS picked its first ever Single Barrel Release. You can read about that here.

A special bourbon deserves a special bottle so we got straight to work designing a unique label to celebrate this BBS milestone. We'll leave you to judge how it worked out.

We hope you're all as excited as we are - stay tuned for further details of BBS Release One over the next few weeks! One thing we can say is that this bottle is going to be incredibly limited, with the barrel expected to yield around 100 Cask Strength bottles. We know that not everyone will be able to get one, but don't worry, we're confident you'll be able to try it at our launch event(s) later this year.

Blind Tasting my way to Pappy Van Winkle 

Words by @MCRBourbon

The headline of Hedonism Wines' newsletter a few weeks back caught my eye: ‘Pappy Van Winkle Giveaway and Blind Tasting’. Not the kind of e-mail any BBS member could ignore, even on a Monday morning! Hedonism had received a small allocation of the Van Winkle whiskies, a single bottle of the 12, 20 and 23 year-old expressions, and had come up with a fun way to allocate them. The rules were simple: a blind tasting of five American whiskies at their store in Mayfair, London for £65. Each participant would be asked to identify the distillery, ABV, age, US state of distillation and mash bill. There would be three tasting sessions and the winner of each would get to pick a bottle of Pappy, with first choice going to the person with the highest score. 

If you are a reader of the BBS blog, you probably already know a fair bit about the Van Winkle whiskies and may have even come to one of BBS' Pappy events. For anyone who doesn't, 'Pappy' is amongst the most sought-after bourbons on the market today. While retail prices are fairly reasonable, bottles are almost impossible to find in shops and frequently can only be found on the secondary market auction sites for insane prices. Having been fortunate enough to own various Pappys over the years, I've long considered the 23 Year Old to be the best. Finishing my last bottle of 23 Year Old was a mixed experience: saddened to see it go but also grateful to have experienced an incredibly unique and complex wheated bourbon. The chance to win another was too good to turn down. 

Being that I live in Manchester, over 160 miles North of London, I booked a ticket for Hedonism's Saturday afternoon blind tasting session with a day return train. I also blagged my bourbon partner in crime, and frequent bandit of my top shelf, Jack into coming along for the ride. We would make a day of it and meet up with a couple of BBS buddies in the Lexington afterwards for a few pours, before getting the train back up North.

Training

As soon as I'd signed up, I began training for the event ... for two gruelling weeks. Picture, if you will, a Rocky-style pre-fight preparation montage, Eye of the Tiger belting out, my incredibly supportive girlfriend pouring me mystery whiskies from my collection and me, doing my best to guess what they were. Initially, my results weren’t great. I could mostly get the distillery but pinpointing the exact whiskey was hit and miss. Sometimes, I was miles away. I did what every aspiring champion should do: I drank more whiskey. My results improved to the point where I was correctly identifying multiple bottles blind. I was ready.

And then, a minor setback. The night before the tasting a good friend had come back up North. We went out in Manchester for a few scoops and then went back to mine for a few more. I don’t know how I did it but I somehow managed to get myself on the train with seconds to spare. A microwaved cheese and tomato panini that was the temperature of molten lava acted as a well needed stomach sponge. Somehow, Jack and I made it to Hedonism in Mayfair with time to spare.

The Event

First impressions of Hedonism were good. Despite being a frequent browser of their website, I had never visited the store. Nothing could have prepared me for the ridiculous selection of every type of wine and spirit imaginable. American whiskey-wise, there were unicorns galore. A 1990 Van Winkle 17 Year Old, Michter’s 25 Year Old Rye, and Martin Mills were just some of the legendary bottles sat on the shelves.

Ben Murray, Hedonism’s Spirits Buyer, hosted the tasting. It quickly became apparent that Ben was as passionate and knowledgeable about American whiskey as they come and a thoroughly nice bloke too. Nine of us sat around the table as Ben explained the rules. Ten points were available for each of the five whiskies. If you guessed the exact whiskey, you would get maximum points for that round. The previous night’s high score stood at twenty. I had half expected the pours to be run of the mill, easily obtainable, mid to low level pours but I was wrong! After nosing the glasses for a few seconds, I realised that irrespective of whether or not I won a Pappy, this tasting offered great value for money. And so the blind tasting began. 

Whiskey One: a no-brainer: a Buffalo Trace wheater all day long. Struggling between Van Winkle 12 and Weller 12, I opted for Weller 12, which it proved to be.

Whiskey Two: I had it down as barrel-proof and around twelve years old so I guessed at Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. This was Four Roses Small Batch 2015 LE. I’m still quite disappointed that I didn’t get it right as it’s one of my favourite bourbons of recent years!

Whisky Three: I struggled with. I could tell it was a rye, not massive proof and quite old so I guessed Sazerac 18. This was High West Rocky Mountain Rye 21 which I had never tasted before so I thought my guess was OK. 

Whisky Four: I knew straight away, Parker’s Heritage Malt. So distinctive and it made sense to be on there for variety.

Whisky Five: I was miles off. Initially, I thought it was an old bourbon but then I got some typical MGP rye notes. There was a ton of orange peel and some of the distinctive ‘pickle juice’ I’ve seen people mention with MGP rye. I was torn between Willett XCF or WFE Rye and ended up marking it as an eight year Willett Rye. It was Jefferson’s Presidential Select 21 so a massive fail on my behalf.

The whiskies varied at each session and there were some ridiculously good bottles there. Ben was kind enough to send a picture of the final line up. 

FB_IMG_1489962327635.jpg

The scores were announced and I was the winner on the day with 28 points, leaving me in first place. Jack came a respectable second with 20 points. I was guaranteed at least a Pappy 20 year and if nobody beat my score in the last session that evening, the 23 year was mine. After leaving my mobile number with Ben, we went to the Lexington to meet the proprietor and BBS legend Stacey, where we continued to drink some fantastic bourbons.

Victory!

On the train home, I checked my phone to see that I had a voice message. It was Ben asking for a call back. My hands were trembling as I returned the call, eager to know how I had done. I was informed that nobody had managed to beat my score and the pick of the bunch was mine! A Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old was mine. 

 

At a recent Van Winkle tasting, Preston Van Winkle mentioned that Hi-Spirits, the new UK distributor, were working hard to ensure that Pappy only went to people who would actually drink, rather than flip, it as per the Van Winkle family’s wishes. This is an initiative that BBS wholeheartedly supports. Indeed, we recently held a Blanton's tasting and Pappy Van Winkle raffle with Milroy's of Soho. If you won the raffle, you could buy Pappy at retail price – the only rule was you had to take the foil off in the store to immediately stop any temptation to flip. Similarly, one of the rules of the Hedonism competition was that the Pappy bottle would be defoiled before being sent out to customers.

At around midday today, my bottle arrived in nuclear bomb-proof packaging and parafilmed to high-heaven. I poured myself a nice glass as soon as I got home. Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old is just as fantastic as I remember it and I feel incredibly lucky to have won this bottle. It will be thoroughly enjoyed by me and some of my good friends over the coming months.

 

The first ever British Bourbon Society single barrel has been chosen!

Words by @WhiskyPilgrim

I promise we didn’t deliberately just pick the booziest one.

So there we are in Milroy’s, doing our best sardine-tin impersonation in their upstairs tasting room. To my left, @The_Bourbonator is using a mixture of trickery and bullying to convince @london_liquor that Sample Four is the best. To my right, Simo, commander-in-chief at Milroy’s, is shouting “drown it in water!” (The bourbon, not @london_liquor, and that’s actually a good tip for seeing if a cask is flawed or not.) In front of me, speckling the table like spots on a pubescent teenager’s face, 28 Glencairns at varying degrees of emptiness.

Tableaux like this have probably framed most of the moments on which the world has turned. I imagine Apple being founded under similar circumstances. You know they were at it at Yalta. Doubtless when King John signed Magna Carta there was some baron or other in the background bellowing for the head of whoever put water in his mead.

This particular moment possibly won’t be studied by 11 year olds in 800 years time. But it nonetheless represents the most significant step for the British Bourbon Society since its founding, almost a year ago. The achievement, in fact, of the society’s primary raison d’être. (Pardon my French.) The selection of the first BBS cask of bourbon.

Huge amounts of time and effort went towards this culmination. (None, I hasten to add, from me.) Through the Society’s growing network of contacts, feelers had been put out to look into acquiring a cask for some time, and Paul Hletko, the man behind F.E.W spirits, was generous enough to offer samples. Which brings us back to Milroy’s, and the small bottles of cask strength bourbon around which we were so eagerly gathered.

But first, a brief look at F.E.W itself. The distillery opened in 2011 in Evanston, Illinois, just North of Chicago. That’s more or less the heart of the historical Temperance movement, but Paul insists that the name F.E.W has nothing to do with the initials of Frances Elizabeth Willard; a local to the area and a leading Temperance figure.

F.E.W is a central part of the revolution of whiskey distilleries springing up across America. In fact Paul is now Board President of the American Craft Spirits Association. Brand ambassador John, who was talking us through the company and samples, emphasised the grain-to-glass nature of the distillery. Everything happens on site; small-scale, labour-of-love stuff. From the individual yeast strains (Belgian beer for the bourbon, red wine for other products) to the ever-so-slightly wider cut, everything seems geared towards making a product with a unique and idiosyncratic flavour. Which has to be applauded. And which makes it, in my opinion, a perfect first whiskey for the BBS to bottle.

John took us through the flagship bourbon and a couple of ryes whilst we waited for the last couple of tasters to arrive. (I know – who turns up late for something like this?) At 8pm we got through to Paul himself via skype to offer our thanks and so that he could talk us though the barrel selection.

And then the main event. @MCRBourbon was standing by somewhere in the North West, samples prepped and ready to go, and without further ado we cracked on ourselves. Initially the plan had been to scribble some scores for each and tot them up at the end, but in the event it felt simpler and more natural to just talk through our thoughts and hopefully reach some consensus.

So how were they?

Sample One, at 61% ABV, felt a little unready. Intense; no slouch in jumping out of the glass, but the cereals felt a little farmyardy and over-prominent, the spirit a little meaty. It’s still an adolescent – needs a bit more time in the barrel to knit itself together.

Sample Two we loved at first sniff. 61.7% ABV, but of all four samples, this one took the alcohol best in its stride. Sweet, balanced and full of lovely caramels and sugars, just edging towards something floral. Cask strength on its best behaviour; heat really dialled back and controlled by flavour and body. Crowd-pleasing in the sense of being a high-proof bourbon you could pour to a newcomer, confident it wouldn’t be met with a wince.

Alcohol jumped upwards for the next one – to 64.2% - and it showed. Sample Three was quite enigmatic. Lots of floral character, with some of Sample One’s cereals returning too. There was certainly a lot to like – but nothing defining really screamed out “pick me, pick me.” Whilst I know I preferred it to Sample One, it still feels the least memorable of the tasting. 

And then there was Sample Four. Biggest of the lot, at 64.5%, but more significantly the biggest by far on flavour. The booze did really wallop you on the nose to begin with, but that died back after a moment or two, after which wonderful things happened. By far the most rye-forward; real firmness and definition of spicy grain, but then layers and layers of deep dark chocolate and caramel and oak. An absolute stunner.

When it came to voting there was an overwhelming favourite, and no prizes for guessing which. Definite honourable mention to Sample Two – shame we’re not taking both! – but all but one of us voted Sample Four as our pick. The first British Bourbon Society Barrel had been chosen.

There’s more work to do. Label designs are flying back and forth, then of course bottling and the small matter of shipping those bottles to the UK needs to happen. But the wheels are in motion. Pretty soon 150 or so lucky people will be charging their Glencairns with BBS-label F.E.W. Cask strength, naturally. We’ll keep you updated.

And hopefully this is just the beginning. After the tasting a lot of the talk surrounded “which distillery next?” ... “who would you most want a barrel from?” ... “there’s still some of that sample left – can I take it?” (That last one was me.) At any rate, it seems certain that at some point in the unseen but imminent future we’ll be back at Milroy’s in pursuit of BBS Bourbon the Second.

in the meantime, it’s fair to say that we’re pretty chuffed with Number One. Hopefully you will be too. Like I say, we didn’t pick the booziest on purpose. But it’s nice when things work out.

Massive thanks to Paul Hletko and the whole F.E.W team. Also to John Young, Michael Vachon and James Goggin.

@britishbourbonsociety @whiskybunker @london_liquor @barrelproofandy @the_bourbonator @mcrbourbon @edkinguk 

BBS' inaugural BYOB ‘popup tasting’ at The Lexington

Words by The Whisky Pilgrim

Two things stood out to me as I made my way home from the inaugural British Bourbon Society Bring Your Own Bourbon (BYOB) ‘popup’ event on Saturday evening. Firstly, I’ll be eating a lot more the morning before the next one. And secondly, if an official tasting was held of the lineup we had enjoyed, I shudder to think what the ticket price might be.

The idea, conceived by The Bourbonator, was a simple one. Cram as many BBS members into a room as possible; each brandishing a bottle or two from their own collection for a free tasting...and see where things go from there. Conveniently BBS member Stacey is also bourbon guru in-chief at the excellent Lexington bar near Kings Cross, and generously volunteered it as the room into which said membership could cram.

Persuading a friend that the event would be just the thing to kick off his bourbon education I made my way over to the Lexington for 2pm sharp on Saturday 25th. I even brought my little red tasting note book, though I abandoned it early on in the proceedings – wasn’t really that sort of event. (For which, to be honest, we should probably all be thankful.)

In fact it was exactly the sort of laid back, unpretentious meetup for which BBS tastings are rapidly becoming synonymous. The casual atmosphere belied the quality of the bottles assembled on the bar though; everything from 15 year old dusties to modern classics; bourbons, ryes, malts and even a stray bottle of VelierPapalin rum, courtesy of London Liquor.

Once the arrival meet-and-greet was underway with members having travelled from as far afield as Manchester and Brighton to attend, Stacey opened the billing with three venerable auction finds; past-era bottles that none of us – including Stacey herself – had previously encountered. This was offset by London Liquor, who provided the harmlessly incongruous (and, even to this sceptic, delicious) Velier rum, alongside bourbon in the shape of Bookers, F.E.W and the final couple of drams of a much-treasured Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye.

The pattern of the afternoon ran thus: introduce yourself and your bottles, then those assembled could sample at their leisure. I don’t know whether anyone made their way through the entire collection; if they did then their liver is of cast iron and their Sunday must have been abominable.

As you’ll see from the photos below, the entire lineup was outstanding. All eyes turned to the bottle of 1958-distilled Very Old Fitzgerald, but on this afternoon of highlight after highlight I still didn’t have an answer when people started comparing notes on favourites at the end. Three that would have competed for my vote though, aside from the VOF itself, were the 10 year old Notch Single Malt from Nantucket, WhistlePig 11 year old Rye and a Traveller’s Edition bottling of Old Crow from the seventies.

We’ve had a fair few BBS events now, as the Society creeps closer and closer to its first birthday. Most have been themed by distillery or bottler; tastings of the Van Winkle and Michter’s lineup, or the Smooth Ambler Range. None have shown American whiskey’s diversity as fully as this popup did though, and in that sense it has to rank as one of the very best yet. The friend I dragged along – by his own admission a total newcomer to bourbon – left the tasting with new horizons...and a long shopping list.

This inclusivity and diversity was further underlined by the presence of bottles right across the spectrum of price and rarity. Elijah Craig 12 and Maker’s 46 sat cheek-by-jowl with the impossible to find and the dizzyingly expensive. Each bottle given time, respect, a fair hearing and a chance to prove its worth based on flavour.

I don’t think there’s anyone who attended on Saturday who won’t be back for round two, whenever it happens. A tasting on that scale, and of that quality, for the price of your train fare and an offering from your own collection. Seriously – what’s not to love?

Oh. And there was also pizza.

Cheers!

Huge thanks to Stacey and the staff at The Lexington for being amazing hosts. Also to the BBS founders and to everyone who contributed bottles and samples.