Push through the bookcase at the back of Milroy’s of Soho, descend the twisting staircase into the Vault and you might stumble upon the gloomy passage in the far corner that leads into the narrow confines of Milroy’s infamous Barrel Room. The Barrel Room has witnessed all manner of legendary tastings in its time, despite only seating 12 at a push, including the infamous grain to grape champagne & whisky doubleheader hosted by Jolyon to mark his departure to the vineyards of the South France in August.
The British Bourbon Society contributed two more excellent tastings to the Barrel Room’s long list on 4 October 2016 with the able assistance of Adam Spiegel, Sonoma County Distilling Co’s distiller, and Brent Elliott, Four Roses’ distiller.
Sonoma County Distilling Co tasting with Adam Spiegel
Let’s get it out the way early: BBS are fans of Sonoma County. Since the distillery opened in 2010, Adam has made whisky using traditional techniques, such as direct-fired alembic pot distillation, and kept every step of the process in-house, from the mashing and open-top fermentation of grains right through to the American oak barrel aging and bottling. We visited the distillery located on the outskirts of Santa Rosa in June and saw this for ourselves. The authenticity of Sonoma County’s whiskies stands in sharp contrast to the faux heritage stories peddled by a large number of the whisky/gin/vodka distilleries that have opened across the States and UK in the past five to ten years.
Having established that Sonoma’s whiskies have excellent provenance, how do they actually taste? Adam had brought along bottles from Sonoma’s ever expanding core range for BBS to taste: West of Kentucky Bourbon #1, 2 & 3, Sonoma Rye Whisky and 2nd Chance Wheat Whisky as well as Cherrywood and Black Truffle Rye limited releases. As Adam willingly acknowledges, Sonoma County is not currently releasing particularly old whiskies – the majority have been aged for between one and two years. Despite this, BBS members found the complexity and depth of flavour to be consistently high across the range. The Rye (“great sipper and the ultimate Manhattan whisky”) and West of Kentucky Bourbons were particularly highly rated.
The Black Truffle Rye whisky was the perfect way to round off the tasting: a reassuringly big spicy hit coats the whole mouth before dark truffle notes emerge that linger into a long finish. For the adventurous drinker willing to venture outside of the Scotch/American whisky orthodoxy, this would be an excellent post-dinner dram.
So what did BBS learn? In a crowded marketplace, the quality and craft of Sonoma Whisky really stands out. They aren’t cheap in the UK but well worth trying out. We look forward to seeing how the flavours continue to develop in future Sonoma releases as the barrels age further.
[Postscript: BBS stumbled across Adam Spiegel a few days later at East London Liquor Co where he was distilling a new wheat whisky. The new make spirit was something of a revelation: incredibly rich and creamy, without the acetone notes that can often be found. We’ll be picking up a bottle when this hits the shelf in three years].
Four Roses tasting with Brent Elliott
After a brief intermission, it was time for the second tasting of the night to get underway with Brent Elliott, Four Roses’ Master Distiller. BBS has more than its fair share of Four Roses fanatics, which made the opportunity to hold an impromptu tasting of all 10 recipes of Four Roses, along with the Yellow Label, Small Batch, Single Barrel and 2015/16 Small Batch Limited Edition releases, with Brent impossible to resist.
For the uninitiated, Four Roses uses two different mash bills: the low rye ‘E-Mashbill’ (75% corn, 20% rye & 5% malted barley) and the high rye ‘B-Mashbill’ (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley). Four Roses produces 10 distinct recipes by combining each mashbill with one of five different yeasts: V (Delicate Frutiness), K (Slight Spice), O (Rich Frutiness), Q (Floral Essence) and F (Herbal Essence). These recipes are distilled separately before being aged in 53 gallon barrels in single-storey warehouses (in contrast to the multi-story set up in place at many other warehouses across Kentucky where the significant heat differential between the different stories can have a significant impact on aging).
As BBS knows all too well, getting hold of single barrel releases of all ten Four Roses recipes is extremely difficult - we’ve been trying to do it for the past year with limited success! Fortunately, Brent put us out of our misery by bringing along generous samples of all ten recipes. For the low rye E-Mashbill, we were treated to: OESV 12 Year Old, OESF 12 Year Old, OESK 8 year Old, OESQ 7 Year Old, OESO 11 Year Old. For the high rye B-Mashbill, we had: OBSV 11 Year Old, OBSF 7 Year Old, OBSK 6 Year Old, OBSQ 8 Year Old, and OBSO 10 Year Old.
Any cynicism that we may have harboured regarding the impact of the different yeasts on the flavour of the two mash bills quickly evaporated as we tasted our way through the ten samples. There were at least three or four contenders for best of the night but the intensely herbal/floral characteristics of the OESF really stood out and showed why this recipe had become such a favourite on Four Roses’ Single Barrel program.
With 10 different recipes available at various different ages, Brent explained the key role that blending plays across all of Four Roses product. Nearly all of the recipes find their way into the entry-level Yellow Label product, in varying proportions, with smaller number of recipes being used at higher ages for Four Roses’ more premium releases. After tasting the Yellow Label (a veritable bargain at £22), Small Batch (a noticeable step up in quality for £26) and Single Barrel (a single barrel product for around £40 has almost no competitors on the UK market), it was time for the Small Batch Limited Edition face off: 2015 versus 2016. The 2015’s blend of OBSK 16 Year Old, OESK 15 Year Old, OESK 14 Year Old and 11 Year Old OBSV recipes had won nearly every award going in the past year. Could the 2016’s blend of 16 Year Old OESK, 12 Year Old OESO and 12 Year Old OBSV recipes compete?
Yes – in a side-by-side tasting, BBS were divided over whether the 2015 or 2016 edged the victory. Tasting these two whiskies side by side also revealed exactly why limited edition releases are so important. While both were recognisably Four Roses releases, they were very different from each other in emphasising entirely different flavour profiles. We can be thankful that Brent didn’t play it safe with the 2016 release by trying to replicate the 2015 release.
After being joined by Satoko Yoshida, Four Roses’ President & CEO, and Benji Purslow, UK Four Roses’ Ambassador & long-standing friend of BBS, for a final tasting of the 2016 Small Batch Limited Edition, it was closing time at Milroys and the end of a fantastic night of whisky.
Special thanks to Milroy’s of Soho for hosting us and everyone who came along.