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.
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.
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.
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.
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.