Leopold Bros Maryland Style Rye Review

Whiskey Name: Leopold Bros Maryland Style Rye

Distillery: Leopold Bros

Whiskey Type: Rye

Release Date: General release. First came out in 2011

Price: $45. (I can’t find it in the UK)

Age: NAS

ABV: 43%

Mashbill: (Roughly) 65% rye, 15% corn, 20% malted barley

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Introduction/Background: Another craft rye; this time from Denver in Colorado. The spiel on the website talks about the two types of “pre-prohibition rye” – Pennsylvania and Maryland. The former was “generally dry, spicy, and heavily oaked”, whilst Maryland style was “fruity, floral, and less aggressive”.

To recreate these flavours, Leopold Bros have played around considerably with yeast strains and “secondary bacterial fermentation”. Golly, fungus and bacteria. When you think about it, we whisk(e)y nerds get excited about some awfully odd things.

Anyhow, it was a fellow whisk(e)y nerd who brought this fungal, bacterial pour to my attention. Jordan, who has scribbled for the website, read about them in Thad Vogler’s By the Smoke and the Smell (which I still need to read) and went hunting on one of his endless US work trips. (I’m not jealous...)

Rightly thinking that some acetic acid bacteria action would be just what I’d like to try, he kindly furnished me with a sample. Which brings us here.

Appearance: Pale copper

Nose: That is a funk. A BIG funk. A fruity, farmyardy, yeasty, grainy funk. With a dab of honey – almost as an afterthought. Over-ripe apples and straw that animals have slept in. A bit of wild strawberry and lavender too. Primal stuff. Puts you outdoors.

Mouth: The funk is reined back a bit here. A bit. Tastes ‘cleaner’, and more typical of modern rye. (Albeit less woody). More polished and oak-influenced than the nose, although the dominant notes are still rye grain and earthiness. I’m put in mind of a young Masterson’s 10 ever so slightly – albeit the mashbills are, of course, very different. A little chocolate, aniseed and yeast.

Finish: A return to the savoury grain and funky, meat. The yeast characteristic lingers.

Value for Money: Worth $45 if you like this sort of thing.

Summary: Bracing, visceral stuff – and a wild ride. Everything about this whiskey seemed to put me outdoors; not so much a pour for late evening in an armchair as something to charge a flask with before a day’s autumn walk across hills and farm-studded woodland.

Run-of-the-mill it ain’t. This is proper whiskey nerd whiskey; no crowd-pleasing here. Given the fairly modest proof, there’s an awful lot of funky flavour (and particularly aroma) to take in. After a cask strength version you’d probably need a lie down.

It’s never going to sit in a “best ever” category. It’s far too weird. Being critical, it’s also rather overtly youthful, and the joyful madness of the aroma stampede doesn’t quite cover up a bit of disjointedness when it comes to harmony. In any case, “best” isn’t really the point. It’s shooting for uniqueness and character, and both of those briefs have been nailed.

By no means for everyone then. But as a bottle to open when you’ve some fellow whiskey nuts round; something to really geek out with a bit, it’s a hit in my book. Though I’d probably stick to just a glass or two. I lack the requisite funkiness.

Overall Verdict: Tread carefully ... but do try it if you find it.

Cheers to Jordan for the sample!

Words by WhiskyPilgrim 

Bernheim Original 7 Years Aged Review

Whiskey Name: Bernheim Original 7 years aged

Distillery: Heaven Hill

Whiskey Type: Wheat whiskey

Release Date: General release

Price: £60

Age: 7 years young

ABV: 45%

Mashbill: 51% wheat, 39% corn, 10% malted barley

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Introduction/Background: Bernheim is a whiskey which picks up an awful lot of awards. It tends to be top of its class in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, for example, and its product page on most retail websites is bedecked with more Golds than Michael Phelps.

Impressive stuff.

However, it isn’t playing in what you’d call the most crowded of fields. Bernheim is a wheat whiskey, which means that for most of its natural life its competition has been zilch. Frankly even I’d fancy my chances if I were the solo entrant in something. Though I do seem to dimly recall almost coming second out of two in a primary school sportsday race once.

Wheat is such a trendy grain at the moment though, what with everyone trying to be the next Pappy, that inevitably potential usurpers to Bernheim’s lonely throne are beginning to emerge. My thoughts on young wheat have been fairly well documented on this site and elsewhere, so I shan’t bang on too much about it now.

On the whole though, most wheat whiskies I’ve tasted have been fairly bland, threadbare stuff. The exception that proves the rule thus far being the bombastically brilliant Reservoir that we tasted at the Lexington back in August.

So, with Reservoir as my barometer for wheat whiskey quality, how does the longer-in-the-tooth Bernheim stack up?

Appearance: Deep copper

Nose: Honey, caramel, vanilla, and wheat bread. A very light touch of something in between citrus and tropical fruit. Pineapple, probably. That’s more or less it. It’s not a terribly big nose, and it’s pretty straightforward. But neither is it immature or spirity, which are often the trends where wheat (and wheated bourbon) below a certain age is concerned. So there’s that.

Mouth: Almost no change whatsoever on the palate. Honey and sugar on brown toast. A smatter of peanut. Could almost be a bourbon, albeit a fairly simple one. Just enough body not to feel dilute.

Finish: Rather short. The bready aspects last longer than the honeys.

Value for Money: You can buy Blanton’s Gold for the same price. So...

Summary: It’s not unpleasant. It’s quite nice, in fact. But it’s just a bit bland. A bit “so what?” Doesn’t really make a huge statement; certainly not to anywhere near the degree that the Reservoir did, which blew away pretty much everyone in the room.

You expect a little more when you shell out £60. Priced in line with the Rittenhouse 100 proof or the Elijah Craig Small Batch (which in America, it almost is) I’d recommend giving a bottle a whirl. But for what you have to pay this side of the pond, it’s probably missable. There are too many far more interesting whiskies you’d have to overlook.

Overall Verdict: Shrug. S’alright I guess.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Belle Meade 10 years old Single Barrel (Barrel No. 2003) Review

Whiskey Name: Belle Meade 10 years old Single Barrel (No. 2003)

Distillery: Brand owned by Green Brier, whiskey distilled at MGPI

Whiskey Type: Straight bourbon

Release Date: 2016 presumably...

Price: $59.99 (Price in £ as of Nov 2017 £45)

Age: Take a wild guess

ABV: 56.1%

Mashbill: 64% corn, 30% rye, 6% malted barley

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Introduction/Background: Another day, another whiskey we don’t see East of the Atlantic. This one is bottled by Nelson’s Green Brier distillery, in Nashville Tennessee. They’ve headed North to source their whiskey; to the MGP distillery in Indiana, birthplace of so much of the non-distillery-produced bottling. Green Brier are pretty open about MGP being their ‘dealers’ though, so no complaints here.

Single barrel, cask strength, 10 years old. Lots of good augurs, not much more to say.

Appearance: Deep, dark mahogany.

Nose: Oh now. That’s a lovely nose. Crackling away with spicy rye. Cinnamon and nutmeg lead, but there’s a lot of depth here too. Clove, fruitcake, black cherries and smoky BBQ sauce. Nutty almonds express themselves in a sweet way; I’m thinking marzipan, maybe even a touch of Amaretto. (I had a load of (pseudo-involuntary) amaretto the day before tasting, so possibly that’s just on my mind...) Alcohol jabs, but doesn’t go for a knockout.. Oak shows through with walnut, sawn wood and black pepper.

Mouth: Palate just as lovely, and a little sweeter. Dark chocolate, muscovado and tonnes of caramel. Bit more black cherry, but sweet, like jam, rather than too tart. Rye pierces through with black pepper, anise, and more of those Christmassy spices. (We’re into November now – Christmas comparisons are officially legal again). That high-rye core keeps the body medium (+) rather than especially viscous.  

Finish: Corn is more of a presence at this point. Corn oil and caramel popcorn.

Value for Money: Yep.

Summary: I’ve been pretty clear in my general preference for whiskies to be vatted, rather than single barrel. But that’s mostly to do with cerebral admiration of the art of the blender.

Pours like this one are a reminder that single barrels, bottled at just the right time, are pretty hard to beat when it comes down to sheer flavour. Brilliantly made and brilliantly chosen stuff. Delicious.

Overall Verdict: If you find yourself Stateside, you know what to do.

Four Roses Al Young 50th Anniversary Review

Whiskey Name: Four Roses Al Young 50th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch

Distillery: Four Roses

Whiskey Type: Bourbon

Release Date: 2017

Price: Technically $150 a bottle. And technically, if you buy a ticket, you could also win the lottery.

Age: See mashbill.

ABV: 53.8%

Mashbill: 5% 23-year OBSV, 25% 15-year OBSK, 50% 13-year OESV, and 20% 12-year OBSF. If confused, see Four Roses mashbill translations here.

Introduction/Background: Just about anything seems to justify a special edition whiskey these days. So it’s nice to see something genuinely worthwhile being celebrated with a properly special bourbon.

Al Young has worked at the Four Roses distillery for 50 years. That’s an astonishing period of service, especially to those of us who haven’t even given service to breathing for 50 years. In that time he’s been involved in a huge spectrum of roles with the brand, becoming Distillery Manager in 1990, Brand Ambassador in 2007, and currently working as Senior Brand Manager. If anyone deserves their own bourbon, it’s probably him.

Rather than bottling a single barrel, Al worked with Master Distiller Brent Elliot to put together a small batch release, comprising four recipes and ages. With a huge library of aged bourbon to drawn on, as well as the ten Four Roses recipes, whiskey fans were expecting Al and Brent to come up with something rather special.

As expected, it hasn’t been released in the UK. I gather as many as 12 bottles may be coming over; good luck getting your hands on one. My taste came about through the medium of toddling over to Stillwater Bar and Grill in London, whose commander-in-chief, Dan, just so happens to be a Four Roses Brand Ambassador. The bottle he had brought back from the US was rumoured to be disappearing fast, so I thought I ought to nip in before it was entirely drained.

Here’s what I thought:

Appearance: Deep amber.

Nose: Shows the Four Roses DNA – and the influence of the high-rye recipes – straight away. But what’s wonderful is the immediate complexity; beyond anything that could be achieved by a single barrel. Yes there’s toasty oak and black pepper and dill, with a little menthol and cigar – everything you’d expect from high rye. But there’s so much depth too; fig and blackcurrant and char and meat. Caramel binds it all together. No intrusion of alcohol at all. Astonishing nose. Sniffed at it for about 20 minutes before I even got to sipping.

Mouth: Palate is just as exciting, and effectively a follow-through. Hard to know where to focus; do you stick on the classic cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and oak, or do you go after the dark fruits, battenburg cake and caramel? Again, the proof is perfectly weighted; together with the (still vibrantly crackling) rye, it adds structure; that Four Roses firmness that keeps it a million miles away from becoming cloying. Perfectly weighted and perfectly balanced. Outstanding.

Finish: The black fruits and caramel fade ever so gradually; spices play about a little longer.

Value for Money: At RRP, a no-brainer.

Summary: Compared to other distilleries, Four Roses bring out so few expressions, and do so brilliantly in the value-for-money category, that the spotlight seems so often to be elsewhere. And then I think back over the bourbons I’ve drunk in the last year and I realise that the best two were both from that distillery. One was the OESO single barrel pick from our 10 recipes tasting. The other is this.

It’s an utterly, utterly astonishing whiskey. Bucket list bourbon that demands to be hunted down, opened, and drunk. If, as it is for me, a bottle is beyond what you can really justify (and it is going mental on the secondary market) then look it up at a bar whenever you can.

I’m so, so pleased that they made this one a batch whiskey, rather than bottling a single barrel. Single barrels are all very well, and often delicious – brilliant even – but they lack the romance of a bourbon deliberately put together by genuine masters of the art. A true small-batch whiskey – and make no mistake, that is what this is – is a cerebral thing; a constructed, orchestrated, deliberately designed creation. To do it perfectly takes expertise and time, and the sort of care that a celebration of 50 years’ service deserves.

The star, as a result, is the complexity. The twists and turns, and the ever-shifting layers of flavour. You can see what each individual constituent has brought to the drink, and how it has made the whole thing greater than the sum of its parts. What’s more, at its sensible proof, there’s no burning alcohol to distract you from the important elements of flavour. It’s an absolute triumph of the blender’s art.

Stunningly good. Stunningly good.

Overall Verdict: We’re probably close enough to January for me to say it: this is, without doubt, my favourite bourbon of 2017.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Elijah Craig 18 year old Single Barrel Review

Whiskey Name: Elijah Craig 18 year old Single Barrel

Distillery: Heaven Hill

Whiskey Type: Bourbon

Release Date: I suspect my sample is a 2016 release. But my suspicions have been wrong before...

Price: Depends on the shop. Expect prices to start at £150

Age: 18 years old

ABV: 45%

Mashbill: Standard issue HH rye-recipe bourbon: 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% malted barley.

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Introduction/Background: A bourbon old enough to order itself (in the UK, at any rate). And from the excellent Heaven Hill distillery no less. First introduced back in 1994, before the devastating fire of ‘96, and brought back to shelves in 2015.

Like its venerable stablemates, the 21 and 23, this bourbon is bottled from a single barrel. At the start of the much-protracted binning of their celebrated 12 year old, Heaven Hill announced that part of the decision stemmed from a desire to be able to continue releasing these longer-aged expressions. Probably wasn’t the chiefest priority, but the luxury whisk(e)y market is what it is.

This particular luxury is bottled at 45% ABV; 2% less than the 12-year, which I’m not sure I fully understand. It doesn’t get quite the same press as some of the competition in its price category, and I wonder whether part of that lies in the fairly miserly cut.

Personally I don’t think whisk(e)y always needs to be cask strength; indeed you taste a good few that could do with a little less enthusiasm from the alcohol. But at least bottling straight from barrel affords drinkers the luxury of choice, which you might be forgiven for hoping for when spending 150 of your English pounds.

At that price, age, and proof the obvious competition is Buffalo Trace’s Eagle Rare 17. Generally the most missable of the BTAC, but actually relatively decent in the newest vintage. Let’s see how Heaven Hill’s late-teenager stacks up.

Appearance: A ruddy sort of hazel. 

Nose: Honeyed, with rather a lot of spicy oak influence. Too woody? No, I don’t think so. Not quite. Benefit of the doubt. There’s an intriguing lift of black fruit (blackcurrants, I think) and menthol, which puts me bizarrely in mind with top-end Chilean Cabernet. [ed. We get it – you work in wine]. Overall it’s developed and assertive, without being overly powerful. Not a nostril-scorcher. Good start.

Mouth: Ah. Here’s where the oak was. Slightly bitter start suggests that 18 years might have been a bit of a stretch for this particular barrel. It’s also slightly dilute; that modest 45% has robbed the texture of much of its potential lustrousness. There’s still a lot of honey flavour, and a dab or two of fruit has carried across from the nose, with a little cinnamon and nutmeg threatening to add interest. On the whole though this feels rather ordinary I’m afraid. Tamed, and not especially complex.

Finish: Caramel popcorn precedes a return to light, woody bitterness. Medium length. 

Value for Money: Meh. (A pretty firm one). 

Summary: I loved the Elijah Craig 12, and it makes me sad that ‘loved’ now ends with a ‘d’. I was hoping that my first proper sit-down with the 18 would be a bit of a celebration of that, and an elevation of everything that the 12 is; fuller, richer, more complex.

Unfortunately, to me at least, the 18 doesn’t really deliver. Certainly not to the tune of £150 (which, for the record, I also wouldn’t pay for Eagle Rare 17). That’s a special occasion price, and this doesn’t quite taste like special occasion whiskey. Not when you consider the alternatives available for the same money, or considerably less. (@london_liquor is discreetly muttering “Elijah Craig Hazmat” somewhere...)

The potential frailties of single barrels are also on show, particularly on the palate. Though I admit that I thought the nose was pretty great. And this is definitely an example of a bourbon that needed a slightly bigger engine. Even bottling at 50% would have made a significant difference to the texture. At £150+ I’m pretty sure their profit margin could have taken the strain.

Bottom line: if you’re terribly rich, and just want something pretty old and pretty hard to come by for your collection, Elijah Craig 18 is an option. If, like me, you can’t afford to buy whisk(e)y that you don’t really love to drink, I’d keep looking. 

Overall Verdict: The name “Elijah Craig 18 year old Single Barrel” ticks a lot of boxes. But the whiskey itself doesn’t, to my taste. It’s ok. But you’ll be paying over the odds if you invest in a bottle.

Word by WhiskyPilgrim

Dad’s Hat 3 year old Straight Rye (La Maison du Whisky 60th Anniversary Edition) Review

Whiskey Name: Dad’s Hat 3 year old Straight Rye (La Maison du Whisky 60th Anniversary Edition)

Distillery: Dad’s Hat

Whiskey Type: Straight Rye

Release Date: 2016 

Price: €95

Age: 3 years old

ABV: 60.5%

Mashbill: Presumably Dad’s Hat standard: 80% rye, 5% malted rye, 15% malted barley

Introduction/Background: Before bourbon took over as top US whiskey dog, rye was very much the spirit of the states. Especially rye from the North East.

Times moved on, and rye fell out of fashion to the point of near-extinction. But it’s back with a bang now, and distilleries in the North East are rediscovering their heritage.

Enter Dad’s Hat. They’re based in Bristol, Pennsylvania; one of those many towns whose name lays American creativity open to quite a bit of scrutiny. But there is something rather refreshing about Dad’s Hat itself.

Founded in 2011, they’ve been a rye distillery from the word go, rather than tinkering around with lots of different products. They’ve only released their own juice, rather than doing any sourcing, and their mashbill falls somewhere between the pretty low-rye Kentucky bills, and the 100% rye mashbills that seemingly every other craft distillery has gone with. (And then claimed in their marketing that they are really unusual for having done so.)

Dad’s Hat finally got proper UK distribution this year, and a few of their products are now easily available through the most obvious channels. This one however fell into my hands through Andrew, of the excellent Andrew’s Share blog. We chat a lot at BBS tastings, and he’s visited the distillery quite frequently, having in-laws out that way.

In his broad Dad’s Hat experience, he rated this Maison du Whisky bottling as the dog’s proverbial giblets, and was kind enough to part with a sample for the BBS review vault.

Appearance: Lighter than my typically average photo makes it look. Hazel-ish. 

Nose: Big, as you’d expect. Lots of floral violet and magnolia notes straight away. I’m put in mind of Lot 40, which is no bad thing. I wonder if that’s the malted rye influence? There’s also something a little medicinal/germoline-like. Tonnes of rye bread and grain character too, before a herbal aspect appears; dill, fennel, juniper and pine. Very fresh, all in all. Alcohol is spiky but not overwhelming.

Mouth: A good bit fruitier than the nose, as is often the case with these high-rye whiskies. Candied citrus, I’d say; oranges and lemons. The pine has followed through from the nose, and been magnified, alongside that malty rye. In fact the palate leaves the nose dead for layering and complexity. Alcohol is less aggressive too. More parma violets, and a gentle overlaying of caramel.

Finish: Medium-long. I’m left with a lingering flavour of wafer biscuits.

Value for Money: Steep, but less so than most of the craft whiskey we’ve reviewed here.

Summary: I’m frequently baffled by all the young wheaty stuff that’s coming out at the moment. Wheat simply does not perform well in youth; something which all the distillers I have spoken to so far seem to agree on.

So it’s unsurprising that the quality of this young rye whiskey is a long way ahead of much of the craft whiskey pack. It’s a real celebration of the rye grain; a “greatest hits” list of the notes you’d expect to find in a whiskey of its type.

Certainly I’m left keen to explore more of what Dad’s Hat has to offer; I’ll be adding the three on Master of Malt to my never-ending Drinks by the Dram samples collection.

I do think this one is a little overpriced though, purely in terms of quality. I appreciate that it’s a very limited release (just 240 bottles) but the asking price puts it in the firing line of some serious competition.

For less money you can get Whistlepig and Masterson’s 10 year olds and the exceptional St George’s 2 year old. For less than a tenner more, Michter’s Barrel Proof becomes available. And that’s before we consider the imminent release of Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 year old. This Dad’s Hat, whilst very good, isn’t quite in the same league.

However, if you’re a rye-lover lucky enough to have the aforementioneds already, and still have cash to burn, a bottle of this certainly won’t leave you disappointed.

Overall Verdict: A big, vibrant, cask strength rye, well worth giving a go.

Thanks Andrew!

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Balcones Single Malt Rum Cask Finish Review

Whiskey Name: Balcones Single Malt Rum Cask Finish

Distillery: Balcones

Whiskey Type: Single Malt

Release Date: 2016

Price: £115

Age: NAS

ABV: 64.2%

Mashbill: 100% malted barley

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Introduction/Background: Having said in the last review that Westland’s 2016 Garryana was my favourite US Single Malt to date, I thought it’d be best to double check. And I thought that the most obvious candidate to change my mind might be Balcones.

Based down in Waco, Texas, Balcones are bottling all sorts of wild and wonderful spirits, but Corn Whiskey and Single Malt are the masts to which their colours are most firmly nailed.

I thought their Cask Strength True Blue Corn Whiskey was rather superb, and in fact I’m struggling to think of a Balcones I haven’t enjoyed. But their Rum Finished Single Malt had somehow passed me by.

As malt fans know, rum makes for rather a finicky sort of cask to finish with. I also think that the term “rum cask” is about as useful as the term “sherry cask”, in that the breadth of rum styles is so vast that simply writing “rum” doesn’t take your consumer terribly far.

Balcones, however, have rather a neat solution. Being distillers of rum, they simply set a few of their used rum casks aside, and poured their maturing single malt into them. How’s that for assurance of provenance?

What’s linked all the Balcones whiskies I’ve tried in the past is “bigness” (totally real word). These are massive expressions; syrupy of body and uncompromising of flavour intensity. So let’s see if the Rum Cask Finish continues the trend.

Appearance: Conker. (Horse Chestnut, if you want to be boring, but this time of year is conker season, so I’m putting “conker”.)

Nose: The typical Balcones rhino-stampede of aromas out of the glass, but these rhinos are wearing eye-patches and brandishing cutlasses, because this whiskey is positively yodelling rum. Molasses, treacle, and so much tropical fruit you’d think this had also been finished in an Um Bongo cask. (Um Bongo is absolutely matured in cask. You heard it here first). There’s bags of dried fruit too – sherry cask fans can have a good time here – and just enough flutter of (burnt) cereal to remind you this is single malt after all. A big whoosh of booze, but not as much as you’d think for the proof.

Mouth: You need a spoon to get at this, it’s so thickly full-bodied! Once you’ve banged on the bottom of the glass enough to get some in your mouth, the carnival of rum flavour continues. More of that molasses character, and thick, dark treacle. (So thick you’re picking it out of your teeth later). More classic Balcones notes of burnt muscovado, caramels and oak, plus some raisin and date characters which seem to sit somewhere in between the malt and the rum. The brobdingnagian body (how’s that for a word du jour?) and insane intensity of flavour utterly dominate any alcohol burn.

Finish: All of a sudden the sweetness is blown aside by a waft of sugar puffs cereal.

Value for Money: Worth it, I reckon, in the grand scheme of things.

Summary: Of the (literally) thousands of craft distilleries popping up across America, only four or five can currently live with the obvious big players in Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee where quality is concerned.

Balcones is unquestionably one of those four or five. In fact, it may well be the best “craft” distillery in America. If it isn’t, it’s certainly knocking on the door. This single malt is absolutely superb, and their rum casks are clearly a perfect fit for their malt. It just works.

It doesn’t have as many dimensions as the Garryana, but every dimension it has is laser-beamed at the pleasure receptors in your nose and mouth. It’s an absolute joy to drink. And, not being peated, it probably appeals to a broader audience than the Westland does. They’re chalk and cheese really though, in flavour terms. Gun to my head I’d take the Garryana. But that’s personal. And really I want – no, I need(!) – both of them in my life.

Yes, it’s very expensive (in the UK). But if you’ve got that money to spend on a bottle, it’s worth it. If, like me, you probably don’t, then get a Drinks by the Dram sample. For the good of your soul, if nothing else.

 Overall Verdict: An immense, wonderful, mouthcoating monster of a whiskey that would turn Jack Sparrow on to malt for life.

Many thanks (again) to Mark Latimour for the sample.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Westland Garryana 2016 Review

Whiskey Name: Westland Garryana

Distillery: Westland

Whiskey Type: Single Malt

Release Date: 2016

Price: $120 (Not available in the UK)

Age: “Not less than 36 months”

ABV: 56.2%

Mashbill: 100% malted barley. Full nerdy details below…

Introduction/Background: I love Westland. I’ve said so here and here, so it must be true. I’m not completely enamoured of their Sherry cask malt, which I found slightly muddled, but their American oak was one of my whiskies of the year in 2016. It was my contribution at the BBS popup bar, and when it featured in a recent Whisky Squad blind tasting lineup, I was thrilled to recognise it straight away.

Having been a barley acolyte long before the charms of mashed corn and rye found me, my affection is perhaps only natural. But Westland genuinely are more interesting than the average distillery, single malt or otherwise. I love the transparency on their website; you can see the malts they’re using, the percentages of different oak and the strain of yeast. I also like that they don’t hide the fact that their whiskey is pretty young, nor trot out the tired old “just a number” line.

Most of all, I love how much they genuinely explore the parameters of what single malt can be, without breaking any of the established “rules”. That primarily manifests itself in their malting. Whereas your standard malt distillery uses only one style of malt: ‘generic’, Westland cite five in their standard expression, and six in today’s Garryana, which you can see in the screenshot from their website below.

More pertinent to this particular expression though, is their experimentation with oak. Unbound by the (increasingly loose) strictures applied to bourbon, Westland have put genuine thought into how to make their whiskey properly unique. So, for their Garryana expression, a portion of their whiskey has been matured in local Quercus Garryana, which differs significantly from America’s standard Quercus Alba.

For the mother of all explanations, and to fully indulge your inner whiskey nerd, Westland have written at length on the properties and importance of Garryana here. For the sake of brevity, I’m simply going to say that it’s harder for coopers to work with than Quercus Alba and that its flavours are more in line with what you might find from European oak. More spice, less vanilla, to use a huge generalisation.

Garryana hasn’t been launched in the UK yet, though I’m rather hoping that changes now that Remy Cointreau have bought Westland. In the meantime, I have Mark Latimour to thank for the generous donation of today’s sample.

Appearance: Copper

Nose: Classic Westland bananas and dark chocolate straight away. Oak influence is more dominant than in the American Oak expression, and balances the light-medium-level peat so that the effect feels more campfire than maritime bog. The signature high-note intensity of malts kicks in, but the smoke adds and earthy depth. The longer it sits in the glass, the more intense and “classic” the peat element becomes, though the oak sweetness always keeps it in check. A little citrus plays around too.

Mouth: Spices of cloves – very prominently – sit at the top of the palate as the whiskey hits your tongue. Smokiness and chocolate malt continue; this is very earthy indeed. A viscosity and an impression of molasses coats your mouth, but the crackling alcohol and youth of spirit maintain vibrancy, without unduly distracting. All sorts of things happening – sweet, then savoury, then back to sweet. Feels like a hybrid of the flavours of classic US whiskey and a west coast or island Scotch. As with the nose, the peat grows as it sits in the glass. Bracing stuff, with good complexity.

Finish: Pretty lengthy. As you’d expect, it’s the peaty aspects that stick with you longest. But the clove spices and a touch of molasses sweetness hang around too.

Value for Money: Slightly problematic. Especially since the 2017 edition is, for some reason, another $40 or so more.

Summary: Probably my favourite US single malt I’ve ever tasted. Balcones manages more intensity, but it doesn’t have the same complexity as this. There are times when the depth and layers of the flavour make it impossible to believe that this is only three years old. And then you get some of those wonderful malty high notes – which, in a standard one-malt whisky, would be pretty dull – and you’re shown that, done well, young whiskey really can have significant charm.

This is a whiskey-lover’s whiskey. Proper thought has gone into the malting, the yeast strain, and the oak, and then they’ve been vatted by someone who really knows what he or she is doing. A single barrel at this age couldn’t live with the complexity this achieves. It’s brilliant stuff.

That said, I think it overreaches itself on price. At present, the standard Westland offerings are pretty much at the top end of what it’d be appropriate to pay for them. When you consider the whiskies available in the USA for $60 or less, pricing at $120 seems rather high. And, as mentioned, a quick peek online suggests that the 2017 entity has been set at $150+. Which means, based on the usual ratio of US-UK pricing, that if it were to appear on UK shelves you’d be looking at £180 minimum. And that’s too much. 

Overall Verdict: A must-taste, if you get a chance. (Though if you don’t like peat, tread carefully!) I do think the price should be reconsidered though.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Rowan’s Creek: Old versus New

Whiskey Name: Rowan’s Creek

Distillery: Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

Whiskey Type: Straight Bourbon

Release Date: 2001 (Batch 15-09) vs 2015 (Batch 01-14)

Age: 12 Year Old vs NAS

Price: £200+ Auction Prices (12 Year Old) vs £55 (NAS)

ABV: 50.05%

Mashbill: Unknown

Introduction/Background:

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Back in April, BBS celebrated its First Anniversary by undertaking an old versus new tasting of four different bourbons. While the 'dusties' won it that time, the results were far from conclusive.

In a new series of reviews, I will pitch old bourbons against new releases of the same label. Some of these, including the whiskey in today’s review have now lost their age-statement. Part of the reason behind this series is to see whether the recent disappearance of age statements from several popular whiskies is a genuine cause for concern. I’ll also compare some brands that either never had an age statement to begin with, or have kept the statement but are noticeably difference today. Some bourbon fans have even claimed that the recent increases in production volumes have lowered the quality of the liquid. Let's find out.

For this particular comparison, I’m looking at Rowan’s Creek, which was a 12 Year Old age stated bourbon up until a few years ago when it became NAS. Both bottlings are from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers AKA Willett. Willett has a long history, but until fairly recently, it had primarily been operating as a non-distilling producer (NDP) of bourbon and rye, sourcing their product from various distilleries but barrelling it to their own specification and (maybe) ageing onsite.

Willett started distilling again around five years ago and I’ve quite enjoyed their young whiskies so far, but both the 12 Year Old and NAS Rowan Creek in today's line up contain sourced bourbon from other distilleries (with my guess being Heaven Hill as discussed below).

Appearance

12 Year Old: Almost mahogany

NAS: Amber and much lighter than the 12-year

Nose:

12 Year Old: Almost overwhelmingly sweet. Rich and fruity with plenty of toffee, caramel and vanilla. The oak is slightly musty. Deeper down there is some cinnamon and lemon. A fair bite from the alcohol. To me this has all the hallmarks of pre-fire Heaven Hill liquid.

NAS: Sweet, but in a completely different way. More like candy-floss than toffee or caramel. Banana, a touch of milk-chocolate and cherry. Not as much wood and it’s more of a freshly sharpened pencil than musty oak. There’s quite a bit more alcohol and youth to this one.

Mouth

12 Year Old: Rich, syrupy, ridiculously sweet, with a cinnamon and white pepper kick. It’s actually quite hard to pick out anything that I don’t associate with sugar. There is a slight soapy taste to it. Toffee, caramel, vanilla, burnt sugar, maple syrup. Fairly one dimensional in a way and maybe an acquired taste. I personally really enjoy it but feel it could end up sickly after several pours.

NAS: Very thin and sweet. Banana, acetone, vanilla and corn. There’s a nuttiness to this one and I can feel the alcohol evaporate quickly.

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Summary: I am fairly confident that the 12 Year Old is pre-fire Heaven Hill and the NAS is current Heaven Hill, which makes for an interesting comparison. It is certainly evident that dropping the age statement has led the bottler using much younger whiskey. What I would say is that whilst the 12 Year Old might not be to everyone’s taste, it certainly has a complexity and depth that is lacking in the NAS version, which tastes significantly younger.

In this old versus new comparison, it's clear that removing the age statement has led to a worse product: the NAS is nowhere near the same quality as the 12 Year Old. The NAS almost feels like it should be labelled as a totally different brand, rather than merely a non-age-stated version of the same product. We'll find out next time whether another brand, Wild Turkey, has managed the transition to NAS more successfully.

Words by @MCRBourbon

St George 2yo (That Boutique-y Rye Company)

Whiskey Name: St George 2yo (That Boutique-y Rye Company)

Distillery: St George

Whiskey Type: Rye

Release Date: 2017

Price: £55 (For 50cl)

Age: 2 years old

ABV: 55%

Mashbill: Unspecified. But I have my hunches...(see below!)

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Introduction/Background: Another bottling from Boutique-y, this time from California’s celebrated St George distillery. A craft distillery before the term was even coined, St George have distilled just about everything it’s possible to distil. From single malt to shochu, and from absinthe to today’s rye. Their website even talks about having fed oysters and a Christmas tree into their still. Well, whatever works...

Basically, St George was founded by people who were simply interested in exploring the spirit world, but without a Ouija board or a medium. Whisk(e)y only makes up a tiny portion of their range; they just happen to be very good at it. They’ve an annual single malt release that usually flies, and their “Baller” whiskey is a weird and very wonderful thing.

I’ve not tried a rye of theirs before though, except in the form of their rather excellent rye gin. They don’t offer a rye whiskey on the St George’s website, so when tracking down a mashbill, I met with something of a dead end. A squint at the gin shows that they make that with 100% rye though; I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wonder whether they did the same with this Boutique-y Whiskey.

Part of a run of 400 bottles; mine is number 127. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Appearance: Dark for the age. Deep burned orange.

Nose: Intense nose, full of big upfront spices. Pepper, certainly, but there’s a meatiness and smoky herbal quality that comes across as a BBQ rub. There’s also something lightly reminiscent of the school medicine cabinet! Some sweet orange, alongside a touch of the vaguely vegetal. Tomato, but not fresh tomato; more along the lines of cooked passata. (Wondering whether I was going slightly mad, I had a look afterwards, and the MoM tasting note suggests someone called Sam thinks along similar lines. Fine fellow, Sam.) Booze is prominent, but not unduly so. More than enough aroma to keep it in check.

Mouth: Goes in a more classic rye direction on the palate. Absolute lashings of distinct (and lingering) spearmint, to an almost chewing-gum esque degree. Dill, cracked black pepper, and a touch more of that medicine cabinet thing, overlaid by orange juice, caramel and muscovado. Very full bodied for a rye; nicely plump viscosity for the spices to skewer their way through.

Finish: Pine emerges, and hangs around as the other flavours diminuendo. A touch shorter than expected, given the intensity of initial flavours, but still a long way off being “short”.

Value for Money: Pretty much exactly what I said about the boutique-y F.E.W bottling. I reckon this one has a slightly broader appeal though, so on balance I’d say the price is definitely right.

Summary: I’m definitely verging on broken record territory where Boutique-y is concerned, but this is another absolute winner. I tasted it next to five other very different ryes, and this one was comfortably my favourite.

From the colour I’d expected it to be a case of tiny casks, featuring flavours of oak, oak and more oak, but what’s impressive is the robustness and character of the rye spirit itself. For me it hit all the “classic” notes one expects to find on a rye, and added a selection of its own; aromas and flavours I’ve never encountered on a whisk(e)y before. And they were all delicious. Can’t ask for much more than that, really.  

St George is probably the distillery I’d most like to visit in the world, and I’ve made a note-to-self to try as many more of their spirits as I can. If Boutique-y bottle another batch, I’ll be first in line. And not just because I’m in danger of making my way through this one far too quickly.

Overall Verdict: No rye lover should go without experiencing this. There are Drinks by the Dram samples, so you can try before you buy, but I’m pretty confident most will want to follow that up with a full bottle.

Words By WhiskyPilgrim

Bulleit Bourbon Review

Whiskey Name: Bulleit Bourbon

Distillery: Erm…pass

Whiskey Type: Straight bourbon

Release Date: General

Price: Pretty much always findable under £25. Often under £20

Age: NAS

ABV: 45%

Mashbill: 68% corn, 28% rye, 4% malted barley.

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Introduction/Background: Let’s address the elephant in the room first. Which isn’t the fact that Bulleit is sourced whiskey – no real issues there. It isn’t even that in the post-Four Roses era we can’t really be sure who distilled the juice in the glass.

It’s this. I’m not in possession of the facts, and proof hasn’t been concluded either way, so, for the time being, innocent until proven guilty. However, if this is proven to be true, then it’s disgraceful, and I shan’t be drinking Bulleit whiskey again.

This review is of a bottle I bought in July, before we started this month-long series, and before those accusations came fully to light. I bought it because it is a whiskey I know very well indeed, and because, when tasting a few whiskeys at a time, it is useful to have a palate-setter. Something that you know inside out, which tells you all is well with your nose and palate, whilst preparing your mouth for the onslaught of high strength spirits.

This has done that job for me throughout our month-long series, and so I thought it an appropriate pour to throw in close to the end.

So, with that in mind, my thoughts on the Bulleit Bourbon.

Appearance: Amber

Nose: About as rye-focussed as bourbon gets. Loads of herbal, pine-y rye. There’s depth too; oak furniture (and a touch of polish) creeps in, and buttered toffee popcorn reminds you that this is bourbon after all. Has that sharp, super-clean edge that so often characterises high-rye bourbon between 5 and 10.

Mouth: As dry as the nose would lead you to expect. Spicy, piney, woody. Quite sharp and peppery initially, after which the sweeter elements come out to play; a medium-deep caramel, and sweet corn oils. They never overcome the oak or the near-nutmeg quality of the rye though. Deep enough to show that this has a few years under its belt; vibrant enough to show that it isn’t double figures. Light-medium in body, but massive on flavour.

Finish: Those rye aspects linger for longer than you’d expect, turning gradually to pure pepper.

Value for Money: Excellent.

Summary: Whatever may or may not be happening within the company behind it, this is exceptional whiskey for the price. It’s really only Buffalo Trace and Four Roses Small Batch that live with Bulleit for under £25. (Yes, I know you can get ER10 and FR Single Barrel at £25, but only occasionally, and only when on a very, very good offer.)

I’ll be continuing to follow the news, and as a fan of the liquid in the bottle, can only hope there is no truth to the accusations levelled at the brand.

Overall Verdict: The whiskey, for the money, is very good indeed.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Gentleman Jack Review

Whiskey Name: Gentleman Jack

Distillery: Jack Daniel’s

Whiskey Type: Tennessee Whiskey

Release Date: General

Price: £31

Age: NAS

ABV: 40%

Mashbill: 80% corn, 8% rye, 12% malted barley.

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Introduction/Background: It’s a dangerous game, reviewing Jack on a group called the British Bourbon Society, but we’ve always acknowledged ourselves as “not just about bourbon” and I’m pretty good at filtering hate mail anyway.

I can’t be bothered getting into the argument here (or anywhere else for that matter) so let’s suffice it to say that JD describe themselves as a “Tennessee whiskey”, and filter their new make spirit through Maplewood charcoal before committing it to barrel.

Occasionally, to irritate people online, and to prove to myself and others that I’m not a snob (I’m not, honestly) I’ll use the standard JD in a Jack’n’coke. Plenty of the Single Barrels, particularly the Rye, are solid pours neat, too. But the Gentleman had slipped me by. Essentially it’s just the same as Old No.7, but they filter it back through the charcoal again before committing it to bottle.

Appearance: Light copper.

Nose: Bananas, but confected bananas; those banana sweets you used to find in Woolworth’s pick’n’mix and then not pick or mix because they were horrid. Besides that, honeys (light) rather than deeper caramels, some straw and an elmost metallic element. Basic, sweet, mildly spirit stuff.

Mouth: Barely aware it’s in your mouth; just a sort of watery sweetness really. If I wasn’t holding it on my palate for ages before spitting, booze probably wouldn’t even register. More light brown sugar, the bananas again. Boring, boring, boring. Where’s the flavour?

Finish: Mercifully short.

Value for Money: Leave on the shelf.

Summary: I really wanted to like this, because it looks like I’ve just bashed Jack for the sake of bashing Jack. But this is very not great. I’d much rather have standard issue JD; they seem to have filtered out a load of the flavour after removing it from the barrel, and based on the variation in colour from Old No.7 to Gentleman, I should probably have anticipated that.

Overall Verdict: I don’t see the point of this whiskey...

Words by WhiskyPilgrim 

Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon 2015

Whiskey Name: Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon 2015

Distillery: Garrison Brothers

Whiskey Type: Texas Straight Bourbon

Release Date: 2015

Price: £78

Age: 3 years

ABV: 47%

Mashbill: 74% corn, 15% wheat, 11% barley

Introduction/Background: There are no punches pulled on the Garrison Brothers website. “We wanted to make the best bourbon ever made. Anywhere. We’re confident we succeeded” ... “It’ll set you back a little” ... “If you’ve been drinking Kentucky Bourbon all your life, then you’re in for something special...but once you step up, that step backward is a long step back indeed.”

Ballsy rhetoric for sure, but to be fair to Garrison, they’ve a raft of awards and accolades backing them up, and what’s the point not being confident in your product anyway? Sticking to their website, it’s particularly thorough in almost every respect, and well worth spooling through, should you find yourself with a glass of their bourbon.

One thing they’re absolutely right about, before I’ve taken so much as a sniff, is the price. At £78, this is very definitely not cheap. But the same could be said of several other whiskies we’ve looked at in the last month. The question is: is it worth it?

Well, Jim Murray says an emphatic “yes”, if he floats your boat. I’ve never met Jim Murray though, and a fellow BBS member whose bourbon experience far exceeds mine says an emphatic “no”. So emphatic that they warned me off buying a glass at their own bar!

Inconclusive then. So stuff what other people think: here, for what it’s worth, is my opinion.

Appearance: Burnt orange.

Nose: Intense. Loads of citrus, but in contrast to yesterday’s Michter’s, here we are talking zest; oranges and lemons. There’s a good whack of liquorice too. A certain nutty-graininess comes to the fore, with corn and toffee combining into a sort of treacle sponge. Lots of character, but the elements aren’t entirely harmonised – they seem to be shouting individually, if that makes sense. But that’s down to the age.

Mouth: More of that toffee and treacle sponge, with the mouthwatering citrus elements trampolining away in the background. Again it’s boisterous, lively stuff on the intensity. Middle-weight in body, as is probably to be expected.

Finish: Caramel joins the party, gently blanketing the other elements.

Value for Money: A touch high.

Summary: I’ve had far worse wheated craft bourbons this month. Absolutely bags of character and intensity; what it was lacking slightly was the harmoniousness and layered complexity that comes with a little more time.

I’d love to try their older Cowboy Bourbon, though there the expense skyrockets, and I don’t imagine many bottles leave the US in any case. And I’m not sure I’m fully in either camp where Mr Murray and my fellow BBS member are. It’s the price, not the quality, that would put me off buying a bottle. Slightly inconclusive once again! 

Overall Verdict: Good ... but not £80 good.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Michter’s US*1 Bourbon Review

Whiskey Name: Michter’s US*1 Bourbon

Distillery: Goodness only knows

Whiskey Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Release Date: General

Price: £50

Age: NAS

ABV: 45.7%

Mashbill: See “Distillery”

Introduction/Background: Michter’s are one of the higher brow sourced whiskies on the market, courtesy largely of their storied age-statement bourbons and ryes, as well as their excellent cask strength rye.

Unpacking the brand is worthy of a whole separate article in and of itself, which we’ll doubtless write one of these days. Suffice it to say that, for the time being, anything you see with a Michter’s label is sourced, whilst they crack on with distilling in their new facility in Shivley.

Michter’s play their cards pretty close on mashbills, and just as close on distillery of origin. Their idiosyncrasy lies in their particularly low barrel entry proof. Expensive, but the upshot is that sugars dissolve more quickly from the barrel staves into the liquid.

I’ve always veered more towards the ryes than the bourbons, with the caveat that the 20 year old bourbon is probably in the top two or three American whiskies I’ve ever tried. The entry-level US*1 hasn’t always floated my boat though, so let’s see whether time has bred any new affection ...  

Appearance: Tawny

Nose: Slightly quiet, by bourbon standards. Lots of citrus – dried for me, rather than zesty – and some brown sugar. A meatiness lurks in the background, alongside a touch of strawberry lace. “Guess the age” and “guess the mashbill” are difficult games to play...

Mouth: Follows a similar juicy theme; still a little light in body. Caramel seems to play a bigger role here, and the longer you hold it in your mouth, the more a buttery aspect seems to peek through.

Finish: Short to medium. Can’t say that the flavours change dramatically.

Value for Money: Middling.

Summary: Do you know what? I think this is the only whiskey in the Michter’s range that doesn’t entirely float my boat. Which isn’t to say it’s “bad” by any stretch of the imagination; simply that at this price it leaves one wanting a little more.

I remember once being told off at a bar for preferring the rye to the bourbon. It takes all sorts to make a world, of course, but I do genuinely think that in the US*1 range, the rye takes top spot. In fact, to my mind, Michter’s rye tops Michter’s bourbon until you reach the 20+ bracket, and even then I know that plenty of people would disagree when I say I prefer the 20yo bourbon to the 25yo rye on the whole.

I think somehow I hold Michter’s to a particularly high standard, and tasting the US*1 bourbon I’m left thinking of other pours I could have had for the money that I would have preferred. Which, for £50 a bottle, isn’t really the reaction I’m after.

Overall Verdict: I wouldn’t turn a glass down. But I probably wouldn’t buy a bottle.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Makers Mark Review

 Whiskey Name: Maker’s Mark

Distillery: Maker’s Mark

Whiskey Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Release Date: General release

Price: Depends on the supermarket. Not more than £30 – usually findable for a fair bit less.

Age: NAS

ABV: 45%

Mashbill: 70% corn, 16% wheat, 14% malted barley.

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Introduction/Background: We’ve reviewed a lot of young wheat-recipe bourbon this month, with rather mixed results. But here’s a young wheater which needs absolutely no introduction whatsoever.

According to legend, Bill Samuels came up with the Maker’s Mark recipe after baking a selection of loaves, and picking his favourite. He went on to make his whiskey, sealed the bottle with red, dribbly wax, and the rest is history and ubiquity.

Maker’s is just about the epitome of a distillery looking to maintain consistency. Bill Samuels never branched out from the standard red top (“you don’t see a Château Lafite Reserve”, as he allegedly put it) and there have only been one or two riffs on the original theme since. (One of which is simply a cask strength version of the classic.)

To maintain their profile, Maker’s are constantly moving barrels around the warehouses, aiming for the most even of maturation across their stock. And, contrary to what the Van Winkle Family think, (and, if I’m honest, what I think too) they maintain that wheat-recipe bourbon is best-served youthful. And, obviously, they’d know a lot better than me!

So let’s give this a go. 

Appearance: Toffee fudge

Nose: Light and rather floral. Orange blossoms, caramels and vanillas. Clearly not old, but in a fresh way; there’s none of that acetone or bready character that has popped up so much in the last few weeks.

Mouth: Vibrant and lively palate. Apple joins the caramel, and the floral aspects increase. Again it’s showing off bourbon’s lighter side, and when you hold it in your mouth the alcohol prickles a little, but this is clean, sweet, tasty stuff.

Finish: Butterscotch trails off; a touch of unexpected chocolate and oak briefly ripples past.

Value for Money: A good, solid bet.

Summary: Maker’s were definitely right to reverse their decision to lower the ABV a few years back, and not just because they’d have lost a lot of support. This is definitely a light style of bourbon, and they need that extra 5% to add a touch of engine and substance that would otherwise be lacking.

They are, however, one of the exceptions that proves the rule where young wheat is concerned, and I’m left scratching my head over quite how they manage it. I can only conclude that the secret lies in A-grade blending; that the careful layering of barrels promotes caramel and mouthfeel, and irons out any acetone, immaturity or excessive grain.

Don’t get me wrong, my world is not rocked, but it’s far from the worst thing you’ll find on supermarket shelves; there’s a good deal to enjoy here.

Overall Verdict: Light, and not especially challenging, but very well made and plenty enjoyable. A classic for a reason.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Smooth Ambler Wheated Bourbon Review

Whiskey Name: Smooth Ambler Wheated Bourbon

Distillery: Smooth Ambler

Whiskey Type: Straight bourbon

Release Date: 2017

Price: £83

Age: NAS. About 5

ABV: 50%

Mashbill: I couldn’t find it. But the Yearling, which preceded this, was 60% corn, 20% wheat and 20% malted barley. So that’d be my best guess.

Introduction/Background: I know, I know. We did Smooth Ambler yesterday. But that was their sourced MGPI stock, whereas today’s is all made in-house, so it counts.

For the last few years Smooth Ambler have been releasing a wheated expression called “the yearling”. A little like the Work in Progress series from Scotland’s Glengyle Distillery, it was intended to show followers how their home-made spirit was progressing, whilst they released their Old Scout whiskies on the side.

At the tasting last year, one of the questions we asked John Little was “when do you think your bourbon will be ready?” At the time, the Smooth Ambler Spirit was about four years old, and his reply was that he reckoned it’d start reaching its peak at around seven or eight. So I was a little surprised earlier this year when the launch of their new wheat recipe bourbon was announced.

Intriguingly, their “home-brew” goes in completely the opposite direction recipe-wise to their Old Scout. Where Old Scout is about as high-rye as bourbon gets, their in-house juice is wheat recipe, and at 20% wheat, pretty emphatically so. So naturally there’ll be no similarities whatsoever, which actually isn’t a bad way of going about things.

Appearance: Light Amber. As you can *just* tell. You’d have thought I’d have ironed out my photography thing by now.

Nose: A raging adolescent. Big aromas of cereal, dough, cheerios (!), pencil shavings, and a touch of something animal. Hay perhaps. There’s actually a curiously saline aspect too. It’s a prominent, insistent nose, but it’s also rather raw and visceral. The wheat has put the brakes on maturity rate as it so often does.

Mouth: Much sweeter on the forward palate, and SA’s non-chill-filtering approach means the growl of alcohol is enveloped by viscous body. Caramel overlays the grains and a splash of lightly under-ripe peach is allowed through. A touch of pinewood as well.

Finish: Dries on the finish to grain and macadamia nut.

Value for Money: Bit of a stretch.

Summary: I’ve a lot of respect for John Foster’s admission on releasing this that “it would only get better if we decided to wait again.” I can completely understand their decision to finally release it; five years is a long time to wait to release one’s own bourbon; certainly plenty of other distilleries aren’t nearly so patient.

It’s still very much a whiskey on its journey though, rather than one that has arrived, or even is on the cusp of arriving at, its final destination. It’s a robust, full-bodied spirit, and that fullness of body, alongside the high wheat percentage, means it has serious miles left in the tank to further develop in cask. Certainly it has moved on considerably from the yearling, but there are still miles left to be covered. I look forward to following its progress as it does.

Overall Verdict: Doesn’t (yet) compare to their Old Scouts in terms of quality, completeness and value, but well worth trying a glass of should you find it at a bar.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon 7 years old

Whiskey Name: Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon 7 years old  

Distillery: MGPI. Selected, blended and bottled by Smooth Ambler

Whiskey Type: Straight bourbon

Release Date: General

Price: Mine was £50

Age: 7 years old

ABV: 49.5%

Mashbill: 60% corn, 36% rye, 4% malted barley

Introduction/Background: A sourced bourbon from Midwest Grain Products of Indiana (hereafter MGPI, or this could get long). Some people seem to have a problem with such things; partially because the notion of a whiskey factory rather takes away from the romance of distilleries, and partially because certain craft distilleries try to cover up the fact that their whiskey is sourced.

From my own point of view, as long as distilleries are open about their sourcing, I don’t have a problem with it whatsoever. Indeed I’d probably rate MGPI in my top 3 or 4 US distilleries, and the guys at Smooth Ambler have long-since proven themselves to have an eye for a great cask. Besides today’s 7 year old there’s a 10 year old bourbon, a range of single casks, and some rather-harder-to-find rye. (As an aside, if you do find the rye, buy it on the spot.)

I first tasted the 7 year old about a year ago, shortly before we tasted our way through the range with CEO and Master Distiller John Little. For some reason I then didn’t come back to it for a while, until a bottle called to me from its shop shelf about a month ago, as bottles are wont to do.

As with all Smooth Ambler products, it’s bottled without chill-filtration, meaning that all the lovely mouthfeel-driving oils and fats stay in the whiskey. It’d be good to see this as standard practice in bourbon, to be honest, but that’s slightly wishful thinking.

Appearance: Chestnut

Nose: For £50, there’s a lot going on. The deeper, sweeter notes are there; caramel, milk chocolate, brown sugar, vanilla etc, but there’s also a ripe banana fruitiness. Intertwining it all and keeping it steady is that rasp of 36% rye. Actually shows solid maturity for 7 years old; spices like nutmeg and cinnamon mingled with cigar tobacco.

Mouth: Just a gorgeous, unctuous, oily mouthful of joy. Alcohol completely receipted and filed by richness of texture and depth of flavour. An explosion of caramel and nutmeg working in tandem; for two cents I’d hold this in my mouth until my teeth started hissing.

Finish: Nutmeg becomes leaner and turns into a grind of black pepper. But sweet, thick caramel and butterscotch remain the guiding hand on the tiller.

Value for Money: Worth every penny.

Summary: Just. So. Good. I love a decent dollop of rye in my bourbon, but what makes this one work so well is that it doesn’t tell the whiskey’s whole story. Sure it’s an unmistakeable presence, cracking its spicy whip and driving that nutmeg, but just as big of an influence is the outstanding mouthfeel, and the huge caramels and chocolates those seven years have ripped from the cask.

In short, it’s a properly complete bourbon experience. The palate follows the nose without mimicking, the story changes with each sniff or sip, and there’s no single dominant characteristic. Rounded, robust, flavour-forward stuff, choc-full of personality.

Overall Verdict: I’m going to say it. My favourite bourbon for under £50.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

American Sour Mash 5 year old (Cask P311) – The Single Cask Review

Whiskey Name: American Sour Mash 5 year old (Cask P311) – The Single Cask

Distillery: Your guess is as good as mine. (My guess is George Dickel)

Whiskey Type: Tennessee Whiskey

Release Date: 2017

Price: £67

Age: 5 years old

ABV: 59.7%

Mashbill: Presumably rye-recipe, but who knows?

Introduction/Background: Independent bottlings of US whiskey aren’t especially thick on the ground. Certainly not by comparison with the Scotch industry, where a new bottler seems to pop up every twenty minutes or so. The culture of store or bar picks seems to be more prevalent in US circles, and there are certainly some exceptionally good examples of such bottles to be found. But for my money independent bottling offers a little more scope for idiosyncrasy and general weirdness. Considerably more scope for experimental misses, I admit, but there’s a niche to be carved out here, and we’re starting to see people explore it.

Today’s explorer is the not-especially-imaginatively-named “The Single Cask”, who have bottled a 5-year-old from Tennessee. Which, realistically, means George or Jack. So. Any clues from the label?

Well, not really. Both Dickel and Daniel’s file themselves under “Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey” (a somewhat meaningless term, incidentally, as Sour Mash applies to more or less every whiskey made in the US.) Unlike some other independently bottled Tennessees I’ve seen, the word ‘bourbon’ is conspicuous by its absence, which means we dodge the obvious argument, but also means that this bottle would theoretically keep the JD legal team happy.

Nothing conclusive then. Let’s dive in.

Appearance: Copper

Nose: Well now. I’ve been drinking a lot of Canadian whiskey lately, and that’s where this nose takes me straight away. Very curious – not experienced that from US juice previously. All about the thick, sweet things: toffee, caramel and – yes – Maple syrup. A touch of mint and a nuance of something floral provide lift, buoyed by the rather enthusiastic alcohol. Aromas-wise, not the most intense nose in the world for the proof though.

Mouth: Incredibly richly textured; ABV wrapped up to an almost astonishing degree. Quite surprising given its prominence on the nose. Corn oil and caramel by the bushel; the corn oil in particular is bellowing. Also a sweet citrus fruit aspect; orange and lemon fruit pastilles-style, rather than the fresh article. That’s when the booze starts to kick in, though it’s still forgiving for 59.7%. A touch of the Bertie Bassett skulks at the rear.

Finish: Medium length; a return to the sweetest aspects.

Value for Money: Reasonable.

Summary: Well, I said I wanted something unusual, and that’s certainly what I got. Mega sweet, as Tennessee often is, but curiously with a distinctly Canadian accent. The palate was very different to the nose; that’s where it owned up to being US juice after all, but the whole thing was very unique, full of lively character, and likely to split opinion.

Whether or not it presses your personal buttons, what it represents is very encouraging. There’s so much scope for independent bottlers to come up with innovative and interesting takes on distillerys’ established themes, or to offer ages and styles not available in the standard lineups. If this bottling is indicative of the attitudes independents will be taking, then I’m all for it. At £67 it certainly isn’t cheap, but if the flavours tick your boxes it’s worth every penny. Personally I’d take the Boutique-y FEW, but that’s creeping towards the realms of subjective.

And I’m still not sure on distillery. It’s a long way off any Jack or George I’ve ever stumbled across. But that, I think, is the point.

Overall Verdict: I’m not sure I’d want more than a glass or two of this myself. But with a character this big, it won’t be short on people swiping right.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

TX Bourbon Review

Whiskey Name: TX Bourbon

Distillery: Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co

Whiskey Type: Straight Bourbon

Release Date: 2017 (now in general release)

Price: $50 (not available in the UK)

Age: NAS

ABV: 45%

Mashbill: Wheat recipe bourbon. Percentages undisclosed.

Introduction/Background: This popped up in the group after @NNWhisky brought a bottle back from the US. It’s from a craft distillery in Texas, formed by two chaps with the surnames Firestone and Robertson.

To the best of my knowledge this isn’t available in the UK yet, but from what I’ve learned from @NNWhisky the guys behind this juice are keen to see it in more peoples’ glasses, and are incredibly friendly in the bargain. A brief glance at their website certainly shows that they’re passionate about what they do, and there’s some serious whiskey coming out of Texas these days, as we’ve already covered here and here.Besides this bourbon, TX also do a blended whiskey, which I have a sample of to review in the future. But to the bourbon:

Appearance: Amber

Nose: Yep, that’s a wheater. Hello wholegrain loaf. There’s also a green fruit quality; apple rind and pear by my reckoning. Behind all this there’s a woody, ever-so-slightly dusty aspect. Grain? A touch of sawdust? Something along those lines.

Mouth: Nicely medium-weighted palate. Not much burn, which opens up the lushness of the wheat grain a little more. The wheatbread aspect persists, but not too loudly; caramels and vanillins are given some room to spread their wings. I’d compare this to Rock Town in many respects.

Finish: Medium.

Value for Money: Remains to be seen in the UK. $50 puts it against stiff competition in the US.

Summary: Another well-made, solid wheater, which may suffer from the perennial craft whiskey price issues. There’s a lot to like here, and as with so many we’ve covered in the last couple of weeks, I expect this distillery to continue to improve. It’s definitely worth seeking out by the glass, but flavour-wise there’s no huge USP if this ends up priced anywhere North of £50. Thanks to @NNWhisky for the sample.

Overall Verdict: Looking forward to seeing this in the UK. Worth hunting a glass of if you find yourself Stateside.

Evan Williams 23 years old Review

Whiskey Name: Evan Williams 23 years old

Distillery: Heaven Hill

Whiskey Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Release Date: 2014 (probably)

Price: Really depends how lucky you get at auction. Expect it to sting.

Age: 23

ABV: 53.5%

Mashbill: 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% malted barley

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Introduction/Background: Whilst Evan Williams the man did his drinking at the back end of the 18th Century, the brand Evan Williams is considerably more juvenile. Put together by Heaven Hill back in 1957, it’s most recognisable for its entry-level black label edition.

Today’s pour is less entry-level. Any bourbon in this neck of the woods age-wise vanishes as soon as it hits the shelves; frequently considerably earlier than that. A few years back a certain Mr Murray said especially nice things about this one, and the upshot of all this is that Evan Williams 23 is rather thin on the ground.

This sample ended up in my glass after @MCRBourbon asked for my opinion on it. It tasted rather different to an EW23 he had bought and loved previously he said, and he was interested to know my thoughts. So here they are.

Appearance: Dark, as you’d expect after 23 years in casks.

Nose: Deep and very woody. Possibly too woody. Proof stampedes out of the glass in rather raucous fashion for one so venerable. Following closely behind is a mélange of burnt orange, cola and a touch of tropical fruit. There’s also a heavy note of stewed tea though … my soul is prepared for tannin when I come to taste this. It’s a complex nose, but the oak rather shouts over everything else.

Mouth: Palate is luscious and velvety, though initially less complex. A few seconds of deliciously deep caramels … and then the oak kicks back in, and the velvetiness is bludgeoned by anticipated tannin. Lots and lots of nuts. Some old furniture and leather further underline this pour’s considerable years. Deep; alcohol is less prominent than on nose. Also a bit less overtly oaky, until…

Finish: …everything turns slightly bitter. The nuts and leather endure; the sweet aspects have departed.

Value for Money: The days of “good value” EW23 are probably behind us realistically.

Summary: There is much about this bottling of EW23 to admire. @MCRBourbon reckoned it was a 2014 edition, which means there’s every chance that the liquid in the bottle is as old as I am, and it’s not often such bourbons appear in the tasting glass. Some delicious deep notes, and some excellent moments.

However.

When it comes to the likes of Evan Williams 23, I expect the Earth to move. I expect to move into spheres to which few whiskies can transport you. Compared to what I expect of a bourbon with this price tag and reputation I couldn’t help but be a little underwhelmed. There are several pours for under 3 figures that offer more.

Overall Verdict: A fascinating experience, but this fellow should have been bottled a few years prior. Them’s the breaks when it comes to bourbon this old. Thanks so much to @MCRBourbon for the opportunity to taste it though.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim