Michter’s Barrel Strength Toasted Barrel Rye Review

Whiskey Name: Michter’s Barrel Strength Toasted Barrel Rye

Distillery: Michter’s has this contract distilled. But are tight-lipped on by whom.

Whiskey Type: Straight rye 

Release Date: 2017

Price: £98 - £110 depending on where you shop

Age: NAS

ABV: Mine is 54.4%. I gather the proofs vary a little. 

Mashbill: Not disclosed. 

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Introduction/Background: Michter’s commission a bloody good rye. The standard issue is a very solid pour indeed, and the barrel proof was a worthy winner of BBS ‘Rye of the Year’ 2017.

So there was some excitement when news filtered through that the latest limited release from Michter’s was a barrel proof rye with a toasted barrel finish. Which is to say that they’ve taken their standard barrel proof rye, and dumped it into a brand new virgin oak toasted barrel for a few extra weeks.

This isn’t the first time Michter’s have played around with toasted barrel finishes. A few years back they released a bourbon that had undergone the process. But that wasn’t barrel proof, and – for my money – Michter’s are better at rye than at bourbon. (Until you get to the really high age stuff, but that’s another story and price league).  

Anyhow, the toasted oak rye landed in the UK about a month ago, since when BBS members have been buying it by the bucket-load. (Or barrel-load, perhaps?) Great to see a limited release available on UK shelves, and great to see it priced pretty closely to the standard barrel proof.

Appearance: Darker than the standard, as you’d expect. Horse chestnut.

Nose: Good grief! About as big an upfront caramel and toffee hit as I can remember. Chocolate too – like Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Caramel. Once you’ve adjusted there’s rather a lot of menthol and Eucalyptus, Coonawarra Cabernet-style, alongside charcoal and a smatter of dusky herbs. The leather and cigar humidor of the standard barrel proof rye is still here too though; the Michter’s DNA certainly hasn’t been swamped.

Mouth: Thick, viscous mouthfeel. Hugely mouthcoating for a rye, really. Caramel, muscovado and post-mix cola is cut through by immense rye and oak spiciness. Sweet cinnamon and liquorice. Lashings of black pepper, nutmeg and allspice. Skewer their way through the caramel, meaning balance is just about maintained despite the enormousness of the pour. Black cherry fruit on the side.

Finish: Spices win out, as you’d expect.

Value for Money: It certainly isn’t cheap, but the quality matches the price.

Summary: Huge. That body, by rye standards, is insanely big. Flavours (and especially aromas) are gargantuan too, which means this more than copes with its alcohol level. There really isn’t much burn at all, given the strength.

There may be those who think it’s a little too much, and prefer the drier, more classic elements of the standard barrel proof, but as for me I think it’s a riot. It would certainly be difficult to love Balcones as much as I do and not have a place in my heart for this.

I’m on the fence as to whether I prefer this to the standard barrel proof bottling; they’re definitely different animals. I’d probably drink the standard more often; this one’s practically a meal in a glass. But hats off to Michter’s; they’ve found a new take on rye, and it’s absolutely fantastic.

Overall Verdict: Awesome. And brilliant fun too. I need a lie down.

 

WhistlePig Boss Hog IV ‘Black Prince’ Review

Whiskey Name: WhistlePig Boss Hog IV ‘Black Prince’ 

Distillery: Distilled at MGPI, finished and bottled at Whistlepig

Whiskey Type: Straight rye

Release Date: 2017

Price: £539 or so

Age: 14 years

ABV: 59.6%

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Mashbill: Not sure which of MGPI’s recipes they’ve gone with for this one. I’d guess the 95% rye, but you’ll have to do some digging if you really want to find out. At least 51% rye, obviously, with whatever is left being made up by malted barley.

Introduction/Background: The random number generator which WhistlePig use to set their prices got particularly overexcited when it came to The Black Prince.

The fourth edition of their cask strength ‘Boss Hog’ series was never going to be a wallet-friendly number, but then it was named ‘Best Whisk(e)y in the World’ at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and an office conversation along the lines of ‘that 3 at the start of the number – you meant to write 5, right?’ probably happened.

It’s named after England’s Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock, who caused all sorts of problems for the French. He gave them a slap at Poitiers, captured their King, and nicked – amongst quite a lot of other stuff – some barrels of Armagnac brandy.

This ties in nicely with WhistlePig’s decision to finish their all-conquering Hog in ex-Armagnac casks. And, of course, they’ve taken their commitment to historical commemoration even further by charging a King’s ransom for it. To my mind, though, the historical link would be more apposite if WhistlePig had opted for an ‘English people drink free’ policy.

Anyhow, having grumbled about pricing and made a snarky joke or two, what do I think about how this rye actually tastes?  

Appearance: The colour of 54 ten pound notes. (Actually, to be fair, it’s darker than that. Nice sort of mahogany really.)

Nose: Classic mature rye nose, though – bizarrely – more reminiscent of something from Kentucky than from MGPI. Polished oak for a moment or two before major fruit kicks in. Figs and plums, with tarter blackberries. Blackberry jam, in fact. Marzipan adds a little roundness. The whole thing is sewn together by a mature, rancio note which is slightly reminiscent of an Armagnac, but – to me – closer to something like an old red burgundy. Bags of complexity, but for a cask strength rye it’s not as intense as you might expect. Alcohol is well controlled though.

Mouth: Comes seriously alive on the palate, and is suddenly as spicy as all hell. The spices here are served several ways though; dry and peppery intertwangles with sweeter cinnamon and savoury clove. There’s a smoky herbaceousness too; more overtly MGPI stock than on the nose – that dill thing adds a bit of lift and dimension, along with pinewood and dried orange. More of the black fruits – plums and cherries –  but not quite as prominent as they were on the nose. Medium bodied, which allows the spices and woodiness (not over-woodiness) to flourish, though the alcohol does prickle a fair bit. Hints of Armagnac, but only a smidgen.

Finish: A gradual fade, with the earthier notes skulking around longest.

Value for Money: It’s £540. £540.

Summary: This is a great rye. Lots of complexity, lots of superb flavour.

£540, however, is crazy.

I tasted this next to tomorrow’s review (no spoilers) and the value ratios didn’t stack up.

I know I go on a lot about price – and there is, of course, the argument that one person’s ‘great value’ is another person’s ‘exorbitantly expensive’ – but to me this rye underlines the undeniable fact that pricing in the ‘rare/premium’ sector of whiskey has gone nuts.

When @MCRBourbon reviewed the Booker’s Rye (another ‘best in the world’ winner, but from Jim Murray, not from San Francisco) he rightly pointed out that its $300 RRP was not good value. Seriously poor, in fact. Black Prince had an RRP of $499 in the US, and I just don’t think that price can be justified.

I don’t mean this to be a witch hunt and – as I’ve made clear – the whiskey itself is very decent. WhistlePig are also far from the only people charging insane sums for whiskeys, though they may be the most prominent and obvious example in the USA.

But it does make one wonder where the line is. And how much release V will cost.

Overall Verdict: Love the whiskey, terrified by the price.

Huge thanks to Mark Latimour for the incredibly generous sample.

 

 

 

Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond Review

Whiskey Name: Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond

Distillery: Heaven Hill

Whiskey Type: Bottled in Bond Straight Bourbon

Release Date: General release.

Price: $12.

Age: 6 years

ABV: 50%

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

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Introduction/Background: What kind of whiskey can $12 buy you in the UK? Absolutely no whisky whatsoever in Scotland, as a result of minimum pricing, and a bottom shelf bottle of rancid, 5th fill, sub-mouthwash abomination anywhere else.

But the good citizens of Kentucky can buy a bottle of 6-years-matured, 50% ABV Heaven Hill bourbon. Doesn’t it just make you sick?

This pour was introduced to the BBS by the great bourbon writer and historian Michael Veach, when he came to visit London at the start of November. He’d generously brought along a selection of bottles not available on UK soil, and described this one as the best value in bourbon.

I had a taste at the time, but it wasn’t really a note-taking occasion, so I couldn’t scribble anything down. Happily BBS member Lee provided me a sample along with the 8 year old Whisky Broker expression we covered yesterday.

So how much bourbon does $12 buy you?

Appearance: A ruddy russet.

Nose: Far richer and lusher than the Whisky Broker. Yes, the chunky Heaven Hill grain comes through, but it’s not youthful, and it’s balanced by unctuous caramel and fudge as well as the bright and vibrant spice of new oak. Nothing unique or extreme, but it’s very tasty stuff.

Mouth: The story is the same here. More wholemeal; good, rich spirit counterbalanced by the caramel and cinnamon influence of the cask. A flutter of tropical fruit and milk chocolate too, as well s peanut brittle and cola. Lots of depth for the age.

Finish: Spices arrive with greater firmness.

Value for Money: Staggeringly good.

Summary: Not fair. Not fair, not fair, not fair. If this were in Britain I would recommend it to all of my friends, and buying Christmas presents would be a lot easier. (And cheaper). Blows away not only everything we get for £20 or under, but everything we get for under £30 too.

No, it’s not reinventing the flavour wheel, and long-standing bourbon sippers won’t uncover anything they’ve not experienced before, but that isn’t the point of this whiskey. You could give this to anyone in the world and they’d recognise that for under £10 it represents something seriously impressive and seriously tasty.

Puts the price you pay for craft whiskies into pretty brutal perspective. Puts the price you pay for pretty much anything into brutal perspective. If anyone is going anywhere near Kentucky any time soon, please bring me back a bottle. Or, better still, a case.

Overall Verdict: I’m with Michael. This is as good as whiskey value gets.

Thanks very much to Lee for providing the sample!

Whisky Broker Heaven Hill 8 years old Review

Whiskey Name: Whisky Broker Heaven Hill 8 years old

Distillery: Heaven Hill

Whiskey Type: Straight Bourbon … apparently

Release Date: 2017

Price: £45

Age: 8 years

ABV: 50.2%

Mashbill: Presumably standard HH rye-recipe bourbon: 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% malted barley

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Introduction/Background: Indie Heaven Hill bourbon, with a decent age statement, bottled by the young-ish Scottish firm Whisky Broker. At just £45, BBS members were buying it in droves. I’d have done so myself, but it was that time of the month when the bank account was at its most accusatorial.

On paper, very exciting stuff. We’re seeing quite a few indie bourbon bottlings lately, most of which seem to be from George Dickel. But lot of these bottlings are rather heftily priced, so £45 for a decent strength HH seemed very reasonable indeed. I’ve had some cracking scotches – both grain and malt – from Whisky Broker, so I’d made plans to pick up a bottle if any had been left come pay day.

But then the photos started appearing on the group, and something about them put me off a little. The colour, mostly. For eight years old in Virgin oak it’s pretty pale. Insanely pale, really, especially if you stick it next to the 6 year old Bottled in Bond. Whilst colour’s no guarantee of quality per se, it gave me pause for thought, and I spent my money elsewhere.

Kept thinking about the Whisky Broker bottling though, so I was really pleased when BBS member Lee passed on a sample, which is in my glass today.

Appearance: Burnished gold.

Nose: Where’s the oak? However much you stick your nose in, grain is all that really jumps out. I always think of Heaven Hill as having some pretty chunky, burly grain, but this is over the top. No caramel, no virgin oak, no spices, nothing. Doesn’t smell like bourbon.

Mouth: The taste is a little – a little – more on point, but it’s only for the briefest flicker that caramel and oak creep in before the cereal mash returns with a vengeance and overhauls everything else. It’s also really bitter, and there’s a sour lemon sharpness. The levels of body and flavour are not equal to the booze; this has a vicious prickle.

Finish: Not short enough.

Value for Money: Not worth it.

Summary: A weird and unsettling bourbon. It simply does not feel like it has spent those years in virgin oak. I have had bourbons less than a year old with several times the wood influence. This feels naked and exposed, and a different sort of whiskey entirely.

I tasted it next to tomorrow’s pour, and the differences were simply shocking. This just doesn’t look, smell, or taste as bourbon should, and is a very poor representation both of the calibre of Heaven Hill, and the normally very impressive credentials of Whisky Broker.

Proof that sometimes gift horses really should be looked in the mouth.

Overall Verdict: Avoid.

Thanks very much to Lee for providing the sample. (And sorry!)

New York Distilling Company Rye 2 years old (That Boutique-y Rye Company) Review

 Whiskey Name: New York Distilling Company Rye 2 years old (That Boutique-y Rye Company)

Distillery: New York Distilling Company

Whiskey Type: Rye

Release Date: 2017

Price: £37.95 (for standard BTWC 500ml bottle)

Age: 2 years

ABV: 53%

Mashbill: Unknown. If the same as Ragtime Rye then 72% rye, 16% corn, 12% malted barley

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Introduction/Background: An independent bottling by That Boutique-y Whisky Company of rye from the New York Distilling Company. Resulting a very long name.

Boutique-y do like their young Americans; elsewhere we’ve covered the St George 2 year old rye, which was excellent, and the FEW 2 year old bourbon, which was excellent. So I had high hopes for this. I also saw it getting some rather complimentary reviews on the group, which is always a good sign, and Boutique-y have been bottling at a very high standard generally, in any case.

NYDC are perhaps best known for their Ragtime Rye, which somehow has escaped me thus far. So I had no experience of their whiskies prior to this botting. Unusually, it has been finished in Applejack casks, which is also a new one on me. Brave new world.

Appearance: Light brass

Nose: Pungent stuff. Apples and ginger straight off the bat, accompanied by a yeasty funk and a bit of acetone. Quite a bit of acetone. Actually, there’s a tonne of acetone here, and it’s a bit too much for me. Very overtly young. Some attractive pastry notes and calvados on the side.

Mouth: More of that sharp apple, banana and acetone on the palate. Spicy, and also rather prickly. Jalapeño, hay, and honey on toast. Mostly about those apples and acetones though. Not the world’s most complex beast. More about the grains than the casks, though no doubt the Applejack has a firm hand.

Finish: Not much change in the flavours, just a medium-length fade.

Value for Money: Not bad, if this is your sort of thing.

Summary: Hate to say it, but I’m not terribly keen on this rye. I hold Boutique-y to a very high standard, and to me, this doesn’t quite match it. The main thing is that overwhelming youthfulness. It’s rather distractingly spirity, and I feel it just needed a little more time in casks.

I loved the Boutique-y FEW, but I had the suspicion that that whiskey only succeeded because the young wheat was tamed by assertive and delicious wood, and the clever use of Cherrywood smoke. In this instance, a rather young and raw rye is being laid bare just a little bit too early, with no supporting cast to back it up.

There is a caveat, of course, which is that several folks in the BBS group are massive fans of this juice. And at £37.95 it certainly offers a different look at rye that doesn’t break the bank. But whilst this is only my opinion, I’d recommend buying a glass or sample before diving in with a full bottle.

Overall Verdict: Not really for me, I’m afraid. Which is rare where Boutique-y are concerned. Sorry chaps – I’ll definitely still be grabbing whatever you bottle next!

Old Charter 12 year old Review

Whiskey Name: Old Charter 12 year old

Distillery: Buffalo Trace. Though it was called George T. Stagg at the time of distillation

Whiskey Type: Straight bourbon

Release Date: General release at the time.

Price: Would depend on your luck at auction

Age: 12 years

ABV: 45%

Mashbill: Undisclosed.

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Introduction/Background: A good old boy from back in the days when so few people were drinking bourbon. Admittedly I also wasn’t drinking bourbon back then, but my mitigating circumstance is that I was (probably) less than 10 when this was bottled. (Excuses, excuses).

This comes courtesy of BBS co-founding father TheBourbonator. When I was doing my homework he described the following link as the best source of info he’s found on the juice. So you get some quality instead of just listening to my standard pre-ambling nonsense. https://www.straightbourbon.com/community/topic/1094-old-charter-classic-90-mark-brown-replies/

So old-ish school Trace kit with a decent age statement. Think that’ll do.

Appearance: Mahogany

Nose: Mmmmm. Deep caramel, toffee, nutmeg and nuts. Just such a satisfying nose. Simultaneously elegant and choc-full of character. No boozy burn whatsoever, just confident, classic bourbon aromas. Fruit in peach and passionfruit form. The wood is prominent without overwhelming; there has to be some old stock in this. Cracking vatting work.

Mouth: Again, it’s a roll-call of the great bourbon notes. It follows the nose unbelievably closely, in fact. Beautiful balance of the sweet caramel and milk chocolate with the chunkier nutmeg and cinnamon. Ripe, round texture and bags of flavour for the proof.

Finish: Rye takes the reins; spicy pepper fizzes up beside dry macadamias and popcorn.

Value for Money: Depressingly amazing at the time of bottling.

Summary: Without doing anything flashy, this bourbon just reminds you of how lucky bourbon fans were in the standard issue bottlings that gathered dust on shelves 20 years ago.

The sort of thing you can only make if your library of aged stock is seriously, seriously impressive. The difference, basically, between craft distillers and the really big players.

There are bourbons as good as this about today, don’t get me wrong. But not for the same price. Not for just one note. A beautiful taste of what once was.

Overall Verdict: A delicious, nostalgic look back with which to bring the year to a close.

Thanks very much to TheBourbonator for the sample!

SMWS 133.1 (Westland) “Speakeasy Sneaky Peeky” Review

Whiskey Name: SMWS 133.1 (Westland) “Speakeasy Sneaky Peeky”

Distillery: Westland

Whiskey Type: Single Malt

Release Date: 2017

Price: £90

Age: 5 years

ABV: 57%

Mashbill: 100% malted barley. Presumably Westland’s signature multi-malt combo.

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Introduction/Background: The first bottling of Westland by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and apparently the oldest bottling of Westland ever at a mighty 5 years young.

I’m a fan of the distillery; we’ve looked at their first Garryana in the past, and I’m partial to their American oak flagship too. (The sherry-matured is less successful by my mileage, but perhaps I’ll have to go back to it again and check).

What I like is the obvious thought they put into their malts. No mucking about for the sake of it; they genuinely seem to care about their grains, yeast, and oak, and put hard yards into doing things properly. The website really goes the extra mile in explaining it all; it feels like they know they’re being read by people who are actually interested.

This is the first independent bottling I’ve tried of their juice though; I’m keen to see how it compares to the proprietaries. It came courtesy of BBS member Andrew, who runs the excellent Andrew’s Share blog. Unpeated, and drawn from a single, heavily-charred virgin oak cask.

Appearance: Deep amber

Nose: Signature Westland maltiness, with particular focus on the chocolate malt. Something slightly waxy about it, and a savoury – almost gamey – quality. Vanillas are clear, as are bananas and stout. A little pine and barley betrays youth and lifts things. Touch of sharp yeast, too. Very reminiscent of the American Oak expression, but ever so slightly closed, to be honest.

Mouth: Was not expecting that! Gloriously – shockingly – rich palate. Voluptuous mouthfeel with huge, mouthwatering spices and more of – you guessed it – chocolate malt. Insane amounts of chocolate malt in fact; to the point that it becomes hard to focus on anything else! Broadly speaking the palate follows the nose, but everything seems turned up by 5 or 6 notches, and a load of oranges and currants have flooded in. big booze, but the flavours can take it.

Finish: Becomes much more about the cereal, but the chocolate lingers. Caramel becomes more pronounced, and a leathery impression arrives too. Really good finish, actually.

Value for Money: Not outstanding, but far from terrible.

Summary: Thought this was going to be decent but nothing to scream about based on the nose, but the palate just blew me away. Not the most complex beast in the world, but it made the most of the lines it had. The finish in particular was superb, and it really isn’t often that the finish is my favourite part of the experience.

Based on the price, I think I prefer the proprietaries. This is a little steep. There are moments when it outdistanced the core range from Westland, but it doesn’t quite have the complexity, and the nose isn’t quite there. Certainly not enough to totally justify the price hike.

But I’m being critical, because Westland is one of my favourite US distilleries. My main thought, tasting this, was ‘when are we going to bottle a BBS Westland?’ I reckon we’d give this SMWS offering a run for its money. Fighting talk.

Overall Verdict: Ok nose, superb palate and finish. A solid cask.

Thanks very much to Andrew for the sample!

Masterson’s 10yo Rye Review

Whiskey Name: Masterson’s 10yo Rye

Distillery: Alberta

Whiskey Type: Straight rye

Release Date: General

Price: £70

Age: 10 years

ABV: 45%

Mashbill: 100% rye

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Introduction/Background: Another instance of Canadian rye from the excellent Alberta distillery hiding in a US bottle. This one bears the legend of ‘Gambler, buffalo hunter, Army scout, gunfighter and newspaper man’ William ‘Bat’ Masterson. ‘Newspaper man’ seems a bit random tacked on to the end of all that. You don’t see many Guardian columnists charging around brandishing rifles and taking out buffalo.

As is standard for these sorts of bottlings, great care has been taken to hide the fact that it came from Canada. For legal reasons it is on the label – clearly stated on the back in size 0.0001 font, underneath the blurb about small batches, artisans, and glacial water from the Northern Rockies. Possibly I go on about the Canada thing too often, but given BBS has just bottled a Canada-distilled rye ourselves, I feel it’s valid. Canada makes awesome rye. People should be proud to bottle it, and excited to hear about it.

Anyhow, the age statement and distillery put Masterson’s in direct competition with Whistlepig and Jefferson’s 10. It costs about the same as the former, for 5% less booze.

Appearance: Copper

Nose: Yep, that’s rye! Earth and grain-forward; less overt oak than Whistlepig 10, more about the rye than the barrel. Rye grass, leather and tobacco. Kept balanced by sweeter aspects of vanilla and coconut, whilst sharper grapefruit, cut grass and mixed herbs provide lift. Smatter of pine too. Medium intensity.

Mouth: The earthiness continues, but here is more peppery. Also more floral; white flowers and cherry blossom. Fennel grows in the glass, beside an array of coffee, ginger, raspberry, and cereal flavours. The whole thing is bound together by light citrus syrup. Quite lean in body; alcohol does poke through.

Finish: Dries significantly into a soily, dusty, cigar tobacco and more of that rye grass.

Value for Money: Price is a little high, I think.

Summary: I do like Masterson’s 10. It’s very complex, and there are some brilliant rye notes in it. It certainly occupies a different space of the flavour map to Whistlepig and Jefferson’s – and indeed to the bottlings Alberta produce themselves.

It isn’t without flaws. At times it seems a little too overwhelmingly earthy and drying. Despite the lowish proof, flavours struggle to contain the alcohol at times; often an issue with Alberta I find, as it does tend to be lean in body. The oils, perhaps, have been too broken up; ironically it might hold its alcohol better if it were at a higher proof. But that’s just a thought.

On the whole though, a very tasty experience, if rather ambitiously priced. But that’s aged rye for you; not much about, and what there is doesn’t come cheap. It makes me wish Alberta bottled their own proprietary 10 year old. Now that’d make for some interesting comparisons.

Overall Verdict: Very decent rye, well worth trying.

Roughstock Montana Spring Wheat Whiskey Review

Whiskey Name: Roughstock Montana Spring Wheat Whiskey

Distillery: Roughstock

Whiskey Type: Wheat whisky

Release Date: General

Price: £45

Age: NAS

ABV: 45%

Mashbill: 100% hard white spring wheat

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Introduction/Background: Roughstock are one of the older craft distilleries, at a stately 12 years. They were the first legal distillery in Montana for over 100 years, and like so many other craft distilleries they love a bit of wheat.

Their bourbon popped up in our month of reviews back in August, and I wasn’t a huge fan. A bit raw; a bit acetone-y. Often a problem with young wheaters in my opinion, and we’ve chatted to a load of distillers now who seem to agree.

But wheat is just such a trendy grain, and more and more straight wheat whiskies have been cropping up. Reservoir do an absolutely smashing one, and I don’t mind the stuff that Dry Fly put together either.

So I thought I’d jump back into the wheat whisky water and have another go at Roughstock. They’re one of the craft distilleries that actually has some UK presence, meaning you can buy this through the obvious channels for under £50. It’s aged in used barrels for a little while before being finished in French oak.

Appearance: Very pale. Light gold really.

Nose: Not much to smell here, to be honest. Light and faint. Being slightly brutal it’s more than a smidge reminiscent of new make, albeit a little sweeter, and with some of the rougher edges sanded down. Sherbet lemons. Hay. Acetone (though mercifully curbed). Unripe bananas.

Mouth: Sweet, astringent, raw and rather low on flavour. Like a sort of dilute, very sugary cereal solution. There’s a very little bit of clove somewhere if you really strain, but that’s as far as the European oak seems to go, and it disappears again very swiftly, returning to sugar and grain and acetone. Texture’s decent, but everything else is a bit bland.

Finish: Short.

Value for Money: Not for me.

Summary: Bland, really. I’ve seen it written up as an ‘aperitif’ elsewhere, but that seems to be clawing around for positives, when this is actually just pretty dull. I don’t know that it’s ‘unpleasant’ per se – there’s just not much really there except some sweetness.

It’s a shame; I’d like to like the Roughstock stuff more, but this is just a bit raw. A bit too close to white spirit for my money; a bit too low on character. People will say ‘oh he just doesn’t like wheat’, but that’s not true. Properly aged wheat is a wonderful thing. But if you’re going to work with wheat you need to give yourself time, or active casks. And this whiskey has had neither.

Nothing to write home about. Nothing to mention across the room about.

Overall Verdict: Very avoidable.

Distillery 291 ‘E’ Batch #2 Bourbon Review

Whiskey Name: Distillery 291 ‘E’ Batch #2

Distillery: Distillery 291

Whiskey Type: Bourbon

Release Date: 2017

Price: Bloody hard to find online. Not about in the UK, but somewhere around $100. I think.

Age: 333 whole days.

ABV: 63.4%

Mashbill: 80% corn, 19% malted rye, 1% malted barley

Introduction/Background: The only whiskey at the BBS Jim Murray tasting that pretty much no one knew anything about.

Distillery 291 has been based out in Colorado since 2011, and is the brainchild of Michael Myers, a former photographer. They make various bourbons, ryes, and American whiskies, but what sets them apart is a sort of accident. An ‘atrocious’ early attempt to distil an IPA was due to be poured away, when Myers noticed that the spillage had a rather nice citrus and hops tea element. Since then, a little of this spillage has gone into every product they’ve made.

The ‘E’ stands for ‘experimental’. Batches 1 and 3 were ryes – the spirit Myers originally set out to make – and batch 2 is a bourbon. What makes it experimental is the cooking of the grains. Traditionally 291 cook their mash ‘up’, meaning they start with a lower temperature water, add grain, then increase the temperature, add more grain, and so on. For E Batch 2, Myers also used grain which had been cooked ‘down’, resulting in a vastly different tasting mash.

After just under a year in 10 gallon barrels (37.8 litres, so very small by comparison with standard bourbon casks) E was good to go. Jim Murray rated it highly, which was how it ended up at our tasting.

Appearance: Dark for the age. Tiny barrels, high proof etc.

Nose: That malted rye is seriously noisy. Lots of notes I’ve only found before on high percentage rye whiskies, like the St George from Boutique-y. Postmix cola. Appletise. There’s an element of medicine cupboard too – germoline; again reminiscent of the St George. Decent mixture of depth and lift. Lime zest and green fruit pastilles. A little caramel too. Mega juicy, with dabs of sweet spice – star anise and clove.

Mouth: Still a fruit bomb. Granny Smith apples in very light caramel. Gingery – like a ginger ale almost. Very oily, but because of the freshness it’s a silky texture, rather than anything too mouthcoating. Lots of muscovado sugar. The rye still buzzes and buzzes; the ginger grows to immense proportions. Sugary cereal in the background. Borderline frosties!

Finish: The sugar fades off the cereal.

Value for Money: Bit steep. The craft thing again. I’ve seen much worse.

Summary: Not like any bourbon I’d ever really tried before. Bourbon in Rye’s clothing. In fact, as I tasted it (blind) I was reminded of several notes I normally associate with the 100% rye from Canada’s Alberta.

That probably works in its favour though; the flavours, whilst young, are of fruits and spices, rather than being anything too acetone or grainy. I certainly like it a lot more than I like a lot of craft bourbons, though I do think that $105 is too much.

But the spirit is good, and the cut is excellent; whistle-clean whisky, with some seriously big flavours. That ginger on the palate was immense, and I’m a fan of the texture. Not the most complex in the world, but that’s to be expected after only 11 months.

At about half the price I’d probably be really enthusing about this whisky. As it was, it was the pour that stuck in my head after the Murray tasting simply because it was so different and unique. It was better than a lot of craft bourbons I’ve reviewed here, if not quite in Balcones/Kings County territory.

Overall Verdict: I shall be keeping an eye out in bars for more Distillery 291 whiskey. Though I’m not in a hurry to buy a full bottle at the price, even if it was available on UK shores.

Balcones Blue Corn Bourbon Review

Whiskey Name: Balcones Blue Corn Bourbon

Distillery: Balcones

Whiskey Type: Straight bourbon whisky. (I’ve literally just noticed that Balcones drop the ‘e’.)

Release Date: This one was bottled in October 2017

Price: In the UK, expect to pay £110 or thereabouts. In the US it’s probably 50p or something ridiculous like that. I don’t even want to check – I’ll end up kicking things and crying.

Age: 30 months

ABV: 64.6%

Mashbill: ‘A mash of our cherished corn’ is as much detail as I got from their website.

Introduction/Background: We’re massive fans of Balcones at the British Bourbon Society. I am, at least, and I write most of the reviews so there. Yes, they’re not cheap in the UK, but they tend to punch at least at their price point, and if you get them in the US they’re very good value indeed.

We loved their Cask Strength True Blue Corn whisky and their Rum-finished Single Malt when they popped up here for review, and they were probably the standout US table of the year at The Whisky Show.

All of which means that the standards by which I’d judge Balcones are now set very high indeed. Today it’s their bourbon in the glass. It’s over two years, which means it qualifies as ‘Straight’, and, being a bourbon, it has been aged entirely in new charred oak, unlike their corn whiskies. No idea what the mashbill is, but even if it were 100% corn, that wouldn’t prohibit them from labelling it ‘bourbon’. See Reservoir for confirmation.

This sample actually popped up blind, so I had no preconceptions whatsoever before tasting. Which is always nice.

Appearance: Classic Balcones dark chestnut.

Nose: Viscous with caramel and molasses; lashings of fruity dark chocolate and spice. Very rounded and very, very deep. Fresh black cherries as well as cherry jam, and a slight funky sharpness almost reminiscent of old brandy. Coffee bean. The most miniscule waft of germoline. Heady stuff.

Mouth: Huge mouthfeel. Tonnes of chocolate and roasted nuts and caramel. Similarities to both well-aged pot still rum and sherry-cask single malt. Very raisiny. Lashings of nutmeg and black pepper. Liquorice and fennel. My God it’s thick; you can practically pick bits of it out of your teeth. Alcohol is fiery and thunderous, but just about held together by that immense body and intensity of flavour.

Finish: The sweetness dries after some time into chocolate-coated coffee bean.

Value for Money: Worth UK price. A bargain at US.

Summary: Craft whiskies just don’t get bigger than Balcones. Except, possibly, at King’s County, right at the other end of the country. It’s practically alcoholic sauce; delicious, delicious alcoholic sauce.

We tasted this blind, but I reckon most people around the table had it pegged as Balcones right away. Right up there with the two we’ve already reviewed, and the antithesis of yesterday’s E.H. Taylor. This one’s all about the overt, boisterous, enormous personality. You just can’t sip it without smiling.

The rhetoric on the websites of craft whiskies would have you believe that the established names in Kentucky (and Tennessee and Indiana) are a bunch of cack-handed no-hopers; cutting corners, doing things wishy-washily and not giving much of a toss. In reality, there are almost no craft distilleries who can currently compete with the quality put out by the bigger players, with their vast libraries of stock.

Balcones are one of the very very few who can. And what’s brilliant is that they do so on entirely their own terms, carving their own niche into the flavour wheel. If every craft distillery was even half as good, the whisky world would be a far tastier place to be.

Overall Verdict: What do you think?

Colonel E.H. Taylor Four Grain Bourbon Review

Whiskey Name: Colonel E.H. Taylor Four Grain Bourbon

Distillery: Buffalo Trace

Whiskey Type: Straight bourbon (Bottled in Bond)

Release Date: 2017

Price: RRP was about $70. And if you can find a bottle at that price then you should probably get a job in the Secret Service.

Age: 12 years

ABV: 50%

Mashbill: Buffalo Trace are spoilsports and don’t tell you. Includes corn, wheat, rye, and malted barley.

Introduction/Background: Of all the price discrepancies between bourbon in the US and bourbon in the UK, Colonel E.H. Taylor is amongst the most extreme. Certainly in terms of whiskies from mainstream distilleries. Core range starts at about £100 East of the Atlantic, and at that price you can practically hear the cackles of derision from the other side of the ocean.

Today’s pour is not from the core range, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it had given the flagships something of a sales boost in the latter stages of this year. It’s the Four Grain, which a chap in a hat rated rather highly.

Like all the releases bearing the famous Colonel’s name, this carries the Bottled-in-Bond badge; tribute to the Act which Taylor himself was so influential in bringing to pass. Its mashbill contains an unspecified quantity of the four main bourbon grains, and a bottle can very easily be yours if you’re prepared to sell just two or three vital organs to a Russian oligarch.

Appearance: Maple syrup

Nose: Loads and loads of upfront fruity caramel. It’s quite fresh caramel though; not terribly deep. Floral honey aspects too, and a little muscovado. The tiniest touch of acetone, which comes as something of a surprise, given the age. Very citrussy; dried oranges as well as fresh orange zest. The wheat seems to have more of a hand on the tiller than the rye; spices are very much a secondary consideration, and the DNA seems closer to the Weller family than to the Stagg. Slight hazelnut – Nutella even – as it sits.

Mouth: Deliciously silky delivery; the fruity, floral caramels and honeys mean that this whiskey glides across your palate with barely a prickle. Really classy mouthfeel. Orange and candied lemon swell alongside the caramel. Honey takes a turn for the manuka (though I had a load of manuka honey last month – maybe it’s just on the brain!)

Finish: Things dry out and deepen on the finish; cinnamon creeps in, followed by very pronounced hazelnuts, cereal and wholemeal. The lightest flutter of black pepper and rye spice play in the background.

Value for Money: Very good at RRP. And then you wake up and it was all just a beautiful dream.

Summary: One of those bourbons I’d describe as really, properly elegant. I don’t know what the mashbill was, but it does (to me) seem to be more influenced by its wheat than by its rye. The mouthfeel in particular screamed wheat, and was one of the highlights of the experience.

It’s great stuff. It almost feels like an academic exercise in bourbon making really; everything’s so polished and so technically ‘correct’. It isn’t especially brash or bellow-y, it’s just really well made, really complex, really accomplished stuff.

Thing is, and this is possibly just me, it seems to have lost a bit of personality in the process. It’s a bit of a teacher’s pet, if that makes sense. So afraid to make mistakes that a bit of joie de vivre and – dare I say it – character, has slipped away. I’m not saying all whiskey has to be big and bold and statement-making, but this one felt a little too polished.

That’s a deeply niche criticism; we’re well into nerd territory there, and the whiskey remains an excellent, excellent pour. One of the standouts on a night of standouts when BBS met Jim Murray for a tasting a few weeks back.

You won’t find it at RRP, and it’s not worth paying the extremes you’ll be asked for on secondary, but do try this bourbon if you get a chance. It’s terrific.

Overall Verdict: Stellar and extremely complex – if slightly reserved – stuff. Not quite my bourbon of the year personally, but it’d sniff around the top 5 for sure

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