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

Balcones True Blue Cask Strength Review

Whiskey Name: Balcones True Blue Cask Strength

Distillery: Balcones

Whiskey Type: Corn Whiskey

Release Date: 2016 edition

Price: £100

Age: NAS

ABV: 65.7%

Mashbill: 100% Blue Corn

Introduction/Background: Balcones feels like one of the more prominent of the craft distilleries; certainly one of the more obviously available in the UK. It’s a brand that seems to split opinion, less because of the actual products and more because of the rather messy divorce with founder Chip Tate a little while back. This probably isn’t the best place to get too far into that.

Based down in Waco, Texas, Balcones dabble in a few styles of whisky, but their most famous is corn. It is perfectly legal for bourbon to have a 100% corn mashbill; where corn whisky differs is that, whilst bourbon must be aged in charred new oak containers, corn whisky is aged in uncharred or previously used oak.

True Blue Cask Strength is released annually. The one in my glass today is the 2016 edition. Bottled at a hefty 65.7% ABV and weighing in at an ambitious £100 through the most obvious retail channels.

Appearance: Very dark. Chestnut.

Nose: My next-door neighbour can probably smell this. An absolute barrage of burned caramel, thick treacle, orange and liquorice. Something almost dark ale-esque in the background, with a fruit character like middle-aged French brandy on steroids. Alcohol at nostril-shrivelling levels, but the aromas themselves are even more intense.

Mouth: Yep, that’s cask strength! Monster of a palate (in a good way). So much caramel and cinnamon, balanced out by oak and given structure by tannin. A big blast of toast and roasted coffee bean keep things dry, too. Would be very sweet otherwise. As with the nose, the alcohol is in blast mode, but the flavours overwhelm it, somehow providing balance against the odds.

Finish: Long. The sweet elements hang around enough to stop things from bittering.

Value for Money: At US prices, outstanding. At UK prices, just about does it.

Summary: I don’t know how many craft distilleries there are in the US right now. Enough to make me worry that there’ll be a bit of an apocalypse if whisky slips out of fashion again, as it has done so many times before. Balcones, however, are good enough to make me pretty certain they’d be one of the survivors.

This is a glorious behemoth of a whisky. I gather it cost $54 in the States last year, and at that price it ought to be snapped up by the truckload. Here in the UK it just brushes the triple figures line, at which level we have to be extra critical. The competition is very strong indeed, and a US whisky needs to be outstanding to justify it. On balance, I think that this one does, but if the price goes up any more I’d be wary.

Overall Verdict: I adore this, but it’s strictly special occasion whisky at a strictly special occasion price.

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

Gun Fighter Double Cask Review

Whiskey Name: Gun Fighter Double Cask Bourbon

Distillery: Golden Moon (bourbon is sourced, then recasked at Golden Moon)

Whiskey Type: Bourbon finished in “French Port Barrels”

Release Date: Released in 2015, now generally available

Price: £42

Age: “Minimum 6 months in new American oak and then finished in used French Port”

ABV: 50%

Mashbill: Undisclosed. Presumably rye-recipe

Introduction/Background: I hadn’t even heard of this one previously, so was very intrigued when I came across it on Master of Malt. Finished bourbon is growing and growing at the moment; as are the battle-lines of those who stand for and against it. An article for another time; if we got too deeply into it here then we’d never make it to the review.

The cask finish for this one is a puzzler. Golden Moon distillery in Colorado have it on their website as “French Port Barrels”. As a wine man that raises my hackles a little; the same way it’d annoy most people reading this if Scotland were to label one of their whiskies as “bourbon”. (Though I’m not sure why they would…)

Master of Malt tread the Protected Designation of Origin lines more carefully, describing the casks as having held “French fortified wine.” Which would presumably point to something like a Maury or a Banyuls. But the plot thickens when you take to the distillery’s Facebook page. There they say that the casks are “French Oak Port Barrels”. Which leads perfectly legally back towards Portugal. (Though more cask-fussy readers might question whether they were indeed “barrels”, or the more usual Port pipes.)

If nothing else, finished bourbon clearly makes life more complicated then. Though perhaps only for pedants and nerds like me with too much time to over-ponder. Shall we get cracking?

Appearance: A glimmer of pink betrays the finish…

Nose: Yowza! Well there’s the fortified wine, straight away. So prominently that it caused me to write the word “yowza!” for the first time in my life. (And last – I don’t think it suits me.) All kinds of dried fruit clamouring to get out of the glass. A trace of fresher berries too, plus a zing of fresh pine stopping things from getting cloying. This really is all about those finishing casks; no way you’d peg this as a bourbon were you to sniff it blind. There’s also a touch of struck match sulphur too; familiar to wine-finished scotch drinkers, but a first for me where bourbon’s concerned.

Mouth: Palate is very juicy, ripe and rounded; almost chewy. Again it’s the wine finish that dominates; raisins, prunes etc. A little marzipan and candied nut too, beside a certain smokiness; real Yuletide whiskey. Alcohol is fully balanced by flavour and weight of body; there’s no major burn.

Finish: The fruit fades; that touch of struck match lingers a little longer. Medium length.

Value for Money: Depends entirely on whether you like this sort of thing.

Summary: I know a lot of people who would dismiss this whiskey’s right to be called a bourbon. Personally I’m still not sure which side of the fence I sit on. Certainly the flavours are a long, long way from those you’d expect. This is about the cask finish to a far greater degree than any finished bourbon I’ve previously sampled. If you’re a fan of ex-fortified wine matured scotch, for example, this is very much a whiskey for you, and worth the £42 price tag. If you’re a bourbon purist however, this may not be quite your cup of Darjeeling.

Overall Verdict: Perhaps it’s best to just put the finishing debate aside and gauge this on the merit of flavour alone. On which basis I very much enjoyed Gun Fighter Double Cask. Rogue smear of sulphur aside it’s full of fun, festive flavour. Well worth trying if you’re a scotch drinker … and a cert if you’re looking to hoodwink someone in a blind tasting.

Word by WhiskyPilgrim

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Review

Whiskey Name: Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select

Distillery: Woodford Reserve (and Brown-Forman Distillery)

Whiskey Type: Rye recipe bourbon

Release Date: Launched in 1996.

Price: (+/-) £30 

Age: NAS

ABV: 43.2% 

Mashbill: 72% corn, 18% rye, 10% malted barley

Introduction/Background: If it wasn’t for Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select I wouldn’t be in the BBS. Back in my early University days it gave me my bourbon epiphany, and for a while after that it was the only bourbon I drank.

Brown-Forman repurchased their old Oscar Pepper site in the ‘90s, renamed it Woodford Reserve, launched Distiller’s Select in 1996, and the rest is history. These days you’ll find the DS on the shelves of every UK supermarket, normally priced at about £30 unless it’s on offer. It’s a blend of pot still bourbon from the Woodford Reserve distillery and column still bourbon from the Brown-Forman distillery.

Ubiquitous, sure, but I haven’t tried it in ages outside of a cocktail, so I thought I’d use it to kick the month off.

Appearance: Medium shade of Mahogany. On the darker end of the supermarket bourbon spectrum.

Nose: Char. Quite deep; there’s a rather fruity aspect as well; oranges perhaps, plus ripe toffee apple. Some strawberry laces in the background. Slightly muted; the rye, in particular, isn’t really singing. It’s a little muddled and musty – not as clear and clean as the likes of Bulleit.

Mouth: A step up. Fruitcakey, and surprisingly plump considering the low proof. There’s a little rye-led nutmeg, though this is more about the deeper flavours; dark chocolate and caramel. Still lacks a little clarity and definition; the flavours seem to be working against each other at times. There also isn’t much cutting through them, which flattens it a little. Perhaps not surprising given the proof.

Finish: The sweeter, deeper flavours dissipate into a dry oakiness.

Value for Money: About right. Just.

Summary: Always nice to return to an old favourite, albeit tempered by the context of having tried hundreds of others since being away. Still a decent pour, with the caveat that a couple of muddled elements distract from the whole, and there isn’t really any ‘wow factor’. That said, its deep fruit and chocolate offer a different flavour profile to other bourbons you’ll find on supermarket shelves, and are perfectly tasty for the price. Personally I’d probably only buy it if it was on offer, but then I am very stingey.

Overall Verdict: Solid, if not spectacular, but offers enough point of difference to retain relevance.

Review by WhiskyPilgrim