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

1792 Small Batch Review

Whiskey Name: 1792 Small Batch

Distillery: Barton 1792

Whiskey Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Release Date: General release

Price: About £45 (Shopping around can bring that down slightly…)

Age: NAS (about 8 years)

ABV: 46.85%

Mashbill: Rye recipe. Rumoured to be about 75% corn, 15% rye, 10% malted barley

Introduction/Background: Barton has the feel of being Sazerac’s “other” distillery, and totally fine with that. Whilst Buffalo Trace flourishes ritzy releases and racks up the column inches, Barton quietly gets on with distilling classic Kentucky bourbon like Old Barton and 1792.

Named for the year that Kentucky was recognised as a state, 1792 originally came with the suffix “Ridgemont Reserve”, until Brown-Forman slapped them with a lawsuit, saying customers would confuse it with their brand. You can see their point: who amongst us hasn’t tried to type “Woodford” on their phone, only to see it autocorrected to “Ridgemont”…?

BBS did a 1792 tasting a few weeks back, but thanks to the inadequacies of British Rail I missed out. Being rather fond of the brand I was considerably miffed, so I made sure it was in the lineup of samples for this month.

Appearance: Fairly deep amber

Nose: After a couple of days of rather unorthodox bourbons, this has a sort of “and you’re back in the room” feel. Like a playlist of “rye-recipe Kentucky bourbon’s greatest hits”. Lots of caramel, vanilla and honey, all supported by that crackle of spicy, woody rye and oak. Actually, if this is 15% rye then that 15% is working very hard; no hiding it whatsoever. Aromas seem to cruise out of the glass; don’t need a big sniff, but also not bellowing up your nostrils.

Mouth: Well-proportioned and oily. Caramels and brown sugars rather ooze across the palate, whilst the rye cracks its whip to keep things balanced and spicy. Almost a salted butter kind of thing going on. The longer it’s in your mouth, the more influence the rye seems to have, though it never becomes over the top.

Finish: The woodiness of cask and rye fade away unhurriedly.

Value for Money: Well worth it.

Summary: I loved this when I first tasted it, and I still love it now. It’s what bourbon in this sort of age and price category is all about, and manages to be so without being shouty or showy. Nothing wildly idiosyncratic perhaps; just good, classic bourbon done well.

Overall Verdict: Probably in my top five bourbons for under £50. Sure, it sings from a well-worn hymn sheet, but I’d happily listen to it do so any time. 

Words by WhiskyPilgrim

RoughStock Montana Bourbon Review

Whiskey Name: RoughStock Montana Bourbon

Distillery: RoughStock

Whiskey Type: Straight Bourbon

Release Date: General release.

Price: About £45

Age: NAS

ABV: 45% 

Mashbill: A vatting of four different mashbills, featuring corn, rye, wheat and barley

Introduction/Background: Another day, another craft distillery, another four grain recipe. Today’s hails from the RoughStock Distillery in Bozeman, Montana, which has been around since 2005. It’s mad to think that that still puts it on the older end of the craft distillery spectrum; there really has been an explosion of them in the last decade.

The website is at pains to underline the freshness of the grains, the purity of the water, the non-chill filtration etc etc. They’re at just as great pains to underline the old “age is just a number adage”. Which, in theory is true, and all very well, but is now trotted out so automatically by so many craft distilleries that it is beginning to sound like an excuse. But heck; I’ve had some outstanding young whiskies. I remember encountering one that gave its age in days (348 off the top of my head!). So let’s get into the glass.

Appearance: Fairly pale by Bourbon standards. Burnished gold.

Nose: A rather odd nose, if I’m honest. Very cereal-heavy; more grainy than the baked bread of Hudson Four Grain. The website states “heavily charred casks”, but the barrel seems barely to have been invited to the party. Savoury, almost malty character. Quite pungently farmyardy. In honesty, I’m not sure I’m a fan. It’s a fairly intense nose for the ABV, but I’d think in this case I’d prefer it a little more muted! Atypical of bourbon; very unusual.

Mouth: A little more sweetness appears here. Touches of caramel and brown sugar. But the headline remains those musty, almost straw-like cereals. Middle-weight on body and flavour.

Finish: Short-medium. Bitters ever so slightly.

Value for Money: For £45 you can do a lot better.

Summary: There’s no point writing tasting notes if you don’t speak exactly as you find, and I’m afraid I simply didn’t get on with RoughStock. I’m not sure how many bourbons I’ve tasted this year; enough to know that this one is distinctly different. That fusty, savoury edge rather put me off. It almost felt as if it were trying to be a Scotch, and not a good one. I wondered whether this was just me, so I checked around online after I’d scribbled, and there seems to be a consensus. “Farmyardy” popped up very frequently. And whilst I’d never read much into the comments on the Master of Malt page, there wasn’t much love for it there either. Rough by name, and slightly rough by nature too. I’m so sorry!

Overall Verdict: Your mileage may vary, but this isn’t the bourbon for me.

Review 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