Friday, April 17, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Scotch and Garlic

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Independent Scotch bottler That Boutique-y Whisky Company may be most known for their comic book inspired labels.  Their whiskeys have not previously been available in the U.S., but this week the cleared labels for two blends (#1 and #2), a blended malt and single malts from Alt A Bhainne, Glentauchers, Glenburgie and Tormore.   All labels were for 375 ml bottles and are NAS.

Glenrothes cleared a label for a 1995 vintage whiskey.

How will we know when the flavored whiskey thing has jumped the shark?  Hmm, maybe when people start making garlic flavored whiskey.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Jim Beam Gets Some Color: Brown Rice & Red Wheat

Last year, the Jim Beam released two bourbons as part of their Signature Craft series which used alternative mashbills, one with soft red wheat and one with brown rice. They are planning to release more using oats, triticale (a rye/wheat hybrid), six row barley and a high rye recipe.  Of course, these are all bourbons so they all are at least 51% corn, but these alternate grains are used in the mashbill.  The first two are both eleven years old, 90 proof and go for around $50 for a half bottle (375 ml).

Jim Beam Signature Craft Soft Red Wheat, 11 yo, 45% abv ($50)

A Jim Beam bourbon with soft red wheat instead of rye isn't very revolutionary since that's pretty much what Maker's Mark is.  In fact, given that there is no requirement that the distillery be listed on a whiskey label, this could well be 11 year old Maker's Mark, which would be interesting since Maker's has never carried an age statement and is reputed to be much younger than 11 years old.

The nose has sweet caramel with, strawberries, raspberries and red licorice.  The initial palate is intensely fruity with apple candy, then it picks up some spice, but it fades quickly, leaving a sweet, fruit candy finish on the nose and some pepper on the tongue. This definitely has some of the Maker's style candy sweetness, though more fruit comes out than in Maker's. It's a decent bourbon, candy sweet to be sure but not overwhelmingly so, and the spice adds some nice balance. 

Jim Beam Signature Craft Brown Rice, 11 yo, 45% abv ($50)

The only other rice bourbon I'm familiar with is the 2012 Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection "Made with Rice."  Let's see how Beam's version compares.

The nose on this one is pretty traditional bourbon with caramel notes, but it has a sweetness that's reminiscent of old, dusty bourbons.  The palate is very unBeam.  It's got strong mineral notes, almost like a Dickel (and tasting blind, I would definitely have guessed Dickel), which give it a lot more texture and depth than a typical Beam. Those mineral notes really blow up on the finish, which is quite long.  It's quirky, but I like it.

These are well crafted bourbons, and it's nice to see Beam doing something truly innovative, but I wish they were about $20 cheaper. While I'd happily drink either of them, I don't think I'd plop down a US Grant for a half bottle of one of these.

Thanks to John Burlowski for the samples.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A New Technology to Miraculously Age Whiskey

Like Ponce de Leon searching for the fountain of youth, whiskey makers have spent years on the quest for a method that will allow them to age whiskey more quickly.  There have been countless theories and experiments, but now one man says he has the answer.

Larry Shihtzu of the Happy Kennels Distillery says he has a fool proof, tested method for aging his whiskey at lightning speed.  According to Shihtzu, "We opened our distillery inside of a working kennel so it actually ages in dog years.  For every year of aging, it tastes like it's aged for seven, so in two years, it will taste like a 14 year old whiskey; in three, it will taste like a 21 year old. When this hits the market, it's going to be huge!"

Shihtzu explains that the presence of dogs changes the composition of whiskey. "It's like how whiskey aged on the coast or on a boat has those sea notes. At the kennel, the dogs play with the barrels and roll them around; the whiskey acclimates to its surroundings and ages accordingly."

But can storing whiskey with dogs really speed up the aging process?  We took Shihtzu's theory to a chemist at a nearby university. Speaking off the record, he was skeptical, saying that from his observation, the theory appeared to be "total bullshit." Responding to the chemist, Shihtzu was undeterred, "Look, we have graphs...and charts. This thing is legit. We even submitted an article to the Journal of Veterinary Medicine."

In the end, as with any whiskey, the proof will be in how it tastes. According to Shihtzu, the distillery isn't providing samples of their work at this time. "Right now we're just doing press. You don't want to rush these things." 

Friday, April 10, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Royal Brackla and Brenne

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Bacardi cleared labels for three new original bottlings from the Royal Brackla distillery, a 12 year old, a 16 year old and a 21 year old.

Brenne cleared a label for a ten year old expression of their French single malt.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How Whiskey Geeks Appear to Outsiders

The other day I was shopping at the grocery store.  As I was putting a container of cottage cheese in my cart, I was approached by a young man who said, "Can I help you find something?"

"Thanks. I'm fine."

He continued, "Is that Dairy World Cottage Cheese you've got there?"

I looked at the label and responded, "Um, yeah, I guess it is."

"You may not be aware of this, but even though they call it 'Dairy World,' they don't have a dairy. They're just a company that buys cottage cheese from another dairy and puts their own label on it. It's total BS."

"Okay, does it taste bad?"

"Not necessarily. It's really about the deception.  And they use a filtering process to sort out the smaller curds."

"Is that bad?"

"A lot of us feel that the filtering takes away from the richness, full mouth feel and balance we expect from a good cottage cheese."

"But it's just cottage cheese."

"Well, as a real fan of cottage cheese, I like to make sure people know what they're getting.  The other issue is they use a soy-based additive to add texture and color."

"Is that bad for you?"

"No, but it's an unnecessary additive to make it seem 'smooth' for people who don't know anything about cottage cheese."

"But I like smooth cottage cheese."

"No, no you don't.  Here, try this one, Healthy Cow; it's got no additives, it's unfiltered and they make it themselves."

"But it's $25."

"Good cottage cheese takes time and effort to make. And hey, that's a bargain compared to what some of the special releases cost...if you can find them."

"You know, I'm just looking for something basic so I think I'm going to stick with the $5 one, but I really appreciate your help, and I'm glad that the people who work here have so much knowledge about the products."

"Oh, I don't work here."

"Okay, I'll be going now."

Monday, April 6, 2015

Ranking the American Distilleries

There are twelve major American whiskey distilleries in the United States. We all know them and drink their whiskey, but how do they compare?  This is how I would rank them in order from best to worst, taking into account all of their whiskey products.

1. Four Roses. Compared to many distilleries, Four Roses doesn't have many labels.  There are just three standard bottlings (Yellow Label, Small Batch and Single Barrel) and now that they have discontinued the Single Barrel Limited Edition, just one special release (the Small Batch Limited Edition), but for the last few years, they have been operating at an extremely high level.  The standard bottlings, especially the Single Barrel, are very good.  The Limited Edition Small Batch has probably been the best bourbon of the year for the last three years, and it's shocking how many amazing bottles I've tasted from their private bottle program which allows retailers to choose a single barrel of one of their ten recipes.  For me, it's hard to quibble with the fact that Four Roses is currently the best bourbon distillery out there.

2. Heaven Hill.  It's a virtual tie between Heaven Hill and third ranked Buffalo Trace.  Both of these distilleries have seen a bit of decline over the past few years.  The last three years of the annual Parker's Heritage Collection release have been disappointing compared to some of the earlier ones, and the disappearance of Elijah Craig 18 in exchange for slightly older and much more expensive expressions makes me sad, but Elijah Craig 12 is still one of the best easily available bourbons out there, and the barrel proof version is fantastic, probably one of the best new regular release bourbons of the past few years.  Add to that Rittenhouse Rye, the standard Evan Williams, which is one of the top budget bourbons (though I'm not a fan of the very popular Evan Williams Single Barrel), and some very good private bottlings of Henry McKenna, and despite some slippage, Heaven Hill is still a top contender.

3. Buffalo Trace. Five years ago, there is no doubt that Buffalo Trace would have ranked at the top of this list. Since then, their star has faded a bit while Four Roses has simultaneously brightened. The last few years of the Antique Collection that I've sampled (which does not include 2014) have not lived up to past releases, but they still make plenty of great whiskey. Even ignoring Van Winkle and the BTAC, which are now so hard to get as to be irrelevant, Blanton's, Sazerac Rye, Weller 12, EH Taylor, the Experimental Collection, Eagle Rare and the standard Buffalo Trace are all solid choices. Yes, even the run of the mill bottlings seem to go through shortages, but it's hard to blame the distillery for that.

4. MGP.  MGP (Midwest Grain Products) is unique in that it's the only major whiskey distillery in America that doesn't sell its own whiskey (save for one very small release). Despite that fact, there is tons of it on the market. Their 95% rye whiskey has become so ubiquitous that it's easy to forget how good it can be, and how unique it was when it first came out in a world of 51% ryes.  Bulleit Rye has become a bar staple based on the strength of that recipe. And while we all make fun of the fakers and schemers who carelessly bottle MGP whiskey, let's not forget all the great MGP bourbon and rye that goes into various bottlings of excellent whiskey from High West, Smooth Ambler, Willett and others. MGP deserves a seat at the table whenever we talk about the great American distilleries.

5. George Dickel.  Diageo's Tennessee distillery is another one that has been upping its game in the last few years.  The No. 12 has always been a go to for me with its unique mineral and plywood notes, but the recent retailer program bringing us 9 and 14 year old versions has put some great aged whiskey on the market. Dickel is definitely the best whiskey coming out of Tennessee.

6. Maker's Mark. Another distillery that has improved in the last few years, Beam Suntory's Maker's Mark used to make only one bourbon for domestic consumption, and it was just okay.  Now they have three, having expanded first with Maker's 46, which is a bit better than the standard, and then with the cask strength Maker's Mark which does seem to have some bottle variation, but the best of which are very good. This is one distillery that seems to be going in the right direction.

7. Barton 1792.  Sazerac owned Barton 1792's premium brand is 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, a bourbon I find to be chronically overrated.  The real feather in their cap, though, was always Very Old Barton 100 proof, a six year old bourbon that delivered great flavor for around $13. The only problem with it is that it's not widely available and that they recently removed the six year age statement.  They probably should be tied with Maker's for overall quality, but I bumped them down a peg for removing age statements while Maker's is adding proof.

8. Wild Turkey. Probably the biggest disappointment on the list is the once great Wild Turkey. A decade ago, Wild Turkey would have been near the top of the list with 101 Rye, Russel's Reserve 10 year 101 and American Spirit, but they now seem to be running on fumes.  They do put out high proof, aged whiskeys, but they have more heat than flavor, and their recent releases, Forgiven and Diamond Anniversary, have been flops.  The Turkey's fall from grace probably saddens me more than anything on this list.

9. Jim Beam. Now we get to the distilleries I just don't like all that much.  Of my four least favorite distilleries, Beam at least makes some things I can drink.  Baker's is pretty good; Booker's is not bad (though how many variations on it do we really need?); Old Grand-Dad 114 used to be wonderful, but bottles I've had recently have been just okay...and that's about it. Their ryes are terrible and I don't have much use for the rest of their overly sweet lineup.

10. Jack Daniel's. Speaking of overly sweet, hey, it's Jack Daniel's.  I know the Single Barrel has its fans, but I just never had a Jack (well, a modern Jack) that I had anything good to say about.

11. Brown Forman. Old Forester and Early Times are swill.  I don't even like the Birthday Bourbon which flies off the shelf like kombucha at a hipster convention. Their saving grace used to be that they made the excellent Rittenhouse Rye for Heaven Hill, but Heaven Hill has since taken production back in-house, leaving this distillery with no redeeming qualities.

12. Woodford Reserve. Last place is reserved for the metallic, medicinal pot still whiskey from Brown Forman owned Woodford Reserve. There's a reason that even in a world where Diageo Orphan Barrels are treated as a status symbol, Woodford Reserve Master's Collection bottles seem to have a permanent home on liquor store shelves.  It's true, I thought their new rye was decent (though who knows if any of it was actually distilled at Woodford), but the rest of the lineup is so terrible that an okay rye doesn't do much to save them.

Alright, I've had my say, what would your ranking be?

Friday, April 3, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Brandy Finished Woodford, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Brown Forman cleared a label for Woodford Reserve Legacy Barrel bourbon finished in "a single brandy barrel."

They also cleared a label for this year's Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. This year's 12 year old Birthday Bourbon was barrelled in 2003.

Pernod Ricard cleared a label for the new Midleton Dair Ghaelach, a single pot still whiskey finished in virgin Irish oak barrels.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.