Monday, September 30, 2013

Blog of the Month: Last Call

This month's blog of the month is not a whiskey blog per se, but a legal blog about alcohol.  Bone McAllester Norton is a large Tennessee law firm that has a specialty in alcoholic beverage law.  The firm's blog, Last Call, is written by William T. Cheek III who leads the firm's alcoholic beverage legal team.

I first came across the blog while researching the State of Tennessee's efforts to define the term Tennessee Whiskey, but I soon added it to my regular reading list.  While the blog mostly deals with state law issues, it's a fascinating look at the complicated legal framework, both state and federal, regulating the production and sale of spirits.

And fear not non-lawyers, the blog doesn't read like a brief.  The writing is succinct and devoid of legalese, and Cheek has a penchant for quoting song lyrics in his posts.  If you're both a legal geek and a whiskey geek, this is definitely a blog you should be following.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Buffalo Trace's E.H. Taylor Series

Buffalo Trace first released its E.H. Taylor series in 2011 and added new releases in 2012.  The series is, of course, named for Colonel Edmond Haynes Taylor, Jr., the distiller and proponent of whiskey quality controls for whom Old Taylor bourbon is also named.

The E.H. Taylor series is sort of a hodgepodge without much in the way of underlying themes.  Most but not all are bottled in bond, most but not all are bourbons and most but not all have some unique story or claim.

Some of these can't be readily found anymore, but the rye, small batch and single barrel (as well as single barrels done for specific retailers) seem to be available.  The prices for the E.H. Taylors are in the $70 to $80 range, except for the Small Batch which is around $40.

E.H. Taylor Old Fashioned Sour Mash, BIB, 2002, 50% abv 

The first release of E.H. Taylor, the Old Fashioned Sour Mash Bourbon used an older method of souring the mash, using time instead of spent grain (for more details about the sour mash process used than I care to report, see Scotch & Ice Cream).  

The nose has very nice oak and honey notes.  The palate has a strong burst of rye followed by some acidic notes.   The finish leaves you with orange rind and spice. 

This is a good bourbon with some spice to it. I was surprised how much I liked it given the almost universal lukewarm reviews it received at the time of its release.

E.H. Taylor Single Barrel, BIB, 50% abv 

As the title suggests, this is a single barrel offering, but there is no barrel number, so you can't track different barrels unless you have one that was bottled for a specific retailer.

The nose has some nice oak, baking spices and some toffee notes.  The palate starts with caramel, then moves to butter but flattens out at the end with cereal notes and a cardboard finish.  It’s decent, but it doesn’t hold up.

E.H. Taylor Warehouse C Tornado Surviving, BIB, 50% abv

This seems to be the most sought after of the series and comes with the backstory that Warehouse C at Buffalo Trace was hit by a tornado and this bottle is the product of barrels that were in that warehouse and left out in the elements while the roof was repaired.  Why that makes a good bourbon, I don't know, but let's see how it is.

The nose on this is really nice with lots of caramel and oak.  The palate immediately hits me as heavily acidic.  There's plenty of oak, some candy and rye in there, but the astringency of the acid remains at the forefront.  The finish is pleasant with a bit of rye spice.  Overall, I didn't care for this one, finding it too acidic and out of balance. 

E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof, 67.25% abv

This is the only bottle in the series that isn't BIB and also the only one which is unfiltered.  The nose is on the candy side of the spectrum with some soapy notes.  The palate starts in with thick molasses, coffee, anise, leather and tobacco with a syrupy mouthfeel.  The finish has gingerbread, molasses and oak.  Despite the high proof, water seems to throw it off balance, bringing in some acid and some bitterness.  Sip it straight if you can.

This one is great.  The flavor is complex and pretty unique with the heavy molasses/gingerbread notes.

E.H. Taylor Rye, BIB, 50% abv

The most interesting thing about this rye is that it's a new mashbill that differs from the other Buffalo Trace ryes (Sazerac and Handy) in that it doesn't contain any corn, just rye and malted barley.  Presumably, this is going to be very high rye, since the proportion of malted barley in any American whiskey is usually just there to assist with fermentation and is almost never more than 15%, if that.

This has a great high-rye nose with sandalwood and wood polish; it's much more similar to an old Pennsylvania rye than an LDI (which is also a rye/barley mashbill).  The palate also has that sandalwood note as well as some pepper.  It's very spicy and pretty dry, having just a touch of sweetness.  It's a nicely done rye and fairly distinct from anything on the market today.  

E.H. Taylor Small Batch, BIB, 50% abv

As we know, "small batch" is a pretty much meaningless term, so it doesn't tell us much about this whiskey.  This one has a light but pleasant nose.  It's a pretty typical Buffalo Trace nose, sweet with a hint of spice.  The palate on this has a very good balance of sweetness, oak and spice.  It's a very easy drinker and has a nice bit of spice late on the palate and into the finish.  You know all those people who say they want a "smooth" bourbon?  This is for them.

This was an interesting tasting.  The conventional wisdom on the EH Taylor series is that it's mostly bad except for the Tornado.  The Tornado was my least favorite.  The Barrel Strength was easily the best, but I thought the rye was great and really enjoyed the Small Batch; the Sour Mash wasn't bad either. 

I've actually heard the least buzz at about the small batch, maybe because it was the last release and people were burnt out on the whole series, but it's a great, balanced, very easy drinking bourbon, and it's $30 cheaper than the others, making it the best deal.   

The biggest problem with this series is the price, which (except for the Small Batch) is roughly the same as Buffalo Trace's Antique Collection, but these whiskeys mostly aren't in that league.  Even the cheaper Small Batch is more of what I'd expect for a $25 or $30 whiskey.  There is definitely some good whiskey to be had here, particularly the rye and barrel proof which have fairly unique flavor profiles, but the price is a significant hurdle.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Why Does Sku Hate Whiskey?

It's always interesting to see the reaction when I come out with a review that goes against the conventional wisdom, as I did recently with my reviews praising Stagg Jr. and criticizing this year's Old Forester Birthday Bourbon.  The Old Forester post, in particular, lit up the comments.

It's funny, because if you ask anyone, they will surely tell you that taste is subjective and it's perfectly reasonable for you to love something and me to hate it.  But when I post a review that differs from other reviewers, particularly prominent ones like John Hansell and Jason Pyle, I am inevitably offered a long list of rationales seeking to explain the difference.  Perhaps there was batch variation or a tainted bottle.  Maybe I was having an off day or I suffer from a judgment-clouding bias against the distillery.  Or maybe it was the other guys; maybe they got a carefully selected sample that the distillery determined would receive the best reviews.

These are all possibilities, but more often than not, I believe these things come down to matters of taste.  I am in several whiskey clubs that regularly host blind tastings.  In these tastings, which are made up of very experienced tasters, I've seen scores on the same whiskey (the exact same bottle, mind you), range from 70 to 92.  Everyone tastes things differently and some people have very specific taste sensitivities.  I know, for instance, that I'm partial to wood and particularly sensitive to bitterness and sulfur.  This means I may hate a heavily sulfured Springbank that others think is the best whiskey since Black Bowmore.  And sometimes, a whiskey just grabs you or turns you off for reasons that are hard to explain.

I once got a sample from Jason Pyle of a whiskey he really liked.  I thought the sample was so bad that it must have been tainted and asked him to send another one.  The new sample tasted just as bad to me.  That doesn't mean I think Jason is a moron or a toady to the industry.  Far from it; I have great respect for him and his palate.  We just have different tastes on some whiskeys. And wouldn't it be boring if we all agreed all the time?

I do wonder whether, as American whiskey enthusiasm has become more and more mainstream, there is increased pressure toward standardization of reviews.  Lately, there seems to be a strong desire for a consensus about which whiskeys are best.  It may be because of the scarcity of bourbon, particularly new releases.  People need to know ASAP if this year's special limited cask strength release is great so they can get on the wait list at their local shop.  For this reason, dissent among reviewers is less acceptable than it used to be back in the days when we were all just sharing opinions, and anyone who was curious could run to the local liquor store and buy a bottle of the whiskey we were reviewing to taste it for themselves. 

Given the prominence of bottle flipping on places like Facebook and Craig's List, I also wonder if negative reviews of scarce bottles are now seen as income killers by those folks who bought cases as fast as they could with the hopes of making a quick profit.

In the end, I, like Hansell and Pyle and Serge and Cowdery and everyone else, can only taste what I taste and do my best to communicate that to the folks who are kind enough to care, and that's what I will keep doing.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Bourye Serendipity: Wild Turkey Forgiven

Back in 2010, High West shook up the whiskey world with its Bourye, a blend of straight bourbon and ryes.  Before High West came along, a blend of whiskeys meant, well, blended whiskey, a mix of high proof neutral spirit (i.e. vodka) and whiskey that was pretty much always crappy.  Of course, many bourbons and ryes were blends of different barrles, or vattings as they used to call them in Scotland, but no one in the modern era had marketed a blend of just straight bourbon and rye.  Bourye was quite good and deservedly popular, later spawning Son of Bourye.

Now Wild Turkey is getting into the Bourye game with Forgiven, a blend of straight bourbon and rye whiskeys.   Forgiven is composed of 78% six year old bourbon and 22% four year old rye.  Oh, and there's a back story about how this whole thing was the result of an accident...blah, blah, blah.  For the same story, see Ardbeg Serendipity or, for that matter, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

Wild Turkey Forgiven, Batch #302, 45.5% abv ($50)

The nose is really nice with honey, floral notes, and spice, like laying in a spring meadow.  The palate has some of those same honey notes along with clove, but then it falls flat and develops a soapy note.  The finish has some bitterness on the palate and some nice spice on the nose.

The nose sets up an expectation for a really interesting flavor balance, but the palate doesn't deliver.  This surprised me since Wild Turkey makes high quality bourbon and rye, but if you're looking for a bourbon/rye blend, I'd stick with High West.  Perhaps Wild Turkey should have gone for a more Eastwoodian name: Unforgiven.

78%, 6-year-old Bourbon and 22% rare, high-proof Rye - See more at:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2013

Today, I continue my new release reviews with Old Forester's 2013 Birthday Bourbon.  Unlike many distilleries, Brown Forman's Shively distillery pretty much eschews special release.  Actually, they pretty much eschew quality in general.  The Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is their loan gift to whiskey geeks, but while there have definitely been some good ones, I found the last one I reviewed (the 2011 Birthday Bourbon) disappointing.  Still, people always seem excited when it comes out and this year's has received some positive reviews, so I thought I'd check it out.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2013,12 yo, 48.5% abv ($55)

This has a very nice nose with big oak notes, honey, bay and tobacco, a very promising beginning. The palate falls apart almost immediately.  There's a brief sweetness which fades quickly and the it's somehow sour and bitter at the same time.  The finish is medicinal and bitter, really, really bitter.

This is just really unpleasant stuff.  Sadly, this series seems to get worse every year.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Elijah Craig 21

Heaven Hill's Elijah Craig bourbon just keeps getting older and older.  For years, Elijah Craig single barrel was an 18 year old.  Then, in 2011, they released a Elijah Craig 20 year old.  Now, there's a 21 year old, and TTB COLAs show that it will likely be followed by 22 year old and 23 year old expressions.  Of course, as the whiskey gets older, the price goes up by an even higher rate.  The 18 year old used to be in the $40 range.  The 20 and 21 year old are a full $100 more than that.

And keep in mind that these are single barrels, so different barrels will vary (and Elijah Craig is particularly known for barrel variation).

Elijah Craig 21 year old, Barrel #6, 45% abv ($150)

The nose is very nice and very typical of Elijah Craig with lots of polished wood notes and some spice.  The palate is dry and spicy with lots of oak and a touch of acid; that sourness of the acid dominates the early finish but is then followed by some brown sugar and really nice oaky bourbon notes.

Overall, these super aged Elijah Craigs have not impressed me.  I'm a fan of oak, but I think this one just has a bit too much and the sour notes didn't help.  I really wish they would have just kept releasing Elijah Craig at 18, which may have been the best age for this bourbon, but in today's market, I suppose it's hard not to ramp up the age and the price. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

New Releases: Stagg Jr.

It's fall, which is the beginning of whiskey season.  New releases are starting to pop up and will continue for the next two months, culminating in the holiday buying spree.  Over the next couple of weeks, I'll review some of those new releases, starting with Stagg Jr.

Few bourbons have entered the market with as much consumer anticipation as Stagg Jr., a younger version of Buffalo Trace's barrel proof super star. The bourbon has no age statement but the back label states it was aged for "nearly a decade."

By naming this Stagg, Jr., BT makes a bold statement.  Given that it's about the same age as the standard Buffalo Trace whiskey, they could have called it Buffalo Trace Barrel Proof or Eagle Rare Barrel Proof, since both of those bourbons are made from the same mashbill.  But neither of those names would have likely caused the excitement (or merited the price) that comes with the Stagg name which is second only to Pappy in bourbon lore.  But by calling it Stagg, the distillery also gives itself a higher bar, inviting comparisons with Stagg the elder, one of the most lauded bourbons in recent memory.  Let's see if it lives up to its name.

Stagg Jr., 67.2% abv ($50)

The nose is indeed reminiscent of George T. Stagg, very rich and woody with sweet toffee notes, spice and oak.  The palate leads off with sweet candy, then rye spice, oak and a touch of mint with a nice, chewy mouthfeel.  The finish is lightly minty. A few drops of water brings out some vanilla and herbal notes.

Reviews of this bourbon so far have not been kind, but I think it wears the Stagg name well.  It's exactly what I'd expect in a younger Stagg.  It's missing the richness and complexity, those dark oak notes that frame Stagg Sr., but it's well balanced and intense.  It's surprisingly drinkable neat though it also takes water well.  All in all, a very good bourbon, and one I would recommend.

Like the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and pretty much every other new release this year, Stagg Jr. has been tough to find, so if you want it, it might require some hunting.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Laphroaig Cask Strength and Cairdeas

It's been a while since I sampled any Laphroaigs so I thought I would dip into their standard offerings.

Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength, Batch 004, 58.6% ($60)

I've been a fan of the 10 year old cask strength since it first came out, but having not tried it in a few years, I was interested to see how it has held up.  

The nose is peaty and medicinal with a sweet malt note in the background.  The palate starts off sweet with a nice spiciness (bay leaves and ginger) and some pepper, and the finish has Black pepper on the palate and peat on the nose.

I'm happy to report that this is still a very solid malt at a very decent price.  It's got everything you would want from a Laphroaig with peat, spice and those medicinal notes.

Laphroiag Cairdeas, 2012 Release, 51.2% ($65)

The 2012 release combines some of the spirit used in the first Cairdeas with quarter cask matured whiskey.  This stuff is medicinal and peaty through and through with some coastal elements coming through on the finish.  This is textbook Laphroaig.

Th Cairdeas is nice, but given the similarity in price, I would opt for the cask strength if I had to choose between the two. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mind Your Batches & Barrels

Last week, I reviewed the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof which comes in two releases.  The first release was fantastic.  The second was very good.  The only way to distinguish them is their batch numbers.

Similarly, I recently gave a very positive review to this year's Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel.  The one I found on my local shelf was Barrel 3-3J, which I loved.  Later, though, I tried 3-3I and found it to have a very different character.  Whereas 3-3J was spicy and complex, 3-3I was minty and medicinal, tasting blind, I actually guessed it was an MGP bourbon.  I thought 3-3J was exceptional while 3-3I was average.

Most big American single barrel releases have multiple barrels released.  In some cases, as with Four Roses, it's easy to track because they list a barrel number right on the bottle.  In others, like Knob Creek Single Barrel or EH Taylor Single Barrel, there is no indication anywhere what barrel the whiskey came from, so you have no idea if too bottles are the same or different.

Similarly, many whiskeys are produced in batches.  You have no way to tell the difference unless the label includes a batch number or, as with the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, the whiskey is at cask strength, which means that each batch will have a different proof.  While the producers will claim that they are selecting barrels or batches with consistent flavor notes for these releases, the tastings clearly show that there is a difference, sometimes a big one.

And here's the rub: most reviewers only review one bottle of these whiskeys.  For the big guns, they get sent only one sample by the distilleries, and the little guys like me are only going to buy one bottle.  But the bottle I rate may not be the one that shows up on your shelf.  That's why it's very important to note, where possible, the batch and bottle number being reviewed.  I also do my best to try multiple batches, but it's not always possible, so do your best to mind your batches and barrels.