Posts from the ‘Bourbon Thoughts’ Category

Phil’s Favorite Bourbon

What better way to kick off my favorite whiskey series than bourbon?  In honor of awards season, I will present five nominees for the category, with the winner being revealed along with other winners at the end of the month.  In cases where two of the same whiskey might be nominated (i.e. two different releases of George T. Stagg), I have chosen my favorite iteration of the bourbon to be nominated.  These nominees achieved their status based on their taste profile alone; unlike most of what I do at Bargain Bourbon, price was not a consideration.  Without further ado, here are the nominees for Phil’s favorite bourbon (in alphabetical order).

Name: Booker’s

Distillery: Jim Beam

Age: 7 years, 5 months

Batch: C05-A-12

Release Year: 2012

Proof: 128.5 (64.25% abv)

Price: $50-60/750ml

Notes: This uncut, unfiltered, barrel strength bourbon rarely disappoints, and each batch tends to have something worth enjoying about it.  This particular batch was my favorite because there were some cinnamon and oak spice notes that rounded out the big caramel and vanilla notes that Booker’s is known for, giving the whiskey a depth and complexity that stood out above other Booker’s batches I have tried.  Unfortunately, as this was an older release, it is extremely unlikely that there are still unopened bottles of this juice floating around, but Booker’s bourbon is readily available at most liquor stores.

 

Name: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Distillery: Heaven Hill

Age: 12 years

Batch: 3rd release

Release Year: 2014

Proof: 133.2 (66.6% abv)

Price: $45-50/750ml

Notes: This barrel strength bourbon is another one that could have placed multiple releases on this list.  What set this particular release apart for me was the layers that the bourbon had when diluted at various levels.  The flavors were deep and complex at barrel strength, and as water was added, the bourbon just peeled back layers of flavor to reveal a sweeter profile, softening some of the coffee and dark chocolate notes that stood out at full strength.  Unfortunately, this release is probably long gone, and people have started to realize the quality of this bourbon, so current releases are harder to find, and they are selling for a good deal more than they did three years ago.

 

Name: Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch

Distillery: Four Roses

Age: 11 years

Batch: 2012

Release Year: 2012

Proof: 111.4 (55.7% abv)

Price: $90-100/750ml

Notes: Four Roses could have had multiple limited edition releases make this list, but their 2012 small batch release is my favorite because of the balance between all the flavors that make bourbon great.  It was sweet, oaky, and spicy, all in perfect harmony.  Like many great whiskeys, a little water brought out different twists on each tasting note, making for an even more diverse experience.  Four Roses releases a limited edition small batch bourbon every autumn, but this specific release is undoubtedly unavailable excepting only the rarest and most esteemed of bourbon collections.

 

Name: George T. Stagg

Distillery: Buffalo Trace

Age: 15 years, 11 months

Batch: 2013

Release Year: 2013

Proof: 128.2 (64.1% abv)

Price: $80-90/750ml

Notes: This is one of the most famous and most sought bourbons in the world, and for good reason.  Many years, George T. Stagg could make an argument that it’s the best bourbon released that year.  However, the 2013 release caught my taste buds because it was bottled at a slightly lower proof than the Stagg usually is, and I believe it did the Stagg a lot of good, peeling back rich oak and cigar box notes not often found in bourbon.  This was a bourbon that worked to transcend bourbon.  If you know where to look and are willing to pay the price, there are always bottles of Stagg floating around, but this one is going on 4 years since its release, which makes me think that it is probably extinct.  However, more Stagg is coming this fall, so keep your eyes peeled.

 

Name: William Larue Weller

Distillery: Buffalo Trace

Age: 12 years

Batch:  2012

Release Year: 2012

Proof: 123.4 (61.7% abv)

Price: $70-80/750ml

Notes: This wheated bourbon was one of those bourbons that brought wave after wave of rich, sweet flavors set upon a board of rich mahogany and oak.  Dried fruits, maple fudge, and vanilla all roared over the palate when sipping this bourbon.  There have been many worthy Weller releases, but this one was my favorite to pour after a delicious meal.  This one falls into the same category as the Stagg as far as availability.  There will be more coming out this year, but the old releases are hard to find and often have massive price tags on them.

 

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Getting Weird with Homemade Blends: Some Thoughts

If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to spend some time with me, you are probably aware that one of my favorite sayings is, “If you ain’t gettin’ weird, weird is gettin’ you.”  And, it is upon that basis that a few years ago, I began to take to experimentation with blending my own whiskeys at home.  If you are one of those folks who believes that each whiskey you buy should be drank neat, then you’ve got to expand your horizons, my friend.  And, as opposed to leaping straight into making Laphroaig cocktails, why not do some dabbling with homemade blends (especially around the holidays when you’ve got all sorts of in-laws blowing up your spot)?

The biggest reason I started working with homemade blends is because of whiskeys that I was not the biggest fan of on their own merits, but saw potential in their flavors.  The first ever blend I created at home (and I always recommend starting with a glass and then working up to a full batch) originated from my having a bottle of Willett rye that was a little hot for my tastes, with some heavy herbal notes that were not my favorite.  To be sure, this Willett was not bad whiskey, merely not my favorite.  So, to bring in some sweetness, but not too much, I created a glass of whisky with 1.5 ounces each of Willett rye and Wild Turkey Rare Breed.  The result was a fantastic dram, but big vanilla and spice, backed by a whispering herb garden.  I was hooked on blending.

My favorite blend that I have ever made came out of the search for good uses for Balcones Brimstone, a Texas Scrub Oak whisky that resembled a mix of gasoline and barbecue sauce.  The flavors were intense and powerful, but hot and unpleasant (it turned out to be a great cooking whiskey, too, but more on that in another post).  At around this same time, somebody gifted me a bottle of Old Crow Reserve bourbon, hardly my favorite bourbon, but decent bourbon at $15/bottle.  I started teaspooning full measures of Old Crow Reserve with Balcones Brimstone, and magic happened.  The result was a bold, brash, and balanced whiskey wafting back and forth between spicy, earthy notes, and sweet cereal flavors.  If you’ve ever thought sweet corn would taste good smothered in caramel and a Cajun dry rub, this was the blend for you.

Not every blend I have ever tried has worked out, but not every person you date ends up being your spouse, but that’s why you date them.  The reason I blend whiskeys at home is because whiskeys are like people – sometimes that friend of yours growing up that always gets the group into trouble just needs to find the right person to be with to smooth out those rough edges and create a masterpiece.  Happy blending, y’all!  Let it ride!

Staying Power: A Few Bourbon Staples

One of the unique aspects of whiskey brands is that they do change over time. When you combine that change with the change in our palates, you can get some pretty intense discrepancies regarding the quality of different bourbons, especially over time. Personally, there are several different bourbons that I have found to vary a lot from batch to batch, barrel to barrel (Booker’s, Elmer T. Lee, Rock Hill Farms), but there are also some bourbons that I have found to stay rock solid over all my years drinking the blessed spirit. Recently, I picked up two bourbons I had not had in a while to see if I liked them as much as I used to…

Ever since Heaven Hill came out with their Elijah Craig Barrel Proof releases, bourbon lovers have been clamoring to get their greasy paws on some of this juice. The first release got rave reviews, as did most of their successive releases. I recently finished a bottle of their fourth release (134.8 proof, 67.4% abv), and it was absolutely fantastic stuff. It was every bit as dark, ominous, and beautiful as its predecessors. This is a complex, sweet, woody, and intense bourbon. Judging from what I have tasted to this point, I see no reason that this bourbon is going to slow down. All three bottles of this stuff that I have grabbed have been fantastic. If you see a bottle of this stuff chilling on a shelf at your local liquor store, grab it and thank me later.

The second bottle I picked up was a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel (Barrel 87-4I), and it also did not disappoint. With some single barrel bourbons, there is definitely a lot of variance from barrel to barrel, with some barrels being great, and others being just average. Four Roses is not in that category. Every different barrel of their beloved OBSV juice is aged to damn near perfection. This particular barrel was a little bit spicier than some previous inculcations that I have had, but Four Roses’ bourbons always tend towards some spiciness anyway. Like Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, when you see a bottle of this juice on the shelf, you are never missing the mark if you decide to walk out with a bottle or two.

Really, this is less of a bourbon review, but just a reiteration to all of my readers that there are still a lot of good bourbons out there. So many of the blogs are heralding the end of the great bourbon era with all the new craft distillers sourcing young bourbon, and the no age statement bourbons being released. To be sure, there is plenty of gimmicky bourbon out there, and even some of my old standards have let me down a bit recently (Booker’s, cough-cough), but that does not mean that all hope is lost friends. In a bourbon universe that occasionally looks bleak, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Four Roses Single Barrel are still standing tall as testaments to making really good bourbon with time-tested precision and patience.

Whisky Live Boston 2013

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend Whisky Live Boston, a massive alcoholic drinks exhibition in downtown Boston.  For nearly four hours, vendors, brand ambassadors, and sales representatives discuss their products, while hundreds of patrons sample the aforementioned products.  Most of the exhibits are whiskeys of some kind (bourbon, Scotch, Irish, Australian, etc.), but rum, tequila, vodka, gin, and cocktails of all kinds can also be found at Whisky Live.  It is a great event to try new spirits, socialize with other whiskey enthusiasts, and eat some very good food cooked with whiskey (Four Roses supplied the entrées this year).

If you ever get the chance to attend Whisky Live (or another similar event), I highly recommend it.  However, an evening at Whisky Live requires planning and pacing.  If you love whiskey as much as I do, it is too easy to become overwhelmed and go crazy.  This usually results in irresponsible drinking, a rough night, and an even worse morning.  But, if you pace yourself, drink plenty of water, and make your rounds well, you can have one of the best evenings of your calendar year!  Here are a few of my highlights of Whisky Live Boston 2013.

William Gemmell (of A Dram Good Time) and I at  Whisky Live Boston 2013

William Gemmell (of A Dram Good Time) and I at Whisky Live Boston 2013

I got to try two bourbons from Heaven Hill that I have wanted to try for some time – Parker’s Heritage Collection Promise of Hope and Elijah Craig 12 yr. Barrel Strength.  Previous editions of Parker’s Heritage Collection have been some of the best bourbons released in the last decade, but I was disappointed in this particular edition.  That said, it is still a worthy investment, since 25% of the proceeds from every bottle goes to ALS research.  The Elijah Craig Barrel Strength is quite a bourbon.  It is nearly black in the bottle, but it takes water very well and equals a very good bourbon in the end.  I am definitely going to be looking for a bottle to review this fall/winter.

I also got to try two very good rye whiskeys that I will be reviewing in the next few weeks: Angel’s Envy Rye and George Dickel Rye.  Stay tuned to the blog for more information on these fine ryes.

Now, for my whiskeys of the evening…  The three whiskeys that really won the evening for me were Glenmorangie Signet, Redbreast 12 year Cask Strength, and Sullivan’s Cove French Oak Port Cask (if you are reading the blog and thinking about present ideas for me this holiday season, take a hint).

Glenmorangie Signet is a wonderful single malt Scotch that is made with 20% chocolate malt in the grain bill, and then batched together with older Glenmorangie barrels.  It truly is a wonderful sip, with a lot of dark mocha notes, as well as some Sherry influence, and a warming sensation that will warm you up even on the coldest nights.  It is not a cheap or easy to find whisky, but if you find it, it might be worth it to bite the proverbial bullet ($225 or so) and grab a bottle, because this is damn good juice.

Redbreast 12 year Cask Strength is simply a cask strength offering of the single pot still Redbreast 12 year.  At 119.8 proof, this sherry-aged Irish gem leaps out of the glass and across the taste buds with dark fruits, floral notes, sherry, and coffee.  This whiskey is the best Irish whiskey I’ve experienced to date  (although the Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve at Whisky Live came close), and it is usually around $70 for a bottle, making it a great choice for the holidays.

Last, but certainly not least, Sullivans Cove French Oak Port Cask is a Single Cask Malt Whisky from Sullivans Cove Distillery in Tasmania.  This juice is very hard to find in the United States, and it usually sells for about $150 per bottle, but it is some phenomenal whisky.  It is a single malt, aged exclusively in a French Port pipe, which lends the spirit dark chocolate notes, plums, port sweetness, all with an upright malted backbone that comes through with some burnt toffee and vanilla pound cake.  This stuff is really good, and its limited availability means you should pick up a bottle if you ever find one.  (Much thanks to Terry from Drink Insider for recommending this one; otherwise, I probably would have never ventured over to the Sullivans Cove booth.)

Those are my thoughts on some whiskeys that impressed me at Whisky Live.  What whiskeys have impressed you lately?  What whiskeys are you looking forward to trying this fall (whiskey season)?

An Evening with Four Roses

Last week, several other Boston spirits writers and I were invited to an evening with Al Young, Four Roses’ brand ambassador and historian.  It was a wonderful and informative evening, especially for me as a historian (not necessarily of bourbon).  I went from knowing very little about Four Roses distillery and just loving their bourbon as a drinker to loving their bourbon even more from knowing a lot more about the distillery.  This post is only a few highlights from the evening, and not nearly as much as I could write about the history of Four Roses.  If you are interested in learning more about the history of the distillery, I highly recommend adding Al Young’s book, Four Roses: The Return of a Whiskey Legend, to your home library.

From left to right: Yours Truly of Bargain Bourbon, Al Young of Four Roses, and William Gemmell of A Dram Good Time

From left to right: Yours Truly (Phil Conner) of Bargain Bourbon, Al Young of Four Roses, and William Gemmell of A Dram Good Time

One of the questions inevitably asked of Mr. Young was one of those questions that always seems to pop up in American whiskey circles: Why doesn’t Four Roses make a rye whiskey?  Al Young’s answer was simple; Four Roses is pretty damn good at making bourbon.  Period.  I really liked this answer because all too often distilleries are too concerned with being the hottest new thing, which would certainly involve getting in on the rye craze.  But, as Mr. Young pointed out, who knows if rye would still be popular in the next ten years?  Or, more importantly, how do we know that Four Roses would make a good rye, being that rye is a difficult and fickle grain to distill?

Under the direction of Jim Rutledge (Four Roses’ Master Distiller since 1995), Four Roses has become one of the finest distilleries in the world.  Whisky Magazine has named Four Roses their American Distillery of the Year for three years running.  Their standard bourbon releases are all very good, and their limited releases are some of the best bourbons released every year.  Last year’s Limited Edition Small Batch is still my favorite bourbon to date (named American Whiskey of the Year by Whisky Advocate Magazine).  My point (echoing Mr. Young) is that Four Roses makes great bourbon, and they are a distillery that wants to stand for quality, not trends, and I am a huge fan of that philosophy.

One of the other questions that often comes up in whiskey conversations is about sourced whiskey, and how much Four Roses is distilling for themselves and how much is being shipped out under contract to other bottlers.  I was excited to hear that Four Roses is intending to phase out their sourcing contracts.  By the end of 2014, Four Roses expects to be making exclusively Four Roses bourbon.  While it might seem like a bad thing because Four Roses would have no place to send the whiskey they did not want under their own label, I think Four Roses takes such great pride in their bourbon that they will continue to bottle the very best bourbons on the market, and hopefully the future will yield more of it for Four Roses’ consumers to enjoy.

My last two highlights of the evening both showcase one of my mottos here at Bargain Bourbon – bourbon is all in personal taste and preference.  First, I was somewhat surprised when Mr. Young enjoyed himself a Manhattan with Four Roses Small Batch.  He said it was his favorite way to drink his favorite Four Roses bourbon, which leads me to my second point.  Al Young said his favorite bourbon was Four Roses Small Batch because of the red fruit notes and subtle spiciness to the bourbon.  In his opinion, this gives Four Roses Small Batch more versatility than the other bourbons in the lineup, making it great neat, on the rocks, with a splash of water, or in a cocktail.  For the record, I like my bourbon neat, and I love Four Roses Single Barrel for its soft sweetness and balanced approach between sweet, woody, and spicy.  It just goes to show that everybody has their own opinion, and that’s what makes bourbon and Four Roses so enjoyable to drink.

Al Young drinks his Four Roses Small Batch in a Manhattan, and I drink my Four Roses Single Barrel neat.  What’s your favorite Four Roses bourbon and your favorite way to drink it?  Comment here, or hit me up at my Facebook page or on Twitter.  In the meantime, drink your bourbon and let it ride!  

Drinking Bourbon Responsibly (It’s not just about the Alcohol)

Every time you see an advertisement for alcohol, the advertiser will be careful to remind you to drink (insert booze here) responsibly.  To me, this means a lot more than just consuming alcohol.  Drinking responsibly does mean that when you drink (bourbon in this case), you should enjoy the bourbon for the bourbon.  It spends great time waiting in a barrel for you, so folks ought not to defame it by guzzling it down and puking it all up.  What good is your mother’s chocolate cake if you eat the whole cake and pray to the porcelain gods for the next three hours?

That said, bourbon is a drink that (in my experience) comes with a lot of stigma attached to it.  Many times, I have entered a bar, and been glared at by a bartender for ordering a whiskey neat.  Perhaps I look suspicious, but I think that most people are just suspicious of folks that drink whiskey straight up.  In my opinion, it’s the gentleman that comes up to the bar and announces “Jack and Diet, and keep ‘em comin’,” that I am most afraid of as a bartender.  But, that is just a rant from the bartender in me.

What is most important to remember about drinking bourbon is that what somebody drinks tells you about their taste buds, not their character.  Period.  If you are at the bar while you are enjoying your Eagle Rare straight up, and the person next to you orders a Maker’s and ginger ale (or a Blue Motorcycle, for that matter), you have no right to start hurling homophobic or misogynistic slurs.  Drinking that Eagle Rare neat does not make you more “manly,” “American,” or “Republican” (or any of the other absurd things I’ve heard at the bar).  The ethical thing to say to the person with the Maker’s and ginger is, “If you like Maker’s Mark, you should try out W.L. Weller 12 year some time.  Try it with a bit of water first, and if you like it, give it a whirl neat.”

Drinking bourbon responsibly means respecting the bourbon, but more importantly, it means respecting the people around you while you enjoy that bourbon.

Elmer T. Lee and His Legacy

Unfortunately, today the bourbon industry lost Elmer Tandy Lee, master distiller emeritus at Buffalo Trace distillery.  As you might guess, I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Lee, but his reputation has left an important legacy on the bourbon industry and the bourbon market. Elmer T Lee

In the early 1980’s, Mr. Lee made a massive move in bourbon when he decided to start bottling single barrels of bourbon based on a specific taste profile.  He named this bourbon Blanton’s, after Colonel Albert Blanton, Lee’s predecessor.  From what I have been able to find in researching the topic, a few distilleries had experimented with limited edition bottlings, but Blanton’s was the first regularly released single barrel bourbon.  In bottling bourbon from a single barrel, none of the flavor of the barrel was lost in batching the bourbon.  The popularity of single barrel bourbons quickly caught on for consumers that wanted a premium bourbon product with all the excitement and variance that comes with single barrel products.  The sheer number of single barrel bourbons on the shelves of liquor stores nowadays is a tribute to Mr. Lee’s genius (not to mention the fact that one of those single barrel bourbons is named Elmer T. Lee).

Most importantly, Mr. Lee came to bourbon later in his life (in his thirties) when he procured a job as a maintenance engineer at the George T. Stagg (later Buffalo Trace) distillery in 1949.  From that point on, he rose in the company until he was declared the Plant Manager and Master Distiller, a position he held until 1985.  Elmer T. Lee’s life is one that triumphed dedication and learning.  He worked hard, and learned everything about bourbon the old-fashioned way.  He was at the distillery everyday to learn and make the most of every conversation.  Harlen Wheatley (current Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace) said he still sought out Mr. Lee’s advice even though Mr. Lee was well into his 90’s.

Elmer T. Lee was somebody who learned about bourbon through intelligence and osmosis.  The best way to learn is to do with the right attitude, and that is Elmer T. Lee’s legacy.  He was always a proponent of drinking responsibly.  He understood that bourbon did not slumber in the barrel to be dumped in a cocktail and downed for its effects.  So, in that tradition, take some time today to have a meaningful conversation while enjoying a small glass of your favorite bourbon (and don’t forget the toast to Elmer Tandy Lee).