Posts from the ‘Bourbon Thoughts’ Category

Don’t Always Trust the Experts (Some Thoughts on the Antique Collection)

So, before I start getting angry emails, I realize that some folks might think I am an “expert,” so I am saying you should not trust me.  Well, I am not a whiskey expert, only an avid drinker and blogger.  Also, you should not trust me just because I have a blog, similar to the way you should not trust Jim Murray just because he writes a Whisky Bible.  Take all us whiskey yappers with a grain of salt, and trust your own palate.

In Jim Murray’s 2013 edition of his Whisky Bible, he said he thought the 2012 Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye was the best whiskey in the world for the previous year.  His runner-up vote went to William Larue Weller, a barrel-strength wheated bourbon also from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.  This is the first year that I have actually gotten a bottle of Jim Murray’s Whisky of the Year, so I was pretty excited.  I got to try three different whiskeys from Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, which was also exciting for me.  For me, out of the 2012 editions of the Sazerac 18, the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, and the William Larue Weller, my favorite was the Saz 18.  Both the Weller and the Handy were both very good, but I thought the Sazerac 18 was the deepest and most complete whiskey.  It leapt out of the glass, and different layers to its spices and sweetness.  In addition, there are Scotches that I can think of that I thought could have won out over the Sazerac 18.  I have not tried all the whiskeys that Jim Murray has, but I do think there were finer whiskeys released in 2012 than the Thomas H. Handy Sazerac.

My point in writing this article is not to call out Jim Murray for being wrong about the best whiskey in the world.  Jim Murray has his own palate, just as I have mine, and you have yours.  Therefore, if Mr. Murray thought the best whiskey in 2012 was the Thomas. H. Handy, then he is well right in his own mind with his own senses.  I disagree with him on this point, just I some of y’all have disagreed with me about my favorite whiskeys.  Be careful not to take blogs and whiskey reviews as the all-knowing authority on whiskey.  My point is that we shouldn’t all go out and buy a bottle of something just because you hear one person (even an “expert”) tell you it’s the best whiskey in the world (if ten experts say so, it might be worth the investment).  Taste the whiskey for yourself, and see what you like.  There are no right or wrong answers in tasting whiskey, just how much we love the various whiskeys we have the privilege to encounter.  Few things permit the indulgence of subjectivity like whiskey, so appease your own palate and let it ride!

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Why Bottle Whiskey at Barrel Strength?

Recently, I have had a few folks inquire as to what is better about a barrel strength whiskey and why a distillery would consider bottling a whiskey without cutting it with water.  So, I thought I would provide the basics as to why distilleries might bottle their whiskey at barrel strength.

First, it is important to remember that “barrel strength” does not necessarily that a whiskey is a monstrous proof point.  Not all whiskeys are George T. Stagg at 140 proof.  Some old Scotches are bottled at barrel strength and are only 85 or so proof.  It all depends on the temperature and the humidity of the site where the whiskey is aged combined with the proof that the whiskey entered the barrel.  In Kentucky’s heat and humidity, a whiskey tends to increase proof in the barrel, whereas in Scotland’s damp, cool environment, a whisky tends to decrease proof in the barrel.

Secondly, not all high proof whiskey burns (I only mention this caveat because it is what some folks immediately think when they see a barrel strength whiskey on the shelves).  When a whiskey is in the barrel, whiskey escapes (the angel’s share) and air enters to soften the whiskey.  That reaction is part of what helps a whiskey mellow over time.  As a result, a whiskey at 80 proof right off the still is likely to be harsher than a barrel strength whiskey that is 15 years old.  There are many barrel strength whiskeys that I enjoy best at their full strength.

From an economic standpoint, bottling at barrel strength does not always seem like the best option because a barrel can go much further with water added before bottling.  This is precisely the reason Maker’s Mark threatened to decrease the proof of their bourbon.  They were running low on their stocks, and they wanted to get more bottled product out of each barrel.  This is also the reason that barrel strength whiskeys are more expensive; there is just less of it to go around.

Even with the economic and stocking disadvantages, there are still important reasons that distilleries choose to sell their whiskey at barrel strength.  Chief among these reasons is taste.  In many cases, barrel strength whiskeys are deeper and more complex because all of the fats and flavors are still left in the spirit.  When a whiskey is at its full strength, there are no tasting notes left out.  Furthermore, whoever is drinking the whiskey has the freedom to add water to his or her liking.  As water is added and the proof is lowered, the whiskey will evolve, giving more and more layers as the drinkers sits and sips.

Essentially, bottling a whiskey at barrel strength allows the full whiskey experience to shine through, allowing the consumer to choose what proof they would most like to enjoy the whiskey.  As an illustration, compare my review of Laphroaig 10 Year with my review of Laphroaig 10 Year Cask Strength.  The latter packs a level of depth that the former cannot hope to measure up to at a mere 80 proof.  In the bourbon world, a great example is W.L. Weller 12 year compared with William Larue Weller.  The W.L. Weller is a very good wheated bourbon, with soft, sweet flavors of maple sugars, vanilla, and butterscotch.  However, in William Larue Weller (bottled at barrel strength), those sweet flavors are compounded with plums, dark berry fruits, and a rich mahogany woodiness.  Of course, the rub is that both Laphroaig 10 year and W.L. Weller 12 year are very good value, whereas their barrel strength siblings are significantly more expensive and hard to find.  But, if you have ever been curious, take a shot and snag a bottle of your favorite whiskey at barrel strength and let it ride!

Some Thoughts on New, Aged Releases: Bulleit 10 and Jim Beam 12

Well, as anybody who follows the bourbon world knows, the blogs have been blowing up the last week with Maker’s Mark’s news of its decrease in proof.  Thankfully, for the sake of all our sanity, this heathenistic decision has now been repealed.  So, naturally, we need something else to talk about in bourbon land.  As I am always on the hunt for the latest and greatest value whiskeys, I thought I would offer some preliminary thoughts on a few bourbons on the horizon.

Diageo has recently bombarded the shelves (even in Boston) with Bulleit 10.  I have reviewed the standard Bulleit Frontier Bourbon and the Bulleit 95 Rye, with the former passing and the latter performing very well.  According to my roommate Chris and Jason Pyle, both these whiskeys are very good in cocktails.  I have every reason to suspect that the Bulleit 10 will continue that tradition.  I am excited to see how this whiskey fairs as a sipping bourbon, too.  Four Roses is the supplier of the Bulleit label bourbons, and I have every reason to suspect that Four Roses will continue making good bourbon.  I have always maintained that Bulleit’s Frontier bourbon is too drying a spirit for a straight pour, much the way I feel about Old Grand-Dad.  I am anxious to see if the 10 year brings a mellower side to Bulleit.  Of course, it is also priced around $40/750 ml here in Boston which might make it a good value buy if it comes through.

The other whiskey that is set to hit the shelves this summer is Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 year.  According to Chuck Cowdery’s post on the subject, Jim Beam will be releasing a craft series that will include the 12 year old and some other limited releases.  One of the traditional knocks against Jim Beam has always been that they have stayed away from limited releases, whereas Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, and Woodford Reserve have sought to explore new frontiers of American whiskey with all sorts of limited edition bottlings.  In addition to being new territory in terms of limited edition bourbons, Jim Beam 12 year will also be the oldest bourbon to come out of Jim Beam as a standard product (there have been some limited edition older bottlings).  To that point, I am excited to see what this bourbon is made up of since Jim Beam has always been one of my favorite bottlers of great value whiskey.  Devil’s Cut, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, and Booker’s are all very good value whiskeys to have around your cabinet.  Supposedly, this new 12 year will be about $50/750 ml.  That is about the price of a bottle of Booker’s, so this will have some living up to do in my book, but I am excited nonetheless.

If any readers have had a chance to try these bourbons, I’ll love to hear what you think so far.  In the meantime, let it ride!

The Best Value Bourbons

After abandoning my quirky numbers system for determining a bourbon’s value, I am resorting to relying on my taste buds and my wallet.  These bourbons are my personal favorite value bourbons, listed from the least to the most expensive.

Evan Williams Black Label – This one is hard to beat simply because it is usually available for under $15.  This bourbon is still raw and uncouth, but it is drinkable and moderately complex, too.

Four Roses Yellow Label – This bourbon is becoming more readily available and more widely recognized for being a very good whiskey.  It is soft, citrusy, and floral.  It makes a wonderful cocktail, but it stands tall on its own, too.

Wild Turkey 101 – This bourbon’s quality and value has been well documented.  It is warming and powerful, but it also brings wonderful vanilla and cinnamon sugar notes into the fold.  Great stuff.  The Turkey 81 is also a good value pour, but I always opt to pay three dollars more for my beloved 101.

Russell’s Reserve 10 year – This bourbon lives up to Jimmy Russell’s legend.  It also happens to be available around $30 in most liquor stores.  It unfolds beautifully in waves, giving complex bourbon and rye flavors throughout.  Wild Turkey at its finest.

Four Roses Single Barrel – Although there is some variance from bottle to bottle, this bourbon is consistently at the head of the class.  It has a wonderfully rich mouth feel that is unsurpassed in whiskeys under $40.

Those are some of my favorite value bourbons, but not the only great value bourbons on the market.  The beauty of bourbon is that you don’t have to break the bank to drink classy.

Berkshire Bourbon Review (and some End-of-2012 Thoughts)

For my last bourbon review of 2012, I am reviewing Berkshire Bourbon, a local Massachusetts bourbon from Berkshire Mountain Distillers.  Berkshire Mountain Distillers currently make six different products, two gins, a vodka, a rum, a bourbon, and a straight corn whiskey.  The bourbon is bottled at 86 proof; there is no age statement given, but I do not think this is much older than 5 years.  It is readily available in Massachusetts, but its availability decreases the further one ventures from the snowy New England landscape.   Berkshire Bourbon

The nose is the highlight of this whiskey for me.  It is quite hearty and dense, with notes of sweet corn, dessert cheese, candied walnuts, and dense caramel.  However, the whiskey goes downhill from there.  The palate is light-bodied, with dense corn providing the backbone.  There is a little orange peel and vanilla, but it does not present a lot of complexity.  The finish is short, with some lingering caramel and sweet corn.

Overall, this might be a nice whiskey for mixing, but I am not a fan of this whiskey on its own.  I am inclined to agree with Ralfy’s end of the year comments on the whisk(e)y world in 2012 when it comes to micro/craft distilleries.  It is important to release a good product on the first go round, because you only get one chance to make a good impression.  Too often, micro-distilleries are too anxious to put a product on the shelves that they whiskey gets bottled before it is ready.  It might be better to follow the High West or Willett model and source whiskey until you have a homemade product that you can confidently stamp your name on.

Berkshire Bourbon did not impress me, and it will take something special for me to return to this bourbon any time soon.  Honestly, if you like a simple, sweet bourbon, save the money and pick up some Evan Williams Black Label.  However, that is not to say that all craft/micro distilleries are bottling sub-par whiskey.  I hope to have a few reviews in the coming months that demonstrate that you don’t have to be a big Kentucky Distillery to make great whiskey.  My grade for Berkshire Bourbon: C.  Price: $30-35/750ml.  Not terrible, but certainly not worth the money.

That concludes my final bourbon review of 2012, but the New Year will bring some new reviews, and some new posts.  In the meantime, I will again turn to Ralfy for my parting thoughts.  Enjoy the mystery of whisk(e)y, and seek that same mystery of sensory adventure in all other areas of life, whether it be food, drink, flowers, or everyday life.  If you concentrate on the senses around you, it is hard to slip into monotony.  Happy New Year and let it ride!

My Favorite Bourbon Glasswares

I get this question all the time, “Hey Phil, what do you drink your bourbon out of?”  The obvious answer is whatever is handy at the moment.  I have been known to consume bourbon from flasks, coffee mugs, thermoses, mason jars, and straight out of the brown paper bag.  The reality is that you can drink bourbon out of whatever you want to, but I do have a few favorite glasses that I use for nosing/tasting.  Most standard glasses do not channel the aromas of the whiskey up to the nose very well, which is why I do not like them when I am doing a tasting or when I am enjoying a whiskey with a nose that I really like.  That said, here are my 3 favorite glasses that are readily available.
Glencairn glass

  1. The Standard Glencairn Glass – This is my favorite glass for whiskey drinking.  Generally speaking, if you come to my abode for a tasting, that is what we will drink our whiskey from.  The Glencairn provides a very nice glass that is comfortable to hold, and it is also sturdy at the bottom (so it is hard to knock over).  However, the best part of the Glencairn is the way it channels the aroma of a whiskey.  It floods the nose with all the brilliant  aromas that whiskey has to offer.
  2. The Standard Champagne Flute – This one might seem strange, but I think a champagne flute does a lot to channel the aromas to the nose.  The only drawback is that the nose is very concentrated, so whiskey often requires a few minutes to open up in a champagne flute.  It is also not a great option for barrel strength whiskeys, as the alcohol tends to overpower the aromas.  It is also not very stable, so be careful if you are somebody that likes to talk with your hands.  Champagne flute
  3. The Sherry Copita Glass – This type of glass is similar to most wine glasses, and it works very well for whiskey as well.  I don’t think it channels the aroma quite as much as a champagne flute, but it still works very nicely, especially for high proof whiskeys.  The base is also a little wider than a champagne flute, which makes it a bit sturdier.  Sherry Copita glass

Those are my three favorite whiskey glasses, but I also drink my whiskey neat almost all the time.  If you liking making whiskey based drinks or drinking your whiskey on the rocks, then you might enjoy different options.  Like in all things, the key is for you to enjoy whiskey to the maximum.  That said, what are your favorite whiskey glasses?

Giving the Gift of Bourbon

Well, a lot of folks are starting to do their holiday shopping, and there are a lot of people who love to give and receive the gift of bourbon.  Whiskey shopping around the holidays can offer some great deals on holiday gift packages.  A lot of distilleries will issue box sets where you might get a 750 ml bottle with some glassware or some 50 ml samples of other products.  Even if you are just looking to treat yourself, holiday box sets are always good fun.

Woodford Reserve's holiday gift set includes two Woodford glasses.

Woodford Reserve’s holiday gift set includes two Woodford glasses.

Before I get into my recommendations for the bourbon lovers on your list, I need to issue two disclaimers.  First, if you are a bourbon lover like myself, that does not give you the right to supply others with bourbon in hopes they will give you half the bottle because they don’t like bourbon all that much.  Secondly, taste is personal, and your favorite whiskey might not be tolerable to somebody else. That said, do some research on the person you are giving the gift to and the bottles you are thinking of buying to give the best gift possible.  Of course, that is where I want to offer some helpful suggestions that won’t break the bank.

For the bourbon newcomer on your list:  This is the person on your list who has never had bourbon (or any other whiskey) before, but they have put bourbon on their holiday wish list.  Don’t get them anything over 90 proof, and don’t get them anything will do dense a flavor profile.  My main recommendation is Four Roses Yellow Label.  It is light, and it gives a good introduction to whiskey without it being too complex.  It is also a great value buy.  If you are looking for something a little fancier, try Basil Hayden’s.  It is also a light, well-balanced whiskey.  Both of these presents will leave the recipient craving another bottle of bourbon.

For the bourbon novice on your list:  This is the person on your list that has been getting into some starter bourbons of late, but he/she looking is looking to enjoy some craft bourbon.  My recommendation (if you can find it) is Elmer T. Lee.  It is a single barrel bourbon that is indicative of what bourbon should be.  It won’t break the bank, but it is a monstrous step up from Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark.  However, Elmer T. Lee is hard to find.  If you can’t lay your hands on that one, Buffalo Trace is a great alternative.

For the bourbon admirer on your list:  This is the person who has been casually drinking bourbon for a few years, and it is one of their favorite drinks.  This person is one of the easiest people on your list because they will probably like your gift.  That said, here are a couple of the quintessential craft bourbons that make great gifts.  Eagle Rare 10 yr. and Woodford Reserve are two readily available bourbons that always make great gifts.  If you can find it, Four Roses Single Barrel is a great offering if you are willing to spend a few extra dollars.

For the bourbon connoisseur on your list:  This is the person who loves bourbon, and gives a lot of thought and attention to their bourbon.  Among bourbon connoisseurs, there are a few whiskeys that you can rarely go wrong with.  If you find anything from Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, Stitzel-Weller/Buffalo Trace’s Van Winkle Collection, Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage Collection, or Four Roses Limited Edition Collection (and you can swing the bill), pick it up.  It is a rare occasion that I read a bad word about any of these bourbons, but they are all pretty hard to find.  That said, barrel strength bourbons are always a great gift for the bourbon connoisseur on your list.  Noah’s Mill, Booker’s, and Willett Single Barrel (barrel strength) are all great gifts to open and great bourbons to drink.

In case this guy is on your list...

In case this guy is on your list…

For the vain bourbon drinker on your list:  This is for that bourbon drinker that likes to sit in a smoking jacket with a $100 cigar while they enjoy their bourbon.  Hardly a value bourbon drinker, but for somebody like this, appearance is everything.  So, I would recommend a bourbon with a cool bottle and a long, uppity-sounding name.  My first recommendation is Willett Pot Still Single Barrel Reserve.  The bottle looks like you paid $100 dollars for it, but you didn’t even spend half that.  What is in the bottle is pretty good, too.  My other recommendation is the fancy horse-stopper of Blanton’s.  It is a solid, all-around bourbon that has a very distinguished bottle.

For the rye whiskey drinker (looking to get into bourbon) on your list:  This is for the rye drinker on your list that has mentioned wanting to get into bourbon.  I would definitely recommend a rye-heavy bourbon.  If you are thinking of a light, drinkable, full-flavored rye-forward bourbon, look no further than Russell’s Reserve 10 yr.  If you are thinking monstrous, full-bodied, intense rye-forward bourbon, look no further than Wild Turkey 101.  Both these bourbons are great choices for rye lovers.

For the Scotch whisky drinker (looking to get into bourbon) on your list:  This is for the Scotch (I’m thinking Speyside) drinker on your list who normally finds bourbon too heavy and sweet for their palate.  The bourbon to give to them is Four Roses Small Batch.  It is light, floral, and fruity, but it still possesses a lot of bourbon qualities.  Basil Hayden’s is usually a good gift here, too. Wild Turkey American Honey

For the liqueur drinker on your list:  The best bourbon-based liqueur on the market is Wild Turkey American Honey.  Hell, even I drink it every once in a while on a hot summer’s day.

Those are my thoughts on buying bourbon for the holidays.  If the person on your list falls outside any of these categories, leave a comment or shoot me an email at thedagupeir@gmail.com.  Let it Ride!