Posts tagged ‘Oak’

What Happens in the Barrel? The Mysterious Relationship between Oak and Bourbon

Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of

Well, I hope everybody had a very Merry Christmas, and is preparing to crack open a good bottle of bourbon to celebrate the New Year.  As something to look forward to for the New Year, I will be doing a month-by-month posting of my liquor cabinet to answer one of the most common questions I get, “Hey Phil, what are you drinking right now?”

Today, I am answering a question my mother asked over the holidays, “Why put whiskey in an oak barrel?”  I realized that I had never explained this wonderful process on the blog.  So, here are the basics.

There are four primary reasons to put the white lightning that comes off the stills into the charred American oak.  First, the oak gives the bourbon its beautiful amber color.  Second, the oak gives the bourbon its flavor.  Third, the maturation process extracts a lot of the impurity and harshness from the raw spirit.  Finally, the oak allows interaction between the outside air and the whiskey.  This fourth reaction is more important in Scotch and Japanese whisky than for bourbon, but it is still an important process of the maturation process.  These four reasons come together to produce the final product that we all know and love.  It is truly mysterious, and it is why I love whiskey so much.

This is a very simple explanation of aging whiskey, but it covers the basics.  If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.  Let it ride!

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2002 Review

Today, I am reviewing a product that I have been looking forward to reviewing for some time.  This is definitely a popular bourbon, both among amateurs and connoisseurs – Evan Williams Single Barrel.  I am reviewing this year’s release, the 2002 Vintage.  For anybody curious, I currently have a bottle from barrel 758 in my cabinet right now.  HH- 055

Evan Williams Single Barrel is just what you might think; it is a vintaged version of Evan Williams Black Label, one of the better value bourbons that is readily available nowadays.  The Single Barrel Vintage series continues in that tradition.  I’m gonna take a moment to continue a plug for Heaven Hill’s ability to create very good whiskeys at very good prices.  With the exception of Larceny, which I was disappointed with, Heaven Hill makes some great value whiskeys (Elijah Craig 12 yr., Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond, Evan Williams Black Label).

The Single Barrel vintage series does not put age statements on their bottles; rather, they date their whiskey by indicating when the bourbon was “put in oak.”  It is also always bottled out of a single barrel, so results will vary on the final product, especially from vintage to vintage.  However, every vintage I have tried has been very good.  Evan Williams Single Barrel is bottled at 86.6 proof, and it is usually bottled around 9-10 years old.

On the nose, this bourbon balances nicely between herbal and sweet.  I definitely get notes of orange peel, basil, and cloves.  There is also a healthy sweetness to the nose, with good notes of maple, big black cherry, vanilla, and walnuts.  The palate brings a good amount of substance for only being 86.6 proof.  There are citrus, sweet fruit, and vanilla notes on the entry, and it moves to a warming combination of corn, caramel, and oak.   The finish is medium-length, but very tasty.  Flavors of oak, vanilla, and candied walnuts hang around for a nice while.

Overall, this is very good bourbon.  It is a nice blend of elegance and rugged bourbon quality.  The only note I wasn’t a big fan of was the black cherry that came up now and again on the palate.  However, it is a great bourbon to have around for a daily pour, especially because it won’t blow your doors off.  In some states, it is available for as little as $25/750ml.  That is a great deal for a bourbon of this quality.  The 2003 vintage should be coming out soon, and I have every reason to expect that will be just as solid a bourbon as the 2002 vintage.  My grade: B.  Price: $30-35/750ml.  This is very good stuff, and it won’t break the bank.  This is an ideal bourbon for sipping everyday.

Holiday Whiskey Comparison Review: Part 1 – 18 yr. American Whiskey

Well, it is getting to that time of year when us Americans over-celebrate holidays, which often involves drinking.  There are many folks who think that holiday drinking ought to entail drinking rare or expensive whiskey.  Of course, rare and expensive whiskeys are fun and often delicious, but holiday drinking is about enjoying your favorite dram.  So, enjoy a whiskey you might like this holiday, and avoid paying too much.

With that in mind, though, here are a few tips on buying hard to find and expensive whiskeys.  My primary piece of advice is probably the most important, do your research.  There are whiskey blogs all over the internet, and reviews of whiskeys are not hard to find.  When I am looking into buying an expensive bottle, it is usually because I have a specific flavor profile that I am looking for.  To that end, I read whiskey blogs and discuss my possible purchase with friends who have had previous bottlings or expressions of the whiskey.  If I am going to buy a whiskey for $80, then I want to have a good idea of what I am going to get.

My second piece of advice is that just because a whiskey is old, hard to find, and expensive, does not mean that it is a great whiskey.  I have said this over and over again because it is true.  Every whiskey has an ideal age that depends on the type of cask used, the temperature of the storage, the nature of the new make, your palate, etc.  The trick is to find the age you like a whiskey at the best, and balance that out with how much you are willing to spend on a bottle of whiskey.

Without any further gab, I’ll get to my comparison review.  Today, I am reviewing two 18 year-old American whiskeys, Sazerac 18 yr. and Jefferson’s 18 yr. Presidential Select.  Sazerac 18 yr. is a straight rye whiskey that is bottled by Buffalo Trace in limited quantities every fall as part of the Antique Collection.  Jefferson’s 18 yr. Presidential Select is a wheated bourbon from the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery (famously the makers of the coveted Van Winkle line).  Both these whiskeys are expensive, hard to find, and aged at least 18 years.

I am reviewing the Fall 2012 bottling of the Sazerac 18 yr., as it is the first and only bottling that I have tried.  It is a straight rye whiskey that is also bottled and sold in a 6 yr. edition.  Rye whiskeys have enough flavor to be very good at a young age, but I had always heard that the Sazerac line was at its best in the 18 year old.  It is bottled at 90 proof.

On the nose, the whiskey has a backbone of cinnamon and honey, but it is rounded out beautifully by oak, brown sugar, toffee, ginger, roses, and vanilla.  This whiskey is alive in the glass.  The scents come flooding deep into the nostrils; it is a wonderful, warming aroma.  On the palate, the whiskey opens up with fresh fruits and spiced sweetness.  There are notes of plums, cinnamon, oak, peaches, apples, and rye.  The finish is medium long, with notes of vanilla, rye, cinnamon, and oak.  My only minor complaint is that the finish can be a little tannin-ish sometimes, but that is a minor complaint.

Overall, this is a brilliant rye whiskey.  It balances the rye spices and the oak sweetness perfectly.  It is a joy to drink, and it is a hard whiskey to beat.  My grade: A.  Price: $70-80/750ml.  The price tag is a little steep, but it is worth a try if you can find it.  This whiskey is almost an A+.

Jefferson’s 18 year-old Presidential Select is a wheated bourbon from the old Stitzel-Weller Distillery.  As I have documented before, I am not a big fan of wheated bourbons, but they tend to be whiskeys that age very well.  Jefferson’s certainly proves that.  It is a small-batch bourbon bottled at 94 proof (I am reviewing Batch 14).

On the nose, Jefferson’s Presidential Select has many typical bourbon notes.  The oak is clearly present, but it is dense and flavorful, not too overpowering.  There are notes of toffee, corn sweetness, and melted caramel.  The palate is light-medium bodied, with notes of caramel, vanilla frosting, and silky oak.  It is an extremely drinkable bourbon (be careful).  The finish is of medium length, but it tastes delicious, with the rich oak melding with the toffee, caramel, and vanilla.

Overall, this whiskey drinks well under its proof point, and it is much better than other wheated bourbons I have reviewed on the site.  However, it still falls short of greatness in my opinion.  It is too light-bodied for my tastes, but that does not mean that it isn’t the rare bourbon for you.  My grade: B+.  Price: $90-100/750ml.  This is a damn good bourbon, but it is hard to justify the money for me.  It is a little too mellow for my taste.

My point in all this is to say that not all 18 year old whiskeys are the same.  Read up on some old whiskeys you might like to try, and let it ride!  Stay tuned for Part 2 where I compare an 18 year-old Islay Scotch and an 18 year-old Speyside.

Knob Creek 9 Year Single Barrel Reserve Review

I finally got my hands on a sampling of the newest release from Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve.  Like the very popular Knob Creek Small Batch, the Single Barrel Reserve is aged 9 years.  However, the Single Barrel Reserve is bottled from a single barrel, and it is also bottled at 120 proof (60% abv).  I have reviewed the Small Batch already on this site, and I am not a big fan of it, especially at a price point over $30.  I was anxious to see if the Single Barrel Reserve smoothed over the powerful oak that dominates the Small Batch.  I am happy to say that Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve is a big step up from the Small Batch.

The first thing you will notice about Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve is the rich, auburn color.  This whiskey is very dark, which is indicative of the high alcohol content.  The nose is full-bodied, with a good balance of sweetness and oak.  There are notes of maple syrup, brown sugar, and viscous caramel balanced by powerful, dry oak.  The palate starts sweet with the same brown sugar sweetness from the nose, but it moves towards spicy, peppery oak at the back of the palate.  This whiskey is very full-bodied, indicative by the almost chewy mouth feel.  The finish is lengthy, but especially oaky.  Some of the sweetness and richness of the nose lingers for a while, but the peppery oak from the back of the palate dominates the finish, leaving a prickly wood spice for a good while.

Overall, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve definitely smoothes out some of the problems of Knob Creek Small Batch.  However, the oak still dominates the whiskey, which is not my favorite taste profile.  This is a very good whiskey, especially if you love an oaky whiskey.  However, for my personal palate, this is not the bourbon for me.  It is only a few dollars more expensive than the Small Batch, so between the two Knob Creek offerings, I would definitely buy the Single Barrel Reserve.  My grade: B/B-.  Price: $40-45/750ml.  This is a nice whiskey to warm up in the winter, but it is a high price tag to pay for my standard sipper.

Evan Williams Black Label Review

This is one of the cheapest bourbon whiskeys on the American market today, so it certainly deserves a review on a value bourbon blog.  Evan Williams is a line of products from the Heaven Hill Distillery, which also includes the oft-acclaimed Evan Williams Vintage Single Barrel collection.  The base line “black label” Evan Williams is a bourbon that tends to get people animated wherever their opinion falls concerning Evan Williams.  It seems that people either love or hate this particular bourbon.  Hopefully, I fall somewhere in between…

On the nose, the aroma most prevalent in Evan Williams is rich oak, but there is also raw corny sweetness.  The palate has good body to it, but it isn’t especially complex.  There is a lot of oak on the palate, only to be mutated by prickly spices in the finish.  There are a few whispers of vanilla throughout the Evan Williams experience, but they can be hard to find.

Overall, I am not a huge fan of Evan Williams Black Label.  That being said, for $11 a bottle, Evan Williams is a pretty good buy.  It is a very drinkable bourbon that I would not be offended if a friend of mine wanted to mix.  It is a solid addition to any liquor cabinet.  My grade: C-.  Price: $10-15/750ml.  This is a cabinet staple if you like making bourbon-based mixed drinks for parties.  It is also a fine pour, too.

Rowan’s Creek Review

Rowan’s Creek is the first bourbon I’ve reviewed that comes from the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) line of bourbons.  Rowan’s Creek comes out of a small batch collection that includes one of my choice bourbons, Noah’s Mill.  Rowan’s Creek is the younger brother in the small batch collection, being aged 12 years to Noah’s Mill’s 15.  However, that also means that Rowan’s Creek is cheaper, usually in the same price range as a more popular bourbon like Knob Creek.  The two whiskeys have similar profiles, but as you will see, I think Rowan’s Creek is the one I’d rather drink.

Like Knob Creek, Rowan’s Creek is bottled around 100 proof, which gives it a powerful flavor profile and mouth feel.  On the nose, Rowan’s Creek comes right out and says that it is a big, oaky bourbon.  However, it is a sweet oak, with some of the burnt sugars from the barrel coming through as the bourbon sits in the glass.  There are rich notes of brown sugar, maple fudge, and nutmeg.  On the palate, Rowan’s Creek is medium-bodied, with a strong oak character.  However, it is backed by some citrus notes (pears, oranges), vanilla, and roasted nuts which add a lot to the whiskey.  The finish is strong and of medium length, leaving oak and fresh pepper all over the palate.  However, like the nose, the oak has a sweet character to it, with some well-timed vanilla.

Overall, Rowan’s Creek is a big, bold bourbon whiskey.  One of the most interesting things about Rowan’s Creek is that it opens up very nicely in the bottle.  Don’t go through the bottle too quickly, or you might miss this bourbon’s beautiful evolution from a rich, oak monster to a complex, sweet, well-oaked bourbon.  It is not going to be everybody’s favorite bourbon, much the same way that people are polarized over Knob Creek.  However, between the two, Rowan’s Creek has a lot more complexity. Rowan’s Creek can be a tough bourbon to find, but if you love rich, oaky bourbons, then it is a good bourbon for a good value.  My grade: B+.  Price: $35-40/750ml.  This is very good stuff, but it isn’t quite a top shelf bourbon (but it’s close).

Knob Creek 9 Year Small Batch Review

I have had a lot of requests for Knob Creek, so here is my review of it.  Knob Creek is the oldest bourbon in Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection (which also includes Booker’s, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden’s).  Knob Creek is bottled in two variations, a small batch and a single barrel.  Knob Creek Single Barrel is a recent release from Jim Beam, and it has received many good reviews.  On the other hand, the small batch edition has been around for a long time, and it has developed quite a following.  More so than with many other bourbons, bourbon drinkers are polarized over Knob Creek.  Here is my review.

Knob Creek is bottled at 100 proof, making it the highest proof bourbon I have reviewed on the site thus far.  With craft whiskey, especially craft bourbon, do not be afraid of high proof points; high alcohol content is often accompanied by big, bold flavors (just don’t get carried away sippin’ on 100 proof bourbon).  It is also a little more expensive than most bourbons that I have reviewed, but it is still an extremely popular bourbon.

Knob Creek opens with a good nose, with most of the notes coming from the barrel (charred sugar and oak), but there is some caramel and maple sweetness that comes through.  There is some balance early on in the palate (maple, cinnamon, caramel), but the finish is dominated by the roaring oak that dominates this whiskey.  The finish is long and very warming, but it is primarily dominated by the barrel’s flavors.

Knob Creek is a strong, bold bourbon, but I think it is too single-minded.  I wish there was a little more balance in this whiskey, but I definitely recommend that you try it for yourself to see what you think.  My grade: C.  Price: $30-35/750ml.  This is a solid whiskey, but it is not worth the money (in my opinion).

Elijah Craig 12 Year Review

Elijah Craig is a bourbon line from the famous Heaven Hill distillery.  It comes in two editions, a 12 year small batch edition and an 18 year single barrel edition.  As the 18 year is a little out of my price range, today I am reviewing Elijah Craig 12 year small batch bourbon.  It is named after Elijah Craig, the often alleged inventor of the bourbon, a fact which is disputed about as much as it is brought up.  The bourbon itself has two important distinctions in that it is the oldest (aged 12 years) whiskey that I have reviewed on this site so far, and it has the highest proof (94) of any whiskey I have reviewed so far.  Like several of the mid-range craft bourbons I have reviewed on this site, Elijah Craig draws some mixed reviews.  Some love it and some hate it.  I am probably somewhere in the middle.

I love the way Elijah Craig smells.  The nose is rich with oak, but is balanced by burnt sugar, some char from the barrel, vanilla, and roasted caramel.  The palate is also richly oaky, but there is also some burnt sugar, dried fruit, rye spice, vanilla, and caramel.  The finish is long and warming, but it is a little narrow.  The oak rumbles across the back of the tongue, leaving only a little room for some dried fruit and rye spice to come through.

Overall, I really like Elijah Craig.  I wish it had just a little more balance to it, but it still sits quite high among my favorite value bourbons.  The oak is a bit too dominant and single-minded for my tastes (I think Rowan’s Creek achieves it a bit better).  As always, try it for yourself and let it ride.

For other varied opinions on Elijah Craig 12 year, see these bourbon blogs.

Jason Pyle at Sour Mash Manifesto rates Elijah Craig several points higher than Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare, both bourbons that I have already reviewed on the site.

At Blue Kitchen, Elijah Craig is graded lower than Bulliet, another bourbon I have already reviewed.

My grade for Elijah Craig: B-.  Price: $25-30/750ml.  This is a dense bourbon, but it is still a nice pour to keep around in the winter.  It is not my go-to bourbon, though.