Money Talks and Bullshit Walks

•May 9, 2013 • 5 Comments

I’ve always liked the phrase, “Money talks and bullshit walks.” I am unsure of its origin, but I know I heard it in a movie when I was a kid, and it made an impression upon me. It’s a line said with confidence. You’re telling the person to make a choice: Do you mean what you’re saying, or are you just full of shit? Either back up your chattering with a monetary commitment or get out of my face. Blah blah blah blah blah, let your money speak for you or take your bullshit with you as you walk out the door.

Money will always talk; everyone needs money. Most of us spend at least 8 hours a day in an environment structured to generate money. Consumers with money have access to products that those without money don’t have access to; there’s no avoiding this.

They say that money is power. They also say that knowledge is power. Does this mean that money is knowledge? Money may afford opportunities to gain knowledge; if you have enough money to buy a lot of whiskey, for example, you may be in a position to taste a lot of whiskey and thus gain knowledge from your experience.

So, are knowledge and money equal?

Up until quite recently, knowledge was the most valuable thing to have if you wanted to drink good whiskey. Bourbon was unpopular and cheap, and if you knew what was good, you could buy delicious whiskey often years older than stated, and on a shoestring budget. This was largely a result of interest in American whiskey dropping off the face of the Earth starting in the 60s-70s to create what is referred to as ‘the whiskey glut.’ Distillers laid down barrels of whiskey in a healthy market only to find that when the barrels came of age years later, the market had dried up. Many producers resorted to packaging whiskey in fancy lead-glazed ceramic decanters that, unfortunately, decades later have leached their heavy metal into the whiskey inside. The van Winkles had to sell their prized Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1972, and eventually, twenty-years later, the distillery was closed. Once-prestigious labels were sold to companies that continued to fill bottles labeled the same, but which held whiskey distilled at different locations and often to a lesser standard.

In a recent resurgence of interest in American whiskey, bourbon has been covered by more and more media following the trend (some 50,000 views of this article), and high profile personalities like celebrity chefs David Chang, Sean Brock and Anthony Bourdain – whose words reach far beyond the scope of traditional whiskey consumers – have preached a gospel that have turned many, many heads towards bourbon. As all fads go, increased interest attracts increased interest. It’s only a matter of time before Good Morning America does a bit on how Pappy bourbon is the ‘it’ item for your special man on Father’s Day. Not that I would complain if someone that loves me ponied up the half-a-G it costs to get your hands on a bottle of Pappy on the secondary market these days.

Enter the Earl of Wine Spectating, Robert Parker. In a missive sent to his 50,000+ followers and published on the K&L Spirits Journal blog, Mr. Parker announces that his “inspection/conquest of bourbon” has resulted in him being “blown away by the quality of the top bourbons,” a list he is only too eager to unfurl, complete with personal tasting notes and ‘facts’ full of bullshit.

Tim Read of Scotch and Ice Cream did a fabulous job of lambasting Mr. Parker’s nil-informed foray into bourbon territory, and I’m happy to let the exposure of these sycophantic morsels of zero-to-half truths rest confidently in Mr. Reads’ hands. Mr. Parker’s exercise suggests that money and bullshit need not be separated by talking and walking. The fear among bourbon enthusiasts is that he will use his not-unearned power in the spirits industry to direct the “dumb money,” as Mr. Read puts it, of his audience towards a laundry list of bourbons worthy in his opinion of spending money on. There are not many combinations that are cause for more agitation than money paired with bullshit.

Will the monied wine aficionados said to hang on Mr. Parker’s every word walk directly to their nearest whiskey monger and demand that perfect 100-point bourbon, Pappy van Winkle 23-year old, immediately? Will they walk away from bourbon entirely when they are unable to find the coveted 95+ point whiskeys Mr. Parker declares? Will the monied, armed only with the quarter-knowledge of a wine professional evidently unstudied in his new subject matter, track down all the bourbons on the list that break whatever threshold the keepers of Parker’s 100-point system deem appropriate for their bar before they tire of owning multiple bottles of bourbon that do not taste like wine?

Whiskey enthusiasts, many of whom have spent countless passionate hours researching the history of their favorite spirit, and plenty of hard-earned money learning the bourbon profile from the bottom shelf up, are unsurprisingly miffed at the hubris Mr. Parker and other half-assed but high profile, self espoused bourbon experts display in sending their even less informed followers out for some of the very same bottles that have been enjoyed for years by those who bothered to do their own research. The numbers of informed whiskey consumers with discerning taste are on the rise, as are bourbon prices, and the thought of whiskey shelves being cleared by people who don’t know how to appreciate the whiskey we hold dear is troubling.

I have no doubt that money will do its talking. Whiskey is produced and sold by business and industry, and nobody is in any position to let money walk away. But us enthusiasts are not in it for the money. We know bullshit when we see it, and as much as we don’t like it while it lingers, eventually bullshit fades out or walks away. There isn’t really anything we can do to prevent money from talking, but I am confident that the bullshit will leave. It will walk away eventually. Bullshit always does.

Old Grand Dad 114

•March 4, 2013 • 10 Comments

OGD114Opened: December 11, 2012
114 proof (57% ABV)
Price: $24.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Producer-distiller: Beam
Tasting Date: January 28, 2013

Color in glencairn glass: Burnt orange creamsicle.

Nose: Hot, somewhat smoky vanilla, brief caramel that ends in a tight varnish, orange soda dosed with vanilla. There’s a bit of a burnt alcohol quality that is not unpleasant.

Taste: Sweet, easy going entry leads to some sticky vanilla orange on the palate and a sugary finish with orange rind and soft potpourri spices. There’s a bit of a burnt caramel that comes on towards the finish and lingers in the aftertaste. The mouthfeel is full and oily while remaining dry and crispy. The finish has legs because of the alcohol content here, and while this is not any kind of complex bourbon to mull over, it is a soft, tasty powerhouse that offers no off notes and leaves nothing on the table.

Value: $31/$25

This is a great bourbon to toss back easily without over thinking. It packs a punch and demands very little while offering full, clean flavor in a high proof package. It is the only Beam product I drink at all, let alone keep stocked in my bar. I don’t know how, among a portfolio full of bland, off tasting and overpriced offerings, Beam offers us such a tasty product at such a high proof, but I’m not about to ask them and risk screwing up a good thing.

We know that the three OGD labels (114, Bottled in Bond (BiB), 86 proof) use a higher percentage of rye in their mash than standard Jim Beam white (JBW), Booker’s, Baker’s, Knob Creek, etc. Basil Hayden (BH) is also a member of this high rye bourbon mash family. In addition, there is knowledge out on the internet coming from a reliable source (Mr. Chuck Cowdery), that OGD114 is set apart from other Beam products during distillation in that it comes off the still at 127°. This is based on information that is said to have been accurate in 2008. JBW comes off the still at 135°, Knob Creek at 130°, and Booker’s and Baker’s come off at 125°. OGD BiB and OGD86 are supposedly distilled to the same proof as JBW, but Basil Hayden and OGD114 share the distinction of being distilled to 127° and watered down to 125° for barreling, which is the barreling proof for all Beam bourbons.

Apparently, the lower the proof that a spirit comes off the still, the more it retains the flavor from the grain, yeast etc. So, perhaps this accounts for the uncharacteristically pleasing profile of OGD114. I tasted Basil Hayden recently, and let’s just say that 34 proof points does a lot for flavor on a palate like my own that is used to chomping on higher proof/barrel proof whiskeys. OGD114 is one of the best values on the shelf today.

Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon

•February 3, 2013 • 1 Comment

FRLESmB12Opened: December 20, 2012
55.7% Alc/Vol (111.4 proof)
Price: $79.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Barrel Strength, non-chill filtered
OBSV – 17 years・OBSV – 11 years・OBSK – 12 years・OESK – 12 years
Tasting Date: January 21, 2013

Color in glencairn glass: ruddy copper.

Nose: Cinnamon watermelon, waxy clover honey, varnish, sugary flower petal, tobacco wood, a little strawberry, sugar-glazed saddle leather. The nose is light and heavy at the same time; very buttery.

Taste: The entry is sweet with a cool spearmint factor that follows into a leather-tossed fruit salad palate and a sizable, spicy finish. The wood on the finish is sweet and beautifully integrated, doling out jammy red fruit and autumn spices. Pears and strawberries meet custard and fudge as the palate develops, all belied by a foundation of deep, peppery spices and leathery tannins. A bitter element shows itself before the fruit, fades into the background while the fruits dance, then comes back in the finish for a supremely satisfying through-line of taste.

More godly liquor bestowed upon us by Mr. Rutledge and the fine people at Four Roses (FR). This is a classic bourbon profile enhanced in all directions by juicy fruit and spicy leather, and a depth that gives this whiskey a very rare gravity. I don’t usually add water to Four Roses, but adding just a few drops of water to this cask strength offering extends and brightens the fruit notes, and coaxes the supple sweetness forward just a little.

Value: $92/$80

As you may know, this became a very popular whiskey when John Hansell at Whiskey Advocate started singing its praises, and soon became very hard, if not impossible to find. My interest in it was piqued when I learned that it would contain some 17 year old OBSV recipe whiskey. (FR makes 10 recipes of bourbon, which you can read about here.) Starting around November of 2011, FR bottled and sold, exclusively in their gift shop, barrels of 16 year old OBSV. By the time I visited in April of 2012, they were on barrel #9, and the bourbon had officially aged another year. That 17 year old OBSV was some of the best bourbon I’ve ever tasted, so I was clearly excited to learn it would be a component in the Limited Edition Small Batch (LESmB). As far as I know, they have exhausted the last of these aged barrels, and I can only hope that there are more in the pipeline for the future.

I am of the opinion that FR bourbons often fall into two categories: classic and exotic. The 2011 LESmB had an exotic profile that I relished, and the 2012 LE Single Barrel (1B) followed more the classic bourbon profile. The 2011 LE1B was exotic and the 2010 LESmB classic. This one is different. The 2012 LESmB brings exotic complexity to a classic bourbon profile. It demonstrates a mastery of both the distiller’s and the blender’s art. It’s easy to want to keep a good thing secret, as FR has flown under the radar for many years, but bourbon is meant to be shared. Keep an eye on what they’re doing, because nobody does it better.

Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon

•October 21, 2012 • 1 Comment

Opened: August 25, 2012
55.1% Alc/Vol (110.2 proof)
Price: $79.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – 12 years old
Barrel Strength, non-chill filtered OESK recipe
Warehouse: SN ; Barrel #81-3M
Tasting Date: October 11, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Buttery brown.

Nose: Baked green apple, lime rind, vanilla frosting, fried dough, cinnamon, clover honey. The alcohol is waxy and sinus-numbing, but not particularly hot. Creamy.

Taste: The entry is sweet and clean, and the palate brings vanilla frosting. The finish shows spicy green fruits alongside stubborn wood. The wood here stands separate from the other flavors; instead of acting as a vehicle, it shows up alone and unintegrated. There is a high sugar end to this bourbon, but its counterpart is an undefined creamed cereal. There’s a lack of balance here that makes the whiskey feel ungrounded. Cinnamon butter cookie, honeyed raisins and apple tart all make brief appearances. The proof here is well-handled, but overall it’s a bit one-sided for me.

Four Roses often takes my breath away; this one does not. Too much unanswered acidity, which I tend to attribute to the low rye recipe of the ‘E’ mashbill (75% corn, 20% rye, 5% malted barley); perhaps a higher ratio of rye would have brought more balance.

Value: $55/$80

This review comes from the second bottle of this expression I bought. The first one displayed more rich, creamy corn notes right at the beginning, but after being open for only a few weeks, the taste fell off a cliff, the finish disappeared, and the bourbon just completely changed for me – in a bad way. Bottles that are part of a single barrel product are always potentially subject to wide variation, so I decided to give it another chance, especially since I have read other opinions that are much more positive than my initial experience was. This second bottle has now been open for almost two months, and unlike my first bottle, the flavor has remained intact. It’s just not a flavor that I favor.

This is the first limited edition release from Four Roses that I have no desire to put away for future enjoyment. In general, I tend to prefer the higher rye ‘B’ mashbill from Four Roses. I also tend to prefer the more exotic Four Roses profiles that bring astringent, floral notes to the table rather than the sweet corn-forward flavors that this edition offers. For me, this example of a bourbon bottled straight from the barrel is a wasted opportunity.

Malt Whisky

•October 18, 2012 • 2 Comments

Over the last few months, I have found myself more and more exploring what American whiskey enthusiasts refer to as ‘The Dark Side,’ and with more interest and specificity than I ever have.

In college I did most of my drinking out in the New York City bars, and it was mostly beer with the occasional lineup of vodka martinis. I preferred Stoli, but I wasn’t very picky about the vodka; I just wanted something that the next morning wouldn’t make me feel like I had been in a car accident the night before, and Stoli usually obliged. (By the way, though I wouldn’t go near gin in the old days, I much prefer gin to vodka nowadays.) Scotch occasionally made its way onto the menu as Dewars on the rocks, but I can’t say I noticed it much.

When I came home to the ‘burbs for summer between school years, it never made sense to me to buy vodka. I bought whiskey. I can recall buying a fifth of J&B once (tasted like turpentine and apple juice) and maybe a 375 here or there of Jim Beam White or J&B or Dewars. I didn’t have the time, resources or interest to investigate my drinks, I just wanted something that put me in a good mood, and while it seemed silly to me to drink vodka out of a pint bottle, it seemed entirely appropriate to do so with the brown stuff.

Did I know when I was drinking a bourbon versus a blended Scotch? Kind of. but it was mostly because of the labels.

Bourbon has kept me very well occupied since I discovered it in 2005, but as any force-fearing Star Wars fan can attest to, the dark side is powerful. The heavily peated Islay offerings were the first single malts to really get my attention, though I can’t say I was ever a peat-head. There is much drama to be found inside a good bottle of bourbon or rye, and drama is what I encountered in Bruichladdich’s Octomore. I tasted it at WhiskyFest in 2011 and quickly ran out to buy my own dear bottle of the stuff. Talk about drama, this was a monster that created its own itch inside me and proceeded not just to scratch it, but to level it with the power of a hurricane. Calling it a force of nature is not an exaggeration. I had a bottle of Orpheus in my cabinet for a good fifteen months before finally laying it to rest.

I have tried various other Islays, including the mildly peated Bunnahabhain 12 year old, the young, feisty Kilchoman, and the standard bottlings of Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin. I can’t say I’m a fan of the chill-filtered, watered down versions of the last three distilleries mentioned, but I have found independent and/or limited edition bottlings of theirs to enjoy. I drank through a bottle of Ardbeg Alligator and found its BBQ notes addictive. I had a single cask Laphroaig 13 year old that was very gentle in its deft handling of earthy peat. I’m currently working on a bottle of Ardbeg Day that is sweet on the entry, has a thick malty palate, and finishes with a fat exhalation of smoke from a sherry-dipped cigar. It’s growing on me.

Sherry cask aging came into my life with a 31 year old cask strength Glenfarclas. It really kind of swept me off my feet. I had never had such an aged whisky before, and it really impressed me with how relaxed the wood component can be in a whisky that’s aged in a used barrel. It was a deep, deep orange brown color with an earthy nut-fruit thing going on and a smoky, salty finish. Finding this whisky is really what has sent me forward in pursuit of fine malt.

I’ve been eagerly exploring Springbank. The discontinued 10/100 (10 years old/100 proof) was an early favorite, and in general, a very good Scotch to get the attention of a bourbon lover. I have grown to love the Longrow 10/100 as well, which is a Springbank that has been more heavily peated. Longrow brings fresh, windblown smoke and notes of cool coal. Put a sherry cask around it for 11 years and you get – surprise! – jellied yellow fruit, lemon-lime, and more coal alongside freshly dug up fertile earth.

According to this page on Johannes van den Heuvel’s Malt Madness website, there are close to 100 active distilleries making malt whisky in Scotland today. All but eight of them were founded before 1980, and 66 out of these 100 some-odd distilleries were distilling in the 19th century. Seven of these were distilling in the 18th century! According to Sally Van Winkle Campbell’s But Always Fine Bourbon, of the 75 or so American distilleries operating in the time before Prohibition gutted the industry, only 51 survived. Though I haven’t a source for it, I don’t think I am wildly speculating when I state that maybe a dozen of those surviving 51 distilleries are still in operation today.

I can feel the weight of American history in the bourbon and rye whiskey I drink, and the intimacy I have found with my country’s native spirits comes natural to me. The land that produces malt whisky carries a tremendous history that is foreign to me, and I feel like I am in the early stages of finding a real intimacy and appreciation for it. I am not the least bit interested in turning my back on bourbon or rye whiskey, but the cabinet space they have ceded to single malt Scotch over the last six months is not about to be reclaimed.

Michter’s 10 year old Single Barrel Bourbon

•July 23, 2012 • 3 Comments

Opened: June 9, 2012
94.4 proof (47.2% ABV)
Price: $69.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
10-years old Single Barrel
Producer-distiller: Non-Distiller Producer
Tasting Date: July 18, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Round, burnt orange

Nose: Sharp, waxy turpentine, oak, vanilla; hot, bitter wood. Deep candied orange rind. This nose opens up in a big way after a few minutes in the glass, as brown sugar starts to massage away the sharp turpentine smell.

Taste: Thin, sharp entry with a slight brown sugary undercurrent: heat, but no spice. The palate is mild, unassertive and undiscerning with some sweet nectarine-like character showing up faded underneath a thin sugar water. The finish adds a punch of heat with cinnamon and pepper spices that are far away. Nothing to chew on in between sips, just a vague orange candy aftertaste

This whiskey seems like the runt of a litter. It has some nice qualities of brown sugar, nectarine fruitiness and cinnamon, but I feel like they have all but been scrubbed out. Heat, however, remains, and throws up a wooden wall that stops the finish dead in its tracks, leaving only a faint trace of bourbon behind

Value: $37/$70

Like many American whiskeys released by non-distiller producers, rumors and speculation concerning which distillery(ies) the juice comes from swirl around this product. My taste buds tell me that the whiskey in my bottle is wheated bourbon, but that doesn’t mean that the bottle with the same label that you buy off the shelf tomorrow will be the same. Though I lose out on the intellectual enjoyment of a whiskey when I don’t know where it comes from, I am still happy to judge what’s in the bottle on its own merits, and to me, this is vastly over-priced booze.

When a company uses a classic name like Michter’s to sell their sourced whiskey, they are emphasizing a history that is completely divorced from their product. Sure, it’s just business, but if it’s in a company’s best interest to lure me to their product by using font and a backstory with a rich history that has nothing to do with the actual content therein, then it’s just as much in my best interest as a consumer to pay no heed to the marketing, and therefore never, ever pay for the marketing involved in a release like this, which I judge to be at least half the cost of the bottle.

I believe that this usually comes packaged with a batch number on the neck; my bottle had no such tag. I don’t quite understand the significance of categorizing a single barrel bourbon by batch release. I guess it could mean that bottles with the same batch are from barrels sourced in the same year, but then again, it might mean something else entirely; how would I know?

High West 21-year old Rocky Mountain Rye

•July 9, 2012 • 4 Comments

Opened: February 12, 2012
92 proof (46% ABV)
Price: $129.99
Whiskey Distilled from Rye Mash
Aged 21 years in used cooperage
Bottler: High West Distillery
Tasting Date: March 8, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Pale brown – yellowish.

Nose: Large, deep vanilla, moist sweet bread, lemon meringue, vanilla frosted cupcake.

Taste: A strong spice shows up on the entry and quickly disperses, falling to the sides on the palate to make way for a creamy, custardy middle. The spice sticks around on the finish, bringing heat and a light herbal presence. The spice has a hot, bouyant bitterness that compliments the wet cake quality I find at the center of this whiskey.

At the back of the throat lies an almost untouched, pure rye grain cereal note. The whiskey is viscous and coats the mouth with cinnamon spice and sweet vanilla. Very, very light fruity notes emerge from the dense wetness of the sweet cake after a time in the glass.

Value: $105/$130

Strictly speaking, this is not a rye whiskey. It is, as the label specifies, “whiskey distilled from rye mash stored 21 years in reused cooperage.” In order for most American-made spirits to qualify as whiskey (rye whiskey, bourbon whiskey, malt whiskey, etc), they must be aged in new oak barrels. With a typical rye whiskey mashbill of 53% rye, 37% corn and 10% barley malt, this is a rye whiskey in every respect but that it was aged in reused cooperage. Just as High West’s (HW) 16-year old Rocky Mountain Rye was distilled at the Barton distillery, intended to be sold and blended into Canadian whisky, so goes this very unusual rye. I know of no other American-distilled whiskey that has spent so much time in used barrels. Some new distilleries use previously used barrels to briefly age their distillate, but these experiments are a long way off from producing something like the juice that fills these bottles.

Across the pond, the scotch industry has been using reused barrels for centuries, mostly American barrels that previously aged bourbon. The effect of aging whiskey in weathered wood is profound. Whereas American spirits are very rarely aged for more than 20 years, Scottish distilleries age their malt for 20, 30, 40, 50 years.  Because climate plays such a big part in affecting the speed at which whiskey interacts with temperature-sensitive, breathable wood, Scotland’s more uniformly temperate climate can allow for longer aging periods than the more variable and extreme climate of Kentucky. This 21-year old rye, however, exhibits very little of the oaky flavors most American whiskeys aged for so long usually show. It draws a distinct contrast with more traditionally aged American whiskey, and makes me wonder what kind of transformations could be possible by aging traditional American grains in used cooperage for longer periods of time.

While not as complex in dark flavors as the like-aged Sazerac 18-year old rye, this whiskey is a delicious, dessert-y lesson in alternative barrel aging. I would love to see American distillers experiment with ultra-aging in used barrels. There are great opportunities to create new American whiskey profiles by sacrificing the initial, dramatic flavors that new wood imparts on a distillate. Don’t get me wrong, I love bourbon and rye whiskey, but I do feel that slow-aged malt can reach heights of maturity in old age that simply aren’t possible over the same period of time in new barrels. The strict guidelines surrounding whiskey in this country demands a discipline that produces world class whiskeys, but I would anticipate more good than harm in coloring outside of the box.

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.