Dickel Barrel Select

•June 25, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Opened: March 1, 2012
86 proof (43% ABV)
Price: $39.99
Tennesse Whisky
Producer-distiller: George A. Dickel & Co. (Diageo)
Tasting Date: May 20, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Sooty orange

Nose: Sweet vanilla, tinny lemon, dried figs, dried prunes, sour wood, fruity talcum.

Taste: Neutral, bitter wood on the entry makes way for a relatively light-bodied palate with cinnamon and vanilla, and a green wood note that really echoes on the finish in what I find to be a Dickel signature. I like to describe the green wood as wormwood-y, while others have described it as vitamin-like in taste. This singular characteristic shapes the whisky by washing the late palate with a sour, tart, bitter and powdery wood that leaves behind the vitamin-y taste.

Dickel Barrel Select (DBS) is a much more toned down and elegant whisky than its younger brother, #12. In fact, I find it to be too toned down. At 86 proof, the flavors presented are only after-thoughts. Vanilla, spices, wormwood, sour fruit: these all show up in a diluted form that adds up to more of a tease than a satisfying whiskey. The proof hides a tantalizingly unique flavor profile that is just too neutralized to have a proper voice.

Value: $26/$40

George Dickel (GD) is known as “the other Tennessee Whisky,” counterpoint, of course, to the omnipresent Jack Daniels (JD). GD is owned by the British multinational alcoholic beverages company Diageo, and JD is owned by The Brown-Forman Corporation. While the American-owned JD is the best-selling whiskey in the world, GD (which has been around in one form or another since 1877) is barely a blip on most whiskey-drinker’s radar.

This is a shame. GD is a singular whisky with a unique flavor profile that might awaken the taste buds of a long-time JD drinker to the joys and curiosities of another whisky made using the same Lincoln County Process of charcoal filtering that JD boasts of. I was a big fan of the DBS the first time I tried it at WhiskyFest Chicago 2011. I had recently spent a fair amount of time with a bottle of the more available Dickel #12, and I thought the DBS showed much of the same characteristics, but in a richer, more refined way. My taste pendulum has swung back in the other direction, however, as I find that this bottle of DBS (hand-selected from a batch of 10 barrels in 2006, as indicated on the label) fails to elevate the classic Dickel profile in the way I first experienced.

Dickel #12 may be a little hard to bear, but its bold taste is to be admired and acquired. DBS apologizes for the brash nature of D#12 and offers a sweeter, more diluted alternative at an elevated price.

Whiskey Wonka Goes to Work

•June 10, 2012 • 2 Comments

Don’t we all?

Parker’s Heritage Collection Barrel Finished Bourbon

•June 7, 2012 • 2 Comments

Opened: March 31, 2012
100 proof (50% ABV)
Price: $79.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
10-years old, finished in used Cognac barrels
Producer-distiller: Heaven Hill
Tasting Date: May 29, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Deeper caramel with a golden hue.

Nose: Dense and fudge-y with wood-infused sweet butter, gooey fruit fizz, milk chocolate and mocha banana smoothie. The nose develops more thick berry flavors with time spent in the glass.

Taste: What is subdued on entry develops into fruity milk chocolate wood on the palate, hitting the trademark Heaven Hill (HH) grassy note towards the middle and bitter, spicy fruit towards the finish. There is an element of chalky, dry chocolate left behind in the aftertaste. The fruit is expressed quite uniquely for a bourbon, seeming to swim in the heavy wood influence. A corny sweetness remains throughout but is tempered by a heavy shadow of dry cocoa, piney green-grass and berry-lime squiggles. On the finish, the alcohol shoots a perfectly balanced berry-kiwi-lime-infused caramel in a misty farewell.

This bourbon holds surprises around every corner. It can seem somewhat impenetrable at first taste, but with patience the whiskey reveals a broodingly charismatic side of bourbon. What the Cognac barrel finishing does for the HH profile is fascinating and deeply satisfying.

Value: $80/$80

Finishing whiskey is largely a scotch game. The only other barrel finished bourbon I tasted before this was Angel’s Envy, and I was not a fan; it was too sweet and I felt the bourbon was lost behind a winey scrim. I do not have much experience with Cognac, so I can’t say that I can pick out ‘Cognac notes’ in the bourbon, but I have learned a deep appreciation for the HH profile over the last few years, so I do feel like I recognize pieces in this bourbon that I can only ascribe to the influence of the Cognac barrel.

The bourbon is not lost here – on the contrary, it is complimented exquisitely. I have found that this release is most pleasing to me when I taste it after drinking another HH bourbon. It’s clear that the underlying whiskey is some of, if not the best 10-year old bourbon HH has to offer, so when I drink it after, say, some Evan Williams Single Barrel (EWSB), it fills in all the gaps that may have been missing for me in the previous pour. This bourbon is the result of a unique, one-time marriage, so if you have ever enjoyed a HH bourbon, grab one of these to drink now before they’re gone forever, and if you can, grab another one to come back to in a few year’s time.

The Difference A Glass Makes

•May 27, 2012 • 2 Comments

I just returned with my family from a four-night vacation just north of the border from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina where I stayed with my cousin, her husband and their two small daughters. (By the way, my daughter is only 9.5 months old, and the first 24 hours with my cousin’s family was spent wide-eyed and twitchy with my mouth agape as I watched an almost 4-year old and a 1.5-year old knock down buildings like rampaging monsters of Japanese monster movies. The sensation was akin to achieving a shaky confidence in juggling 4 balls only to add another 4 or 5 to the mix… I did get over my initial shock, but I was pretty impressed with how overwhelmed I felt watching them at first.)

I knew my cousin’s husband as someone who likes his whiskey, so I brought a bottle of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye (VWFRR), which I had been saving for a special occasion, along for the trip. I was especially glad that I brought it for two reasons: 1) It turns out my cousin has a nostalgic soft spot for drinking Rebel Yell while in the Carolinas and 2) N. Carolina is a liquor control state. Now, unless you live in the jurisdiction of one of the 19 state-run liquor monopolies, you likely don’t know what it is. The laws vary by state, but it essentially means that the state runs a monopoly on wholesale and distribution of liquor. Effectively, only state employees get to decide what liquor is available for sale at liquor stores, which in almost all cases results in less variety and customer choice.

We polished off most of the VWFRR on my first night there. My cousin likes his whiskey over ice in a nice, heavy tumbler or old fashioned glass, while I am accustomed to drinking whiskey neat out of a glencairn. There was no shortage of glassware at our disposal, but in my experience, you’d be hard-pressed to come across a glencairn glass at the home of anyone short of a full-blooded whiskey enthusiast. I chose for my consumption a stemless wine glass, with its wide base and sides that taper in towards the lip. The shape of the glencairn is said to be designed to allow the liquor’s vapors to expand in the base and drift towards the lip in a fashion that focuses the whiskey for prime nosing.

I don’t think I ever really appreciated the impact a well-guided nose has on the overall experience of a whiskey until I found myself drinking the good stuff from a wine glass. In other words, once you go glencairn, you’ll care more than you used to be carin’. The wine glass is my go-to for whiskey in situations where I don’t have access to a glencairn, but it just doesn’t allow for the same expression in drinking. The VWFRR was still a delicious and rare treat, but I missed some subtlety drinking it from a glass that wasn’t designed specifically to focus the nose of an 80+ proof whiskey.

I will say this: budget whiskeys with a less complex, less refined taste, such as the Rebel Yell, may rather fare better from a glass that doesn’t emphasize a neglected nose. An old fashioned glass works just fine for a whiskey that is better off remaining subdued in order to mask harsher flavors left over from less careful production methods.

Blog Update: New Whiskey Category

•May 14, 2012 • Leave a Comment

With the publication of my review of Leopold Bros. American Small Batch Whiskey, I have added a category to my Tastings and Reviews section on the blog. The new category is called American Whiskey, and while all the whiskeys I have reviewed so far are indeed American whiskeys, they have all been straight whiskeys made at full-scale industrial distilleries that have been around in some form or another since before prohibition (with the exception of Hudson Manhattan Rye, whose category I have changed).

With the over-use of the term ‘craft distillery’ having diluted the meaning of the word craft, I am simply calling the whiskey coming from these smaller operations American whiskey. I don’t drink much of this young, nascent product, but I have a line on some that may be worthwhile, so I’ll publish my notes on them as I find room for them in my liquor cabinet.

Leopold Bros. American Small Batch Whiskey

•May 13, 2012 • 4 Comments

Opened: April 17, 2012
86 proof (43% ABV)
Price: $44.99
Pot Distilled From Open Fermented Sour Mash
Producer-distiller: Leopold Bros.
Tasting Date: May 7, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Faded yellow with a rose glow.

Nose: Moist, spongy, metallic with mellow sweet powdered sugar. Grapes, strawberries, green apples, waxy vanilla varnish. Fruit cocktail. There is a definite rounded, plush character on the nose.

Taste: Light brown sugar entry achieves depth with green apple skin and strawberry cream. The palate  centers around a soft, serene bed of vanilla flowers with unassertive grape and apple tones, and a wash of that diluted strawberry kick. Mild, bitter pepper sprinkles along the outskirts and comes to the fore on a finish that brings to mind rosé wine and pink rose essence, and leaves little to no burn.

My biggest joy from this whiskey is the texture: it is plush and clean like satin sheets; comforting, pleasant and cooling. There is a grounding, fruit-based bitterness throughout the sip, but the overall theme with this distillate is balanced apple flesh. Drink it instead of wine with dinner. This is a friendly, charming whiskey that grew on me as I got to know the mood it encourages.

Value: $60/$45

I really grew enamored of this whiskey over the course of the bottle I drank through. Though it is not specifically labeled as a bourbon, it does qualify for bourbon status, with a mashbill of roughly 65% corn, 15% rye and 20% malted barley. They age it in new American oak, and unlike many new micro-distilleries these days, Leopold Bros. ages their whiskey in full-size 53 gallon barrels, just like the big boys.

Unlike most of the big boys, this is a whiskey that has been aged for less that two years, thus it is not a straight bourbon. This young whiskey is kind of like a cross between a white dog, which is what whiskey is called right off the still before being barreled for aging, and a straight whiskey, which requires two years of age in American oak. So much of a straight bourbon or straight rye’s character comes from the influence of the barrel. Indeed, time spent aging will mellow any white dog, overwhelm some subtleties with oak influence and cover up imperfections with the chemical processes that take place when whiskey meets wood. This American Small Batch Whiskey (ASBW) has interacted only minimally with wood, and thus time has not had the luxury to sand down the sharp edges or sweeten the bitter leftovers of modern distillation. Yet, the whiskey shows itself as having a plush, creamy mouthfeel and no off-flavors.

Leopold Bros. likes to declare that the techniques they employ come from American whiskey-making traditions that predate prohibition. Instead of leveraging new technology and taking advantage of industry shortcuts that have been developed in the post-prohibition world, Leopold Bros. goes through more traditional paces, and in this product we find the ‘eau’ of their efforts. My bottle came from barrel #45; each bottle is individually numbered as it is filled directly from the barrel. It’s unfair to directly compare Leopold’s ASBW to a small batch bourbon that has been aged for 12 years like the EC12; this is a different category of whiskey. I’ll concede that though there’s a case to be made for not directly comparing the whiskeys, your $45 does not change.

Still, despite its age, I find that the quality achieved here surpasses the price tag. There’s no doubting that my enjoyment of this whiskey has been enhanced by becoming privy to some of the distillers’ process. My intellectual understanding of what I drink can’t help but figure into my experience of it. It’s an aspect that may be a bit more nebulous than the nose, palate and finish, but just as the physical sensations stimulate my imagination, so does the intellectual knowledge. Perhaps I am over-romanticizing, but it’s great to know how a product born of old-time practices tastes, and while I enjoy many, many whiskeys from distilleries that use more industrial methods, it’s important to me to keep some bottles around that do not follow suit.

I can’t wait to taste what a few more years of barrel-aging will do to this stuff!

Elijah Craig 12-year old Bourbon

•May 6, 2012 • 1 Comment

Opened: April 13, 2012
94 proof (47% ABV)
Price: $29.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
12-years old
Producer-distiller: Heaven Hill
Tasting Date: May 5, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Golden tan.

Nose: Varnish, fruit ash, orange peel, candied lemon rind, fruity vanilla, damp tropical cellar.

Taste: Sweet, unassuming entry leads to a damp hit of clean, upfront oak. The palate mingles a pleasant, watery fruity pebbles-like evolution with an unmistakeable earthy soot. Vanilla and oak prod the interplay between fruit and ash, who trade jabs throughout the sip in a lively push and pull affair.

The fruit referenced is sort of a cayenne infused watermelon. Sooty notes remain adamant, but never overwhelming, achieving a perfect balance amongst the sweeter characteristics. The finish also carries some rotten fruit notes in a brief departure from the kindness that plays out on the palate, but this slightly distasteful showing does not threaten to spoil an otherwise wholly pleasing bottle. Vanilla oak holds sway over the finish, assuring that neither the soot nor fruit find victory in their pursuit of dominance.

Value: $37/$30

I stayed away from this expression for quite awhile. Everything I read, everything I heard about this bourbon revolved around its variability; it has a reputation among bourbon drinkers for being quite the MVP: most variable product (props to Joshua for that one).

I can’t say if I merely lucked out or if Heaven Hill (HH) has found a recent stride for this line, but I am certainly glad I finally took the leap with this classic 12-year old. I tend to focus on higher-end whiskeys in here, but that is something I intend to rectify. This bottle exceeded my expectations; now I just have to cross my fingers that the next one I pick up will be as successful as this one.