Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15-year old Bourbon

•February 7, 2012 • 6 Comments

Opened: December 1, 2011
107 proof (53.5% ABV)
Price: $59.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – 15 years old
– bottled in 2011 –
Producer-distiller: Buffalo Trace
Tasting Dates: January 9, 2012; February 7, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Rich caramel with maple tinge.

Nose: 1st taste – syrupy raspberry molasses, lemon, vanilla and wood, hot mulled spices. 2nd taste – weighty, citrus-hued caramel. Sweet vanilla turpentine, sweet smoke.

1st Taste: Vanilla springs forward right away, healthy dose of wood on the back end, pleasant burn on the finish. Mid-palate brings spicy, bitter oak. There’s a weighty maple sweetness that brings out the most delicate notes of this whiskey; it starts on the entrance and follows the woody center, surrounding it. The heat brings a wood-dominated spicy complexity. The overall texture is full but granulated.

2nd Taste: Less vanilla on the entry, more upfront sweetness. The back end of the palate is loads richer and rounder, with sugary vanilla caramel bringing rich notes of citrus and banana pudding. Maple-molasses candy melts on the back of the tongue. It finishes with more rich, sweet vanilla leading to a mellowly smoked spice burn. All the flavors present have rounded themselves out since last taste for a softer and richer mouthfeel.

Value: $70/$60

I really did not care for this expression upon first taste. It proved to possess the characteristic that I disliked the most in the William Larue Weller: the grainy, clinging texture. It was clear to me from the first sip how closely related the two bourbons are; after all, they are made at the same distillery and assumed to use the same mashbill, or recipe. However, the time the last third of my bottle had been left to sit with air exposure has elevated what I first characterized as an admirable effort to a truly elegant and worthy successor to the Pappy moniker.

Alright, I’m not sure who my audience is right now. The name Pappy Van Winkle is used in three bourbons: a 15-year, a 20-year and a 23-year. Before Pappy 15, there was Old Rip Van Winkle (ORVW) 15-year old, and before that there was Old Fitzgerald*. Pappy has its roots in one of if not the most fervently worshipped distilleries this side of prohibition: Stitzel-Weller (S-W). When I found Pappy 15, it sat on the shelves like any other bourbon and cost me around $42. This was in 2006 and my burgeoning fascination with whiskey was given a mighty tip of the hat with a wise recommendation by a super-friendly employee at the Binny’s location in Lakeview. Pappy grew on me like wrinkles on a worrier, and I quickly adopted it as my standard-bearer.

S-W ceased all production in 1992, which would give the oldest stock of S-W-made whiskey a 15-year birthday in 2007. In 2002, knowing stock of the S-W whiskey that filled his bottles was quickly drying up, the proprietor of the Pappy label, Julian Van Winkle III (Pappy’s gradson), partnered up with Buffalo Trace (BT) to secure the needed juice for future bottlings of Pappy and ORVW.

As of this writing, Buffalo Trace sells wheated bourbon for the following labels:
Weller Special Reserve (7-years, 90 proof)
Old Weller Antique (no age statement, 107 proof)
W. L. Weller 12-year old (12-years, 90 proof )
Old Rip Van Winkle (a 90 proof and a 107 proof, each 10-years old)
Van Winkle Special Reserve Lot ‘B’ (12-years, 90.4 proof)
William Larue Weller (unfiltered, no age statement, barrel proof varies by yearly release)
Pappy Van Winkle 15-year old (15 years, 107 proof)

This 2011 bottling marks the first release of the Pappy 15-year old that has been confirmed as 100% BT bourbon. Having already been an ardent fan of past bottlings, I was worried that the BT-made whiskey would not do justice to its S-W pedigree. It needs a few weeks to drink in the air, but I am encouraged to report that, although limited in availability, Buffalo Trace has the capability to produce bourbon worthy of the Pappy name.

*The current Old Fitzgerald stocking the shelves is made by Heaven Hill distillery and is said to be quite unpalatable. It bears little resemblance to the bourbon produced for that label by S-W.

William Larue Weller – 2011 release

•February 5, 2012 • 1 Comment

Opened: November 15, 2011
66.75% Alc/Vol (133.5 proof)
Price: $79.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Producer-distiller: Buffalo Trace
Tasting Dates: January 7, 2012; January 27, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Rich, toffee caramel brown

Nose: Caramel banana bread, vanilla cookie dough, red berries, wet wood shavings, orange sherbet

Taste: earlier tasting – no water: drying texture, sweet burn, roasted chestnuts, jelly lemon peel. Later tasting – no water: when it hits the tongue, it turns to warm, buttery caramel and vanilla goop. Put some water in, shake the glass, and I have a veritable snow globe of barrel chunks.

Earlier tasting – water to ~115 proof: nose becomes a little sweeter and richer; lemon shortcake, more vanilla. The palate sees dry, clinging, sweet oaky caramel. Slight, nutty bitterness anchors the heat well.

Later tasting – water to ~115 proof: a sweet, stinging entry leads to a hot, creamy vanilla pudding center and a long, dry, slightly stinging finish. White chocolate barrel flavors. Brought down a bit further to ~105 proof, the jammy fruits finally emerge and make for a delicious raspberry finish.

Value: $67/$80

The first thing I noticed with this release was that it had a bit of a rough, scraping texture to it. It leaves behind a stickiness in the mouth that I find kind of cloddish. This whiskey carries no age statement, but Buffalo Trace (BT) makes no qualms about publishing very specific information about each release in their Antique Collection, so according to their spec sheet, it was distilled in 1998 and spent 12 years and 11 months in barrel.

All Weller bourbons are wheated bourbons, different from most ‘ryed’ bourbons on the market in that the second major grain used in production next to the lawfully mandated minimum of 51% corn is wheat rather than the more generally used rye. In my experience, wheated bourbons, and in particular BT-made wheaters go through dramatic transformations with exposure to air. I know I have written about other bourbons needing time to open up, but I find that this is especially true with wheaters.

Another factor that affects the way the juice changes in the bottle after being open and drank down is the terrific amount of barrel char you find in the unfiltered, barrel-proof offerings released in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC): the Thomas H. Handy straight rye and the George T. Stagg straight bourbon along with the William Larue. Unless you shake your bottle around, this sediment spends most of its time at the bottom, waiting for an opportunity to frolic in the shallow reserves.

Last year I strained the end of a bottle of George T. Stagg through a coffee filter and was left with this black dust. Light glints off its surface…

Anyway, if you drink the end of a bottle of this stuff without filtering, you can be sure that your tongue will be stained a dark shade of purple for a week.

I very much appreciate this yearly barrel-strength release of a wheated bourbon, and I was in love with last year’s version. I can’t tell for certain if I should attribute my less impressed verdict on the 2011 to an inferior product or simply an evolved palate, but this bottle has left me wanting more. It’s sweet and warming, with a pleasant nuttiness and a brief, jammy fruit flash, but in the end I find it to be somewhat inelegant and lacking complexity for its price tag.

Four Roses 2011 Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon

•January 16, 2012 • 1 Comment

Opened: December 19, 2011
55.1% Alc/Vol (110.2 proof)
Price: $79.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Barrel Strength, non-chill filtered
OBSK – 13 years · OESK – 11 years · OESV – 12 years · OESQ – 13 years
Tasting Date: January 16, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Baked golden apple brown.

Nose: Deep, fruity, just-polished shoe leather. Honeydew, kiwi, skittles. Black cherry soda with vanilla ice cream float. Watermelon.

Taste: Clover honey right up front on the entry; the honey feels warm and calls forth saliva. Shoe leather and tropical fruit explodes on the palate. The finish is long and spicy, sweet and fruity all at once.

This bourbon enters my mouth on one of the most sensual sweet notes I’ve experienced; warm, tropical honey that holds the juice of melon fruits which have been caramelized in a reduction. The palate shows a fair amount of smokey, leathery wood sweating melon nectar and is the least complex and least interesting aspect of the whiskey. The finish returns to honey and spice with the alcohol finally showing up. There is more than enough body here to artfully manage the 110.2 proof, and I feel no need for water.

Four Roses brings to market another exotic specimen of elegant bourbon that caters to a profound sweet tooth while coloring outside the lines of the expected bourbon profile.

Value: $90/$80

This limited edition bottling utilizes four unique bourbon recipes out of the ten that Four Roses distills and ages. Unlike the 2011 Limited Edition Single Barrel, which took a few months of breathing to really open up, the small batch took around two weeks to develop for me.

I can’t help but remark that I continue to be flabbergasted by the bourbon I taste from bottles bearing the name Four Roses. In addition to the two 2011 Limited Edition bourbons I have reviewed so far on here, I have had a handful of Binny’s hand-picked single barrels of various Four Roses recipes, each of which is typically aged for 8-9 years (OBSQ, OESQ, OBSF, OBSK), as well as their standard single barrel and standard small batch. I have my favorites (and easily recommend with glowing enthusiasm you go pick up their standard single barrel as soon as you can!), but so far everything I’ve tasted from them has been worthwhile.

When you taste enough whiskeys made at the same distillery, a common family profile begins to emerge. Getting to know the profiles achieved at Four Roses has been a pleasure as well as an education, and I’m thrilled that this kind of whiskey art is happening.

Whiskey Wonka Gets Around

•January 10, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Ok, now you know me all too well. [Music lyrics NSFW].

My Value Scoring System

•January 8, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I choose to include a quantified rating in my whiskey reviews. The score I provide is stated in dollars, and represents the value I judge a given whiskey to have based on how it compares to price-point peers. Most of us will gladly fork over our hard-earned dough for that hard-worked juice, but it’s good to remember: the best whiskey always begins in the hands of the producer and ends in the eye of the beholder. Our tastes and budgets vary. I believe that a whiskey review lies in the description, not the grade, but there’s no avoiding price when considering the consumerism of a product.

Shelves may provide enough to drink well at all prices, nevertheless we over-pay for items we can’t live without. I constantly wrestle with whether my whiskey budget should allow for multiple bottles of well-priced, high-quality whiskey, or one unique bottle of expensive, sometimes over-priced whiskey.

Whiskey prices vary slightly from coast to coast, and my value score endeavors to compare whiskeys from all price-points.

Four Roses 2011 Limited Edition Single Barrel Bourbon

•January 8, 2012 • 1 Comment

Opened: September 12, 2011
56.9% Alc/Vol (113.8 proof)
Price: $79.99 @ Binny’s
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – 12 years old
Barrel Strength, non-chill filtered OBSQ recipe
Warehouse: QN ; Barrel #17-3E
Tasting Date: November 23, 2011

Color in glencairn glass: Maple syrup brown with rich orange tint.

Nose: Aromatic, alcohol-infused orange peel. Spice buried in spongy sweetness. Maple walnuts, banana peel, cinnamon.

Taste: Rosey, ginger bread pudding center. Long, hot finish grounded by general, soft bitter sides. Heavy corn supported by rainbow jolly rancher. Hot, stinging alcohol finish retains corn syrup sweetness. Soft, viscous lavender notes fluff up the back end. Fruits and clove, cinnamon, mint and nutmeg all linger on the finish.

This bourbon is thick and strong with a weighty flower-power complexity. Brought down to 100-105 proof, equal parts resinous wood and pink rose burst forward. It loses some dark complexity, but makes up for it in sweet herbal, flowery ease.

Value: $83/$80

The first half of this bottle was a disappointment; it carried so much alcohol on the entry that it was next to impossible to get beyond this potency on the palate, and water seemed to dilute it without bringing out the complexity water can sometimes coax from barrel-strength offerings like this.

After two months and half the bottle gone, the whiskey mellowed and settled into itself in the best way. I really, REALLY enjoyed the second half of my bottle, and it only improved the longer it was open and the more air was allowed to mingle in the bottle. I think a bourbon like this teaches a lot about what bourbon is at its essence. The juice in this bottle is presented unchanged from its state when it exited the charred new oak barrel after aging for 12 years in a Kentucky warehouse. I like to taste unadulterated products such as this. Obviously, it was chosen to be bottled because the master distiller (Jim Rutledge) believed it to be a worthy, as-is release. Just as the master distiller exercises patience while a whiskey ages in oak, so too does the consumer require patience to appreciate the whiskey once the seal on the bottle is broken.

I say take the chance on this beautiful example of the distiller’s art. Patience is required and rewarded.

Michter’s 10-year Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey

•December 19, 2011 • 1 Comment

Opened: November 8, 2011
46.4% Alc/Vol (92.8 proof)
Price: $62.99
Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey – 10 years old
Tasting Date: December 15, 2011

Color in glencairn glass: light orangish brown, orange rust.

Nose: Light berry fruit notes, heavy nougat, tarry barrel char, vague minty bubble gum.

Taste: Red fruit on the periphery, herbal tar in the middle. Light bubble gum notes quickly evaporate, bitter oak persists on a mossy finish. Heat bubbles up from some heavy, medicinal goo. The flavors are directed towards a deadened mid-palate finish. A sense of charred and burnt barrel generally weighs upon this whiskey. Mostly bitter, gummy wormwood aftertaste.

This whiskey feigns an easy-drinking quality on the entry. The palate show glimpses of red fruit, herbal bubble gum and minty wormwood, but soon comes to a point where it dies, leaving behind a little heat followed by a burnt aftertaste.

Value: $45/$63

I have to wonder how much of the bubble gum effect here stems from my only recent pinpointing of its glory in the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye (VWFRR), and honestly, I have enjoyed this whiskey more since picking out those Van Winkle flavors. It’s heavier and less spicy, but I am finding some similarities; I half-expected to: I have run into rumors regarding a relationship between this label and the VWFRR. Michter’s was a distillery in Pennsylvania that began commercial production in the 19th century, paused during prohibition, and resumed after repeal, making whiskey until it closed in 1988. This whiskey has nothing to do with that other than the name, font and marketing references it uses (and ownership of the right to do so, of course).

This whiskey with a Pennsylvania name was made at an undisclosed location in Kentucky. (I assume it’s not referred to as Kentucky Straight Rye because the owners prefer not to blatantly refute the origin of the name Michter’s.) I have read of speculation that the first whiskey to be sold under this label may have been sourced from the same distillery where the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye was. In fact, the latest gossip I have found indicates that Julian Van Winkle III came upon a fairly large quantity of rye distilled in the early-mid 1980’s, took the best of the barrels to release under his own labels, and passed along the remaining barrels to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD), who released it under their labels of Black Maple Hill and Vintage Rye. Subsequently, KBD sourced this whiskey for Chatham Imports, the company responsible for marketing and selling the current Michter’s line of whiskeys.

*A little disclaimer here: When you start getting curious about whiskey and the people behind it, you quickly discover that there is nothing simple about discovering all the ins and outs behind ownership, bottling, distillation (mostly distillation), etc of half of the products you see on the shelf; this product is one of those products where brand/marketing and provenance are completely separated. I am not a detective nor a historian. When I get into commenting on industry of whiskey, I have gleaned my ‘facts’ mostly from reading the forum at, as well as a few choice whiskey blogs. I do not consider myself particularly knowledgeable, just thoughtful and interested in the subject matter, and I welcome any fact-checking corrections.*

Anyway, I do believe it is impossible for me to know where the whiskey in my bottle really came from, and whether another bottle at another store will hold the same whiskey as this. I’ve been drinking it as I have untangled my thoughts by writing them down, and it continues to get better (aren’t the last drops always the best?). This whiskey is not readily available in the Chicago area. I saw it at a remote Binny’s location for $100, and I was tempted to snatch it up simply because I hadn’t seen it on local shelves before. I subsequently passed it on a shelf in Boston priced at $80, so when I found it at a small stand-alone shop priced at $62.99, I was ready to spring. That store had another one on the shelf at the same price, but this rye just doesn’t cut it for me.

Whiskey Wonka signature

•December 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I aspire to make videos. I have from the start. I think this will serve as an intro or outro, but here it is out of context anyway.

And yes, that’s a bottle of Four Roses single barrel.

Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye

•December 12, 2011 • 4 Comments

Opened: December 2, 2011
47.8% Alc/Vol (95.6 proof)
Price: $49.99 @ Binny’s
Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey – 13 years old
Tasting Date: December 11, 2011

Color in glencairn glass: brown with light orangish copper.

Nose: Citrusy orange rind, grassy fennel, sweet black licorice, unripe vanilla bean, warm bitter cinnamon.

Taste: Sweet grass, salty bubble gum, shaved candy spearmint. Confectioner’s sugar on the entry, sticky flower-taffy notes on the palate, diluted roses in a medicinal finish.

There is a vague sour caramel apple on the nose which moves into the palate surrounding a cooled bitter wood essence. The bitterness is brief in passing, interrupted by a balanced powdered sugar sweetness. Lavender petals show up brilliantly infused within a salt taffy-like effect. It is this flower taffy stickiness that makes this whiskey some of the most inspired and inspiring juice I have ever tasted. The minty, medicinal bubble gum flavor this rye offers is absolutely lip-smacking and places this whiskey in a category all on its own.

Value: $135/$49

Now, some background. First of all, this bottle is not the first of its kind I have owned. I bought one bottle from the Fall 2010 Van Winkle allocation and was sorely let down by it. True, my palate has evolved leaps and bounds since then, but my tasting notes from January 6, 2011 (after it had been open for two months) follow, and I stand by them:

Nose: salty citrus, orange peel, heavy banana flower, concentrated, dark berry jam
Taste: slight warm mint on the outskirts, deep jammy orange tobacco, dry wooden finish, green woodsy aftertaste, concentrated whole-grain rye bread leaves behind a stubborn coating. It’s not unpleasant, but it isn’t very graceful either. This whiskey is extremely smooth, but there is clearly a gummy wood shutting the door on more subtle fruity/flowery flavors. It is satisfyingly chewy, but this whiskey ends before it begins

What a dud! This bottle stayed open for a good 7 months or so before allowing only a slight hint of the amazing character my more recent bottle has been so generous with on first crack. How could two separate bottlings produce such drastically disparate effects? Here’s what I know. First of all, from what I’ve gathered at, the whiskey released under this label is said to have been distilled in the early-mid-80’s at the Medley Distillery in Owensboro, KY. My understanding is that it was in oak for 18 years or so before being bought and bottled by Julian Van Winkle III around the turn of the century (that’s right, turn of the century). Most of the whiskey was taken from the oak and stored in steel tanks to be taken out and bottled in small quantities until a newly distilled rye whiskey had enough time to age the 13 years stated on the label to continue the brand.

So, not only was the whiskey in these bottles likely aged in oak barrels for a good deal of time longer than the label-stated 13 years, but it was actually distilled closer to 30 years ago at this point, and has spent a considerable amount of its existence in the influence of stainless steel. So. Well, that’s that.

And then there’s this: if you see this on a shelf, buy it. I don’t know how likely it is that the bottle you buy will be a dud, but the potential payoff is well worth the risk!

Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey

•February 12, 2011 • 1 Comment

Bought: Jan. 2011
Price: $50/375ml @ Binny’s
46% alc/vol
Pot-Distilled From Rye Grain
Stored in New Oak Less Than Four Years
Hand Crafted and Bottled by Tuthilltown Spirits, Gardiner, New York
First taste: @ Longman & Eagle, Chicago Dec. 2010
Tasting Date: 2/6/2011

Chalice: Glencairn glass

Color in glass: light, orangey-brown, copper yellow

Smell: sweet, broad, thinly-waxy spice, orange clove, sharpish Dr. Pepper nutmeg, pleasant wax candy reference.

Taste: Cool, popping, cinnaminty, grainy candy, very reminiscent of a fireball. Carbon, medicinal notes left behind on soft palate. Warmly herbal grass notes are sprinkled in the heat. That cinnamon candy finish keeps you coming back for more.

I get the sense that this young whiskey was somehow plucked from the barrel at the exact prime moment; days earlier would have left too much wax, more time in the barrel might turn it too sweet. The oak stretches out the bottom of the rye and impresses an older, wiser whiskey while the popping cinnamon top notes imbue a vivacious youth.

I have learned to seek in rye whiskeys the fresh, sparkling cinnamon notes that this Hudson Manhattan dramatically excels at. This whiskey truly emphasizes the cinnamon fireball character, and as such strikes me very much as a ’boutique’ whiskey, which is entirely consistent with all the buzz that surrounds Tuthilltown Spirits. The 375 ml bottling further reinforces the boutique-y, somewhat precious and even fragile aura the whiskey impresses upon me, and helps to define its categorization as a spirit. Sometimes I want a whiskey I can spend a whole night with; this is not one that lends itself to such occasions. Rather, its place for me, maybe like a cordial, is in the realm of small tastings and special celebrations. It is amazingly creative and generous with quality, but for me there’s a degree of romance it sacrifices for craft, like it’s been self-consciously directed in its expression.

375 ml Value: $30/$50