Col. E.H. Taylor Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Bourbon

•April 16, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Opened: March 25, 2012
100 proof (50% ABV)
Price: $74.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Bottled in Bond – No Age Statement
Producer-distiller: Buffalo Trace
Tasting Date: April 15, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Soft, neutral amber-copper.

Nose: Heavy barrel, ripe banana, varnish, vanilla, cinnamon. Rum cake, nutmeg, orange rind. This is a thick nose that goes and goes (and goes)!

Taste: The nice bit of sweet caramel on the entry introduces a sooty palate. The sooty notes show well, acting to hold together the sweeter orange meringue, scorched corn and thick caramel. The finish hints at nutty Cracker Jack before bringing an appropriately spicy bourbon sting. Cinnamon, vanilla and heavy caramel all linger for between-sips chewing.

This bourbon takes some chances, and the risks really pay off. The soot gives it a rough and satisfying bite and mouthfeel, and the nutty caramel corn on the Cracker Jack finish provides a bit of an exotic wink. Like the other Col. E.H. Taylor (CEHT) releases, it carries its proof very well. A damaging tornado has affected a tasty bourbon for an over-priced line.

Value: $55/$75

You can read about the story behind this bourbon here, but in short, it was part of a batch of barrels that spent a summer exposed to the elements as repairs took place on a roof that was destroyed by a tornado. The press release speaks of barrels ranging in age from 9 years, 8 months to 11 years, 11 months old, however, as a Bottled in Bond (BiB) bourbon, any single bottle can contain bourbon only from barrels that were filled in the same season. Unfortunately, neither the label nor the packaging include any information about which seasons’ barrels filled the bottle. This opens the door to variability between bottles, but most of the buzz I’ve seen calls out this release as the favorite among the three. It’s bolder than the previous releases, and achieves a very successful profile, but I have fond memories of the the first release Sour Mash, so I must reserve my final ranking for when I can get a hold of another bottle.

Buffalo Trace (BT) would like to consider the CEHT brand their rye-recipe equivalent to the prestigious, wheated Van Winkle line. As the Van Winkle bourbons transition to BT-distilled juice and their character changes a bit, so does their price; four years ago I could walk into a Binny’s and buy a bottle of Pappy 15 off the shelf for under $45. The price has risen to $60, and I do not expect that inflation to cease any time soon. Rather than crafting a superb bourbon that merits a $75 price tag, BT has invented a brand whose first priority is to be expensive. They have created a slot and are looking for bourbons to slide into it, whether they are worth the cost to the consumer or not. I appreciate the qualification of BiB in any product, and I hope that the CEHT line remains consistent in its use, but I don’t consider that it has anything to do with justifying the premium price.

I look forward to the CEHT whiskeys continuing to improve, but I fear that the bourbon market as a whole will see significant price increases before the bourbons used in the brand earn what is the $75 price standard today. In my mind, BT’s pricing of this line communicates the fact that in the years to come, $75 will be the new $50 price-point when it comes to American whiskey.

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Col. E.H. Taylor Single Barrel Bourbon

•April 14, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Opened: February 13, 2012
100 proof (50% ABV)
Price: $74.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Bottled in Bond – No Age Statement
Producer-distiller: Buffalo Trace
Tasting Date: April 10, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Round amber-orange.

Nose: Varnish, orange peel, berry flower. Vanilla perfume, orange hard candy, a sprinkling of oak.

Taste: Thin, even watery on the entry. The palate has the consistency of a melted hard candy with added water. Mild berry flowers and dusty saddle leather linger around the edges but dissipate quickly towards a center of only very slight sweet orange. There is a bit of a creamed corniness, but it’s a weak cry for help at the bottom of a well.

The finish carries just enough of a spicy, alcoholy sting to wake you up and remind you that you’re drinking bourbon, but everything else about this whiskey is limply mild, leaving very little impact.

Value: $37/$75

There is nothing offensive here, save for the price. It is a single barrel expression (though the barrel is not identified), so you can expect differences between bottles out in the wild, but I haven’t seen much positive mention of this release out in the whiskeysphere. It is the second release of Buffalo Trace’s new Colonel E.H. Taylor line, and it falls short of the Sour Mash, which was the first release.

I’d like to stumble upon another bottle of the Sour Mash and write about it, because I found the one bottle I had to be similarly mild, but more confident, sustaining and entirely unique. I also plan on writing about the third, and current release, the Tornado Surviving barrels. My local shelves still contain a fair amount of the Single Barrel iteration, but the more recently released Tornado Surviving bottles disappeared rather quickly.

Truth in the Bottle?

•April 1, 2012 • 2 Comments

A few whiskey enthusiasts recently had an opportunity to chew the fat with the master distiller at Buffalo Trace (BT), Harlen Wheatley, and they shared their experience with the community at StraightBourbon.com. Over the course of their informal conversation, Mr. Wheatley let a number of cats out of the bag regarding the sources of BT’s Van Winkle line of whiskies, and it affects some of the products that I have reviewed on this blog, namely my two highest-rated (by dollar value) whiskies: Pappy van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year old Bourbon and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye (VWFRR).

The distilled spirits industry  has a long history rife with creative marketing half-truths, made up stories and bald-faced lies. Chuck Cowdery has written extensively about some of these practices both on his blog and in his book Bourbon, Straight. The label on a bottle of American whiskey tells you few things definitively about the booze in your bottle; Bourbon and rye whiskey must be aged in first-fill charred American oak barrels. A straight bourbon or rye must be aged for at least two years, but if aged for less than four years, the label must account for the length of time the whiskey has spent in barrel. A straight bourbon or rye aged for more than four years need not supply any age statement, and an age stated bottle cannot contain any whiskey younger than the stated age. There are other rules having to do with proof in distilling, aging and bottling, but we need not get into that right now.

There are no rules about stating where the whiskey is distilled, with two caveats: 1) Whiskey that is Bottled in Bond (BiB) must list the distillery where it was made by its DSP (Distilled Spirits Plant) number, and all the juice in the bottle must be from barrels that were filled in the same season. 2) Unless the whiskey was distilled in a state other than where it was bottled, only the location of the bottling need be mentioned.

Unless a label specifies that the whiskey in the bottle is from a single barrel, you can bet that you are drinking a whiskey blended from many, many different barrels. At Chicago WhiskyFest the other week, I had a very enjoyable conversation with the proprietor of High West, David Perkins. As I mentioned in my review for High West’s 16-year old straight rye, Mr. Perkins’ first product was Rendezvous Rye, a blend of two straight ryes of different ages and made from two separate mashbills (he has since released a number of other blended American straight whiskies). I expressed my admiration for his products and congratulated him for being the only blender of American straight whiskies. He accepted my compliment, but also humbly acknowledged that all American whiskey producers are blenders. I specified further that he was the only one who was blending straight whiskies from separate distilleries, to which he acceded, but what he said stuck with me, because it emphasizes a fact that I rarely think of in such terms.

I bought the bottle of Pappy 20 that I drank and wrote about in my review in the Fall of 2010, and its bottle code indicates it was bottled in 2009. (See this blog post by Sku for a rundown of BT bottle codes accurate before a recent 2012 change in bottle coding at BT.) One of Mr. Wheatley’s statements was that Pappy 20 is or is partly made up of BT distillate. This goes against the general consensus that, unlike Pappy 15, 100% of the bourbon in Pappy 20 was distilled at the legendary Stitzel-Weller (S-W) distillery. I have an open bottle of Pappy 20 with a bottle code indicating it was bottled in 2011, and it is markedly inferior to the 2009 bottle I reviewed on the blog. Before I read about Mr. Wheatley’s conversation, I had assumed that the 2011 vintage  just wasn’t as good as the 2009, but I have revisited my more recent open bottle since learning that the master distiller at BT is under the impression that Pappy 20 is at least part BT distillate, and with that information in mind, I can taste  a definite family resemblance to the 2011 William Larue Weller (WLW) and the Pappy 15 that I reviewed in these pages. My score of the bottle I reviewed stands, but it’s clear that the label itself rarely tells the whole story.

In my review of the VWFRR, I stated that the whiskey in my bottle was distilled in the mid-80’s at what was once the Medley Distillery in Owensboro, KY, and put into stainless steel tanks at an approximate age of 19 years. According to Mr. Wheatley, however, I was drinking BT distillate. Having been made privy to his offhand remarks, my current assumption is that my bottle contained a blend of the 80’s-era distillate, and a 13-year old rye distilled at BT.

My write-up on the VWFRR contains anecdotal evidence that the quality of contents behind the label changed between 2010 and 2011. I referred to a previous bottle of VWFRR I had acquired and drank that was very disappointing when I drank it, and an obvious dud when compared to the bottle I reviewed. If my 2010 bottle was typical of the whiskey released under the label that year, and the 2011 bottling changed things up by blending in some 13-year old BT rye whiskey, then things are looking up and we can expect great things from the label to continue.

The pursuit of these kinds of details can at once be extremely frustrating for the American whiskey enthusiast, while also being part of the fun. Knowing the history, understanding the time and place behind the whiskey in my glass enhances my enjoyment of it, and can’t help but have an effect, generally, on how I process the taste. For a conscientious drinker, a lie exposed may feel worse than a truth omitted; nevertheless, it’s only fair to keep in mind the rules that govern the industry in which we play.

Unless Mr. Wheatley was blowing smoke just for the sake of it, I was wrong when I called out David Perkins as the only person blending American straight whiskies from different distilleries.

High West 16-year old Rocky Mountain Rye

•March 22, 2012 • 2 Comments

Opened: January 7, 2012
92 proof (46% ABV)
Price: $89.99
[*Kentucky] Straight Rye Whiskey – 16 years old
Bottler: High West Distillery
Tasting Date: March 21, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Rusty golden copper. Cloudy.

Nose: Freshly baked banana bread. Mint-strawberry bramble, sweet fruit jelly. Thick and gooey alcohol wax. Banana leaf and custard.

Taste: Soft, sweet entry turns to a bracing spice on the palate. There’s a sweet, stinging, almost dill-like bitterness encasing a custardy ginger spice. The finish is a tame, yet fiery red hot cinnamon that leaves a round vanilla after-taste. Beyond the aggressive spice, there’s plenty of warm, cherry-infused vanilla custard to chew on.

This is a contradictory rye: delicate but packing bold flavors, a full body, and remarkable spice kick considering its proof. The toned down proof softens the whiskey’s impact while the non-chill filtering leaves a healthy mouthfeel fit to chew on. It’s a unique whiskey that shows a lot of finesse. It’s too bad that I can only guess at what this may have tasted like straight out of the barrel; for another $10 or $15 I would have loved to find out. $90 is a lot to ask for an American whiskey, and most bottles in that price range are bottled at cask strength. As unique and “rare” as it might be, $90 remains a bitter pill.

Value: $84/$90

High West runs an active distillery, but having only been in existence since 2007, its own young distillate makes up only a minority portion of the company’s offerings. As dutifully noted on the bottle’s label, this 16-year old Rocky Mountain Rye (RMR16) comes from a mash of 80% rye grain, 10% corn and 10% barley malt. The label also mentions that the whiskey was found “quietly aging in a Kentucky warehouse,” though it does not specify who owned the warehouse or, more importantly, where the whiskey in the barrels was distilled. To the best of my knowledge, it was distilled at Barton, AKA Barton 1792 Distillery, AKA Tom Moore Distillery. It’s the same place that makes Very Old Barton (VOB) and 1792 Ridgemont bourbons. As the label states, “[t]hese incredible whiskeys were destined for blending into Canadian Whiskey… until we sipped them.”

Most companies that bottle sourced whiskey do not disclose in such detail the mashbill or origin of their juice, so for this High West should be praised. The first product High West sold when it burst on the scene in 2008 was called Rendezvous Rye, and it used this same 16-year old whiskey as a component in that blend. Unlike the current Sazerac 18-year old and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, which were distilled in the 80’s and put into stainless steel barrels, RMR16 would have been distilled in 1991 or 1992 for the use in a Canadian whiskey. I don’t know if it was meant to age for 16 years when it was distilled or if it sat around the warehouse absentmindedly waiting to be bought, but High West has a particularly romantic – not to mention truthful – story to tell in the rescue of this rye, and it’s refreshing to see a bottler market their product with such industrial straight talk.

I picked up and reviewed this whiskey in accordance with my fascination in the aged ryes disappearing from today’s marketplace. In addition, I am a fan of the VOB BiB flavor profile, so when I found out the source of some of High West’s whiskies was the Barton Distillery, my curiosity finally won out. It’s another whiskey going the way of the dodo that was distilled when the American whiskey industry was still treading water in the wake of a calamitous market share depression. The next crop of aged ryes we see will have been made during a new era of production, so I feel compelled to educate myself on flavor profiles that will likely not be duplicated.

Man, education tastes good!

*High West Distillery, located in Park City, Utah, prefers not to call attention to the state of Kentucky on the front of their label. As this is a straight rye distilled in Kentucky, however, it is a Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey.

Sazerac 18 year old Straight Rye – 2011 Release

•March 12, 2012 • 2 Comments

Opened: February 12, 2012
90 proof (45% ABV)
Price: $79.99
Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey – 18 years old
Distiller: Buffalo Trace Distillery
Tasting Date: March 7, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Bright orange, yellowy brown.

Nose: Cherry soda, Dr. Pepper, mint leaves, waxy wood resin, citrus rind.

Taste: The entry is spicy with cinnamon fireball, followed by a palate full of black pepper, cloves and walnut. Hot, sweet, vaguely minty medicine comes through on a long, sticky finish.

The spices hit the tongue up front while woodsy, medicinally sweet bubble gum hits the upper palate. There is a sparkling of dark spices throughout the taste: pepper, clove, cinnamon, allspice, a lot of hot earthy flavors, like an autumn forest floor covered with fallen leaves, only a sweet, corny tang replaces any bitterness associated with such an image. Wood brings weight, but can also be found relating to some of the lighter notes, like a thin tree-branch slightly shaved.

This rye is very 3-dimensional, often veering in different directions simultaneously. At times, the intense spice can threaten to blot out some of the immense complexity this whiskey holds, but careful tasting reveals a balanced trade-off of influences. There’s a lot to investigate here, a lot of nooks and crannies to indulge in.

Value: $99/$80

The Sazerac 18 year rye (Saz18) is one of the two straight rye whiskies that are part of the annually released Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC). As may already be understood, a straight whiskey with an age statement is legally obligated to include no whiskey younger than the stated age, but can include any whiskey aged to an older year. The fact sheet that Buffalo Trace (BT) makes available for each BTAC release states that the whiskey was distilled in the Spring of 1985 by the Buffalo Trace Distillery. The site of what is now BT has changed hands many times over the years, and as best I can ascertain in my research, the whiskey in my bottle was distilled at what is now BT under contract in 1985 for a separate spirits company and was sold back to BT around 1998.

By that logic, the whiskey would have turned 18 in 2003. It seems that somewhere around ’03 to ’05, BT put their intended future Saz18 stock in stainless steel containers so as to curb the wood influence, and they have been slowly bottling their dwindling supply, rationing it out so that they can continue to release the label annually until a new crop of 18 year old rye is ready for bottling. As far as I can tell, the new crop of rye destined for Saz18 was distilled by the current owners in around 1997 or thereabouts. If this information is correct, the Saz18 fact sheet should remain consistent in displaying a distillation year of 1985 until the 2015 BTAC release.

The Saz18 is another example, like the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, of an aged rye quickly going the way of the dodo. I don’t know what we can expect when the new crops of older rye (and bourbon for that matter) start appearing on shelves in the next decade, but I don’t doubt for a second that they will taste different from the juice that currently fills their labels. Stock up while you can.

Eagle Rare 17 year old – 2011 Release

•March 4, 2012 • 4 Comments

Opened: January 5, 2012
90 proof (45% ABV)
Price: $74.99
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – 17 years old
Producer-distiller: Buffalo Trace
Tasting Date: February 20, 2012

Color in glencairn glass: Uniform copper orange.

Nose: Sweet corn, wood varnish, vanilla orange rind.

Taste: The entry is more bitter than sweet. A fair amount of wood comes through on the palate, with semi-tart orange candy. The finish brings dusty leather, caramelized fruit sugar and clove spice.

This bourbon comes off as highly polished on the outside with earthy saddle-bag leather notes underneath. It sustains a nice spice for only being 90 proof, and it finishes strong. The entry is rather harmless, the palate shows an almost droopy age lifted by citrus candy notes, and the finish exceeds all other aspect of the whiskey with well-balanced wood, leather and syrup, extended by warming spices.

Value: $62/$75

As part of the annually released Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC), Eagle Rare 17 (ER17) is a bit of an outlier. Unlike the chill-filtered, 90 proof ER17, the other bourbons in the collection (George T. Stagg and William Larue Weller) are each unfiltered and barrel proof. Rounding out the BTAC are the unfiltered, barrel proof Thomas H. Handy Rye and the Sazerac 18 year old Rye, the only other offering that is both chill-filtered and cut to 90 proof.

When considering the value of a whiskey, it’s important to keep in mind that a barrel proof offering will typically offer up more tastes for its price. This is simply because most barrel proof whiskies improve with water, and the volume drank will increase when you add water. For instance, using this calculator, we see that in order to dilute the cask strength 2011 William Larue Weller from its bottling proof of 133.5 to the same 90 proof of the ER17, we would have to add 362.5 ml to a 750 ml bottle, upping the total volume to over a liter.

More, of course, does not mean better. The ER17 gets short shrift in comparison to the other four members of the BTAC. I think it’s a very polished, well-aged whiskey that should be evaluated on its own merits.

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.