Monday, March 2, 2015

New K&L Scotch: Hepburn's Choice

Last week, K&L got in 14 new private barrel Scotches from the Hunter and Douglas Laing bottlers.   This week, I'll be reviewing the whole lineup, along with some bonus reviews of their new rums.

First up is a series of  cask strength single malts bottled in 2014 under the Hunter Laing Hepburn's Choice label.

Caol Ila 5 yo, Hepburn's Choice, distilled 2008, 61.1% abv ($50)

The nose, not surprisingly, is young, peated malt.  The palate is very sweet with lots of peat.  There's a slight bitterness late in the palate and into the finish which counteracts the sweetness, and it finishes with lots of nice peat on the nose.  It's five year old Caol Ila, and that's exactly what it tastes like.

Mortlach 7 yo, Hepburn's Choice, distilled 2007, 58% abv ($50)

The nose is perfumy and floral.  The palate opens with a bit of those floral notes but they are quickly replaced by a nice, sweet maltiness.  The finish is dry with just a trace of sweet malt and some floral notes on the nose.  This one is nicely composed though the nose was a bit too floral for me.

Tobermory Smoky & Peaty 8 yo, Hepburn's Choice, distilled 2004, 60.7% abv ($60)

The Tobermory Smoky & Peaty is peated whisky that would have gone into Tobermory's Ledaig label. On the nose there are the tequila like notes you get with young peat.  The palate is similarly brash with young peat and some acidic notes that last into the peaty finish.  This one tastes quite young (tasting blind I probably would have guessed it was younger than eight years), but it's fun and bold.

Bowmore 12 yo, Hepburn's Choice, distilled 2001, 58.4% abv ($80)

I'm liking this nose with peat and motor oil, like an old garage.  The palate follows suit with thick, fuely peat; then there's a sweet note, maybe some chocolate, maybe some dessert wine, that sticks to the roof of your mouth while the rest of your mouth is still finished in peat.  This one's a winner, bold but balanced.

Craigellachie 18 yo, Hepburn's Choice, distilled 1995, 54.3% abv ($100)

The nose has sherry and a very light sulfur note along with some coastal breeze.  On the palate there is sweet sherry and a small dose of sulfur which grows into the finish; after a few seconds the finish turns metallic, though not in a bad way, and then a bit salty.  I like how this one transitions from quite sweet to more funky.  

Miltonduff 19 yo, Hepburn's Choice, distilled 1995, 50.4% abv ($100)

This has a nice malty nose, crisp and clean with some grape juice. The palate follows suit with sweet malt notes and a light fruitiness.  It's a straight forward malt; the kind you can drink anytime.

All of these are solid malts.  My favorite was definitely the Bowmore followed by the Craigellachie.  My least favorite was probably the Mortlach which was just a bit too floral for my tastes, though it was still perfectly decent.

Josh at The Whiskey Jug, my February Blog of the Month, is also reviewing the new K&Ls with somewhat different results, so you should check out his opinions on these bottles as well.

Tomorrow: K&L's Douglas Laing Scotch Bottlings

Thanks to David Othenin-Girard for the samples.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blog of the Month: The Whiskey Jug

This month's Blog of the Month is the Whiskey Jug.  The Whisky Jug started back in 2010 but really got going in 2013.  LA whiskey lover Josh Peters is a tireless taster, posting new reviews nearly every weekday. Josh tastes the entire spectrum of whiskey and his reviews are concise and to the point. Every whiskey gets both a number and letter grade and reviews are accompanied by his stylized photos which are much more interesting than the typical generic bottle pix. I also really like that most of the whiskeys he reviews are both accessible and affordable. As a bonus, he also has guest posts from the very knowledgeable LA whiskey distributor Chris Uhde.

Check it out!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Stupid Pappy Questions

As you all know, Pappy Van Winkle is officially the best bourbon in the world, and...oh, you didn't know that?  Well, it is. It's been declared that by a bunch of very media savvy celebrity chefs, a whole squad of "journalists" and ten thousand internet lists that may or may not have been composed by robots, and we all know how smart robots are...especially about bourbon. Anyway, it's obvious.  You can't find a bottle of Pappy anywhere, so it must be the best.  Even the reliably unexciting 12 and 10 year old Van Winkle bourbons are nowhere to be found.  Pappy has become something like the unholy offspring of Johnnie Walker Blue and a particularly rare Beanie Baby.  It's created an insatiable thirst; well, I shouldn't say thirst, since no one seems to actually drink the stuff but an insatiable desire in everyone from bourbon lovers to folks who wouldn't know E.H. Taylor from Taylor Swift.

In some ways, it's good that Pappy has been officially recognized as the world's best bourbon.  It takes the pressure off folks like me because I know that no one in the general public will pay much attention to my reviews unless I'm talking about Pappy (unless I say something bad about Old Forester Birthday Bourbon - which is apparently a crime punishable by virtual stoning).  It also makes it easy for retailers to sell the stuff they actually have because instead of talking about what it tastes like, they can just say it's like Pappy Van Winkle or, better yet, it beat Pappy in some random tasting. I'm waiting for a new whiskey blogger to rate bourbon on a scale of one to five bottles of Pappy.

But there's a downside as well.  Because many of these new purchasers of Pappy know nothing about bourbon, they have generated a lot of questions.  I get them by email and see them all over the place on-line. They tend to be very detailed questions not about the bourbon or its history, but about the label or its possible value.  While my usual rule is that there are no stupid questions, I fear that when it comes to Pappy, there are no smart ones.  As a service to the new owner of a bottle of Pappy and to save us all a lot of time, I thought I would answer a few of the most common questions right here:

  • The label on my Pappy 15 is slightly askew, does this mean anything?
  • The fill level on my Pappy 20 is higher than on my Pappy 23, what gives?
  • My Pappy has a slightly off white color on the back label.  What does that mean?

This is a category of questions that I call "Is my bottle worth a million dollars?" since that's usually the subtext of the question.  And no, I'm sorry to inform you that your slightly skewed label is not some secret code that this bottle was filled with some superior liquid. Variances in bottling and labeling happen and don't generally improve the quality of the bourbon. However, given the Pappy hype, you probably can sell it to some idiot for a premium if you say it's the special "skewed label" bottle.  Good luck!

  • My bottle doesn't have a laser code.  How can I find out how old it is?

Years ago, I posted a guide to deciphering Pappy Van Winkle bottle codes.  If you can't find a bottle code on your bottle, that means one of three things: (1) it's from before 2007 when they started printing the bottle codes; (2) you aren't looking hard enough (it can be very hard to see against the dark liquid and sometimes hides under the label); or (3) the shyster who you bought the bottle from used a sophisticated method (e.g. Windex and a paper towel) to remove the bottle code and convince you that it was a really old bottle and possibly worth a million dollars.

  • Can you tell me if this bottle is from 2005 or 2006?

Really?  You need to know the exact date of the bottle?  Why?  No, really, why?  I see this type of question all the time and I can't imagine why it matters. There's really not much difference between a 2005 and 2006 bottling in terms of the whiskey. Given that the Van Winkles sometimes bottled enough for more than one release at a time, it might even be the exact same stuff.  Yet still they ask and in great numbers.

I repeat this a lot, but no one seems to want to hear it.  There's no great way to date a bottle from the mid-2000s.  As I noted on my Pappy Van Winkle Timeline, we know that the address on the label changed from Lawerenceburg to Frankfort in 2002 and that the Pappy 15 year old was first released in 2004.  There weren't any significant changes between those dates and 2007 when they started putting the laser date codes on the bottle.  There were some very minor label changes in that period, but exact dates of when they happened are hard to come by.  The Van Winkles didn't keep track of that kind of thing, and as mentioned above, even if someone knows when they bought the bottle, it might not have been that year's release.  With those caveats, based on TTB data, the Old Rip Van Winkle website appears to have been added to the label around 2004, and some say that raised letters on the front label started appearing around 2006 (though I've never seen any confirmation of that date with reliable evidence).

  • Can you tell me where this bottle of Pappy was distilled?

Sure, that's an easy one. It was distilled at Stitzel-Weller...or Bernheim or Buffalo Trace or some combination of those, unless it's really old, in which case it might have been distilled at the Boone Distillery, which no one seems to know anything about but everyone agrees is amazing and probably worth a million dollars.

  • Do you want to buy my bottle of Pappy for a million dollars?

No, but I will trade you for my collection of rare armadillo Beanie Babies.

There you go, everything you wanted to know about Pappy but were afraid to ask.  You're welcome!

Friday, February 20, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Wild Turkey 17 and Tullamore Dew 15

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Wild Turkey cleared a label for Master's Keep, a 17 year old bourbon.

Tullamore Dew cleared a label for a 15 year old Irish blend.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Dusty Thursday: Antique Rye

Today's dusty is an eight year old bottle of Antique Rye, a Kentucky rye that was distilled in 1932, toward the end of prohibition, and bottled in 1940.  It's bottled in bond so we know that it was distilled at the Jefferson County Distillery which was owned by Frankfort Distilleries at that time.  Frankfort Distilleries owned distilleries in both Kentucky and Maryland and produced whiskey under a number of labels, including Four Roses.  The company was purchased by Seagram's in the late 1940s.

I couldn't find any record of a Jefferson County Distillery, but Frankfort Distilleries did own an interest in a distillery in Jefferson County which it used to distill medicinal whiskey during prohibition:  The A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Louisville.  Based on that history, this rye was likely distilled at the Stitzel Distillery.

Antique Rye, 8 yo, distilled Fall 1932, bottled Fall 1940, 50% abv

The nose has lots of rye and those great old sandalwood notes that old ryes tend to have.  It then develops some perfume notes.  The first thing you get on the palate is rye spice, then a very medicinal, spicy note, and then it just cascades.  This is like eating Oaxacan black mole in that it's so densely flavored that you need to concentrate to pick out individual notes. There's clove, unsweetened cocoa, Zinfandel, black licorice...all kinds of stuff.  It trails off with the medicinal notes which initially leave you with a bitter, medicinal finish. Over the course of the very long finish, though, the bitterness fades and leaves a nice spicy note.

I love the complexity of this rye, but the medicinal notes in the late palate and early finish were a bit strong for me.  Still, it's a fun taste of the last years of prohibition.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Taos Lightning: 17 year old MGP Rye

Today I try two 17 year old MGP rye whiskeys bottled by KGB spirits in New Mexico under the Taos Lightning label for K&L.  After being purchased by KGB, the whiskey aged for six years in Santa Fe.  The 6,000 foot altitude and dry atmosphere of Santa Fe is quite a contrast to Indiana, so it will be interesting to see what they are like. Both bottles were distilled in July 1997 and bottled on October 25, 2014.  They are cask strength at 45% abv.

Taos Lightning Rye Cask 15, 17 yo 45% abv ($110)

The nose immediately gives this away as MGP.  Huge rye with some pickle juice. On the palate it's got strong rye with some brown sugar notes to balance it out; it even has a touch of the sandalwood notes you get in prohibition era ryes.  It tastes strong for the proof.  The finish is very nice burnt sugar with rye.  

This is really nice stuff, certainly identifiable as MGP but more complex and balanced than younger MGPs.  I would definitely say this is one of the stronger ryes on the market right now. 

Taos Lightning Rye Cask 16, 17 yo, 45% abv ($110)

The nose on this one is lighter than the 15 and has some added fruit notes.  I get pineapple.  The palate is also lighter than the 15 and much fruitier.  It has plenty of rye notes but it has banana liqueur, black tea and trails off with medicinal notes.  Where 15 is strong for its abv, this one tastes weak. The finish is slightly medicinal with rye notes.  This is decent but nowhere near as interesting and bold as the 15. It's a much lighter, fruitier profile.

It's always interesting to taste similarly situated barrels like these and see what kind of differences there are.  These were quite different.  Cask 15 was a very good, traditional MGP rye, bold and flavorful.  Cask 16 had a very different, much lighter profile.  For me, Cask 15 is a clear winner here; unfortunately, it appears to be sold out.  I guess I have to try to get to these reviews faster.

Friday, February 13, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Cask Strength Peat Monster, Very Olde St. Nick and More

This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Compass Box cleared a label for a cask strength version of their Peat Monster blended malt.

Very Olde St. Nick is a legendary American whiskey brand that was made for export to Japan.  This week, Frank-Lin, a California based bottler, cleared labels for three different expressions of Very Olde St. Nick bourbon: a no age statement Kentucky bourbon, a barrel proof no age statement Kentucky bourbon and an 8 year old bourbon with no state of origin listed.

Michter's cleared a label for a barrel proof rye.  It is a straight Kentucky rye with no age statement.

And Longhorn Whiskey from North Texas Distillers may win the award for worst slogan ever:  "As smooth as this horn is long."  Er, what?

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.