Wednesday, July 30, 2014

More on the Complete List of Distilleries and Brands

I have a lot of new readers thanks to Eric Felton's excellent article in the Daily Beast about sourcing whiskey which kindly cited my blog and flatteringly quoted me along side such luminaries as Chuck Cowdery and Clay Risen.  Felton's article was one of the best pieces on sourcing whiskey that I've seen in a mainstream (i.e. non-whiskey) publication, and anyone who hasn't seen it (if there is anyone in that category by now) should check it out.

One result of the article is that I've received a lot of emails about my Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands, which Felton mentions.  As per usual internet practice, some have been very kind, some have been very snide and many have been in between.  As a result of all of this attention being paid to the list, I thought I'd clarify a few things.

It's Not Perfect

My list is something I do in my spare time for no compensation whatsoever.  I try my hardest to be accurate and do a tremendous amount of research on my listings, but it's still a daunting amount of information and there are bound to be some errors (and if you see one, please let me know).  Calling it a "complete list" may be more aspirational than accurate, but I'm pretty confident that it's the best list of its type out there...heck, if I found a better one, I'd gladly retire and stop spending my late nights and early weekend mornings looking at the TTB database and searching distillery websites for information.

I Love Hearing from Whiskey Makers

I always appreciate hearing from producers about their products and upcoming projects.  For instance, after the Daily Beast article came out, Arizona Distilling contacted me to let me know that while they did use MGP whiskey for their first release of Copper City Bourbon, their next release will be their own distillate.  Keeping the list up to date is much easier when I hear first hand from the folks making the whiskey.

Where do I Find the Information About Which Whiskey is Made by the Company Selling it?

I covered this topic in a recent post on How Do You Know It's Sourced Whiskey.

The List is Only About Whiskey

The title of the list is "The Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands," but you would be surprised how many emails I get saying I forgot a distillery that makes great rum or to please include our distillery that makes absinthe.  I would love to cover the entire world of American distilling, but whiskey is what I'm interested in, and it's quite enough work to cover just whiskey.  I honestly don't think I'd have the time or energy to include all of the distilleries and bottlers making brandy, vodka, rum, chestnut liqueur and whatever else is being made out there.  Sorry vodka makers.

The List is Hard to Use

I'm perfectly aware that the list could be more user friendly, and I apologize, but I'm a lawyer, not a programmer.  With the help of a good samaritan, it did get an update recently that allows for better navigation, but until it gets bought by Facebook or Google for $16 billion, you'll have to settle for that.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Glenmorangie Companta

Companta is the fifth and newest release in Glenmorangie's Private Edition. The whisky was aged in American oak and then finished in various wine and fortified wine casks.  It's non-age stated and non-chill filtered.

Glenmorangie Companta, 46% abv ($100)

The nose is malty with orange rind, brandy notes and lots of fruit.  The palate is fairly straightforward and malty with a touch of honey and a bit of acid; the acid grows toward the end getting a bit astringent.  The finish has red wine notes and some sherry type notes on the nose but the astringency stays with you.

I'm not a huge fan of this malt.  The nose is very nice, but it's overly astringent and the wine notes aren't integrated well into the malt.  I much prefer last year's Ealanta release, which, based on repeated tastings, I've grown to like even more than I did in my initial review.

Thanks to My Annoying Opinions for the sample, and check out his somewhat more favorable review of the Glenmorangie Companta.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

One Man's Bourbon: The Legend of Van Blankle

As I wrote last week, things were a lot different in the bourbon world just a few years ago. You could buy plenty of stuff off the shelf that you can't find now, including Van Winkle whiskeys.  What's more extraordinary, the Van Winkles even did private bottlings, for retailers, clubs and even for an individual.  One of the most legendary Van Winkle private bottlings was a Van Winkle 12 year old Lot B bottled for Randy Blank, popularly known as "Van Blankle."

Randy Blank had been a fan of Stitzel-Weller bourbon since 1982, when he served Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond at his wedding. In 2004, Randy emailed Julian Van Winkle with the idea of doing a private bottling. To that point, the Van Winkles had done bottlings for retailers and bars, but never for an individual. Randy originally asked about a barrel of Old Rip Van Winkle 10/107, but by that time, the ten year old was no longer 100% Stitzel-Weller bourbon, so instead, he went for the 12 year old Lot B.

So it was that in August of 2004, Randy headed to the Buffalo Trace distillery to select his now legendary barrel. He met with Julian Van winkle and sampled from five different barrels of Stitzel-Weller bourbon that had been distilled in March 1992. Since he planned to give a lot of the bourbon away, he was going for an approachable profile and zeroed in on the barrel he thought was "smoother and lighter" than the others. The bourbon was bottled in September of 2004 and yielded 17 cases, many of which Randy gave away to friends and charity auctions. The barrel cost $7,000 which averaged out to a paltry $33 per bottle. The reviews were glowing, often comparing the whiskey to Cognac with its soft, sweet notes. There are only a handful of bottles left, mostly in the possession of Randy and his relatives.  It may not be something most people will be able to try, but if I was going to sample it, I thought it was worth leaving a written record.

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year old Lot B (Van Blankle), 45.2% abv

The nose is old dusty bourbon with some medicinal notes. The palate is initially sweet with candy notes, then savory in that distinctly Van Winkle way, fading to slightly medicinal note and a finish with a nice balance of wood and spice.

This is an understated, really wonderful bourbon with a good balance of sweet and spice.  It's very well balanced, and I can certainly see what Randy was thinking when he tapped it as a people-pleaser; the initial sweetness, the spice and the touch of medicinal, savory notes, make it approachable and fun but also complex and interesting.  It's a beautiful composition and is far better than any bottle of the 12 year old Lot B I've tasted.  This one is legendary for a reason.

Many, many, many thanks to Randy for the sample and photos.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Brandy Law

I've spent a lot of time (and I mean a silly amount of time) reviewing and discussing the TTB's whiskey regulations, and I've also posted about the regional requirements for Cognac and Armagnac, but I've never delved into the American regulations covering brandy, which include some interesting stuff, so here's a summary.

Brandy is defined by American regulations as "an alcoholic distillate from the fermented juice, mash, or wine of fruit, or from the residue thereof."  Like whiskey, it must be produced at less than 190 proof and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. 27 CFR § 5.22 (d).

If the brandy is made from grapes it is "grape brandy" or just "brandy." If it's an aged brandy that's aged in oak for less than two years, it has to be labeled "immature." brandy (I'd sort of like to see that one apply to whiskey). 27 CFR § 5.22 (d)(1).

A brandy made from one type of fruit other than grapes must be labeled with the name of the fruit (e.g. "peach brandy"), except that apple brandy can be called "applejack."  If a fruit brandy is made with more than one type of fruit, then it's "fruit brandy," but must also include "a truthful and adequate statement of composition."  27 CFR § 5.22 (d)(1).

Those are the basics, but there are lots of other brandy types that are defined, including dried fruit brandy, lees brandy, pomace brandy and many more, but those are fairly obscure categories. My favorite is "substandard brandy" which includes "any brandy which has been distilled from unsound, moldy, diseased, or decomposed juice, mash, wine, lees, pomace, or residue."  Yum!

While there are lots of different brandies, the regulations for it are much looser than whiskey.  For instance, brandy can include caramel coloring and treatment with oak chips (a common additive) without disclosing it on the label. 27 CFR § 5.39.

That's a starter for you.  I will delve into the regulations in more detail in the future.

Friday, July 18, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Michter's, Chichibu and Kavalan

Michter's cleared a label for a toasted barrel finish bourbon.  Per the label, "After full maturation in a hand-selected, charred white oak barrel, we finish our US*1 Bourbon in a new uncharred barrel that has been toasted to our exacting specifications." 

A label cleared for Chichibu On the Way.  According to the blurb at The Whisky Exchange, this bottling is "a multi-vintage vatting of whisky distilled at various times since they opened in 2008, including some of their oldest, five year old whisky. The whiskies that went in to this started their lives in bourbon casks but have all been finished in mizunara, Japanese oak."

Kavalan, the Taiwanese single malt which was recently released in the US, cleared a label for a peated whiskey.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Throwback Wednesday: Shopping for BTAC in 2007

I started this blog in 2007 while we were still at the tail end of the Golden Age of American Whiskey. Going through some old posts, I was struck by how different the whiskey world was just a few years ago. It's funny to think that many whiskey geeks considered the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (particularly Stagg and Weller) much more desirable than the Van Winkle whiskeys.  At that time, it was still pretty easy to find the Van Winkles; most good liquor stores had a Pappy or two and the 12 year old Lot B was downright plentiful.  By 2007, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection had become a bit harder to find than it had been a few years earlier, but with a little bit of effort, you could find a few bottles even months after its release.

In December 2007, I posted about a new liquor store in town known as K&L.  (This was before the Davids took over as spirits buyers; back then I think those guys were doing Jager shots at college parties or something).  I noticed that this place had a pretty decent booze selection, including the entire lineup of December...for $55 to $65 per bottle.  Nowadays, of course, these whiskeys don't sit on the shelf for more than ten minutes after they're released, if they get to the shelf at all, and they go for $80 to $150 at retail.

Three years later, I was writing about how there was starting to be some frenzy-like behavior around the annual Buffalo Trace Antique Collection release but admonishing readers to take a deep breath and not worry, because with a little bit of searching, they would find the whiskeys.  Reading it now, it sounds like the beginning of a zombie movie ("News reports of a woman eating her grandchildren have startled local residents, but the government has counseled people to stay calm and has said this was merely an isolated incident.")  We all know now that those were just the early signs of the current bourbon apocalypse. 

It's amazing how much the whiskey world has changed in less than a decade. Do you remember the "good old days"?  What's your favorite memory?

Monday, July 14, 2014

The New Willett Rye

Probably no American distillery's first release has been greeted with as much anticipation as the new Willett Rye. The Willett label, of course, is widely known and loved among whiskey fans for its high quality bourbon and rye, but up until now, all of its bottlings for the last forty or so years have been sourced whiskeys (the original Willett distillery stopped making whiskey in the 1970s).

But in 2012, after years of slowly rebuilding, the Willetts (now the Kulsveens by marriage) reopened the distillery.  Now, the first product of that distillery is out, a two year old straight rye whiskey. The bottle is pretty much identical to other Willett Family Estate bottles except that the back label includes the key words: "Distilled, Aged and Bottled by The Willett Distillery."

Two years old is young for a whiskey, but not for a craft whiskey, so kudos to the Willetts for letting this age a little bit before releasing it.  Let's see how it is.

Willett Rye, 2 yo, 54.7% ($44)

The nose has really nice rye notes with pickle juice and caraway; it's nice and spicy but with a touch of sweetness.  The palate has a promising start with a nice sweet and spicy balance. Toward mid palate it shows its youth with some medicinal notes; they aren't exactly new makey, but they are the sort of medicinal, raw wood notes typical of very young whiskeys; those notes are pretty fleeting though. The finish is back to that sweet/spicy balance with just a hint of the medicinal notes. Adding water isn't a good idea; it makes it taste like a low end Canadian blend. 

This was surprisingly good and balanced for a two year old whiskey.  That being said, it's still two years old.  It's not bad at all, and it's great to see what the Willetts are up to, but it lacks maturity and still has that young whiskey rawness.  This whiskey has huge potential, and I'll be very enthusiastic to try this at four or six years old.  With more age, it could definitely be great.  For now, it's worth a try, but I'd recommend trying a glass rather than investing in a whole bottle.

For a more enthusiastic review, check out the always entertaining BourbonTruth who liked it a bit more than I did and includes some good insider information.

UPDATE:  There are two batches of this rye that have been released so far.  The one shown and another at 54.05% abv.  According to Drew Kulsveen at Willett, both batches are made from the same blend of two rye mashbills (about 80% high rye - 74% rye, 11% corn, 15% malted barley to 20% low rye - 51% rye, 34% corn, 15% malted barley) so the composition should be the same even if the proof is slightly different.