Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Very Olde St. Nick Bourbons

Earlier this week I posted reviews of the Very Olde St. Nick Rye Whiskeys from the recent Southern California Whiskey Club tasting.  Today, I'll review the bourbons.

Very Olde St. Nick 8 year old, 45% abv

The nose is sweet and slightly soapy. The palate is much more complex then the nose with some savory notes and orange rind and the finish is mild and not too sweet.  This is a beefy bourbon which is nicely balanced and not overly sweet. Very nice.

Very Olde St. Nick Cask Lot No. 15, 53.5% abv

The nose on this one is sweet with banana candy. The banana continues on the palate with a very sweet, liquid candy type of taste.  The profile is in the Evan Williams family.  The finish has some cinnamon.  This one was fine but nothing special.

Very Olde St. Nick 19 year old, 47% abv

The nose has heavy rye notes and caramel.  The palate has some dark caramel notes without being too sweet, then some spice which continues into a peppery finish.  This one was great with a great balance of sweetness and spice.

Very Olde St. Nick 22 year old, 40.6% abv

The nose is spicy in an Armagnac like way with some wine notes.  The palate is sweet with milk chocolate and the finish is very sweet.  This one started with a very complex nose, but then got simpler and simpler. It's good but I was disappointed that the spice on the nose didn't show through more on the palate and finish to counter the sweetness.

Very Olde St. Nick 23 year old, 40.6% abv

The nose is sweet with some oak providing  nice balance. The palate has sweet iced tea with a slight spice infusion. The finish is mild.  This is one of those "smooth" bourbons; it's very easy to drink and fun.

Very Olde St. Nick 24 year old, 40.6% abv

This has a very light nose.  The palate is very straight forward with sweetness and baking spices.  There's a surprising lack of oak for its age.  The finish is vanilla ice cream.  This another easy drinker.


The 19 year old was easily my favorite of the bunch and that seemed to be the consensus of the tasting.  The 8 year old was my second favorite, though it wasn't as popular with the other tasters.  All of these were good and worth trying, though the Lot 15 was probably my least favorite.

Thanks to the Southern California Whiskey Club for holding these excellent tastings.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Very Olde St. Nick Rye Whiskeys

Thanks to the Southern California Whiskey Club, I've been able to sample the full line of Very Olde St. Nick bourbons and ryes over the past few months (and attend a really fun tasting).

Very Olde St. Nick was a line of American whiskeys made exclusively for the Japanese market by the a California company. There were a multitude of sources for the whiskeys.  Julian Van Winkle bottled some of the earlier editions, Kentucky Bourbon Distillers bottled the later ones and the the company went directly to Diageo to acquire bourbon stocks, including Stitzel-Weller.

With all of that action, it's tough to tell where the bourbons are from, and of course, they could be from multiple sources.  The ryes, based on their age and when they were released are mostly likely from the Medley and/or old Bernheim distilleries.

These are exceedingly hard to find, especially in the US, but there is a lot of interest around them, so I thought I would share my reviews.  I will start with the ryes, and later this week, I'll cover the bourbons.

Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye, 40%  abv

The nose has big, spicy rye notes with lots of sweetness and fruit cocktail.  The palate is light and fruity, very diluted tasting.  There is some spice at the very end which fades into the finish where it's met with sweetness.

This is pleasant enough with its sweet, fruity notes and a touch of spice, but it's lacking complexity and too weak.  Still, it's plenty drinkable.

Very Olde St. Nick 15 year old Ancient Rye, 43% abv

The nose is nice and spicy with sandalwood. The sandalwood spice continues on the palate combined with some rock candy sweetness. The sweetness is lightly present in the finish which is more dominated by spice. 

This one is nice and spicy with good balance. I wish it was higher proof because I would like more of those flavors, but it's good stuff.

Very Olde St. Nick 16 year old Rare Perfection Rye, 43% abv

The nose on this one is pure, old rye with lots of sandalwood spice.  It's really beautiful.  The palate is spicy with licorice and fruit.  It's got a lot going on and is a bit soapy.  The finish has muted spice, black licorice sticks and some soap.

This one is bold, and if it weren't for the soapy notes, it would be perfect, but the soap brings it down a few notches.

Very Olde St. Nick 17 year old Ancient Rye, 51.85% abv

This has a more muted nose than the younger VOSNs with hay and coastal notes.  It's almost more like a coastal Scotch. The palate has a sort of generic whiskey taste. It's not discernibly rye. There's some very muted spice, but it's mostly just a vague sweet, grain note.  The finish has candy and wood.

I wonder if this might be a different distillery than the younger ryes from this series. Either that or 17 years was just too long for this particular rye and the wood got the better of it. It's not bad. There are some light chocolate notes and some decent oak, but not much in the way of distinctive characteristics. While this one didn't do much for me, I should note that for many others, this was their favorite rye of the series.

Very Olde St. Nick 18 year old Ancient Rye, 52.3% abv

The nose has rye spice and oak.  The palate comes on very oaky and then has sweet baking spices.  The finish, again, is very woody.

This one is heavy on the oak but a nice whiskey.


These are all good whiskeys, though none of them were amazing.  They certainly share a lot of characteristics with those old Bernheim ryes, but none are anywhere near as good as the best of those that we saw in the US (Rathskeller, LeNell's, etc.).  My favorite of the bunch was probably the 16 year old, probably because it was the most similar in flavor profile to those great old ryes, but I also really liked the 15 and 18 year olds. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Compass Box, Jim Beam Bonded and More

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

Benromach cleared a label for a five year old whisky.

Springbank cleared a US label for a single cask bottling of the new 21 year old which was released in the UK earlier this year.  It was distilled in 1993 and aged in a rum cask. 

Cutty Sark cleared a label for a 33 year old listed as a limited edition of 3,456 bottles.

Compass Box issues a label for The Lost Blend, a blended malt intended to resemble their old Eleuthera blend.  It's comprised of malts from Clynelish, Caol Ila and Allt-a-Bhainne.

Jim Beam cleared a label for Jim Beam Bonded, a bottled in bond bourbon that has been available in Australia but not in the US.

In the annoying age statements department, I've long been perturbed at the proliferation of "less than __ year old" age statements on American whiskeys, but here's a new one.  South Carolina bottler Terressentia cleared a label for O.Z. Tyler Small Batch Reserve (Wow!  Small batch and reserve) Bourbon and Rye in which the front label says "aged less than two years" while the back label says, in much smaller print, "aged at least 6 mo."

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.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Retailer Bottlings

Retailer whiskey picks are big these days.  Whiskey companies allow retailers to select their own barrel of whiskey and the retailers can then advertise them as a special, one of a kind release.  But how different are retailer picks from the distillery standard offerings?  That will depend on the offering and the retailer. Sometimes, retailers can pick a single barrel of a product that is not usually single barrel; picks like that can have a substantially different flavor from the regular whiskey which is the product of many barrels blended together.  But what about a retailer pick of a single barrel product?

I recently participated in a blind tasting of eight bottles of Wild Turkey's Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon from various retailers as well as a regular non-retailer bottle.  The retailer bottles included three offerings from K&L in California, two from Liquor Barn, one from Westport Whiskey and one from Cox's Liquor Barrel, the latter three of which are in Kentucky. As with the standard offering, all of these were 55% abv.  The cost was similar to the regular edition and all were non age statement bourbons.

The result was that most of them were pretty similar.  I liked a few better than the standard offering and a few worse (and of course, the standard offering will vary from bottle to bottle, since it is a single barrel). None of them were bad, but many were boring and they ran too hot, even with water. Most of them had the same profile which I suppose is a credit to Wild Turkey in keeping them consistent; there was only one that was off the profile, with many more herbal notes.

My favorites of the nine was Barrel 24 from Westport Whiskey followed closely by Barrel 19 from K&L.  I've rated all of them on the LA Whiskey Society page. As you can see, the ratings all ranged from B- to B+.

What does this tell us about retailer picks?  Well, in this case, they weren't that different from each other or the standard offering.  At least in some cases, retailer bottlings may constitute a distinction without a difference.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Cut Spike: An American Scotch in Nebraska

Scotch style single malt is not only made in Scotland.  High quality single malts rivaling the best of Scotland have been made for years in Japan, and more recently, quality single malts have come to us from India and Taiwan, but not the US.

Why can't American distilleries make high quality single malts in the Scotch style?  Part of the answer is in our regulations. While Scotch style single malts are aged in used barrels, American malt whiskey, like bourbon and rye, is required to be aged in new, charred oak barrels.  The problem is that barley is much less bold than sweet corn or spicy rye, and its flavors tend to be buried by the new wood. Add to that the fact that Scotland (and most other jurisdictions making single malt) require three years of aging whereas the US has no minimum, and you can start to understand why most American malt whiskey tastes nothing like Scotch, even when the producers are trying to mimic it. (Americans could age malt in used barrels and call it "whiskey distilled from malt mash" but that designation somehow seems less appealing than "single malt whiskey.")

Knowing all of this, I was a bit skeptical when K&L spirits buyer David Driscoll told me there was a distillery in Nebraska making single malt whiskey that tasted like Scotch.  David is a great guy and one of my favorite retailers, but let's face it, he is a bit excitable.  This is a guy who sources some of the best spirits on the market, but his talents are such that he could probably unload Seagram's 7 by the caseload as the latest budget retro-fad. (And if he ever goes into political advertising, watch out!)

A few days later, I received a sample of Cut Spike Single Malt, a two year old whiskey made outside of Omaha.  Cut Spike is made from barley that comes from Rahr Malting in Minnesota, one of the largest malting companies in the United States.  Like many craft distillers, Cut Spike gets their fermented wash from a brewery, in this case, their sister company, the Lucky Bucket Brewing Company. Their stills are made by Forsythes in Scotland, and they use a variety of casks ranging from lightly to heavily charred.

I've never heard anyone compare Omaha to the Scottish Highlands, but I figured I'd give it a try.  Wow!  This was by far the best American single malt I'd ever tasted, and the only one that could pass for Scotch.  In fact, I certainly would have guessed it was Scotch in a blind tasting.  It was fruity and perfumey on the nose with a touch of milk chocolate.  The palate was sweet, if a bit thin, with bubblegum which faded to malt and it had a light, fruity finish.  The flavor was reminiscent of Balvenie with its light, fruity nose and slight chocolate note. I had no idea how they tamped down on the raw wood notes.

While this was great for an American malt, it wasn't great Scotch. It was too sweet and thin on the palate, so while Cut Spike had successfully made a Scotch like whiskey, it was a decent one, not a great one.

After my initial tasting, I got an email from Driscoll.  The bottles had arrived, but they weren't quite the same.  Cut Spike had changed their filtration method.  He still liked it, but I told him I wasn't able to review a sample that was different than the product being offered, so he kindly sent me a bottle of the new stuff.

Cut Spike Single Malt, 2 years old, 43% abv ($60)

The nose is malty.  The palate comes on a bit raw with some alcohol notes, then it turns nicely malty with some floral/perfume notes and some sweetness. The finish is sweet and floral with malt in the background. Overall, it's nicely balanced between sweet and malty notes.

Interestingly, this new batch is a very different form the previous one, though it's of comparable quality.  It's less sweet and less thin on the palate, which is an improvement, but it also has some of those raw notes that are typical of young, American whiskeys.  Those are the notes that I was surprised were absent from the earlier sample.  In this batch, they aren't present in an amount that is off putting, but they are there. 

Overall, I think I like this batch better, though unlike the previous sample, I would be unlikely to mistake this for a single malt Scotch. Tasting blind, I might guess that it was a good Scotch single grain whiskey.  And both samples are better than any other American malt I've had (excluding the hopped malt whiskeys as that's a whole different category).

I have to hand it to Cut Spike. They are clearly on to something, though they haven't nailed it yet. Much like the two year old  Willett Rye, this was good, not great, but it made me very excited to try it at five or ten years old.

Friday, August 15, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Scotch, Japanese and Spanish Whiskies

Another new Chichibu label cleared for a three year old peated single malt from the young Japanese distillery.  (They cleared another label back in July).

Glenmorangie cleared a label for the Taghta, a non age statement whisky finished in Manzanilla sherry casks.

Bruichladdich cleared labels for Port Charlotte Islay Barley and Octomore Islay Barley, made with local barley with six farms listed on the Port Charlotte label.

I'm a big fan of Nicolas Palazzi, who seeks out great brandies, rums and other spirits and brings them to the US.  He cleared some interesting labels this week under the Navazos Palazzi label, his project with sherry bottlers Equipo Navazos: a Spanish malt whisky and a Spanish grain whisky, made mostly from corn, both aged in sherry casks.

Fantasy Whisky:  In the world of Scotch, closed distilleries are popular as are recreations of old whiskies, usually based on a few rare samples, but I don't think I've ever seen a "recreation" of a whisky from a closed distillery that no one has ever tasted...until now.  According to the label for the new Benachie blended malt whisky, it was named for a distillery that closed in 1913 based on how it "might have tasted." How long until we get a Malt Mill along the same lines?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Amrut 100

Amrut 100 is a no age statement peated malt from the Indian distillery Amrut which is finished in 100 liter new oak casks.  It is sold in 1 liter (i.e. 100cl) bottles at 100 proof. Wait, you might say, 100 proof is 50% alcohol by volume (abv), and this whisky is 57.1% abv.  Ah, but the British had their own proof system that was different than the American system. And 100 British proof was equal to 57.15% abv.  Hmm, doesn't it seem like American proof should be just as strong if not stronger than the ones the Brits use?  I might write a letter to my Congressman about that.

They also claimed that only 100 bottles went to each country, though it seems readily available at numerous outlets, which means either that more than 100 bottles came to the US or it's selling very slowly.

Now you would think that this bottle would go for $100, but I suppose every gimmick has its exceptions and this one is price, which seems to range from $130 to $170 depending on where you shop.

Amrut 100, 57.1% abv ($150).

The nose is sweet and syrupy with peat, like a peated maple syrup.  The palate starts strong with bold peat notes but then turns sharply acidic with the acid lasting into the finish. Water is good for this one. A few drops tamps down the acid a bit, but it still comes out strong on the finish.

This is fine, but the acidic notes bring it out of balance.  I see no reason to pay $150 even for a liter of it.

Thanks to My Annoying Opinion for the sample, and check out his review of Amrut 100.