Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The 5 Rules of Whiskey Social Media

Since there are now so many whiskey social media sites, I thought I would post the five main rules that operate in these sites so people will know how they function.  Of course, different sites have varying practices, but these rules are fairly universal.

1.  You may not buy a bottle of whiskey unless you post a picture of it and ask "Is this any good?"

2.  You may not use Google to answer any question about whiskey, ever.  You must post all such questions to social media.

3.  Once you buy a bottle of whiskey, you must take a photo of said bottle and post a picture of it so people know you now own that bottle.  You may not wait until you get home to post such photo, lest people not know that you own it while you are in transit.  Therefore, you must post a picture of the bottle in the automobile, bus, train, plane, submarine, horse or other vehicle in which you are travelling.

4.  If someone posts a picture of a rare or desirable bottle and asks if it is any good (per Rule 1), at least five people must respond, "No, it's terrible. Send it to me immediately!" or some similar sentiment.

5.  If you are at a store, bar, friend's house or any other location that has a bottle of any Van Winkle, Willett, Angel's Envy, Michter's or Buffalo Trace Antique Collection whiskey, you must post a photo of said bottle immediately.

Come to think of it, there may be more than five of these rules.  Did I miss any?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Ninteenth Century Armagnac: Domaine de Baraillon 1893

When K&L's spirit buyers, the Two Davids, go to France, they can find pretty extraordinary stuff, but perhaps nothing as extraordinary as an Armagnac distilled in 1893.  Distilled by one of my favorite Armagnac houses, Domaine de Baraillon in the Bas-Armagnac region, this Armagnac would have been made in the wake of the devastating phylloxera epidemic which hit the Armagnac region in 1878, a few years after it showed up in Cognac.  According to K&L, the family told them the brandy was transferred from oak to glass demijohns sometime in the 1930s and has been stored in glass since then, so it is around 40 years old.  It was bottled at a cask strength 40% abv.  The price on this was originally $2,500 but K&L recently dropped it to $1,500 (which made it workable for a group buy).  While that's still quite high for a bottle of anything, it's nothing compared to what a nineteenth century whiskey would cost, demonstrating again that we are, indeed, living in a golden age of brandy.

Domaine de Baraillon 1893, 40% abv. ($1,500)

The nose is well balanced with sweet brandy notes along with oak and tons of spice.  There's cinnamon, ginger, clove and some good, earthy notes.  This is a really complex nose that I've come to associate with some of the best Armagnac.  Air is very important to these very old spirits, and the more air this one gets, the fruitier it becomes, picking up stewed plums and raisins.  The palate starts sweeter than I expected with light fruit notes before taking on some bitter notes and picking up some spice which takes into the finish which is both bitter and spicy.   Again, air makes a huge difference.  On my first sip, the bitter notes were overpowering, but as it sits, they fade into a pleasant, earthy note that's balanced with the spice and fruit notes.  The balance in this is extraordinary between the sweet, spicy and bitter notes; each are bold but none manages to subsume the others.  It's also a really delicious and drinkable brandy.

Comparing this to the 1985 Baraillon, one of my favorites from Baraillon, distilled almost a century later, the 1985 is much less complex on both nose and lighter on the palate.  Though it's very drinkable, and still one of my favorites, it doesn't match the boldness, complexity and balance of the 1893. 

Interestingly, he 1893 profile isn't that different from the great Armagnacs I've had of more recent vintage.  The fruit, spice and earthy bitterness matches the profile I've come to expect, even if all of those notes were bolder in this bottling.

So here's to the golden age of brandy.  This is an amazing deal for a rare brandy, and an even better deal if you've got a group of friends to split it with.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Week in COLAs: A Grand Marnier Cask Finished Willett Rye & Ardbeg Supernova is Back

Willett XCF Exploratory Cask Finish is a seven year old MGP rye finished in Grand Marnier casks. It appears that this is the first release of a new series. Drew Kulsveen from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, the maker of Willett, explained that Grand Marnier is made by macerating bitter orange peel, distilling it and then aging it for two years in bourbon casks.  After that, it is combined with Cognac and sweetened.  The rye in this Willett is aged in the bourbon casks that were used to age the pre-sweetened orange distillate.

Ardbeg Supernova is coming back with a 2014 release.  This version includes sherry aged whisky and the label emphasizes the sweetness as much as the peat. "It's Supernova but not as you know it."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

COLA Watchers Beware

Since I'm no regularly posting news of new COLAs on the site, I wanted to make sure to state a few caveats that you should keep in mind when reading my COLA of the Week Posts.

First, as I've stated before, just because a COLA is issued does not mean the label will end up on the shelf.  Sometimes a company submits a label and then decides against using it.  Other times, the submit the label just to create a record of their use of the name for trademark protection.  And for imports, label approval is just one step on the way to getting the whiskey into the US.  Most labels do seem to end up on the shelf, but not all.

Second, there is a whole list of things on the label that companies can change without submitting a new label.  The list includes changes to the abv, age statement and many other label components.  While whiskey companies usually issue a new label for an age statement change, one of the most common things that gets changed without a new submission is the abv.  In many cases, the abv on the COLA is just a place holder. I've seen labels that say 50% abv for whiskeys that are later released at cask strength.  Given that, I would suggest taking the abv on a COLA with a grain of salt.

So have fun looking at the COLAs (more tomorrow!) but do keep these warnings in mind.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Five Eras of American Whiskey

Thinking and reading about the post-prohibition history of American whiskey, I find the period breaks down into 20 year increments.  These aren't perfect, of course, as history doesn't include bright lines, but there are certainly some undeniable trends.  So I present the Five Eras of American whiskey.

1933-1950:  The Rebuild.  After the repeal of prohibition, American whiskey tried to get back up on its feet again only to be knocked back down by World War II which saw another prohibition on beverage alcohol production.  It really took until the late 1940s to get things moving again.

1950-1970:  The Classic Era.  The whiskey flowed in the Mad Men era.  For the most part, the juice wasn't fancy, but it was good, strong and plentiful.  This is the era when Maker's Mark was founded and Jack Daniel's got big with the help of Frank Sinatra.  It was the heyday of National Distillers with Old Crow, Old Taylor and Old Overholt. And some of the best bourbon ever made came out of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in the Classic Era.

1970-1990:  The Glut.  This was a tough time for American whiskey as the baby boomers became America's first wine drinking generation.  Distilleries were consolidated and closed, and the industry looked toward gimmicks like light whiskey to try and increase sales to the me generation.

1990-2010:  The Renaissance (aka the Golden Age).  As a new generation of drinkers came of age, the whiskey industry fought its way back to prominence.  It started with a few small batch and single barrel releases and blossomed into the era that brought us A.H. Hirsch, Pappy Van Winkle, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Four Roses' triumphant return to the US market.  It also saw the birth of the craft distillery movement and the revival of rye whiskey.

2010-present:  The Bourbon Craze.  I don't have to tell you about today's market.  The Renaissance of the last era led to a full-on craze.  Every other day there's a new special edition from the majors, the craft distillery movement has exploded, and everyone's experimenting, but demand for old, high quality whiskey has far outstripped supply and scarcity is a major issue. Prices are climbing while age and proof are falling.

What's next?  The crash?  The Second Revival?  A New Classic Age?  Time will tell, but based on the timelines above, I'm guessing the current era will last for a  while.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Pappy Van Winkle Time Line

Given the popularity of the Van Winkle whiskeys and the number of detailed questions I see about these bottles, I thought it would be helpful to put together a chronology of the various Van Winkle releases.  I've attempted to list all the key release dates and have also tried to document changes to the appearance of the bottles so that people can better date their Van Winkles.

As you'll notice, this list includes general releases only, not private bottlings, of which there were a number in the early days.  In addition, it deals only with bottle appearance and release dates, not with where various releases were distilled.

Our chronology begins in 1972, the year the Van Winkle family sold the Stitzel-Weller distillery to Norton-Simon but kept the rights to the Van Winkle name.

1972:  Old Rip Van Winkle 7 yo 90 and 107 proof released.

1983:  Old Rip Van Winkle 90 & 107 proof changed from 7 to 10 yo.

1989:  Old Rip Van Winkle 15 released, barrel bottle.*

1990-1992:  Van Winkle 16 and 17 yo released for export only.

1991:  Van Winkle 12 yo Lot A and Lot B released (Lot B would continue).

1994:  Pappy Van Winkle 20 released.

1997:  Old Rip Van Winkle 12 Rye released, barrel bottle.

1998:  Pappy Van Winkle 23 and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 yo released (Rye might have been released in '97).

1999:  Regular bottles for Van Winkle series changed from (very light) green glass to clear glass.

2002:  Address on Van Winkle whiskeys changed from Lawrenceburg to Frankfort when Van Winkles partnered with Buffalo Trace.

2003:  Second release of Pappy 23 (late 2003/early 2004).

2004:  Old Rip Van Winkle 15 (barrel bottle) replaced with Pappy Van Winkle 15 (regular bottle).

2007:  Digital bottle codes showing date and time of bottling begin appearing on each bottle.

2009:  Old Rip Van Winkle 23 decanter released.

Fall 2011:  Last release of Old Rip Van Winkle 10/90.

Spring 2012:  Last spring release of Van Winkle whiskeys.

2013:  Old Rip Van Winkle 10/107 changed from barrel bottles to regular bottles.

It's harder to pin down this information than you would think, and I had lots of help on this list so my thanks go out to everyone who assisted.  Particular thanks go to the Van Winkles for digging through their records to find some of the more elusive dates.

*"Barrel bottles" are the squat bottles that were used for the Old Rip Van Winkle and Old Weller lines, so called because the base of the bottle looks like a barrel, sort of.

Friday, April 11, 2014

This Week in COLAs - The New Woodford Master's Collection & Kentucky Slush

This week in COLAs saw the approval of a label for the newest Woodford Reserve Master's Collection release which will be a triple distilled bourbon finished in Sonoma-Cutrer Pinot Noir barrels.  This, of course, hearkens back to the 2007 Woodford Reserve Master's release finished in Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay barrels. (Woodford's parent company, Brown Forman, owns the Sonoma-Cutrer winery).

And if you're looking for something a bit more Slurpee like, look nor further than Evan Williams Kentucky Slush "with the taste of lemonade, orange juice and sweet tea."  It's labeled as bourbon "with natural flavors and caramel color" and it's "ready to freeze or pour!"

The big question is...which of these will be better?