Thursday, January 30, 2014

Blog of the Month: Red White & Bourbon

One of the good niches for a whiskey blog is covering the local whiskey scene.  Red White & Bourbon is a Colorado based blog that has lots of general whiskey coverage but specializes in Colorado whiskey reviews and news.  Blogger Josh Chinn highlights the Colorado craft scene, which is substantial, and even his reviews of standard whiskeys tend to focus on their availability at local bars and stores.

I particularly liked his post on the newly released Tin Cup Whiskey, a sourced product from Stranahan's.  Despite the misleading press, he nicely breaks down that this is likely MGP whiskey, probably a blend of two of their mashbills. He also does some good explanatory posts, like this guide to the Jefferson's line. 

If you're a Coloradan or at all interested in the Colorado whiskey scene, Red White & Bourbon is a great place to start.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sazerac's Funny Numbers

As we all know, there is a shortage of old whiskey.  Whiskey producers are dropping age statements left and right.  Sometimes age statements just disappear, other times they are replaced by something else, like Macallan's color scheme.  Lately, however, it appears that a deceptive new tactic is being practiced by Sazerac, the parent company of the Buffalo Trace, Barton and Bowman distilleries.

Very Old Barton is a popular six year old bourbon available in Kentucky and adjacent states.  It's known and loved for being a high quality, affordable bourbon.  New bottles of Barton no longer say 6 years old, but they still prominently display a 6 on the neck label.  Similarly, this newly approved label for Old Charter, formerly an 8 year old bourbon, now simply shows a number 8 without stating it is "8 years old."   This is similar to what Sazerac did a few years ago when they introduced Ancient Ancient Age 10 Star. There is a 10 year old Ancient Ancient Age which is quite popular but getting harder to find.  It is very easy to mistake the 10 Star for the 10 year old.

I contacted Sazerac and they had the following comment:

We have moved some brands away from age declared statements because delivering a consistent taste profile is more important than the age statement to our customers. In the case of Old Charter, sometimes that means 8 years old, sometimes 9, sometimes 7. We were finding that we had barrels that were 7 years and 10 months old that tasted closer to standard than barrels at 8 years and 3 months but could not use them due to the age statement and consequently in these tight inventory times we were running our customers out of stock. That issue is now solved. That being said, Old Charter will continue to average 8 years old for the foreseeable future and the same can be said about VOB, it will continue to be a 6 year old whiskey for the foreseeable future.
They also told me, "At this time, we do not have plans to remove age statements from any other brands."

I'm not thrilled with the growing scarcity of age statements, but I understand it and appreciate the dilemma that distillers are in.  However, replacing the age with just a number is dishonest and unworthy of a company like Sazerac.  It's true that there are other whiskeys that use number designations, but most of them, such as Jack Daniel's Old No. 7 and Maker's 46, never had an age statement.

If  Sazerac wants the flexibility to use younger whiskey, they should take the number off the bottle altogether. What they are doing is deception pure and simple, and they should knock it off.  Then again, maybe they were just sore at being left off of my Worst Whiskey Company of the year award for 2013 and are trying to get an early start for this year's competition.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Kilkerran from Glengyle

Glengyle is an old distillery which had lain dormant for some 75 years when, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the owners of Springbank brought it back to life.  Because of copyright issues, the whisky goes by Kilkerran, rather than the distillery name.  Having begun distilling in 2004, the distillery has been releasing, what it calls Works in Progress since 2009; a series which tracks the aging spirit in a manner akin to the Ardbeg Very Young/Still Young/Almost There series.  For the most recent fifth edition which came out last year, they released both a bourbon cask and a sherry cask expression. Today, I review the bourbon cask.

Kilkerran "Work in Progress" #5 Bourbon Cask, 46% abv ($63)

The nose is really nice and malty with some fruit notes; then some nice peat sets in.  The palate is a great balance of malt and peat.  It's got that nice, lush, peat similar to some Springbanks that's not overpowering but still very present.  As it goes out, it's peppery with peaches and dry white wine.  There's a lot of body to it and it has a wonderful long, peaty finish.

This is really great stuff.  It's balanced, it has real character (that undefinable thing that so many whiskeys seem to be lacking these days) and it's young but in no way immature.  If this is only a "work in progress," I'll be excited to taste the finished product. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Malty Motion Pictures: Angels' Share

Ken Loach's Scotch Whisky focused film Angels' Share created a stir in the Scotch community when it opened in 2012, but it only spent a nanosecond in US theaters.  Recently, it started streaming on Netflix, and I highly recommend it to any whisky fan.

Angels' Share tells the story of some troubled Scottish youths who get introduced to whisky through a kindly mentor and then plan a heist of a rare cask of Malt Mill - think Trainspotting meets Sideways.  If you're a Ken Loach fan, you'll recognize the portrayal of the working class hero and the share the wealth mentality, but he also nails the whisky subculture.

Longtime whisky writer Charles MacLean plays a whisky expert in the movie and also served as a consultant, which likely explains the films dead on portrayals of distillery tours, novice tastings and a high end auction.  Most lovingly and accurately portrayed is the way the characters develop their knowledge and palates. There's something wonderful about watching a kid who grimaces at his first taste of Springbank develop an appreciation, and quite a nose, for whisky.

The only real flaw is that it perpetuates the myth that a real whiskey expert will know the exact whiskey you're getting from a single sniff or sip, but that's pretty standard in movies (a collector takes a quick nose of the Malt Mill out of an unmarked bottle and immediately realizes what it is).

Angels' Share is a delightful film, and even though I missed it in the theater, I'm guessing it's better to watch at home, since the best way to see it is clearly with glass in hand.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bourbon Bigotry: Suntory/Beam Deal Brings out the Worst in Beam Fans

I was pretty unmoved by the big news that got the whiskey world humming yesterday.  If you've been sleeping under a whiskey stone, Japanese drinks giant Suntory is buying Jim Beam.  There were very good articles about the sale by Chuck Cowdery and Janet Patton.

I sympathize with many critiques of global capitalism as it's practiced these days, but one big multi-national corporation buying another big multi-national corporation just isn't that exciting to me.  It seems pretty par for the course in the world of business.  And, of course, I'm not much of a Jim Beam fan.  I even named them as a runner up in my Worst Whiskey Company of 2013 award.

These days, corporations don't really have nationalities in any real sense of the word. Both Suntory and Beam own multiple properties around the world.  Beam owns three Scotch distilleries including Laphroaig, the Cooley Distillery in Ireland, Canadian Club, Courvoisier Cognac and Sauza Tequila.  Suntory owns a number of Scotch distilleries, including Bowmore, along with its Japanese distilleries.  No big deal, money traded back and forth between really rich people.  And it's not like you can outsource bourbon.  It's a unique product of the United States that must be made here.

What I found surprising was the reaction of Jim Beam drinkers, at least as displayed on the Jim Beam and Maker's Mark Facebook pages.  A shocking outpouring of xenophobia was on display, complete with racial epithets.  As shouldn't be surprising, many of these folks were not too bright and clearly knew very little about Beam, Suntory, the whiskey industry or anything else.  Here are a few of the genius comments, all of which are copied verbatim.

  • Yall got some nerve. Where are the american made products??? I vote to boycott every american made product that has sold out. Yall should be ashamed if yourselves. It is now a Japanese whiskey. Whiskey is an American drink! Now im switching to knob creek. They are still American! Everyone boycott with me until they bring great whiskey back to the states!!!! Sound off in the comments section. Oh and make known you'll be drinking Fukushima.liquid.

Whisky is an American drink?  It was invented by the Irish.  And I hate to burst your bubble, but Knob Creek is made by Jim Beam.


  • who the hell wants to buy bourbon from Japan. i am disgusted.
I do!  It's called Four Roses and it was crap until it was bought by a Japanese company that cleaned it up.  It now makes among the best bourbon around.  Beam should be so lucky.


  • Omg wth I just heard y'all sold out to the chinese I will no longer buy or drink jim beam. I'm am sorry cannot support china

I. am. speechless.

  • Sell out! How could you sell out to a Japanese company! I am no longer supporting this product. You could have atleast kept in the states! I am truly disgusted!!!!!

This was on the Maker's Mark page. Before it was owned by Beam, Maker's Mark was owned by a British company, and before that, a Canadian company.  I don't remember a lot of outbursts about those sales.


  • Maker's - now owned by the Japanese. unlike. Check out Bullet or Blanton's for tasty alternative burbons at a similar price point

USA! USA!  USA!  Oh, and FYI, Bulleit is owned by Diageo, a British company.  Blanton's is owned by Age International....a Japanese company.

In her excellent article about the sale, Janet Patton pointed out that Maker's had previously been British owned, to which one commenter responded, "At least the Brits were our allies."  Um, last time I checked the Japanese are our allies.  It's true that the we fought a war against Japan, a war which ended nearly 70 years ago, but I think we fought some wars against Britain too.  Oh, and Wild Turkey is owned by an Italian know Italy, that country that fought with Japan in World War II.  It's funny, I can't recall any outcry at all a few years ago when Campari bought Wild Turkey. 

It's easy to make light of this type of idiocy, but I don't mean to make light of the sentiment behind it. A huge number of these comments referred to selling to "the Japanese" or "the Asians" as if a whole race were purchasing the company.  It is a disturbing "yellow peril" type of reaction that feels more like something from the 1940s than today. I guess I naively thought we were beyond this type of blatant bigotry, and it's jarring to have it so clearly on display.  I guess we still have a long way to go.

I think I'll drown my sorrows in some Four Roses...Japanese owned, American made, and delicious!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Three Things You Don't Need and One Thing You Do Need to Enjoy Whiskey

It's easy to lose sight of what really makes a great whiskey tasting experience.  When I talk to novices, I try to emphasize keeping it simple, but sometimes it's worth reminding even us old hands.  Here are three things you don't need, and one you do, to really enjoy your whiskey.

Three Things You Don't Need to Enjoy Whiskey

1. Expensive Glassware.  Sure, most whiskey geeks use Glencairn glasses, most industry people use copita glasses and lots of people will happily sell you really expensive glasses they claim were developed just for whiskey.  But you know what? A standard wine glass works as well as anything, and though the geeks might gasp, you can drink whiskey out of a tumbler just fine (people have actually been doing it for years).

2.  Tasting Charts.  Do you really need a chart to show you what flavors you're tasting?  I always laugh at the ridiculously complicated flavor wheels and graphs that are supposed to help novices with their complicated coordinates and weird categorizations of totally subjective flavors.  Just drink and taste.  It's a beverage, not a scientific experiment.

 3.  Paper and a Pencil (or a laptop or ipad, etc.).  You don't need to take notes!  Really.  Think of the other really, really fun activities you engage in.  How many of them benefit from taking notes?   None.

One Thing You Do Need to Enjoy Whiskey

1.  Whiskey!

Now, none of this means you can't enjoy fancy glasses or taking notes, but it's worth keeping in mind that all of that is really secondary. Drinking whiskey is really much less complicated than it sometimes appears.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

An Older Irish: Redbreast 21

For years, Redbreast 12 year old was the only whiskey in the Redbreast line of pure pot still Irish Whiskeys from the MIdleton Distillery.  In recent years, though, they have been expanding the line, first with a 15 year old, then a cask strength version of the 12 year old and now, a 21 year old. 

Redbreast 21, 46% abv  ($180)

The nose is very light with grassy notes.  The palate is grassy and malty with a slight sweetness.  The finish is malty with some sweet wine and light  fruit juice notes.

I tried this side by side with the only other Redbreast expression I had on hand, the 12 year casks strength. Compared to the 12 year old cask strength, the 21 year old had some added complexity, mostly showing on the late palate and finish.  There was the touch of sweetness and a bit more depth to the maltiness which enhances it.

That being said, I've never been a huge fan of the Redbreast line.  While this is a good whiskey and probably the best of the Redbreast expressions, I wouldn't call it a great whiskey.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Hoppin' Good Whiskey: Charbay

A friend recently asked me if there was a fire or other natural disaster in my whiskey closet such that I could only rescue one whiskey, what would it be?  Given that I live in an area prone to earthquakes, this is something I do occasionally ponder, and the answer is a a no-brainer: I would save my Charbay hopped whiskey.  My interrogator was somewhat taken aback, but as I explained, it's a unique and wonderful whiskey.  It would be a tragedy to lose my peated and sherried malts, my bold ryes and complex bourbons, but the truth is, somewhere out there, there is a replacement for each of those categories.  They may not exactly be fungible, but I know where to find great peated malt or great bourbon (hopefully with the help of a hefty insurance check).  But there is no substitute for Charbay.  There's nothing else I've had that tastes like this stuff, and it tastes really, really good.

The Pilsner

Charbay is a small distillery in Napa County, the heart of the California wine country.  When I refer to Charbay Whiskey in this context, what I'm really referring to is their series of whiskeys distilled from pilsner.  Back in 1999, distiller Marko Karakasevic distilled a batch of pilsner from the now defunct Sonoma Mountain Brewery, owned by the wine making Benzinger family.  While all whiskey is made from beer, it's not generally beer you would want to drink.  What Charbay did was use a finished beer, hops and all, as the basis for the whiskey. Some additional hops is added as well so technically, this is a flavored whiskey, but it's no Red Stag. The whiskey was aged in 22 new, charred Missouri White Oak barrels at a #3 char.

Charbay's first pilsner release was a cask strength bottling at two years old; they released two barrels which totaled 840 bottles.  This was the one that created a cult following for Charbay with people hunting down the bottles anywhere they could find them, even with the $350 sticker price.  The hops gave it a bold, funky, marijuana like flavor (hops and cannabis are related). And despite its youth, it had none of the new make or raw wood notes that are so often the hallmarks of young craft whiskeys.

After six years, Karakasevic transferred all but two barrels to stainless steel tanks.  A second release of five barrels, Charbay II, came out of the tank in 2007.  It had good flavor, but at 55%, the lower abv made it less bold than the first edition.  Last fall, the distillery issued Charbay Release III, another ten barrels of the same six year old, which had now been in steel tanks for eight years.  This one was released at cask strength and is reviewed below.

There is still some of that 1999 pilsner distillate aging away both in and out of wood.  A 13 year old version, Charbay IV, is set for general release this year, and there is one more cask which will hit 15 this year. Karakasevic doesn't know if he'll release it or just drink it with friends.  Let's hope he decides to share. Having tasted a 12 year old private bottling for the LA Whiskey Society which stands as one of my favorite whiskeys ever, I'm very excited about the possibility of more aged Charbay pilsners on the market.

The Charbay hopped whiskeys are eye-raisingly expensive.  Releases I and II went for around $350.  The new Release III hovers around $400, if you can find it.  That this is hyper-expensive goes without saying, but I've yet to find something that can match it at any price.

The Bear Republic Whiskeys 

In the last few years, Charbay has released a new series of hopped whiskeys made from beer distilled by Bear Republic Distillery in Sonoma County.  These include Charbay R5, made from the popular Racer 5 IPA and Charbay S made from Big Bear Black Stout.

There have been three releases of the R5 from two runs, an unaged version, a 22 month old version distilled in 2010 (Lot 610) and a new, 30 month old expression distilled in 2011 (Lot 611). (Charbay Lot number indicate the month and year of distillation so 611 = June 2011).

All of the stout that has been released was distilled in 2011 (Lot 211) but there have been three releases. The first was a bottling for D&M in San Francisco at around 20 months (reviewed below), the second was a bottling for Astor Wines and Ward III in New York also at 20 months, and the third was a general release at 30 months.

Both the R5 and S whiskeys were aged in used French oak barrels that previously held Chardonnay. As with the pilsner releases, Karakasevic expects to release the Bear Republic whiskeys again at 6 and 12 years of age.  Unlike the pilsners, the Bear Republic whiskeys have so far gone for under $100.

Today, I review the new pilsner release along with two of the more affordable Bear Republic whiskeys.

Charbay Whiskey Release III (pilsner) 66.2% abv ($400)

The nose has all of that hops and spice that I'm used to from these Charbay releases along with a perfume like quality.  The palate is sweet and hoppy with a thick mouthfeel.  You get the funky, hoppy character but with less of the marijuana note than I've tasted in some of the other releases.  The finish is hoppy and spicy and lasts pretty much forever.  This release is sweeter than any of the other Charbay pilsners I've had.  It's great, funky stuff, and I like it better than the original Release II, possibly because it's at a higher strength, but I still think it's hard to beat the boldness of the very first release.

This is another really fantastic expression of the pilsner.  Unfortunately, it's very expensive and a very limited release.  I have yet to see it on the shelf.

Charbay R5, Lot 610A, 49.5% abv ($70)

The nose is huge and hoppy, though of a quite different character than the pilsner hops.  There's almost a dry champagne note to it.  The palate is sweet and spicy with more of those wine notes which remind me of a spicy white, like a Gewurztraminer.  The hops comes out in finish where it mixes with honey and cinnamon. 

R5 has a very different character from the pilsners.  It's hoppy, but the hops is less bold, contributing more to a general spiciness.  It's still got some of youthful, new make notes, but it's tasty just the same, and it does give a sense of the Charbay style.

Charbay S, Lot S211A (for D&M), 49.5% abv ($70)

This is the D&M bottling, so it's a bit younger than the general release of Charbay S. The nose is hoppy and very beer like, like nosing a stout with lots of rich malt character.  The palate is lighter than I would have expected, with hops and spice.  The spice on the stout is more akin to baking spices like clove and ginger, similar to some of the notes in a rye whiskey.  Toward the end of the palate it has sweet vanilla notes which trail off in to the finish.

The R5 and S are quite similar with the stout being a bit sweeter and a bit more balanced overall.  They both have some young whiskey notes and are clearly still developing; it will be interesting to see where they go with more aging.

Since Charbay's first release of hopped whiskey, a few other American distilleries have tried it as well.  Just last month, Anchor released a distilled batch of their Christmas Ale, though it was unaged and not labeled as whiskey.  I'd love to see more hopped whiskey on the market, but for now, I'll be clutching my Charbays when the big one hits.

Disclaimer:  The Charbay III reviewed above was a sample from a bottle that Charbay sent to the LA Whiskey Society.  The R5 and S were purchased at retail.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bowmore Devil's Casks

The latest edition to the Bowmore line is the Devil's Casks, a ten year old first fill sherry cask "small batch" whiskey that weighs in at 56.9% abv.

Bowmore Devil's Casks, 10 yo, 56.9% abv ($100).

The nose hits you first with a dry but fruity sherry backed up with smoke. The palate is milk chocolate with peat (a new M&M flavor?). It's quite sweet but with much less sherry character than I would expect, though some of the sherry contributes to the milk chocolate note.  By the finish, the peat has clearly won over the sherry.

This is a decent malt, but the strong sweetness on the palate kicks it out of balance.  It's hard to recommend at the price, which is about $30 more than Laphroaig Cairdeas or Laprhoaig Cask Strength, both of which I prefer.