Friday, May 30, 2014

This Week in COLAs: What Would Harry Potter Drink?

Don't you wish there was more whiskey at theme parks?  Terresentia, the South Carolina company that recently purchased the Medley distillery, has approved a label for Blishen's Fire, a cinnamon flavored whiskey apparently for use at Universal Studios' Harry Potter theme park...because they didn't do Fireball shots at the Leaky Cauldron. 

Hudson Valley Distillers, a New York craft distillery, has a new take on white whiskey.  Instead of using the term new make, white whiskey or moonshine, they are calling their new Chancellor's Bourbon (aged one day) raw bourbon whisky

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Blog of the Month: The Coopered Tot

Josh Feldman, the blogger who writes The Coopered Tot, is a true whiskey enthusiast, with the emphasis on enthusiast.  The guy is enthusiastic about nearly everything.  He loves whiskey, the people who make it, bottle it and sell it.  In the whiskey blogosphere, he's the guy who's president of the PTA and chairman of the neighborhood welcome wagon, bringing the whiskey equivalent of a basket of cookies to new readers and bloggers. He's gracious and always willing to look at other points of view. 

It's not just enthusiasm though, Josh writes some great stuff, including a recent post looking at representations of race, gender and  sexuality in old whiskey ads.  He's done some fun treasure hunting, digging into obscure old whiskeys, and looking into the downfall of a once great label. He's thorough and creative.  He zeroes in on his subjects like a dog with a particularly meaty bone that he won't let go of until he's done.

I've joked that The Coopered Tot is the Moby Dick of whiskey blogs, because the posts are really long and tend to go off on long tangents, and sometimes I worry that Josh gets too cozy with the industry he's writing about (a weakness that he himself has acknowledged), but his blog is always an interesting read, providing you can put aside the time to read it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Compass Box The General

According to Compass Box, The General is a combination of two blended whiskies, each of which had been blended when very young and returned to casks for further aging.  One lot was 33 years old, and Compass Box is not disclosing the age of the other.  They included both bourbon and sherry cask aged whisky.  This bottling came and went pretty quickly, but there may still be some on the shelves.

Compass Box The General, 53.4% ($300)

The nose on this is really nice with fruity malt.  The palate has vanilla and malt with a creamy mouthfeel. The finish is floral with hints of malt.

This is a really nice whisky and very typical of Compass Box with its fruity, flowery notes.  It's very versatile and tastes much more like a single malt than a blend.  While I really liked it, it would be hard for me to justify paying for it at that price (I got a sample from a friend).  There are certainly whiskies of comparable quality that are much cheaper.  Still, it's always fun to try the newest creation from Compass Box.

Friday, May 23, 2014

This Week in COLAs: Black Maple Hill from Oregon, Dutch Rye and More

Two Black Maple Hill labels cleared for whiskeys distilled by the Stein Distillery in Oregon, a bourbon and a rye (NAS but both are straights).

Millstone 100, a Dutch rye whiskey, looks to be headed our way.  It's made from 100% rye, bottled at 100 proof and 100% milled by Dutch windmills according to the label.

Batch 6 of the Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength was cleared.  The listed abv (which is subject to change) is 58%.  Be sure to follow the instructions on the bottle before you drink it, and "add twice as much water as whisky."

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Booker's 25th Anniversary

The year 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the first line of Booker's Bourbon, counting back to when it was a private bottling by Jim Beam Master Distiller Booker Noe for his friends and colleagues.  Booker's became a public release in 1992 as part of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection, bottled at cask strength. This year, Beam commemorates Booker Noe's special bourbon with a 25th Anniversary expression.  This expression is a bit older than the regular Booker's. It's labeled 10 years 3 months whereas regular Booker's is six to seven years old.

I used to be a fan of Booker's - one of the only Beam products I really liked, but I've been disappointed by more recent Booker's bottles.  Let's see how the special edition compares.

Booker's 25th Anniversary, Batch 2014-01, 65.4% abv ($100)

This has a nice nose with some banana, peanut and caramel; it's sort of Snickers like.  The palate is sweet with caramel and Butterfingers notes.  It takes on some complexity with oak and tannic notes toward the end.  The finish is the best part with a nice balance of the palate's sweetness and tannins.  Water gives it more sweetness up front but also extends the tannic notes toward the end.  It's a bit hot taken neat so I would recommend a drop or two of water, which doesn't compromise the flavor.

This is pretty good; it reminds me of some of the better Booker's I've had, back when they were better.  It didn't bowl me over, but I'm not generally a fan of the standard Beam juice, so I wouldn't expect it to.  It was definitely above average, and if you are a big Beam fan, you'll probably love it.  All of this may be moot though, since, as with most limited releases these days, it's been a very tough bottle to find. [Edit:  Colin, in the comments, notes that it is available at BevMo for $125].

Monday, May 19, 2014

How do You Know It's Sourced Whiskey?

Every week, I look at the TTB's latest label approvals and see new whiskeys from new companies. For the purposes of adding them to my Complete List of American Whiskey Distilleries and Brands, I try to discern if the company that made the product actually distilled it or sourced it from elsewhere. A few years ago, this was a lot easier because the TTB regulations require that the state of distillation be listed right on the label.  If a Nebraska company was selling Kentucky bourbon, they had to say so. Unfortunately, that rule seems to have gone out the window, though some valiant souls are trying to change that.

Since you can't rely on the state of distillation rule, how can you tell if a whiskey is sourced?  Well, it's not always easy, but there are a few important clues.

  • Does the label say "produced by" or "distilled by?" While the TTB may not be enforcing the state of distillation rule, there is another rule that regulates how whiskey production is described on the label.  "Distilled by" means just that, whereas "produced by" means the whiskey was bottled by another party than the distiller (there are other terms that can be used as well, but those two are the most common).  This should be the end of the inquiry, but companies do make mistakes.  Usually the mistake is actually the distiller using "produced by" as opposed to a bottler using "distilled by" but it goes both ways. Despite the occasional erroneous label, I give the benefit of the doubt to the label statement.  If it says "distilled by," it probably is; if it says "produced by," it's probably sourced, but the inquiry doesn't stop there. 
  • Compare labels. For companies that make multiple spirits, I also look at the labels for their other products.  If they used "distilled by" on a vodka and "produced by" on a whiskey, then they obviously know the difference, and they didn't distill the whiskey.
  • Look at the timeline.  If a distillery opened last year and they are selling a ten year old whiskey, it's sourced. This is surprisingly common. 
  • Look at the mashbill. Using a 95% rye mashbill is a dead giveaway that it was distilled at MGP in Indiana.  Sure, it's possible that a craft distillery could use the same mashbill, but MGP produces a huge amount of 95% rye and sells it all to other companies, so when I see the 95% rye figure, I know it's most likely sourced from MGP. 
  • Unusual grains. On the flip side, if the mashbill contains unusual grain combinations, you're probably not looking at a sourced whiskey. Very few big producers are doing much work with spelt, millet or oats.  That being said, there are some craft distilleries that have sold their whiskey to other companies, so while sourcing is still a possibility, it's much less likely.  

Finding out if a whiskey is sourced when the producer doesn't want you to know is particularly tricky, so here are some things to watch out for in those cases.  None of these are good evidence of distilling.

  • They have a still.  One guy wrote me an angry email saying that a bourbon I had listed as sourced couldn't have been because he saw a picture of the owner in front of his still.  News flash: just because a company has a picture of a still on their website doesn't mean it's their still, and even if it is, that doesn't mean they are actually using it, and even if they are using it, that doesn't mean the whiskey they sell isn't sourced.  There are a number of distilleries that distill their own spirits while also selling sourced whiskey.
  • They talk about distilling.  When you're perusing company websites, you have to read like a lawyer reads a deposition...very precisely.  It's easy to say a lot about the distilling process, the grains and water used and barrel aging without ever saying that you actually distilled the whiskey. Similarly, be careful about local newspapers that say the product is distilled by a local company.  Most local reporters covering the new distillery in town don't know the first thing about whiskey, and the difference between a distilled and sourced whiskey is going to pass right over them.  If there isn't a direct quote from the producer saying they distilled the whiskey, take it with a grain of salt.  
  • The liquor store guy/bartender/sales rep. said they distill it themselves on their farm in South Dakota. If you're reading this blog right now, you probably know more about whiskey than 95% of the salespeople out there.  Sure there are exceptions, and the ones who know their stuff can have valuable information, but most of them aren't reliable sources of information about distillery specifics, plus they're trying to sell you something.    
It also helps to use a good dose of common sense.  Most craft distillers are excited about their product and happy to go into detail about what they do and how they do it.  If someone seems like they're obfuscating, they probably are.  If I email a company with a direct question about whether they distill the product and get back a response that talks around it or says it's proprietary information, I can be pretty sure the answer is no.

That being said, in some cases this is very difficult to figure out, and none of these methods are foolproof. Despite flaws in the label approval process, labels are still one of the most reliable sources since the information on a label is more heavily regulated and requires federal government approval, while the information on a website or press release does not.

I also want to stress that while there certainly are some charlatans out there, most whiskey companies I've had contact with, particularly the newer and smaller ones, are honest and well intentioned.  I've had a number of producers email me with information for the list, including information about sourcing, and many are more than willing to answer questions.

So if you ever see a whiskey on my list and wonder, "How does Sku know this was sourced?" you know.

Friday, May 16, 2014

This Week in COLAs: Another Beam Signature & the 2014 Laphroaig Cairdeas

A few weeks ago, there were a half dozen new labels for the Jim Beam Signature Craft series.  This week, there's another one for a Jim Beam quarter cask finished bourbon.  Unlike the others, this one is NAS. According to the back label, the bourbon is "finished with bourbon aged in quarter-sized casks for four to five years."

The 2014 Laphroaig Cairdeas will include "double matured Laphroaig from bourbon barrels and Amontillado seasoned traditional hogsheads."

Highland Park cleared a label for something called Dark Origins, described as "double first fill sherry casks for a naturally DARKER, richer flavor." (emphasis theirs).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Are There Any Underrated Distilleries? Part 2

On Monday, I asked if, in this whiskey crazed age, there are any distilleries that still could be considered underrated.  People had numerous suggestions of underrated Scotch, including Glenfarclas, BenRiach, Glen Ord, Fettercain, Ardmore and many others.

Major American distilleries that got mentions included Wild Turkey, Brown Forman and A. Smith Bowman, along with a slew of craft operations.

And Canadians were represented with Forty Creek, Alberta Distillers and Hiram Walker, where Lot 40 and the Wiser's whiskies are made.

There were no entries from Ireland, Japan or elsewhere (though there was some discussion of whether the category of Japanese Whisky is underrated as a whole).

While I'd quibble with some, I agreed with a number of the suggestions, so there still are a few underrated distilleries out there.

It was a spirited discussion, so be sure to check out the comments, and join the discussion.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Are There Any Underrated Distilleries?

A few years ago, I posted lists of the three most overrated and underrated distilleries.  I was thinking of doing it again, but I ran into a problem.  It's easy to come up with overrated whiskeys; heck, with the whiskey craze in full gear, sometimes I feel like almost everything is overrated.  The problem is, I'm not sure I can think of any distillery or company that is underrated.

Back in 2012, my three most underrated distilleries were Glengoyne, Four Roses and Charbay with runners up George Dickel, Midleton, Bunnahabhain, Dallas Dhu and Glenfiddich.  A few of those are still underrated, but many of them wouldn't qualify today.  Certainly Four Roses has gotten its due from the whiskey geek crowd (my list preceded the release of the highly acclaimed 2012 Small Batch Limited Edition which set off a full-on Four Roses craze), and Midleton has released a whole flurry of single pot still whiskeys that have put them on the geek map.  You could probably still make a case for Dickel, though it's getting more recognition with its private barrel program.  Bunnahabhain may be the one that still fits the bill, but who else?

Are there any other distilleries that could remotely be considered underrated in today's whiskey world?

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Week in COLAs - The Drinking Dead

Zombie Whiskey.  I don't have any urge to try Second Chance Spirits' Moonshine Zombie Whiskey, but I do love the label.  And when I Tweeted this, I was reminded that it isn't even the first zombie label, Master of Malt had one as well.

A new label for Suntory's Hibiki 12 Japanese blended whisky with the tag line, "In celebration of our new beginning 2014," carries the label Beam Suntory Hibiki and shows what may be the new Beam Suntory logo.  Upon seeing this, WhiskyCast's Mark Gillespie inquired with the company and was told this is an employee only bottling, which leads to another COLA caveat:  even if a COLA label is going to be used, the whiskey might not be for general distribution.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Calumet Farm Bourbon: Don't Buy the Farm!

This is something I picked up on a lark.  It's an independently bottled, no age statement Kentucky bourbon. The label is owned by Western Spirits out of Bowling Green, Kentucky, and it's bottled by Three Springs Bottling Company, also in Bowling Green.  Normally I wouldn't bother with a no-name sourced whiskey, but this stuff seems to be widely available, and these days, that's saying something.  It's my dream to find one of these easy to find bourbons that's actually really good.  That being said, I only noticed after I purchased it that it is not labeled "straight" bourbon, which likely means that it is very young or at least contains some very young bourbon.

Calumet Farm Bourbon, 43% abv ($50)

The nose has some floral notes as well as some alcohol fumes.  The palate is very light but has some sweet candy bourbon notes with banana.  The finish is sweet and slightly medicinal.  It's not bad, but it tastes like a decent bourbon that's been watered down way to much.

This seems to be the case of a company dumping some mediocre, sourced whiskey into a pretty bottle and hoping people will shell out $50 for it...which I did.  Based on flavor and the odds, this is most likely Heaven Hill, but standard Evan Williams black label is better than this at a fraction of the price.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey

Teeling is a new Irish Whiskey company started by Jack Teeling, formerly of the Cooley Distillery.  Like many new American companies, they are bottling sourced whiskey (from Cooley according to Shanken) while they plan their own distillery in Dublin. Just released in the US, the Teeling Small Batch Whiskey is a no age statement blended Irish Whiskey finished for six months Flor de CaƱa rum casks.

Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey, [bottled Jan. 2014] 46% abv ($40)

The nose is light and grassy.  The palate starts malty then turns sweet with a touch of fruit before fading into a pleasant finish, both sweet and grainy.  This is a very light whiskey (or "delicate," as the marketing department might say). It doesn't have a lot of complexity, but it's very drinkable.  I could certainly see reaching for it in the hot months to come when the LA heat makes me want something a bit lighter.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Week in COLAs - Beam Plays with Mashbills

Jim Beam recently cleared a series of new labels for 11 year old bourbons in their Signature Craft series. Each bottle represents a different, new mashbill, including high rye, (presumably using the Old Grandad/Basil Hayden recipe), triticale (a rye-wheat hybrid), brown rice, six row barley, soft red wheat and  rolled oats.