Monday, September 29, 2014

Maker's Mark Cask Strength

The last few years have been a bit tumultuous for Maker's Mark.  In 2010, they released their first new product in many years, Maker's 46.  Then, in 2013 they famously announced that they would lower the bourbon's proof from 45% to 42% abv, then reversed course after a public outcry.  Earlier this year, Maker's parent company, Beam Global, was purchased by Suntory.  Now, Maker's seems to be going in a different direction and has announced the release of a 113 proof cask strength expression, though for now, it's only available at their gift shop and only in 375 ml bottles.

Maker's Mark Cask Strength, Batch 14-01, 56.6% abv ($40 for 375 ml)

The nose is much less sweet than the regular Maker's, with more wood notes. The palate starts sweet but with plenty of wood balance.  It grows in complexity as it goes down, showing some strong oak notes, wood spice, light medicinal notes and even some old red wine type tannins. The finish is sweet on the nose but oaky on the palate.  This is a wonderfully balanced bourbon with a lot of complexity.  It's hard to believe it's Maker's Mark.

This is something they should have done long ago.  Hopefully, they will release it in larger quantity because it's far better than anything I've had from Maker's.  UPDATE:  Apparently this will be in general release soon.

Having tried the newest Maker's, I'll try some classic Maker's later this week.

Many thanks to Kevin A. for the photo and sample.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bourbon Legends: Doug Dog Philips Part 2

This is the continuation of Monday's piece on Doug Dog Philips.

A lot has changed since Doug bottled the original green and black ink ryes in 2006.  For one, Doug left California.  Seven years ago, Doug decided he wanted to be closer to where they make the whiskey; he considered moving to Scotland but settled on Kentucky.  Now he lives not far from the Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto where he generously hosts friends on his porch.  He continues working as a glass worker, including doing some work on distilleries throughout Kentucky.

But the whiskey world has changed too.  Willett, which had been Doug's source for all of his barrels, discontinued its private barrel program. After being impressed with the barrel of Smooth Ambler Old Scout bottled for Kenwood Liquors, Doug contacted them about doing a private barrel for him.

Old Scout is Smooth Ambler's brand for its sourced whiskey from MGP in Indiana. Doug liked the idea of trying some Indiana bourbon which he finds to be a different animal than Kentucky bourbon, lighter and more refreshing with finesse and complexity but still with those dark, brooding qualities that he favors.

Doug picked an eight year old from Smooth Ambler that he felt had that same room-filling aroma that has characterized his favorite picks.  He liked this one because it had a comfortable entry but then grew warmer and into a very long finish.  In that way, he admits, it's a bit out of balance, but he likes a whiskey that improves as you go.  Instead of 10 points each for the nose, palate and finish, he prefers a progression of 8 points on the nose, 9 on the palate and 10 on the finish.  He also likes a whiskey that starts sweet and finishes dry because it keeps you going back to renew that sweetness on the next sip.

Doug kindly sent me a sample of his new Smooth Ambler bourbon, titled DougDogz and emblazoned with green ink in a tribute to his original "green ink" whiskey.

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 8yo ("DougDogz"), Barrel 900, distilled 4/21/06, 122 bottles, 61.9% abv

The nose has lots of sweet candy, like caramel covered candy corn, with some strong oak notes mixed in. The palate maintains all of that candy and more with a good measure of oak. Toward the end, it develops spicy and savory notes. It's meaty! The finish is long and rich with a little bit of everything all mixed together - sweet, spicy and even some umami. With a few drops of water, the nose becomes less sweet and much more spicy, but the palate sacrifices some of its complexity.

True to Doug Dog tradition, this is a big, bold and unique whiskey, and as he suggested, it moves from sweet on the first sip to a long, dry finish. It's delicious, and tasting blind, I never would have guessed that it was only eight years old; it tastes much older.  Like the Van Blankle, this isn't something that will be available to anyone who doesn't know Doug, but it sure is good.

I've had a number of Doug's other bottlings, both bourbon and rye, and I've definitely liked some more than others.  I join the chorus of praise for that first green ink rye, which was one of the best whiskeys I've ever had (I never got to try the "black ink" rye).  Most of his Willett bourbons have been quite good, but they are very oak forward, and one was just too woody for me (and I have a high tolerance for oak).

The Smooth Ambler certainly isn't at the level of the original rye (despite the green ink), but it is of comparable quality to Doug's better Willett bourbons.  That being said, my tastes in bourbon tend to align with Doug's love of big, bold, oak monsters, and all of those whiskeys are distinctively Doug Philips in that way, products of the bourbon legend who started out as a bonsai enthusiast.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Bourbon Legends: Doug Dog Philips Part 1

A few months ago I wrote about Randy Blank and his legendary Van Blankle private bottling of Van Winkle Lot B.  Just as legendary are a series of rye whiskeys bottled for Doug Philips (aka Doug Dog) a few years later.  Unlike Randy Blank, Doug Philips kept buying barrels and recently bought a private barrel of Smooth Ambler Old Scout bourbon distilled at MGP.  For folks who have only heard the legend of Doug, I thought it would be fun to tell his story, so I chatted with Doug about his life in whiskey.

People come to whiskey from all different directions, but Doug Philips may be the only person who came to it through bonsai trees.  Yes you read that correctly, bonsai trees.  In the late '80s, Philips was a Northern California glazier whose hobby was bonsai trees. Doug was quite well known in that field, teaching classes and giving lectures around the world. One of his fellow bonsai enthusiasts was a single malt aficionado who turned Doug on to the world of Scotch.

For the next decade, Doug became entranced with single malt, tasting everything he could.  One day, while perusing the Scotch shelves around 2002, he happened upon a bottle of Joseph Finch bourbon, a brand he'd never seen at a price point that was more similar to Scotch.  Intrigued, he started learning about American whiskeys, formed a tasting group and, around 2005, joined the forum.

He was one of a small group of early dusty hunters, pledging to visit each one of California's nearly 6,000 liquor stores, though he only made it to about 3,400 of them before he moved out of state. Those were the salad days of dusty hunting; Doug remembers picking up A.H. Hirsch 16 year old with the blue wax cap for $45 a bottle when they were five deep on the shelves.

As he got to know American whiskey, Doug developed a taste for big, bold, oaky, cask strength bourbons, but in those days, there were very few American whiskeys on the market fitting that description.  He knew about Randy Blank's Van Blankle and decided that he too should buy his own barrel.  But it wasn't that easy.  He couldn't find anyone who was willing to work with him on an uncut, unfiltered bourbon.

One night when Doug was in Kentucky for the 2006 Kentucky Bourbon Festival Bardstown Sampler, he was hanging out with Randy Blank, Willett's Drew Kulsveen and LeNell Smothers, proprietor of a much loved but now defunct Brooklyn liquor store.  He overheard Kulsveen and Smothers talking about tasting some ryes for a private barrel for LeNell's (what would later become the famous LeNell's Red Hook Ryes).  Doug told Kulsveen he was trying to find a good barrel of uncut, unfiltered whiskey and wondered if Willett could help him out.

At 10:30 the next morning, Kulsveen picked Doug up at his hotel and took him to the Willett warehouse for a tasting of some rye whiskeys from the old Bernheim Distillery. Philips remembers very distinctly the second barrel of rye they opened. As soon as Drew knocked off the bung, the aroma of rye filled the entire warehouse. Doug sensed immediately that this was exactly what he had been searching for and that barrel was his first pick.  Back home, he put it in a blind tasting for his whiskey group with George T. Stagg and some other high proof whiskeys, and that cask of rye was the unanimous choice as the best of the bunch.

That cask became the legendary "green ink" bottling of Doug's rye, so named only because Drew Kulsveen's sister, who was labeling the bottles, happened to grab a green pen on the day she filled out the labels.  Doug would select a second barrel based on samples Drew sent him that would become the "black ink."

While he was waiting for Kulsveen to bottle his whiskey, Doug was surprised to see that Malt Advocate magazine (now Whisky Advocate) had rated his rye, a private barrel he had purchased, and awarded it 96 points.  Worried that someone had absconded with his barrel, Doug immediately called Drew Kulsveen who told him that the Malt Advocate crew had been in the warehouse while they were bottling Doug's rye, and Drew had poured them a sample...and so the legend began. [NOTE: See the comments for Whisky Advocate editor John Hansell's version of these events].

Over the next years, Doug bought a total of seven barrels from Willett:

1.  Kentucky Straight Rye, 22yo (Green Ink), Barrel 618, 136.7 proof, distilled 4-10-84, 263 bottles.  Labeled: Ed Ledger's Liquors or Doug Philips.

2. Kentucky Straight Rye, 22 yrs-11months-3weeks (Black Ink), Barrel 8, 136.7 proof, distilled 4-10-84, 216 bottles. Labeled: Neal & Dougz.

3. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 4yo (Doug's Gold Wax), Barrel 2, 125.4 proof, distilled 5-21-03, 216 bottles. Labeled: Toddy's & Dugz Fall Festival 2007.

4.  Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 17yo, Barrel 1564, 148.4 proof, distilled 4-30-91,71 bottles.  Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

5. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 17yo, Barrel 1605, 145.8 proof, distilled 4-30-91, 98 bottles. Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

6. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 18yo, barrel 8550, 118.4 proof, distilled 3-26-90, 147 bottles. Labeled: Dougz&Willyz.

7. Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 18yo, barrel 8551, 117.2 proof, distilled 3-26-90, 99 bottles. Labeled: Dugz&Willyz.

Doug's taste is very specific.  He likes big, bold, woody whiskeys.  He loves whiskeys that fill the room with their aroma, just like that first barrel of rye, and he enjoys a long, dry finish.  While he has high standards, he doesn't just drink his own stuff.  Among recent releases, he's been impressed with the Elijah Craig 12 year Barrel Proof bourbons.

In part 2 of this story, we will learn about and taste the newest Doug Dog whiskey.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Whiskey for Idiots: Kentucky Hummingbird

Do you like to pay a premium for whiskey you know nothing about and have never tasted?  Do you believe the more expensive a whiskey is, the better it will taste?  Are you an idiot?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then Kentucky Hummingbird is the whiskey for you!  Kentucky Hummingbird is a mixture of barrels of Kentucky bourbon.  Each barrel is being used exclusively for Kentucky Hummingbird, so this is your only chance to taste this special bourbon.

Some folks have said Kentucky Hummingbird tastes suspiciously like Pappy Van Winkle.  Others swear it could be Four Roses.  A prominent Master Distiller tasted it and said, "to be frank, I've had worse bourbon."  Will you agree?  For $200, you can decide for yourself.  And keep in mind, if you don't buy it, some other idiot will buy it and try to sell it to you for $400, so this is a bargain!

Kentucky Hummingbird:  It's so expensive, it's got to be good!

Friday, September 19, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Diageo's Special Releases and More

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

Beam cleared a label for Ardmore Legacy, a no age statement mix of peated and unpeated whisky.

Diageo announced it's new special releases this week after they cleared a number of the labels with the TTB, which include:  Clynelish Select Reserve, a cask strength release; the 14th release of Port Ellen, a 35 year old distilled in 1978; Strathmill 25 year old; Caol Ila 30 year old; Cragganmore 25 year old; Benrinnes 21 year old; Rosebank 21 year old and Brora 35 year old.

Joining the ranks of Glenfiddich's storm surviving Snow Phoenix and E.H. Taylor Tornado Surviving Bourbon, Hudson steps into the disaster-whiskey genre with Double Charred, a fire surviving whiskey.  Of course, Hudson is owned by William Grant, who also owns Glenfiddich, so they know their disaster whiskeys.

Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky is a South African single grain whiskey.  It's been around for a while, but as far as I know, we haven't yet seen it in the US.

Label BS Award: According to the label, Homestead Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon (I love when they are single barrel and reserve!) is a "small batch handcrafted rare that only four barrels of it exist and there will not be anymore of this special juice for at least 4 more years."  And, of course, it was distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, home of all of that really rare, handcrafted bourbon in short supply. 

But that's not all.  The same company brings us William Walker Reserve Bourbon (also distilled in Indiana), a bourbon named for the man most famous for trying to create a massive slave state in Central America.  These guys are winners!

And speaking of winners, Templeton Rye, under massive pressure, agreed to disclose the fact that it is distilled in Indiana on its labels.  The new label indeed makes that disclosure, though it still contains the origin myth that it was Al Capone's favorite whiskey and is now "available legally for the first time ever." 

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.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

More Bourbon from Japan: Martin Mills 24

This is another legendary bourbon for the Japanese export market. Japan became interested in aged American whiskey about a decade before the US, so there were many aged whiskeys that went to the Japanese market that we never saw in the US.

Martin Mills was a Heaven Hill bourbon distilled in 1974 and bottled in 1999.

Martin Mills 24 yo, 53.5% abv

The nose is deep and rich with espresso notes.  The palate is both rich and savory with red wine notes, and the finish is sweet and candy like.  This one is terrific, changing in flavor from nose to finish with the emergence of sweeter notes toward the end.  It's really well done and quite wonderful.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Darker Still? Highland Park Dark Origins

In the world of Scotch, the first decade of the twenty-first century was all about peat.  Everyone from Speyside to the Lowlands was dumping peat into everything they could while traditionally peated whiskeys competed for the title of highest ppm.

But the century's second decade has seemed much more focused on sherry.  Everyone seems to be putting out big rich sherry cask whiskeys.  Jim Beam even skipped the middleman and dumped sherry directly into their last Distiller's Masterpiece release.

Now comes Highland Park with Dark Origins, a no age statement whiskey composed of a higher proportion of first fill sherry cask aged malt.  It comes in an opaque black bottle reminiscent of some of Bruichladdich's bottlings.

Highland Park Dark Origins, 46.8% ($85)

The nose is heavy on the sulfur with sherry notes underneath.  There's some fruit under there but it's hard to get at with all of the big sulfur notes.  The palate is pretty similar to the nose with a big blast of sulfur up front followed by some much lighter, sweeter fruit notes (mostly grape).  It tastes strong for its abv.  The finish has a bit of sweetness, especially on the nose but a lot of sulfur on the palate, and after a few seconds, it develops a strong bitterness.

Highland Park usually keeps the sulfur in check in their distillery bottlings, but I've definitely had some independent HPs that were over the top with sulfur notes.  This one goes more in that direction.  I imagine there will be some folks who will really love this.  I tend to be very sensitive to sulfur notes, so, while it's certainly drinkable, it's not something I would reach for very often.

Friday, September 12, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Lots of Scotch

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

Pernod Ricard cleared a label for a 50 year old Glenlivet.  Distilled in 1964, it is a cask strength release entitled "The Winchester Collection."

Highland Park cleared the label for Odin, a 16 year old whiskey that is the latest in its Norse God themed Valhalla series.

Glenmorangie cleared a label for its latest Private Edition release.  Tusail is made using Maris Otter barley.

Edrington cleared a new series of Glenturret distillery bottlings, including a 10 year old, a 25 year old, and a 27 year old.

Gordon & MacPhail cleared a label for a 34 year old Port Ellen as part of their Rare Old series of bottlings.

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.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Dusty Thursday: Jim Beam Distiller's Masterpiece 18 yo Cognac Finished

It's been a while since I did a Dusty Thursday, so I thought I'd crack open one of the earliest really high end bourbons.

Back at the dawn of the bourbon craze, Jim Beam was a leading innovator in American whiskey. They helped kick start the craze with their small batch collection. Then, in 1999, they became one of the first distilleries to try to move bourbon into the super premium direction.

That year, they released the Distiller's Masterpiece collection, an 18 year old bourbon finished in Cognac cask.  This was the first cask finished bourbon that I know of.  It went for the then startling price of $250. They followed up with a 20 year old bourbon finished in port casks.

Reviews of the series were mixed at best and the collection faded. Recently, now that finishing has caught on, Beam has brought back the Distiller's Masterpiece label for some new bourbons.

Today, I'm going back to the early days to try a slice of bourbon history: the original 18 year old, Cognac finished Distiller's Masterpiece.

Jim Beam Distiller's Masterpiece, 18 year old, 49.5% abv

I need to start this one out with a disclaimer.  I am not a fan of Beam bourbon, and I'm generally not a fan of finished bourbon.  Based on this, I definitely did not have high expectations for this bottle.

The nose on this has some rye spice and then sweet, almost sherry like notes.  The palate has brown sugar and vanilla with lots of candy notes.  The finish is minty.  This stuff is just delicious.  It's sweet without being cloying, and the wine finish really comes through.

Given my dislike of Beam and finished bourbons, this one really surprised me. It just goes to show that you should always keep an open mind.  Now I'm interested in trying the port finished version.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You...

There are lots of books and on-line sources that tell you which whiskeys to try.  For instance, if you're a novice, you should definitely check out this recent list of recommendations from acclaimed whiskey writer Ian Buxton, all of which you should find at your local liquor store.  While it's great to have lists of hundreds of whiskeys that you should try before your inevitable demise, it's just as important to know what not to try.  That's why I'm proud to announce my new book:

101 Whiskeys That Are Crap You Shouldn't Bother With

In this well researched volume, Sku takes you on a whirlwind tour of the 101 whiskeys you should do everything in your power to avoid.  From 1980s Bowmore, to the latest two month old craft whiskey, to anything from Woodford Reserve, Sku saves you time and money so you can save up for the 5,000 whiskeys recommended in all those other books.

And if you buy now, you will get a free bottle of Ardbeg Galileo!  Operators are standing by.

Friday, September 5, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Jim Beam NAS, Heaven Hill, Compass Box and More

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

Is Jim Beam Black going no age statement?  Beam released a label for Jim Beam Black XA (Extra Aged), a no age statement bourbon.  Time will tell if this is going to join or replace the current 8 year old iteration of Beam Black. UPDATE: In the comments, Chuck Cowdery reports that he received official confirmation from Beam that this NAS label will replace the current 8 year old Beam Black.

Heaven Hill cleared a 2004 Evan Williams for the tenth anniversary of its Bourbon Heritage Center and a 15 year old cask strength William Heavenhill.  In the past, the William Heavenhill bottles have been limited to the distillery gift shop.

Diageo cleared some labels for what appear to be some of their 2014 special releases including Lagavulin 12 and Caol Ila 15 year old unpeated.

Compass Box cleared a label for the Glasgow Blend, a new expression in their Great King Street series of blended Scotch whiskey, which is described as having "smoke and sherry notes." 

Smooth Ambler, the West Virginia microdistillery, has previously released its own whiskeys under its own label as well as sourced whiskey from MGP of Indiana under its popular Old Scout label. Now they have cleared a label for Contradiction, a blend of MGP whiskey and their own distillate.

And here's an odd one.  Mosswood Distillers, a bottler in Berkeley, California cleared a label for Irish American Brand Whiskey, a blend that is 25% Irish Whisky from the Cooley Distillery and 75% seven year old light whiskey (whiskey distilled to a higher abv and aged in used or uncharred barrels) from MGP in Indiana married in sherry barrels.

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.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

New K&L Cognacs

This is the third day of my review of the new brandies from K&L.  On the first and second days I covered Armagnacs.  Today we look at some of their new Cognac selections.  Thanks to K&L for the samples.

Michael Forgeron

Michael Forgeron is a producer in the Grande Champagne Region of Cognac.  K&L brought in three bottles this year.

Michael Forgeron VS, 40% abv ($40)

The nose is fruity and sweet with apples and pears.  The palate is very light and fruity with some nice, slightly Scotch like malty notes in the back.  The finish adds a touch of spice (cloves).  Overall, this one is pleasant but pretty forgettable, though it's certainly a good deal for the price.

Michael Forgeron VSOP, 43% abv ($60)

This has a very light nose with light fruity and spice.  The flavor on this one is much less sweet than the VS.  It's got some nice complexity on the palate, a slight bitter note, some right like spice.  The finish is light on flavor but a bit peppery.

Michael Forgeron XO, 45% abv ($100)

According to K&L, the XO is a marriage of Cognacs dating from 1982 to 1993. It has a very caramelly nose. The palate is sweet and syrupy with just a slight peppery spice tat lasts in the finish.

I wasn't particularly excited by any of these, but I thought the VSOP was the strongest.  It had a complexity that the other two lacked.

In addition to the Michael Forgeron series, K&L has two vintage dated Cognacs.

2002 Claude Thorin Cognac, 12 yo, 40% abv ($60)

This Grande Champagne Cognac has a light, crisp nose of apples and pears.  The palate is sweet and fruity with cloves and cinnamon like a mulled cider.  The finish is light and fruity with just a dash of juniper.  This one is sweet, approachable and drinkable.  Looking for a bottle to take to the office Christmas party?  You just found it.

1996 Giboin Fin Bois Cognac, 40% abv ($55)

Giboin is from the Fin Bois region.  The nose is lightly fruity with dried fruit and potpourri. The palate has cinnamon, clove and sweet, fruity notes.  The finish is sweet and slightly spicy.  This is another super-drinkable Cognac.


Both the Giboin and the Claude Thorin are just great, crowd pleasing brandies.  They aren't big complex monsters like the Armagnacs from earlier this week.  They're liquid candy, fun to drink and delicious.  I'd say I slightly prefer the Throin, but both are great fun.

I was less interested in the Forgerons.  They weren't at all offensive.  I just found them bland and uninteresting.

The last three days of tastings shows yet again that K&L is really at the forefront of brandy in the US.  They picked some amazing stuff, and the prices are fantastic.  There's definitely something here for everyone. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

New K&L Armagnacs: Chateau de Pellehaut

This is my second in a series of three reviews of this year's exclusive brandies from K&L.  This year K&L has brought in four Armagnacs from one of my favorite producers, Chateau de Pellehaut in the Tenareze Region.  Here they are.

2000 Chateau de Pellehaut, 14 yo, Folle Blanche, 50.5% abv ($50)

This has a really nice nose, dry but fruity, subtle.  The palate has some fruit and some of that nice Pellehaut bitterness.  Pepper comes in late and goes into the finish.  The is surprisingly mature for its age and nicely put together.

1996 Chateau de Pellehaut, 18 yo, Folle Blanche, 50.4% abv ($60)

Last year's 1996 Pellehaut was one of my favorite spirits of the year.  Now it's a year older; let's see how it's aged.

The nose is fruity with mulling spices but not too sweet smelling.  The palate is spicy, a tad bitter and peppery which fades into a peppery finish.  I still have some of last year's '96 so I did a side by side.  This year's is not quite as full bodied as last year's and lacks some of the sweeter notes that really rounded that one out. Both are good, but I'd give the nod to last year's version.

1994 Chateau de Pellehaut, 20 yo, Folle Blanche, 48.5% abv ($70)

This has a really bold aroma of leather, polished wood and spice.  The palate has grape jelly, oak (like wine casks) and has a dry, chewy mouthfeel.  The finish has fruit on the nose and spice on the palate.  This one is terrific; it's bold but well balanced and the strong oak notes give it a little something extra.

1978 Chateau de Pellehaut, 36 yo, Ugni Blanc, 45.5% abv ($100)

The nose on this is oaky with lots of polished wood and pipe tobacco.  Considering the nose, it's surprisingly sweet on the initial palate, followed by lots of spice.  The finish is dry and woody.

As usual with the Pellehauts, these were all good and had the characteristic mix of wood, fruit and bitterness.  The 1994 was definitely my favorite of the group.  It had a bit more wood and spice, which added to its complexity compared to the '96, but it wasn't quite as dry as the '78.

Thanks to K&L for the samples.  Tomorrow I review their Cognacs.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

New K&L Brandies

This is the third year of K&L's exclusive brandy program in which they tour Cognac and Armagnac looking for great brandy for us.  The selections in the past years have been exquisite; some of my top spirits picks for last year were K&L's exclusive brandies.  This year's selection is now available, and K&L kindly sent me some samples from one of their tastings.  I'll start with two days of Armagnacs and end with a day of Cognacs.

Chateau de Laballe Armagnac

This is K&L's frist set of bottles from Chateau de Laballe in the Cazaubon area of Bas Armagnac.

2004 Chateau de Laballe, 10 yo, 52.4% abv ($100)

The nose is spicy and woody.  The palate begins with some acidic (though not off putting) apple cider notes then fades to spice and some good bitter notes.  The finish is vanilla and spice.  This is a nice one that could almost be mistaken for a Calvados with its bright fruit notes. It's very nice.

1992 Chateau de Laballe, 22 yo, 49.5% abv ($120)

The nose is musty and oaky like an old bourbon.  The palate has some of the same acidic notes as the 2004 but balanced by a heavy measure of oak.  As with the nose, there are a lot of bourbon notes and even some aged rum taste flavors.  It has a nice sweet/oaky balance.  The finish is the first time I get any of the more typical Armagnac spiciness. This one is also very nice and the big oak notes make it a great brandy for bourbon lovers.

Domaine de Baraillon Armagnac

Since K&L has been offering up Domaine de Baraillon Armagnac, it has become one of my all time favorite brandies, characterized by bold spicy notes.  Here are this year's bottles.

Domaine de Baraillon 20 yo, 46% abv ($70)

The nose on this one has lots of the same spice you get in old ryes with some sandalwood.  The palate has fruit juice and spice with the spice leading into the finish which has a peppery note.  This is a nice Armagnac with a great balance between sweet and spicy and at this price, it's a no-brainer.

1995 Domaine de Baraillon Folle Blanche, 19 yo, 45% abv  ($90)

This one has a subtle nose with light spice notes.  The palate has mild spice with some rancio bitterness, then the spice grows into the finish.  This is a really nice one that has some nice spicy action.

1988 Domaine de Baraillon Folle Blanche, 26 yo, 46% abv ($110)

This one has a really nice nose with lots of oak and some spice. The palate has molasses, oak and baking spices.  It's syrupy and thick in a very satisfying way.  The early molasses sweetness yields to a nice bitter note that carries into the finish where it meets up with the spice.  This one's a keeper, carrying all my favorite traits of Armagnac in general and Baraillon in particular.

1974 Domaine de Baraillon , 40 yo, 42% abv ($140)

This is a 100% baco brandy.  The nose is a big fruit bomb.  The palate has a nice balance of fruit and spice.  Some oak and bitterness comes in late palate and the finish is slightly medicinal.  Oh, and did I mention this is a 40 year old brandy for $ I'm fond of saying, it's the golden age of brandy.  Unfortunately, it's already sold out, but hopefully they will get some more eventually.

1986 Domaine de Pouchegu, 27 yo, 45% abv ($110)

It's worth reading David Driscoll's write up of his visit to Domaine de Pouchegu, a very small producer in the Tenareze region.  Pouchegu had already stopped distilling for the foreseeable future when, sadly, their proprietor passed away, so this may the last bottle around.

The nose on this 1986 Pouchegu is very bourbon like with huge oak notes. When you spend time with it though, some fruit comes out.  The palate is huge too with dried fruit, mulling spices, wine, cinnamon, slightly acidic; there's just a whole lot going on in here.  The finish is a spice box with a good measure of that wood from the nose.  This one is a big winner.  Get a bottle now!


As usual, the quality of these brandies is exceedingly high.  The Laballes marry an acidic fruity note with Armagnac spice while the Baraillons have a milder fruit note with more spice.  The Pouchegu has all of that with a good measure of wood.  They're all good.

My favorites of the Baraillons were the '88 and the '74 which are both great, the '88 being a bit sweeter and the '74 having heavier oak notes.  That being said, for the price, it's hard to beat the 20 year old Baraillon as an enjoyable but not simplistic sipper.

But the Pouchegu blew me away with its bold flavors and wood and spice balance. It's wonderful stuff, and if you're a bourbon fan, in particular, this is the brandy for you.  

Tomorrow, I'll look at K&L's new Armagnacs from one of my favorite houses: Chateau de Pellehaut.