Friday, November 28, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Jack Daniel's, Rebel Yell and More

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

Brown Forman cleared a label for Jack Daniel's No. 27 Gold, a twice filtered Tennessee whiskey (a la Gentleman Jack) finished in maple barrels. Apparently, this was released in duty free shops a few months ago.  This label likely means it's headed for the U.S.

Luxco cleared a label for Rebel Yell Rye, a two year old rye distilled at MGP. 

Here's an idea.  Most people think of American whiskey aged in used barrels as sub par.  Instead, just rebrand reused cooperage whiskey as Eco-Whiskey made in "recycled" barrels.

Ever wanted to come up with a good name for a Scotch?  No problem.  Just take two common Scottish terms and put them together, like LochGlen.  Marketing genius!

Balcones cleared a label for a single barrel single malt to "celebrate the closing of another year."  And what a year it's been for them.  I'm thinking this will have a nose reminiscent of a Waco courtroom, a palate of restraining orders, incomplete quorums and unhappy investors.  There's no finish...yet.

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, November 26, 2014

Whiskey to be Thankful For

In this age of limited releases, retail lotteries, Pappy mania, declining quality and rising prices, it's good to remember that there is still some great, consistent, affordable whiskey out there.  I don't write about these whiskeys as much because, well, it would be boring to write about the same readily available whiskey all the time, but every once in a while, it's good to take some time to be thankful for the stuff that doesn't require hustling your retailer or taking out a second mortgage.

For Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for these great spirits:

  • Elijah Craig 12 year old ($30).  When I do novice bourbon tastings, I lead people through four or five bourbons and Elijah Craig 12 is almost always the consensus favorite.  It's rich, complex and delicious. Yes, the price has gone up about $10 in the past few years, but it's still a great deal.
  • George Dickel No. 12 ($23).  Oaky, minerally and unique, Dickel is still widely underappreciated, and the 12 is just about perfect.  It's great neat and makes an awesome Manhattan.  I would easily choose it over the more expensive Barrel Select. 
  • High West Double Rye ($40).  With shortages of almost everything these days, it amazes me that I can almost always find plenty of High West offerings on the shelf. The original Rendezvous Rye is still my favorite of their current line up, but as far as deals go, you can't do much better than Double Rye.  
  • Smooth Ambler. I haven't been a big fan of their standard brands, but the private barrel picks of MGP bourbon from this West Virginia distiller/bottler are excellent, reasonably priced, and pretty easy to find, like the Faultline Bourbon for K&L. 
  • Glenfiddich 12 ($27).  I've probably had more of this than any other single whiskey. Glenfiddich 12 continues to save me from plonk at airports, hotel bars, conventions, weddings and other booze deserts. It's always there and always good. 
  • Brandy.  I know I've been a broken record about the golden age of brandy we are in, but to my mind, brandy is the best cure for the whiskey doldrums.  
Which whiskeys (or other spirits) are you thankful for?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Proof Positive? Two Batches of Parker's Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey

This year's Parker's Heritage Collection is a 13 year old Wheat Whiskey.  Heaven Hill has released at least two dumps at different proofs: 127.4 and 126.8, so I tried one of each to compare.  From what I can tell the 127.4 came out first and was the version sent to reviewers.

Parker's Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey, 13 yo., 127.4 proof, 63.7% abv ($90)

The nose has soapy bourbon notes, like a bourbon-bubble bath, then a touch of oak. The palate is caramel sweet with a hint of acid that grows into the finish but keeps some wood to balance it out. The finish on the nose is quite nice, like a good, oaky wheated bourbon. Water adds some nice vanilla notes and gives it some wood spice.

This is exactly what you would expect it to be, an oakier, more complex version of Heaven Hill's Bernheim Wheat Whiskey.  Wheat whiskey isn't for everyone, but if you like Bernheim, you'll love this more sophisticated and very balanced version.   

Parker's Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey, 13 yo, 126.8 proof, 63.4% abv ($90)

The nose has brown sugar and oak followed by earthy almost mushroomy notes.  The palate is quite different, sweet first, then quickly acidic, very acidic like it has a squirt of lemon in it.  The acid massively dominates the finish on the palate, but the nose retains the earthy stuff.  The acidic notes are so strong they really put the whole thing out of balance and give it a burning sensation that the first batch didn't have, even though the first batch is higher proof.  Water helps give it some composure and mutes it a bit but doesn't save it.  I definitely would not buy a bottle of this.

It's stunning how different these two batches are.  The first is quite nice and well balanced whereas the second is a bit of fiasco.  Not surprisingly, the freebie bottles that went to reviewers (not me) all seem to have been from the first batch.  I feel sorry for those who, based on those reviews, grabbed the second batch. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Evan Williams Red and Sporty Scotch

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

Evan Williams Red Label is a 12 year old 101 proof bourbon that has been on the export market for years but unavailable in the US.  With a new label approval, we may be seeing it in the US.

A blended Scotch label called McCray released a series of sports themed labels. Somehow, I don't think they will find a big audience for Scotch at the Kentucky Derby or baseball games, but to hedge their bets, they included golf as well.

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, November 19, 2014

Depression Era Brandy: Domaine de Baraillon 1933

Domaine de Baraillon is one of my favorite Armagnac houses, and I was lucky enough to have enough friends who were interested to make a split somewhat reasonable for this rare brandy that K&L plucked out of France this year. I've done lots of previous reviews of Baraillon Armagnacs, including an even older one from 1893.

This Armagnac was distilled in 1933 and moved to glass demijohns in the mid-1980s, so it had about 50 years in wood.  It was bottled at cask strength.  Unfortunately, it's no longer available, but I thought it was unique enough to be worth recording.

Domaine de Baraillon 1933, 40% abv ($800)

The nose on this is massive and just bursting with fruit.  There's grape, raisin, prune and it just comes rushing at you like a big fruit bomb.  The palate gives a quick burst of sweet then quickly turns dry, spicy and oaky with pepper.  It trails off with light bitter notes that grow into a very earthy, bitter finish, but the fruit is still there on the nose of the finish.

This is a pretty extraordinary brandy.  Like the other Baraillons, it has elements of fruit, spice and oak, but where the others balance them together, this one divides them, giving you one after the other - fruit on the nose, spice and oak on the palate, earthiness on the finish.  While it's less balanced at any given point, the progression is really interesting and makes me keep going back for another sip to start the whole thing over again.   

This is a really wonderful brandy.  Yes, $800 is really expensive, but it's about as much as you would pay for this year's Pappy 20 on the secondary market, so there's that.

UPDATE: A few people have asked me how this can be  cask strength if it's only 40% abv.  Well, it's old and it lost proof over the years.  It's likely that Baraillon was monitoring the abv and moved it to glass when it hit 40% to keep it from dropping any further in the cask.  Interestingly, despite its low proof, it doesn't taste at all diluted, which makes me wonder if there is a flavor difference between a brandy (or whiskey) that naturally reduced to a certain proof over time versus one that had water added prior to bottling in order to dilute it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pike Creek Whisky: Then and Now

Like Lot 40, one of my favorite new whiskies from last year, Pike Creek is a Canadian Whisky distilled at Hiram Walker and bottled by Corby Distillers.  As with Lot 40, the brand was reintroduced last year after more than a decade long absence. It's a non age statement whisky finished in port casks.  I'll also try a sample of its earlier incarnation from the 1990s.

Pike Creek Whisky, Current Bottling, 40% ($30)

The nose is mostly antiseptic.  The palate is slightly sweet and medicinal with a touch of spice and wood before devolving into pure alcohol notes with a kiss of malt.  The finish has a mild sweetness but is dominated by bitterness and alcohol notes on the palate.  Between the heavy medicinal and bitter notes, this stuff is pretty horrible.  

Pike Creek Whisky, 1990s, 40%

The nose on this is quite a contrast to the new version.  It's mild and lightly fruity like a Sauvignon Blanc. The palate is very light but has rye spice, wood and some medicinal notes, trailing off with some beer like notes, like a light lager.  The finish has some rye on the nose and medicinal notes on the palate.  This one's okay.

The difference between these whiskies is surprisingly stark. While the '90s version isn't great, it's fine to drink, whereas the current version is not something I would want to drink.  Whatever they did to it, they should undo it.     

Friday, November 14, 2014

New Whiskey Labels: Diageo Orphan Barrels, Japanese Whisky and More

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

Diageo cleared a label for the newest release in its Orphan Barrel series:  Lost Prophet, a 22 year old Kentucky bourbon. This one released over the weekend and has since been written up by Whisky Advocate who notes it was distilled at Buffalo Trace unlike the previous Orphan Barrels which were distilled at Bernheim.

Springbank cleared a label for Springbank Green, a 12 year old.

It looks like we might be getting a new Japanese whisky.  This week labels cleared for Iwai and Iwai Tradition from the Shinshu Mars Distillery on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

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, November 12, 2014

Breaking the $100 Mark

My last post's complaint about the rising price of whiskey and my proposal to avoid American whiskeys over $100 led to some good discussion in the blog comments, on Twitter and on Reddit (which has a thriving bourbon community). Many agreed and said they already adhered to a similar rule (My Annoying Opinions has laid out a whole scale of what he thinks should be the maximum price for a given age of whiskey).  Others thought it was too late or there were too few people willing to do anything about rising prices, and of course, some folks just think I'm stupid, cuz, you know, it's the internet. 

All of this made me think back to the first bottle I shelled out more than $100 for, surely a landmark in the life of a whiskey nerd.  It was about ten years ago. I had been tasting lots of whiskey, mostly Scotch, and had started reading books and internet forums to learn more.  I headed out to a liquor store known for having a huge selection of independent bottlings.  I probably spent an hour there daunted by the selection, but I indeed found one of the bottles I'd been reading so much about.  It was $130!  I was nervous.  Was any bottle of whiskey worth this much?  I sheepishly walked to the register, fearing judgment, but the shop owner just rang it up.  When I got home, I scratched off the price tag out of my own embarrassment at doing something so frivolous.

That was my first Port Ellen.  It was good.  There would be more, but they wouldn't cost $130.

I'm guessing lots of my readers have broken the $100 mark (and if you haven't, hats off to you!).  Do you remember the first time you spent more than $100 on a bottle?  What bottle was it?  Was it worth it?

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Price of Whiskey is Too Damn High!

Last week, I reviewed two whiskeys that were good but priced far higher than I would want to pay for the quality.  Unfortunately, that's getting to be so much the norm that it feels redundant to constatly say that the price is not worth the quality. We are being asked to pay much more for whiskey that is good but not exceptional.

Scotch has been too expensive for a good decade now, but American whiskey took some time to catch up. Inflation is understandable, but the more recent, more disturbing trend is companies pushing the envelope on prices for relatively young (or no age statement) whiskeys.

Angel's Envy and WhistlePig are two companies that have been aggressively raising prices with whiskeys in the $150 to $170 range.  WhistlePig's whiskeys at least have age statements, but Angel's Envy is strictly NAS. Willett is another company that is ramping up prices on younger whiskeys as evidenced by the new XCF (a seven year old for $150) and the ten year olds that are now going for over $100.  It's not just sourced whiskeys either. Wild Turkey went three figures on its unexceptional Diamond Anniversary bottling. And then there are the Hummingbird type whiskeys that are so ridiculously priced for what they are that it's laughable.

The truth is, of the American whiskeys I've tasted that were priced at over $100, very few were worth it. More often than not, when I break the $100 barrier, I regret it.  Sure there are some exceptions. Old Rip Van Winkle 23 was $350, but it was a fantastic, cask strength 23 year old bourbon from the closed Stitzel-Weller distillery. But those exceptions are very few.  There are maybe two or three that I can think of. (And of course, I'm talking about recent releases. Obviously, if you are looking for a Very Very Old Fitzgerald from the '60s or a pre-prohibition rye, you're going to pay more, and it may well be worth it.)

The Sku Challenge

The price of whiskey is too damn high, but we can do something about it.  What if we all just stopped.  What if we, as a collective body of whiskey geeks, pledged not to pay more than $100 for any new American whiskey at retail or on the secondary market. (Take that flippers!)  Too extreme? How about no more than $100 for any whiskey that's not at least 18 years old and at least 107 proof? 

Let's pound the prices down!  Who's in?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Syndicate 58/6 Blended Scotch Whisky

There's a detailed backstory that comes with Syndicate 58/6 but suffice it to say it's a blended Scotch whisky composed of 18 malts and four grain whiskies.  They use a solera method of topping off casks and say that it contains "small quantities" of a blend dating back to 1958. It is finished for four years in Oloroso sherry casks.

Syndicate 58/6, 43% abv ($160)

The nose starts with malt and a touch of fruit. The palate is malt forward as well, but it picks up some grassy notes and wine, and there's a nice touch of pepper on the finish.  This is a lighter, malty whisky. Despite the Oloroso cask finishing, the wine notes are very subtle. Tasting blind, I could have easily mistaken this for one of the Compass Box blends or maybe even an Irish Whiskey (due to its light, malty character).

This is a nice blend and certainly worth trying, but it's hard to recommend at this price point.

Disclaimer:  A sample of this was provided to me by the company.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Willett XCF: Orange You Glad It's a New Willett?

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 of finished whiskeys from Willett.

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 orange distillate before sweetening, so it's not as if the casks has Grand Marnier in them. 

Willett XCF, Version 1.0, 7 yo, 51.7% abv ($150)

The orange spice notes hit you right away on the nose. It's got bitter orange with cloves, like an orange spice tea. The palate is more traditional MGP rye profile with aggressive spice, then some orange comes in, though it's not as strong as on the nose. The finish is typical MGP rye.

This is a really creative and interesting way to manipulate the very familiar MGP rye. The rye spice and orange work well together.  The flavors are well integrated such that the orange is clearly present but not dominant. 

It's too bad the price is so high on this or it would be an easy recommendation.  I know times have changed, but I still feel like if I shell out three figures for a whiskey, it should blow me away. That being said, this is a good whiskey that gets points for being unique.

Willett XCF is currently only available at the Willett gift shop, but it appears that it will see wider release later this fall.