Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blog of the Month: The Whiskey Jug

This month's Blog of the Month is the Whiskey Jug.  The Whisky Jug started back in 2010 but really got going in 2013.  LA whiskey lover Josh Peters is a tireless taster, posting new reviews nearly every weekday. Josh tastes the entire spectrum of whiskey and his reviews are concise and to the point. Every whiskey gets both a number and letter grade and reviews are accompanied by his stylized photos which are much more interesting than the typical generic bottle pix. I also really like that most of the whiskeys he reviews are both accessible and affordable. As a bonus, he also has guest posts from the very knowledgeable LA whiskey distributor Chris Uhde.

Check it out!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Stupid Pappy Questions

As you all know, Pappy Van Winkle is officially the best bourbon in the world, and...oh, you didn't know that?  Well, it is. It's been declared that by a bunch of very media savvy celebrity chefs, a whole squad of "journalists" and ten thousand internet lists that may or may not have been composed by robots, and we all know how smart robots are...especially about bourbon. Anyway, it's obvious.  You can't find a bottle of Pappy anywhere, so it must be the best.  Even the reliably unexciting 12 and 10 year old Van Winkle bourbons are nowhere to be found.  Pappy has become something like the unholy offspring of Johnnie Walker Blue and a particularly rare Beanie Baby.  It's created an insatiable thirst; well, I shouldn't say thirst, since no one seems to actually drink the stuff but an insatiable desire in everyone from bourbon lovers to folks who wouldn't know E.H. Taylor from Taylor Swift.

In some ways, it's good that Pappy has been officially recognized as the world's best bourbon.  It takes the pressure off folks like me because I know that no one in the general public will pay much attention to my reviews unless I'm talking about Pappy (unless I say something bad about Old Forester Birthday Bourbon - which is apparently a crime punishable by virtual stoning).  It also makes it easy for retailers to sell the stuff they actually have because instead of talking about what it tastes like, they can just say it's like Pappy Van Winkle or, better yet, it beat Pappy in some random tasting. I'm waiting for a new whiskey blogger to rate bourbon on a scale of one to five bottles of Pappy.

But there's a downside as well.  Because many of these new purchasers of Pappy know nothing about bourbon, they have generated a lot of questions.  I get them by email and see them all over the place on-line. They tend to be very detailed questions not about the bourbon or its history, but about the label or its possible value.  While my usual rule is that there are no stupid questions, I fear that when it comes to Pappy, there are no smart ones.  As a service to the new owner of a bottle of Pappy and to save us all a lot of time, I thought I would answer a few of the most common questions right here:

  • The label on my Pappy 15 is slightly askew, does this mean anything?
  • The fill level on my Pappy 20 is higher than on my Pappy 23, what gives?
  • My Pappy has a slightly off white color on the back label.  What does that mean?

This is a category of questions that I call "Is my bottle worth a million dollars?" since that's usually the subtext of the question.  And no, I'm sorry to inform you that your slightly skewed label is not some secret code that this bottle was filled with some superior liquid. Variances in bottling and labeling happen and don't generally improve the quality of the bourbon. However, given the Pappy hype, you probably can sell it to some idiot for a premium if you say it's the special "skewed label" bottle.  Good luck!

  • My bottle doesn't have a laser code.  How can I find out how old it is?

Years ago, I posted a guide to deciphering Pappy Van Winkle bottle codes.  If you can't find a bottle code on your bottle, that means one of three things: (1) it's from before 2007 when they started printing the bottle codes; (2) you aren't looking hard enough (it can be very hard to see against the dark liquid and sometimes hides under the label); or (3) the shyster who you bought the bottle from used a sophisticated method (e.g. Windex and a paper towel) to remove the bottle code and convince you that it was a really old bottle and possibly worth a million dollars.

  • Can you tell me if this bottle is from 2005 or 2006?

Really?  You need to know the exact date of the bottle?  Why?  No, really, why?  I see this type of question all the time and I can't imagine why it matters. There's really not much difference between a 2005 and 2006 bottling in terms of the whiskey. Given that the Van Winkles sometimes bottled enough for more than one release at a time, it might even be the exact same stuff.  Yet still they ask and in great numbers.

I repeat this a lot, but no one seems to want to hear it.  There's no great way to date a bottle from the mid-2000s.  As I noted on my Pappy Van Winkle Timeline, we know that the address on the label changed from Lawerenceburg to Frankfort in 2002 and that the Pappy 15 year old was first released in 2004.  There weren't any significant changes between those dates and 2007 when they started putting the laser date codes on the bottle.  There were some very minor label changes in that period, but exact dates of when they happened are hard to come by.  The Van Winkles didn't keep track of that kind of thing, and as mentioned above, even if someone knows when they bought the bottle, it might not have been that year's release.  With those caveats, based on TTB data, the Old Rip Van Winkle website appears to have been added to the label around 2004, and some say that raised letters on the front label started appearing around 2006 (though I've never seen any confirmation of that date with reliable evidence).

  • Can you tell me where this bottle of Pappy was distilled?

Sure, that's an easy one. It was distilled at Stitzel-Weller...or Bernheim or Buffalo Trace or some combination of those, unless it's really old, in which case it might have been distilled at the Boone Distillery, which no one seems to know anything about but everyone agrees is amazing and probably worth a million dollars.

  • Do you want to buy my bottle of Pappy for a million dollars?

No, but I will trade you for my collection of rare armadillo Beanie Babies.

There you go, everything you wanted to know about Pappy but were afraid to ask.  You're welcome!

Friday, February 20, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Wild Turkey 17 and Tullamore Dew 15

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

Wild Turkey cleared a label for Master's Keep, a 17 year old bourbon.

Tullamore Dew cleared a label for a 15 year old Irish blend.

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, February 19, 2015

Dusty Thursday: Antique Rye

Today's dusty is an eight year old bottle of Antique Rye, a Kentucky rye that was distilled in 1932, toward the end of prohibition, and bottled in 1940.  It's bottled in bond so we know that it was distilled at the Jefferson County Distillery which was owned by Frankfort Distilleries at that time.  Frankfort Distilleries owned distilleries in both Kentucky and Maryland and produced whiskey under a number of labels, including Four Roses.  The company was purchased by Seagram's in the late 1940s.

I couldn't find any record of a Jefferson County Distillery, but Frankfort Distilleries did own an interest in a distillery in Jefferson County which it used to distill medicinal whiskey during prohibition:  The A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery in Louisville.  Based on that history, this rye was likely distilled at the Stitzel Distillery.

Antique Rye, 8 yo, distilled Fall 1932, bottled Fall 1940, 50% abv

The nose has lots of rye and those great old sandalwood notes that old ryes tend to have.  It then develops some perfume notes.  The first thing you get on the palate is rye spice, then a very medicinal, spicy note, and then it just cascades.  This is like eating Oaxacan black mole in that it's so densely flavored that you need to concentrate to pick out individual notes. There's clove, unsweetened cocoa, Zinfandel, black licorice...all kinds of stuff.  It trails off with the medicinal notes which initially leave you with a bitter, medicinal finish. Over the course of the very long finish, though, the bitterness fades and leaves a nice spicy note.

I love the complexity of this rye, but the medicinal notes in the late palate and early finish were a bit strong for me.  Still, it's a fun taste of the last years of prohibition.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Taos Lightning: 17 year old MGP Rye

Today I try two 17 year old MGP rye whiskeys bottled by KGB spirits in New Mexico under the Taos Lightning label for K&L.  After being purchased by KGB, the whiskey aged for six years in Santa Fe.  The 6,000 foot altitude and dry atmosphere of Santa Fe is quite a contrast to Indiana, so it will be interesting to see what they are like. Both bottles were distilled in July 1997 and bottled on October 25, 2014.  They are cask strength at 45% abv.

Taos Lightning Rye Cask 15, 17 yo 45% abv ($110)

The nose immediately gives this away as MGP.  Huge rye with some pickle juice. On the palate it's got strong rye with some brown sugar notes to balance it out; it even has a touch of the sandalwood notes you get in prohibition era ryes.  It tastes strong for the proof.  The finish is very nice burnt sugar with rye.  

This is really nice stuff, certainly identifiable as MGP but more complex and balanced than younger MGPs.  I would definitely say this is one of the stronger ryes on the market right now. 

Taos Lightning Rye Cask 16, 17 yo, 45% abv ($110)

The nose on this one is lighter than the 15 and has some added fruit notes.  I get pineapple.  The palate is also lighter than the 15 and much fruitier.  It has plenty of rye notes but it has banana liqueur, black tea and trails off with medicinal notes.  Where 15 is strong for its abv, this one tastes weak. The finish is slightly medicinal with rye notes.  This is decent but nowhere near as interesting and bold as the 15. It's a much lighter, fruitier profile.

It's always interesting to taste similarly situated barrels like these and see what kind of differences there are.  These were quite different.  Cask 15 was a very good, traditional MGP rye, bold and flavorful.  Cask 16 had a very different, much lighter profile.  For me, Cask 15 is a clear winner here; unfortunately, it appears to be sold out.  I guess I have to try to get to these reviews faster.

Friday, February 13, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Cask Strength Peat Monster, Very Olde St. Nick and More

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

Compass Box cleared a label for a cask strength version of their Peat Monster blended malt.

Very Olde St. Nick is a legendary American whiskey brand that was made for export to Japan.  This week, Frank-Lin, a California based bottler, cleared labels for three different expressions of Very Olde St. Nick bourbon: a no age statement Kentucky bourbon, a barrel proof no age statement Kentucky bourbon and an 8 year old bourbon with no state of origin listed.

Michter's cleared a label for a barrel proof rye.  It is a straight Kentucky rye with no age statement.

And Longhorn Whiskey from North Texas Distillers may win the award for worst slogan ever:  "As smooth as this horn is long."  Er, what?

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, February 11, 2015

A Whiskey Book for the Non-Geek: Single Minded 2015

People who want to learn about whiskey have an increasing number of reliable sources to choose from.  Along with hundreds of blogs, we are seeing more and more great books.  Last fall, both Heather Greene and Lew Bryson released comprehensive whiskey guides designed to move the reader from novice to geek.  But not everyone wants to be a geek. Some people don't care about classifications, history, distilling or regulations.  They just want something good to drink.  For those people, there is Single Minded 2015.

Written by whiskey writer Johanna Ngoh, Single Minded 2015 is a slim volume which, after a very brief introduction, gets right to the drinking, profiling thirty whiskeys of all different types.  What I love most about this book is that all of the whiskeys profiled are readily available and reasonably priced. There's no Pappy Van Winkle and no ultra high end limited releases.  What  is there?  Glendronach 15, Clynelish 14, Rittenhouse 100, Redbreast 12.  Sure you can quibble with a few choices (cough, Pike Creek, cough), but for the most part, these are great whiskeys that any geek would be happy to recommend. Even her list of five splurge bottles are also readily available and fairly modest in the world of splurges.

So for that friend who just wants a good drink with no muss and no fuss, pick up a copy.  The book, a series which has been coming out annually for the last few years, is available for $15 on the Single Minded website

Thanks to Johanna Ngoh for sending me a copy.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

More Orphans: Old Blowhard Bourbon

Having liked the Barterhouse 20 year old bourbon from Diageo's Orphan Barrel series, I thought I would try the original release.  Old Blowhard is a 26 year old bourbon distilled at the old Bernheim distillery. I don't see as many of these on the shelf these days as the Barterhouse, but there may still be some out there.

Old Blowhard, 26 yo, 45.35% abv ($150)

This has a great nose of ancient, oaky bourbon. The palate comes on with sweet caramel and then transitions into intense oak with a touch of acid.  The finish is dry and ashy like an old Zinfandel with a touch of bitterness.

Of all the Diageo Orphan Barrels, this initial release probably has the worst reputation. Again, I was surprised how un-terrible it was.  It's not great by any means, but it's perfectly decent and I'd happily drink a glass or two anytime.

That being said, I wouldn't pay $150 for a bottle, but to be fair, it is 26 years old.  Age always adds price and it's not as if there are tons of comparable 26 year old bourbons going for much cheaper.  Going head to head with the Barterhouse, though, the Barterhouse is the winner in both taste and price.  

Friday, February 6, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: New Canadian, Irish and More

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

Diageo cleared a label for Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, a Canadian blended whisky made from 90% rye.

Jameson cleared a new label for its new Caskmates series of whiskey aged in craft beer barrels.  The label is for the "Stout Edition" which is presumably aged in stout casks.

For Armagnac fans, there were 26 new labels cleared from a variety of different distilleries by independent bottler Darroze, with vintages ranging from 1918 to 2003.

Sazerac appears to be planning a new label in its Stag line, a move sure to excite whiskey geeks...or maybe not.

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, February 4, 2015

UnScotch: Michel Couvreur Peaty Overaged Malt for K&L

Michel Couvreur bought Scotch and blended and aged it in his caves in Burgundy.  Because it is aged in France, The Scotch Whisky Association will not permit it to be called Scotch Whisky, but otherwise, it's pretty much Scotch. Couvreur died a few years ago, but his whisky lives on (there's a good piece on him on the K&L blog).  This K&L bottling, Peaty Overaged Malt Whisky, is a 12 year old vatted malt in sherry oak casks (I'm not sure in whose world 12 years old is "overaged.")

You should note that the bottle has a driven cork, meaning you need to use a cork screw to remove it.  The whole top is covered in hard wax, so it's a bit challenging to open.

Michel Couvreur Peaty Overaged Malt Whisky, 12 yo, 43% ($90)

The nose has a fruity peat with apples and strawberries.  The palate is sweet and peaty without any of the fruit notes from the nose, and the finish is mildly peaty with some sweetness.

This is a really well balanced whiskey.  The combination of sweetness and peat notes make it supremely drinkable.  If this were $40, I'd drink it every day.  At $90, I won't do that, but it's still a tasty, balanced, peated whiskey.  At cask strength, I bet this stuff would be amazing (K&L Davids, see what you can do for us on that front).

Monday, February 2, 2015

$15 Armagnac: Prince D'Arignac VS

Armagnac is one of my favorite spirits, and while it's a good deal compared to whiskey, there's not much available on the low end.  For that reason, I was intrigued to see Trader Joe's carrying an Armagnac for $14.99.  This appears to be an independently bottled brandy and the VS indicates that it is between two and four years old.

How good is a $15 Armagnac?  Let's find out.

Prince D'Arignac Armagnac VS, 40% abv ($14.99)

The nose is new makey, like it really smells fresh off the still with all of those tequila like new make notes.  The palate follows suit.  It's got some spice but the overall flavor is raw new make...more akin to a two month old than a two year old brandy.  There's really nothing that distinguishes it as Armagnac until the finish which has a light spiciness and some fruit in the background, but even that is dominated by new make notes.  I feel bad for anyone who picks this up hoping it will give them a sense of what Armagnac is like, and given that it's at Trader Joe''s, I'm guessing that will be a lot of people.

Well, now I know what a $15 Armagnac tastes like, and I don't plan on tasting it again.