Thursday, December 31, 2015

Bourbon Stories

We all love great whiskey, but I've always said that the whiskey you really remember is going to be the one you enjoyed with friends or on an especially important occasion - the birth of a child, the time you toured a distillery with your best friends or your future spouse. But good whiskey can also be memorable when it served as a comfort in hard times.

In response to one of my posting on Very Old Fitzgerald, Bill Cowern sent me the following story of his memories of drinking some Very Old Fitz:

In 1967-1968, I was a marine helicopter pilot in northern I corp. South Vietnam. I was fortunate enough to get a R&R to Hawaii in February of 68, to meet up with my wife. On the flight back to Vietnam, we stopped to refuel in Guam and I bought a bottle of Very Very Old Fitzgerald for $15 or $20 in the duty free shop there on base. I had always remembered it as being labeled 25 years old but it could be that 50 years has dulled that memory. Regardless when I returned to the base I was assigned to, in Dong Ha, I opened the bottle when we were under mortar attack one night and could not believe what a smooth soothing whiskey it was. Like nothing I had ever tried before, or since. We had slit trenches under our wooden hooches and trap doors in the floors to allow us to be below ground during attacks. It became a routine for four of us that we would have a half jigger of the bourbon whenever we were under attack. After a while we used to joke about how we wished they would attack. The bottle lasted about one month, but I, obviously, have never forgotten it. Thank you for resurrecting the memories.  

Thanks to Bill for sharing his story, certainly one of the best bourbon stories I've had the pleasure of hearing.

Happy New Year to all and here's to having great (but maybe less dangerous) bourbon stories in the future!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Cadenhead's Heaven Hill...or is it?

Heaven Hill seems to be one of the only bourbons bottled by independent Scotch bottlers. A few years ago, I reviewed an Alchemist bottling of Heaven Hill. Now, I'm tasting a Cadenhead's bottle of 17 year old Heaven Hill.

Interestingly, this bottle is 17 years old and was bottled in July 2014. If it went directly from cask to bottle, that would mean it was distilled in between August 1996 and July 1997. The Heaven Hill distillery, though, burnt down in a massive fire in November 1996, so if this is from Heaven Hill, it must have been some of the last distillate made from the Bardstown Distillery.

After the fire, Heaven Hill contracted out distilling to the other big Kentucky distilleries, including Jim Beam and Brown Forman. In 1999, they purchased the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville which now distills all of Heaven Hill's whiskeys.

The label on this bottle states that it was "Distilled at Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, Kentucky" so presumably, that's what it is.  Of course, it could have been distilled earlier than 1996 and stored in steel tanks, and since whiskey can always be older than the stated age, it could be older than 17 years, though it would be odd to use a lower age statement on a single barrel bottling (assuming that this is a single barrel. It's labeled "Individual Cask," whatever that means.)

Heaven Hill 17 year old Cadenhead's, 58% abv

The nose is heavily peanutty. The palate is oaky with light peanut notes trailing off into the finish with brown sugar. Hmm, this is very Beamy tasting with that peanut nose. In fact, it tastes much more like old Beam, say an older Booker's, than pre-fire Heaven Hill. Either way, it's quite good, and who doesn't love a bourbon with a little mystery?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Parker's Heritge Collection Malt Whiskey

There was some surprise when Heaven Hill announced that this year's edition of Parker's Heritage Collection would be an eight year old malt whiskey. Who even knew that Heaven Hill was aging malt? What's next year's release going to be? Spelt whiskey? Triticale? Are they just teasing those of us who are salivating over the idea of a ten year old, cask strength rye?

I didn't make much effort to try this one, but when Josh from The Whiskey Jug showed up at a tasting with a bottle, I figured I'd give it a shot.

Parker's Heritage Collection Malt Whiskey, 8 years old, 54% abv ($100)

This stuff smells like vanilla scented soap. The palate has oak and cardboard and is slightly sweet. That's pretty much all there is to it, and that same oaky cardboard note carries into the finish. It's boring with no complexity or depth of flavor.

I've often thought the problem with American malt whiskeys is that malted barley is too subtle a grain to withstand the new, charred oak required by American regulations. This seems to confirm that supposition. That being said, lots of other folks seem to like it (including The Whiskey Jug), so as always, different strokes for different folks.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Sku Awards: Stupidest Whiskey Person

Our final Whiskey Award is for the Stupidest Whiskey Person. It's sort of like a reverse MacArthur Award, because why should only geniuses get awards?

Today's winner is Randall Johnson from Fort Collins, Colorado. Randall paid $400 on a Facebook site for a bottle of current release Old Weller Antique. Before deciding on the award, I interviewed Randall to see if he had the enhanced level of stupidity that would make him worthy of a Sku Award.

Randall, what made you pay $400 for a bottle of Old Weller?

Well, I was interested in bourbon because I saw an article on Bloomberg News that said it was really hot right now. I like hot things, but I also want whatever hot thing I get to be the very best, so I needed to do some intensive research. Luckily, I found out that on Facebook there are a lot of places to purchase bourbon from some very knowledgeable people. The best bourbon, of course, is Pappy Van Winkle. Very few people know it, but this Old Weller is actually pretty much the same as Pappy Van Winkle 10 year old. If you look on the label, you can tell because they both say "Frankfort." It also has a UPC code!

Okay, but why didn't you just go to a liquor store and buy a bottle?

This isn't just any Old Weller; it was bottled specially for one of the liquor stores in Kentucky, where the bourbon was actually made. It's a very precious bottle, and the guy who sold it to me even let me pay extra for him to put some parafilm wax over the top to prevent oxidation.

And how did you like it?

It is the first and by far the best bourbon I've ever had! It tasted really bourbony. I don't have any notes on the finish because there is still some left in the bottle.

What do you think your next bourbon purchase will be?

The funny thing is that after I bought the Weller, I received all kinds of great offers for amazing stuff. There's one guy who said he could get me a bottle of Angel's Envy for $500. Another one said he had something called Barterhouse that he would let me have for $750. There are so many great deals to be had, and it feels so great to be part of a community of like minded enthusiasts!

Well, there you have it. Congratulations to Randall and all of our Sku Award winners!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Sku Awards: Stupidest Whiskey Trend

The stupidest whiskey trend of the year is investing in stupid, whiskey related crap on Kickstarter. A new glass utilizing "A process of combining fluid dynamics modeling and bio-mimicry," a piece of wood that will enhance your whiskey through "accelerated transpiration through capillary action," a charred oak tumbler to age your whiskey while you drink it - this is just some of the whiskey paraphernalia that is asking for your hard earned money on Kickstarter.

Here's some free investment advice. If the whiskey you're drinking is so crappy that you need all of this junk to make it taste decent, maybe you should be investing in better whiskey.

Tomorrow: the Stupidest Person in All of Whiskey!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Sku Awards: Stupidest Whiskey Labels

Following label releases on the TTB website, I see a lot of stupid labels. I'm normally against those awards where everyone wins, but in this case, there really are no losers...except for the whiskey drinking public. All of these labels get the Sku Quadruple Gold Medal!!

This label for Stray Rye Whiskey is utterly stupid. It says it was "Founded in Illinois," but is "made from a 17th century recipe out of Pittsburgh." Pittsburgh, by the way, wasn't founded until the mid-18th century. Oh, and that 17th century recipe just happens to be 95% rye and 5% barley.  Hmm, that sounds familiar for some reason.

Disaster whiskeys are always stupid. In the past, we've seen whiskeys that bravely survived snow storms and tornadoes, but Hooker's House cleared a label for what may be the first earthquake whiskey. Hooker's House Epicenter is composed of the whiskeys that "hung precariously" and "mico vibrated" during last year's 6.0 earthquake in Northern California. Mmmmm, precariously hung whiskey.

You can usually count on producers to know what their whiskey is but apparently, not always. The Panther Distillery in Minnesota cleared a label for a...well, I'm not sure. It's labeled Saint Paul Rye Whiskey, but the description says it's "Three-year-old cold weather aged rye corn whiskey bourbon." What is "rye corn whiskey bourbon"? I don't know, and the back label just furthers the confusion referring to it as a rye whiskey and then stating "Distilled from a Bourbon Mash." What is this stuff? How did it get approved by the TTB? Can someone please get their shit together.

The label for Old Scenter Bourbon is mind numbingly stupid.  It says it is based on an old family recipe. How unique! Of course, they never tasted the old stuff, but they smartly imagined that it was "the perfect combination of corn, rye, and barley mashed together then aged in wood casks long enough." How long is long enough? Well, they knew it would probably have to age for "years at a time," but...oh screw it, just bottle some six month old MGP and call it a day.

And perhaps nothing epitomizes modern whiskey label stupidity more than Old Dominick, an 8 year old bourbon released by a three year old company to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

Tomorrow: The Year's Stupidest Whiskey Trend

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Sku Awards: Stupidest Bourbon

Everyone is always saying that there just aren't enough whiskey awards. To help cure this horrible shortage, all this week I will be presenting the Sku Awards. While most awards recognize greatness in whiskey or large entry fee payments, the Sku Awards celebrate stupidity, though I am happy to take entry fees. We will get started with the coveted Stupidest Bourbon award.

Stupidest Bourbon: John E. Fitzgerald 20 year old

This is possibly the most competitive category in whiskey today. From Kentucky Owl to Blood Oath to Blade & Bow, it really is the Golden Age of Stupid Bourbon. But just when Diageo thought it had cornered the market on stupid, Heaven Hill blasts in with this tiny vial of diluted Stitzel-Weller juice for $300 that comes in its own tomb.  There's no question, this is the stupidest bourbon of the year, possibly of the decade.

Congratulations to Heaven Hill!  Please contact me for your shelf talker and feel free to add this award to your promotional materials.

Tomorrow: The Year's Stupidest Whiskey Labels

Friday, December 18, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Ichiro's, Craft Whiskeys and More

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

A label cleared for Ichiro's Malt & Grain Whisky by Ichiro Akuto of the Chichibu Distillery in Japan. It appears to be a blend of whiskies from multiple sources.

Independent Scotch bottler Alexander Murray is a major supplier to American grocery stores. They cleared labels showing that they have some pretty old mystery hooch including a cask strength 1962 Highland Malt (but why would you finish a 52 year old malt in sherry for a year? Well, we can probably guess.) and a 1964 Highland Malt. They also cleared some name brand stuff including a 1995 Mortlach, a 1990 Bladnoch and a 1999 Dalmore, among other things.

Ohio craft distillery Tom's Foolery cleared a label for a single barrel Bottled in Bond corn whiskey finished in an applejack barrel.

Another craft distiller, Las Vegas Distillery, released a label for a 10 grain whiskey. Hmm, I'm not sure I can name ten grains, but from their other labels released at the same time, it's probably got rye, corn, oat, millet, spelt and kamut (an ancient wheat) among others.

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, December 16, 2015

Brandy Gifts

On Monday, I recommended some whiskey gifts. Now, it's on to brandy.

One of the best spirits I tasted this year was the Eric Bordelet Selection Calvados distilled by Henri Bernard Beudin, an 18 year old monster of an apple brandy with huge notes of oak, apple and spice. At $115 to $130 for a half bottle, it's expensive, but if you're splurging for a brandy, this is the one to get.

At an easier price point is Copper & Kings' Butchertown Brandy ($60), a powerhouse brandy from a Kentucky producer that is blending sourced brandies.  They also have a lower proof American Small Batch Brandy ($35) and an apple brandy ($40), though I haven't tried either of those yet.

The Domaine de Maouhum and Domaine de Jean-Bon Armagnacs from K&L that I reviewed last week are amazing deals and an easy gift for any brandy lover. Go Maohum for spice and Jean-Bon for fruit.

Happy holidays!

Next week: The Much Awaited Sku Awards!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Whiskey Gifts

Happy holidays!  Here are some of my favorites of this year's new releases for your imbibing friends and family.


The Whisky Exchange had a big hit with a couple of sherry aged single malts from Signatory: a 1998 Laphroaig ($180) and a 1996 Clynelish ($120).  Both were excellent, and the Laphroaig might have been my favorite whiskey of the year.

For lovers of sherried Scotch without the peat, it would be hard to do better than this 1990 Glenfarclas  from K&L ($170). A vatting of two Oloroso sherry casks, this malt is balanced and highly drinkable. Honestly, I'm shocked there is any of this left, but they seem to have plenty.

Another K&L pick I really liked was their release of the Michel Courveur Peaty Overaged Malt ($90), distilled in Scotland, blended in Burgundy.

American Whiskey

My favorite of this year's special releases (that I was able to taste) was the Russell's Reserve 1998 from Wild Turkey, but it's expensive ($250) and hard to find.

For quite a bit less, I was pleasantly surprised by Old Forester 1897 ($50), a Bottled in Bond bourbon that's dry and spicy.

For those of you in the LA area looking for a great deal, Everson Royce in Pasadena bottled a very tasty Old Weller 107 ($30); a really good wheated bourbon at a good price is a rarity these days. UPDATE: Apparently this is now sold out. Sorry folks.

In the rye world, I enjoyed the Redemption Barrel Proof Rye ($100) which is one of the stronger MGP ryes on the market.


This year saw two fantastic new books about American whiskey that would make great gifts. Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker by Fred Minnick ($15) is a deep dive into the world of bourbon. The book goes further than the average bourbon book with detailed information about the grains, water and wood that make bourbon great. Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey by Reid Mitenbuler ($18) is a fun romp through bourbon history. Mitenbuler has a knack for storytelling and illuminating historical parallels with the whiskey world of today.

Coming Wednesday:  Brandy Gifts

Friday, December 11, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Maker's, Octomore and More

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

Maker's Mark cleared a label for Maker's Mark Private Select finished in a "custom recipe of oak staves unique to each barrel." A number of options for the staves are included on the label with check boxes; presumably allowing them to check the various woods that were used for any particular barrel. It looks like this could be a retailer private barrel program, which I don't believe Maker's has ever had before. 

Remy Cointreau cleared a label for a new edition of Octomore from Bruichladdich. Octomore 7.4 is 7 years old, peated to 167 ppm and aged in virgin oak.

Benromach cleared a label for a 35 year old.

New Riff Distillery issued a new label for OKI Antique Barrel Finish Bourbon, a 9 year old MGP bourbon finished in a new charred oak cask.

Breckenridge Bourbon cleared a new label for a blend of straight bourbons, indicating the bourbons i the blend come from more than ones state.

Copper & Kings released a label for Craftwerk, a brandy finished in 3 Floyds Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout 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, December 10, 2015

Armagnacs: Jean-Bon & Manohum

Around the holidays, I always struggle to find great spirits that are actually on the shelves and won't cost a fortune. For the past few months, K&L has had some great Armagnacs that seem to be flying under the radar, so there are plenty on the shelf. They are a series of brandies from Domaine de Jean-Bon and Domaine de Maouhum. Both are small producers located in the Bas Armagnac that use Baco grapes.

Domaine de Maouhum 1987, 28 yo, 46% abv ($73)

The nose is woody with some bourbony caramel and lots of oak. The palate has a nice acidic fruit note, like slightly sour grapes. Going out it has a chewy mouthfeel. The finish is heavy on the menthol with some earthy, spicy notes. TThe finish was a bit too heavy on the menthol but otherwise, a great brandy.

Domaine de Maouhum 1983, 42% abv ($100)

The nose is dry and spicy with ginger. The palate is spiced cider or mulled wine. It comes on sweet with cinnamon, ginger, clove and lemon.  On the palate, the dry, spiciness of the nose returns along with oak and menthol notes. This is very nice and very balanced.

Domaine de Jean-Bon 1990, 25 yo, 45% abv ($80)

The nose is oaky with some light fruit. The palate is sweet and fruity with just a touch of spice toward the end which leads into a spicy finish. This is fun, really drinkable stuff, sweet, fruity and delicious.

Domaine de Jean-Bon 1987, 28 yo, Bas-Armagnac, Baco, 45% ($100)

The nose has huge oak notes along with bourbon and red wine. The palate opens sweet with cane sugar syrup then develops fruit notes with a bit more acid, then some juniper. The finish has light fruit notes with some wood on the palate. It's interesting that the nose can be so intensely woody while the palate retains so much sweetness. 

Domaine de Jean-Bon 1979, 36 yo, 45% abv ($130)

This is another heavily oaky nose, this time even more so and with less fruit. The palate is oaky with a light sweetness and a dry, ashy mouthfeel, like an old red wine. Toward the end, some fruit notes emerge and the finish has a fruity nose and some spice on the palate. Going through these three, you can really see the interplay of oak and fruit over time. The 1990 was fruit forward, the 1979 dry an oaky, and the 1987 is a perfect balance of the two.

These were all very good. The Maouhums are spicier and the Jean-Bons are fruitier. As usual with Armagnac, these are fantastic deals, and they are there for the taking. In addition to these, K&L brought in a Maouhum XO for $50 and a number of other Jean-Bons, including a 1974 ($140), a 1995 ($60) and a 1999 ($50).

Disclaimer: I purchased the 1987s (which sparked my interest in these); the others were samples provided by K&L. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Ham Tasting

American country hams are tragically underappreciated. Few people know that across the mid-south, we have purveyors of cured hams comparable in quality to Italian prosciutto and Spanish jamon. Last year, I wrote about my experience buying a leg of Newsom's Ham Country Ham.

Recently, I was lucky to join a group of friends in a country ham tasting, featuring five hams from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.  Below are the hams we tasted ranked from my fifth to first place pick. In parenthesis I've listed the number that corresponds to the picture above.

5.  Edward's Virginia Smokehouse, Surry, VA (#5 in the picture). The aroma was very smoky with some bacon notes. Texture is very dry. Palate was very salty and very smoky. There were fat on edges but it was fairly lean overall. It has a funky finish and is a bit peppery. This one had more smoke and salt than pork flavor. It was very dry and the only one I really didn't care for.

4. Kite's Country Hams, Wolftown, VA (#2). This one had a funky, gym sock aroma. The texture was moist, medium salty, with not much smoke; it was fairly fatty. It was more funky on the aroma than the palate. It had a nice fresh taste and a soft mouthfeel. It was pretty good stuff.

3. Col. Bill Newsom's, Princeton, KY (#3). This is the ham I wrote up last year. The aroma was bacony. The texture was medium between dry and moist.  On the palate, it was medium salty and very smoky with lots of bacon flavor. It was nicely veined with medium funk. Bacon notes ruled this one; it is very tasty and was a favorite of a number of the tasters.

2. Benton's, Madisonville, TN (#1). This had a nice fresh aroma, dry texture and was fairly salty. There wasn't much in the way of smoke. It was nicely marbled and had some good funk. I thought it was very well balanced, not too extreme in smoke, salt or funky notes.

1. Father's Country Hams, Bremen, KY (#4). This one has a strong aroma of BBQ ribs. The texture was melt-in-your-mouth soft. On the palate, it was fairly salty, not as smoky as the nose with a light funk. It was fairly lean. Most importantly, this one had a beautiful, pure pork flavor. It was super-rich, almost like liver in its richness and was packed with flavor. This one was a transcendent ham for me, about as good as any ham I've eaten.

I have to say, this was probably one of the most fun tastings I've ever done. Hams 1 through 3 were all fantastic. I guess I'm not as big a fan of the Virginia offerings.

If you're not up for a whole ham, many of these producers sell slices or chunks of their great hams. It's a fantastic holiday gift for any pork lover.

Monday, December 7, 2015

New Releases You Don't Need

Given that we are fullt into the holiday season, I thought I would make this easy and review a bunch of new whiskey releases that you don't need to buy.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2015, 12 yo, 50% abv ($80)

I've often been critical of this annual release from Brown Forman (though I did like last year's). This year's release isn't bad. It's got oak and maple syrup on the nose, a touch of acid and vanilla on the palate and a light vanilla finish. It's inoffensive and decent, but why on earth anyone would pay $80 for it, I don't know, especially when you can still get the Old Forester 1897, which is better, for cheaper.  

Maker's 46 Cask Strength, 54.45% ($40 for 375 ml; available only at the distillery gift shop)

I was a big fan of the regular Maker's Mark Cask Strength, and I generally like Maker's 46, so I was excited to try this cask strength version of the barrel stave finished Maker's 46. The nose is floral, earthy and fruity. The palate comes on with sickly sweet candy notes, like Kool-Aid. The sweetness dissipates after a few seconds but there's nothing much left, or whatever is left is so dominated by the initial sweetness that it's undetectable. The finish tastes like artificial sweetener. Yuck. Stay away!

Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Barrel Proof, Barrel 15-4962, 66.1% abv ($65)

Jack Daniel's finally gives us a barrel proof offering with this new version of the single barrel. The nose starts with bananas foster and ends with rotten bananas. The palate is banana liqueur and the finish is banana candy. Surprisingly, it's not too hot for the high abv. Well, JD delivers the bananas, which I suppose their fans must like. I don't much like bananas, so I thought this one was worse than the Maker's Kool-Aid.

For those of you who love to buy every special release, I just saved you $185 (plus tax) and who knows how much on the secondary market!  You're welcome.

Thanks to The Whiskey Jug and Steve Neese for the samples.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

More Angelic: Angel's Envy Cask Strength 2015

The marketing firm for Louisville Distilling Company was kind enough to send me a sample of the new edition of Angel's Envy Cask Strength.  As with the regular Angel's Envy, this is bourbon finished in port casks. This year, they are releasing 7,500 bottles of the Cask Strength. It is the first new release since Bacardi purchased the company.

Angel's Envy Cask Strength, 2015 Release, 63.95% ($170)

The nose has honey and some nutty notes. The palate opens with rich butterscotch. It develops some spice and then turns a bit medicinal. The finish is where you get some port notes which blend well with the caramel. Water brings out some soapy notes.  I prefer it neat - while it's high proof, it doesn't feel hot or alcohol heavy.

This one has improved a lot since it first came out. An earlier batch I tasted was dreadful, but this one is quite good with a nice richness and complexity to it.

Thanks to Aaron at Ro-Bro Marketing for the sample. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

More on Copper & Kings Brandy

My post about Copper & Kings Butchertown Brandy led to a lot of questions and speculation in the comments so I reached out to Copper & Kings' Joe Heron, who had joined the comments, for some answers. There's also a lot of good information on their website. According to Joe:

  • The brandies are sourced from multiple producers in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Ohio, Michigan, and New York State.
  • All of the brandies are distilled in pot stills (note that this would exclude brandies from the big California producers).
  • The blend is 75% aged in bourbon casks and 25% aged in medium char American white oak
  • They use a solera type system with a new blend each year which uses a portion of the previous year's blend. They are up to their fifth blend right now.
  • They purchased brandies at 3 to 12 years old and continued to age them. Current bottlings contain brandies from 54 months to 13 years old, though most of the blend is around 8 or 9 years old. 
  • Sources for pot stilled brandies have pretty much dried up.
  • Their apple brandy is pot distilled, aged in bourbon and sherry casks and the youngest brandies in the blend are four years old.
  • None of the brandies are chill filtered or use any sugar, caramel or boise.

Thanks to Joe for being willing to share information about his brandies.