Cleveland Black Reserve Bourbon

Bourbon, 6 Months + 6 Days, 50% ABV, $30

Bourbon, 6 Months + 6 Days,
50% ABV, $30

I was connected up with Tom Lix at Cleveland Whiskey by my good friend, Cap’n Jimbo, who provided a sample of his Black Reserve Bourbon, which is produced using his patented Pressure Aging® process. This process simulates each day of the distillate’s interaction with the wood by varying the pressure so that the it is forced into and then out of the wood. In this way, the claim is that aging is simulated in a fraction of the time and that the equivalent of a much older whiskey is produced in a fraction of the time.

I took it very slowly with this whisky, giving it much more of a look than I typically do, because I believe that:

  • I would be naturally skeptical, but I want to be completely objective,
  • Tom would be sensitive to any negative comments, so I wanted to be sure of what I was saying,
  • this is an important review and not just a tasting of another whiskey… there’s more at stake here because of the claims.

To this end, I avoided reading any reviews and received very little information from Tom or any other source.  I also spent a good couple of weeks and several hours getting experience with Black Reserve.  I allowed time for the whiskey to “breathe” over a couple of weeks while drinking samples and looking for changes.  Of course, I also experimented with water to determine how the whiskey reacted.  In short, I treated this whisky with much more care than normal.

My initial reaction was that this whiskey smells and tastes like bourbon… that’s a good start.  There’s the typical caramel and vanilla with fruits and spices as you would expect.  At 100º, there was an expected burn on the nose along with notes of cherry, wet grass and apple.  The taste was vanilla, lemon, tart cherry, underripe pear, green apple, white pepper and raw ginger.  The finish arrived with a tannic, dry, bitter taste of onion powder and pepper without much mouth feel as it arrived.  While the basic bourbon flavors were there, the young, greener notes were apparent.  Despite the aging claims, this whiskey tasted young… very young.  Adding water just washed out all of the flavors and ruined the experience, so I would not recommend any dilution.

I continued to sample Black Reserve for a couple of weeks and noticed the addition of sap and mild turpentine on the palate (no changes detected by the nose).  The finish was still very tannic with a lingering burn against a backdrop of sap, mild stinkbug (no kidding) and a hint of soap.  While the flavors did develop a bit (not for the better), the whiskey still had a very light mouthfeel and young, green flavors.

I had a friend of mine and fellow whiskey connoisseur offer his tasting notes as well and here are some highlights:

“Nose seems very alcoholic & woody [with] some nuttiness (almond?). Definitely smells like bourbon.”

“Hot, tannic, woody, a hint of nuttiness, slight caramel, no vanilla to speak of, continues to burn without water added.  It’s actually better than I expected. Nuttiness is morphing into turpentine.”

“Adding water… little more sweetness on the palate now.  Don’t care for the finish… not balanced… flavors I don’t like linger.  Just got a hint of cinnamon on the nose [and] some pepperiness now.”

“I think it tastes like a below average aged bourbon.  I don’t hate it, but I’ll let you enjoy the rest of the bottle”

Obviously, the aging claims are bogus from my perspective as this whiskey doesn’t taste like aged bourbon at all; however, the patented process and what it’s able to produce really intrigues me.  Also, I have to say that Tom Lix has been a nice guy to deal with… providing a free bottle for review and interacting throughout the process without anything but gracious responses and an interest in providing my feedback to the production team.  In no way was he overly sensitive to my reaction to his whisky… he just took it in stride and I really appreciated that.  His process has produced some good results as well as some unfortunate side affects (based on my tasting experience) that I’m sure he’ll continue to work feverishly to improve.  Do I think that his objective of fast aging will ever be met?  Of course not!  No matter what this process accomplishes, it cannot turn forward time and produce age… that’s just not possible.  I do think that it has some promise and might produce some interesting whiskey, but it won’t be aged whiskey.  I encourage Tom to continue to develop his process to see what it can produce… you never know what he might discover.

The point of interest with this whiskey is rooted in the technology as compared to the artisan craftsmanship employed in the making of the most revered whiskeys.  I have a great respect for those pioneers who have developed the methods that today’s artisans employ, for the skills that the artisans of today have developed and for the continuous, innovative tweaks to the craft that many of these same artisans discover.  Technology does play a complementary role in the development of fine whiskey even today and these artisans benefit from technology that didn’t exist years ago.  In my opinion, these artisans should not be the target of the Pressure Aging® process because it just can’t compete with the real thing.  Cleveland Whiskey should be creating new types of whiskey and competing with other mass produced spirits.  The objective of the process is obviously to produce something faster and that relates directly to cost.  If they can produce a whiskey very cheaply, then they could undercut the price on every whiskey out there and create a new standard for low cost.  While I’m not interested in that stuff, I’m sure that lots of people would be… not the least of which would be the corporate marketeers.

Today, Cleveland Whiskey compares their Black Reserve with Knob Creek 9 Year Old Small Batch (another 100º bourbon).  They conduct their own taste tests and claim that 1,644 out of 3,010 participants have chosen their Black Reserve over Knob Creek so far. That’s almost 55%!  Personally, it’s hard for me to imagine a single participant choosing Black Reserve and I’ve tasted both, but tastes do vary and I want to respect both the participants choices and Tom’s tasting events.  Knob Creek is just one bourbon though and it’s not a great one anyway (their Single Barrel is!).  At a cost of $30, Black Reserve would have to compare to Evan Williams Vintage Single Barrel, Eagle Rare 10 Year, Old Grand Dad (less than $10), Old Grand Dad 114 (less than $20), Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond (less than $15), Old Forester Signature, Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond Single Barrel, Elijah Craig 12 Year, etc…. and there are some great whiskies in that list.  It’s just not a battle that can be won, in my opinion, and that goes directly to the claims of producing an aged whiskey without actual aging.

Unless you want to experience the product of this unique process, I would skip this whiskey altogether.  The only interesting aspect is the process and not the flavor.

Johnnie Walker Tasting

JW OdysseyThis month’s tasting at Trinity Hall Irish Pub was of the new Johnnie Walker product line.  Diageo Master of Whiskey, Teresa Meyer, was on hand to talk about each of the products and offer some tasting notes as well. Before getting started, we viewed the excellent video production from Johnnie Walker entitled, The Man Who Walked Around the World.  After that introduction, here’s what we sampled:

  • Red Label ($18) –  Made mostly from Carhdu whisky (owned by Johnnie Walker), this is a light, peaty whisky with an aroma of mild smoke, malt, straw, honey and a taste that is grassy with mild peat, honey, apple and pear.  The finish is light and mildly leathery with lingering peat.  I’m really surprised at the amount of peat in this whisky and it’s not a great combination with the light and spicy flavors that can’t stand up to it.
  • Black Label ($27) – A blend of 40 whiskies with 12 year minimum age and the best seller in the JW line. The nose is very good with honey, fruit and feint peat, while the flavors are fruity and mildly spicy with a bit of peat and vanilla.  The finish is dry fruit, mild leather, mild spice and honey rounding out a mildly rich experience with nice mouthfeel and a good balance of sweet and spice.  This is nice whisky for the price and I’m surprised at how much I liked it.
  • Double Black ($32) – This is the newer No Age Statement Black Label offering/replacement.  It was previously a seasonal offering, but is now permanent.  It’s definitely similar to Black Label, but with less depth and a thinner mouthfeel.  Skip this one, go for Black Label and hope that JW doesn’t discontinue it like Green Label.
  • Gold Reserve ($70) - Made up of whisky from Clynelish and Caol Ila distilleries, Gold Reserve (replacement for Gold Label) has a nice nose of plum and honey.  The taste is consistent with the nose with notes of honey, vanilla, ginger, peat, plum and pear, giving way to a mildly peated and leathery finish with a bit of spice and honey. It’s light and flavorful with a light mouthfeel… more of a summer whisky.
  • Platinum Label ($100) - This is the new 18 year offering that really replaces Gold Label and is comprised of mostly Speyside whisky.  The nose is quite nice with a bit of vanilla, straw, honey, plum and cherry.  The taste is the most interesting so far with bits of lemon drop, cherry, honey, ginger, white pepper and straw followed by a sweet and mildly spicy finish.  This whisky steps things up just a bit with a nice nose, a good balance of spice, fruit and candy and some decent mouthfeel.  It’s the first real competitor for Black Label at almost 4 times the price. :-o
  • Blue Label ($182) – This is the premier offering from JW and one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.  It doesn’t disappoint with some cherry, plum, apple, pear, honey, peat and straw on the nose and a richer taste of caramel, vanilla, honey, peat, black pepper, ginger and orange.  The finish is sweet, fruity and spicy resulting in a very nicely balance whisky and plenty of flavor.  If it weren’t so expensive, I could enjoy this one.
  • Johnnie Walker & Sons Odyssey ($1,100) – Marius (Trinity Hall proprietor) secured a bottle of this limited offering that is a blend of 3 malts in a fancy crystal bottle that rotates 360º while in the box.  It has a great nose of vanilla, plum, honey, cigar box, straw and mild peat.  The taste is similar with notes of plum, ginger, pomegranate, honey, vanilla, caramel, orange marmalade and light tobacco before transitioning to a light and sweet finish.  This is the standout of the night with a great nose and a rich, complex taste.  At this price, I would expect no less!

I’m glad to have finally sampled the Johnnie Walker line.  Previously, I had only tasted the plentiful Black Label, which I didn’t remember being as good as I discovered tonight.  It was by far the best value of the entire line and well worth the jump up from Red Label, which I wouldn’t bother with at all.  While Odyssey and Blue Label were impressive, their prices were much more so and put them out of consideration for sure… they’re just not worth the cost of admission.  As good as these whiskies are, there are much better ones available for much less money (Black Bull 12 and  Glendronach 12 to name a couple and Odyssey has nothing on Glendronach 15 Revival at around $80).  Johnnie Walker has quite the following and they appear to offer great consistency from year to year, which is important to plenty of people, but I still don’t see the value above Black Label.  I’m an explorer and easily bored with the same whisky night after night, so I have no daily dram to speak of.  There are plenty of whiskies yet to explore and I’m glad to have sampled these along the way.  Given an opportunity like this one, you should too.

Glenmorangie Tasting

GlenmorangieTonight was another great tasting event at Trinity Hall Irish Pub, with the current Glenmorangie product range on the slate. Dan Crowell was on hand to describe each pour:

  • The Original ($28) – 10 year old ex-bourbon cask… nose of light honey and malt; taste of orange, honey, lemon drop, mild spice, mild wood, nice malt flavor, mildly dry finish… a drop of water reveals a floral aspect and bitterness, but it’s better without it
  • La Santa ($37) – 10 years in ex-bourbon cask, then finished for 2 years in ex-sherry cask… definite sherry nose with plum, cherry, vanilla, raisin… taste of apple, plum, charred oak, date… finish is mildly spicy with milk chocolate
  • Quinta Ruban($37) – 10 years in ex-bourbon cask, then finished for 2 years in port cask… milder nose with prune… taste of prune, spearmint, honey, cocoa, honey, shortbread, vanilla
  • Nectar D’Or (10 years in ex-bourbon cask, then finished for 2 years in sauternes cask… nose of honeysuckle, pear, vanilla… taste of pear, apple, vanilla, wood is toned down a lot, ginger, mild grass… bit sweeter and more onteresting than original
  • 18 Year Old ($76) – 15 year old ex-bourbon cask, then 30% transferred to ex-Oloroso sherry casks… nice fruity nose, apple, plum, fig… taste of spice, white grape, marmalade, ginger… finish is mildly spicy, leathery and slightly sour
  • Ealanta ($186) – 19 year old virgin oak… nose of vanilla, far cherry… taste of vanilla, caramel, honey, apple, pear, ginger, candied fruit, truffles… finish is spicy, long, fruity, mildly leathery… Excellent!
  • Companta ($86) – no age statement, finished in Grand Cru and Rasteau casks… nose of light charred oak, overripe apple… taste of lemon, grapefruit, honey, candied ginger, clove, black pepper, tannins… opens up with a drop of water

As a bonus, we tasted a Rasteau in order to identify the influence in Companta:

  • Alfio Moriconi Cote de Rhônes Rasteau – fortified wine, sour red grape, viney/green stem, cherry, plum… not a great fortified wine

While Ealanta was great (and hard to find now), the rest of the line wasn’t so impressive.  I think that Quinta Ruban and La Santa are good values, but there are other sherry finished malts that compete well with La Santa in the price range or just a bit higher, like GlenDronach 12 or MacAllan 12. Quinta Ruban stands out as one of the few port wood finishes in this price range, so that makes it a bit more interesting.  I would definitely pass on Companta and the 18 Year Old is just a bit too laid back with sour notes that shouldn’t be there.  Nectar D’Or is an interesting whisky with sweet notes that become more prominent over time.  I tend to enjoy it initially, but I can’t have it too often because of the sweetness that tends to be out of balance after spending more time with it.  Finally, I’ve decided that The Original isn’t so good after all… get the superior Monkey Shoulder instead for a few dollars less.

Private Tasting

Black Bull 30A local fellow whiskey enthusiast invited me to his home for a tasting and I enthusiastically accepted. This was a small gathering, including a local pub owner, liquor expert, another enthusiast, the host and me. I was honored to even be included and the lineup was incredible.

We started off by sampling a couple of beers:

  • Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout – nice coffee stout with notes of dark chocolate.
  • Prairie/Evil Twin Bible Belt - this is Evil Twin’s Even More Jesus imperial stout that is spiced like Prairie Artisan Ale’s Bomb! with coffee, vanilla, cacao nibs and chile… this is far less peppery and less complex than Bomb!, but it’s still good with a nice thick, dry dark chocolate flavor along with bitter coffee… the other infused flavors don’t really make much of a showing.

Up next was my first Armagnac and probably my first good brandy:

  • Chateau du St. Aubin Bas-Armagnac – dry, fruity, dark fruits, light wood, sherry finish, beautiful nose, refreshing (per our expert and I agree)… Excellent!

Finally, it was time to sample some whisk(e)y:

  • Mackmyra Special 06 Summer Meadow 2011 – wintergreen, ginger, white pepper, sea salt, white grape, green apple… very nice… may have to look for a bottle next time I’m in Stockholm
  • Glengassaugh The Spirit Drink That Dare Not Speak its Name – this is new make spirit (i.e. unaged) and it was pretty bad stuff… notes of barnyard on the nose and palate… on a positive note, it did give me an idea of what the wood was working on for all that time
  • Bruichladdich The Organic – earthy and sweet with a pure, natural malt profile… notes of dough, spice, ginger, pepper, lemon with a mildly leathery finish… different and very interesting… Excellent!
  • Old Potrero Single Malt Straight Rye – dough, swamp oak (per our host and I agree… thanks for naming that flavor for me), mild spice, honey and sweet tobacco… a different kind of rye… supposed to be old school
  • Glenmorangie 12 Year Sherry Wood Finish 2005 – grape, nice spice and sweetness, long finish, dark fruit, full malt, mild dry cocoa… Excellent… best Glenmorangie I’ve ever tasted!
  • Black Bull 12 Year – bitter caramel, cigar box, white pepper… bold and flavorful… at $45, this is a great buy!
  • Black Bull 40 Year (3rd Release, 41.6% ABV) – grain, more refined, balance of fruit, leather, mild ginger, bitter orange, very mild… I was expecting a lot more… disappointed
  • Black Bull 30 Year – lots of sherry influence, fruity, mild spice, dark fruit, apple, pear, cherry… Best blend I’ve ever had by far!
  • Longmorn 17 Year 1996 (The Ultimate, 57.2% ABV) - spicy, needs water, bold and untamed , fruity, mildly bitter, malty, strong sherry influence, very dark… not too good
  • Aultmore 12 Year 1991 (SMWS 73.12, 58.4% ABV) – spicy, fruity, spreads across the palate, fairly hot, tobacco, dark fruit, mildly sulfurous
  • Glen Grant 17 Year 1988 (SMWS 9.35, 53.9% ABV) – hot, slightly medicinal, fruity, herbal, probably second fill (per our pub owner), a little water opens it up
  • Ardmore 20 Year 1985 (SMWS 66.17, 53.4% ABV) – mildly peated, fruity, sweet, earthy, ashes
  • Glen Scotia 13 Year 1991 (SMWS 93.13, 63.7% ABV) – light fruit, spice, woody, light peat, mildly medicinal, leathery, machine oil (again, thanks to our host for this one)
  • Springbank 12 Year Recharged Sherry Cask 1999 (Springbank Society, 57.9% ABV) – mildly medicinal, fruity, mildly spicy, everything is here and with nice balance, mild peat… Excellent!
  • Brora 30 Year (6th Edition, 55.7% ABV)- bold fruit and spice, amazing balance and complexity, mild peat… Outstanding!
  • Glenlochy 32 Year Refill Butt 1980 (Signatory Cask Strength Collection, Cask #1759, 60.1% ABV) – pure malt, honey, lots of fruit with moderate spice, leathery finish, water really opens it up, fairly ho
  • Port Ellen 25 Year 1982 (Chieftain’s Choice, Cask #1522, 43% ABV) – mildly peated, lots of balance without any boldness, spice, fruit , mild leather… Excellent!
  • Glenfiddich 125th Anniversary Edition – mildly peated, mild spice and fruit, honey… different kind of Glenfiddich and pretty good
  • Laphroaig 9 Year Refill Sherry Butt 2001 (SMWS 29.88, 60.9% ABV) – bold peat, bold spice and fruit, in your face flavor, medicinal with balance… Excellent!

Wow!  What a great lineup of whisky!  The Brora 30 Year was definitely the standout for me and the best single malt I’ve tasted.  Honorable mention goes to Black Bull 30 Year from Duncan Taylor.  It’s too bad that many of these are unavailable, but some of the excellent ones still are, such as Black Bull 12, Bruichladdich The Organic and Chateau du St. Aubin Bas-Armagnac.  These are all worth seeking out!

Irish/Canadian Tasting

Collingwood 21 RyeTonight’s tasting at Trinity Hall Irish Pub included 3 Irish whiskeys and 3 Canadian Rye whiskeys… all of them new to the pub.  Here’s what the lineup included:


  • Jameson Black Barrel ($33) – Sweet nose of vanilla and caramel… taste of honey, fruit, some spice and charred oak… nice whiskey and a big step up from regular Jameson.
  • Green Spot ($42) – Sweet nose of vanilla, caramel and straw, but less sweet than Black Barrel… taste is spicy with notes of apple, pear and a bit of grass, slightly hot and bitter on the finish… not impressed.
  • Teeling Whiskey (estimated $45) – this is the same whiskey that I tasted at the national launch a couple of weeks ago… it’s a bit less medicinal/herbal than I remember and much hotter this time… still not impressed


  • Wisers Rye – very mild nose and very mild flavor with a bit of spice, sweet maple and apple… not much here, so I’ll pass
  • Pike Creek Port Finish ($24) – sweet nose with vanilla, plum and caramel… port seems to tone down the spice in a good way (but it’s still there)… also, notes of sweet rye, fruit and a little bit of maple… nice, simple whiskey at a good price with some interesting flavors
  • Collingwood 21 ($52) – nose of peach, green apple, caramel and honeysuckle (we were actually trying to guess at the evident floral component)…  flavors of charred maple syrup, toffee, honey, tobacco, cardboard, lavender and bitter herbs… a strange whiskey that I would pass up, especially for the price… plus the bottle looks like an oversized cologne bottle… I kept thinking I should splash some on ;-)


  • Stagg, Jr. ($40) – This is the same batch that I reviewed recently and easily the best pour of the night.

El Dorado 15 Year Old Special Reserve

Demerara Rum, 15 Years, 40% ABV, $32

I’ve been enjoying this rum for quite some time and it’s become a favorite of mine, even though it has recently come under fire for undeclared additives (a significant amount of sugar), effectively destroying the presumed purity of this Caribbean classic.  I know… what a way to open a review!  That’s definitely a digression, so let’s start from the top.

This very dark rum comes in a classic “squatty” rum bottle (and nicely boxed, I might add). It’s a blend of “specially selected aged rums, some as old as 25 years, from the Enmore and Diamond Coffey stills, the Port Mourant double wooden pot still and the Versailles single wooden pot still, [which] is blended to perfection and aged in old bourbon oak casks.”  There’s definitely a lot of history associated with the unique stills employed by Demerara Distillers in the making of El Dorado rum.  It’s also interesting to note that each of the products are distinct blends and not merely various ages of the same blend.  This provides more of an adventure in exploring the range and I recommend doing so… I’ve been impressed with everything I’ve tried so far.  The unique blend employed here is aged for 15 years “in old bourbon oak casks.”

The nose is a rich entanglement of molasses, prunes, vanilla, straw, sweet tobacco, overripe pear, honey, charred oak, pomegranate, wet grass and ginger.  There’s the slightest amount of heat, but it’s mostly sweet and rich with just a note of musty leather.  The taste is similarly sweet, rich, flavorful and mildly hot.  Initially sweet, the flavors arrive in waves of fruit followed by waves of spice as you anticipate the transition to a slightly leathery, fruity finish with a bit of musty bitterness.  The first wave brings sweet tobacco, caramel, prunes and honey followed by a wave of pear, molasses, vanilla, bitter orange, overripe banana and fresh straw.  Next a wave of charred wood, ginger, plantain and white pepper overlap the previous wave and then both fade into the finish.  It’s really interesting to note the arrival of the flavors with each sip and this experience keeps the entire pour desirable and pleasurable.  The sweetness is noticeable, but not objectionable.  I just wish I could experience it without the added sugar.

At the current $32 per bottle, this is truly a bargain for a masterpiece of history and flavor.  Of all the rums that I’ve tasted, this is the most alluring… almost calling me whenever I glance at the bottle.   There are better rums for sure, but this is definitely a favorite.  If you want a cheaper introduction to El Dorado Rum, then give the 8 Year Old a try at less than $20… you’ll be amazed!  I hope to give the sweeter 12 Year Old a try this year.

Update: I’ve received some offline comments from my good friend, Cap’n Jimbo, so I’d like to offer some clarifications.

  • The fact that Demerara Distillers adds sugar to a premium offering like El Dorado 15 Year, especially 31 g/l (among the highest in the industry), is truly disheartening.  This is effectively a pollution of the Demerara style which they represent and a sad omen for things to come with respect to their products (I hope I’m wrong about this, at least for their premium offerings).
  • I still think that El Dorado 15 Year is a great tasting rum and has some complexity and flavor robustness that is rare in the $30 range; however, it is no longer representative of the Demerara style of rum that it once was.  I say this because I have it on good authority that the addition of sugar is a recent change and, in my opinion, a sad one.  I’ll be on the lookout for good examples of the Demerara style, which is my favorite so far.  At this point, my reference is Flor de Caña Centenario Gold 18 Year.
  • El Dorado 15 is now officially my favorite flavored rum. ;-)

Stagg, Jr. Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Straight Bourbon, No Age Statement, 67.2% ABV, $48

At 134.4°, this is a whiskey that you just don’t inhale deeply without a good shock to the system. No, this is a whiskey that demands some respect. Giving it a careful whiff reveals a rich aroma of dark cherry, vanilla, caramel, red apple, straw, sweet tobacco, overripe pear and a good burn, if you’re not careful. Nose it delicately and it’s very rewarding.

At full proof, its a bold, flavorful whiskey with a robust burning sensation that fades fairly quickly, leaving behind a sweet, leathery mix of vanilla, tobacco and dark fruit. That initial burst of flavor is full of honey, cherry, tobacco, hay, lemon drop, molasses, ginger, black pepper and vanilla.

Adding a few drops of water tones down the burn just a bit, allowing me to smell everything a bit better without losing any aromatic intensity. Similarly, the burn in my mouth is slightly subdued, but the flavors burst forth more quickly before fading to make way for the finish, which is still long, mildly tannic, peppery, slightly leathery and accented with the same sweet tobacco, dark fruit and vanilla.

I still haven’t tasted George T. Stagg, but I really like this whiskey. I prefer the darker fruit emphasis without water, but it is a bit hot like that… not to the point of being objectionable for me. I do add a few drops on occasion just to change things up. It reminds me of a bolder version of Eagle Rare 10 with more dark fruit and candy. It is bursting with flavor! Even at twice the price, I think this is worth it. It’s my favorite bourbon to date aside from the immensely better Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year, and that’s just too expensive and hard to find. I highly recommend Stagg, Jr. if you’re not averse to a bit more hot alcohol burn than normal. By the way, this is bottling B1319607:27M (July 15, 2013 7:27am).