Straight Bourbon D/FW Gathering

Heaven Hill Select StockWe held our second gathering of the D/FW contingent of the StraightBourbon forum today in Colleyville and it was a relaxing time with some great whiskey.  Here’s the rundown:

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 8 Year Old Straight Bourbon (1789b) – 61.5% ABV, stone fruit, caramel, vanilla, tobacco, not too hot.

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 9 Year Old Straight Bourbon (1789b) - 54.5%, more cherry, less tobacco, sweet, less heat.

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10 Year Old Straight Bourbon (1789b) - 58.5%, good balance of characteristics from 8 & 9, best of bunch.

George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon  2013 – much like old scout with more heat and more flavor, better chocolate and tobacco with dark fruit. Fantastic.

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon (around 2008) – mild heat, muted flavors compared to GTS, lots of wood… I was disappointed.

StraightBourbon Blend (dusty) – This was blended at our last gathering from old paper label bottles of Weller 12 Year Old and Old Weller Antique.  It has a similar to profile to the Pappy Van Winkle above, but with more aroma, more flavor, less wood and better balance.  This is fantastic stuff!

Heaven Hill Select Stock 2013 (StraightBourbon Batch #1) – This is an 8 Year Old wheated bourbon finished in second fill Cognac barrel for 19 months and bottled at 63.8% ABV.  It’s spicy and hot with lots of dark fruit and only mild cognac influence that I can detect… fantastic stuff!

Heaven Hill 6 Year Old Bottled-in-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon - Notes of lemon drop, vanilla, cherry and slightly tannic… a very good whiskey, but not available around here (Kentucky only apparently).

George Dickel Barrel Select 14 Year Old - Mild spice, vanilla, plum, pear, apple, cherry… not as dark as the wheated bourbons. It’s far better than any Jack Daniels that I’ve had, but still not a great whiskey.

Blanton’s Single Barrel #281 Kentucky Straight Bourbon (2014) – Lots of fruit and candy, like lemon drop and cherry, with notes mild tobacco.  Very good!

Blanton’s Single Barrel #244 Kentucky Straight Bourbon (1999) – This one was more woody and slightly medicinal.  I preferred the 2014 with more sweetness and without these characteristics.

Elmer T. Lee Commemorative Edition – Another very good whiskey with a nice balance of dark fruit, candy and wood.  I’m glad I bought a bottle when they were available.

MB Roland Kentucky Apple Pie – This wasn’t at all what I expected… in a good way.  It tasted like liquid Gala or Macintosh apples spiced with cinnamon, allspice and a bit of clove.  It’s not very sweet, but is very rich tasting.

Smooth Ambler Old Scout 6 Year Old – Very similar to 8 year old special selection above, but less bold… still very good.

Penderyn Single Malt - Welsh whiskey that is finished in madeira casks.  Reminds me of Stranahan’s without the rustic elements.  For me, the finish mutes the qualities of the malt and leaves the flavor somewhat flat with an overripe black currant flavor dominating the profile.

The highlight for me was the Heaven Hill Select Stock and I’m really looking forward to tasting Batch #2 with 27 months in cognac barrels… it should be even better.  Honorable mentions are George T. Stagg and Old Scout 10 Year Old, which were both excellent whiskies.  I already have a bottle of Stagg (same 2013 vintage) and will be on the lookout for a barrel proof selection of Old Scout.  The surprises of the day were Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old, which was not near as good as I expected, and MB Roland Kentucky Apple Pie, which far exceeded my expectations.

Black Bull 30 Year Old

Black Bull 30

Blended Scotch, 30 Years,
50% ABV, $184

This is a Scotch blend from Duncan Taylor of 50% malt and 50% grain that is aged for 30 years in ex-sherry oak casks and looks to be a batch from March 2009 (065 09/065 12:31… someone let me know if I’m reading that code incorrectly).  I’ve had a dram from this particular bottle before and really enjoyed it.  At our last tasting, my friend offered me the last pour from the bottle to take home and I thankfully accepted.

The nose is great with a bit of honey, cigar box, straw, dark plum, cherry, overripe banana, candied ginger and butterscotch.  It’s a nice mixture that doesn’t overpower, but draws you in to discover everything that’s there.  It’s more inviting with a bit of finesse rather than being bold.  The invitation seems to be to take a sip….

The first sip immediately reveals the sherry influence with the same dark cherry, plum, vanilla, honey, ginger, lemon drop, straw, overripe green apple and lemon zest.  The finish is long with a lingering leathery, overripe stone fruit profile.  There’s not much spice besides the ginger and the wood is delicately revealed without any tendency to overpower the other flavors.  As I continue to sip, the fruits become more evident and so does the spicy ginger and a bit of black pepper, even while the leathery influence of the wood rises up to offer the needed balance.  Despite all the fruit flavors, it avoids any shift towards sweetness and provides a nice experience of overripe fruit, dark stone fruit, candy, spice and mild leathery wood.

I definitely wish that I had more of this, but it’s now gone.  I highly recommend this whiskey if you ever have the chance to taste it or by some miracle you happen upon a bottle to buy (and aren’t deterred by the price).  This is the best Scotch blend that I’ve had to date by a significant margin.

Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey

BERNHEIM WHEAT WHISKEY

45% ABV, $20

Since I’m tasting alternative whiskeys to bourbon, I thought I’d continue with a small batch wheat whiskey from Heaven Hill, produced at the Bernheim Distillery.  Being a straight wheat whiskey means that Bernheim Original is distilled from a mash of at least 51% wheat and aged for at least 2 years in new charred oak barrels.  Prices range up to the high twenties, but I can find store selections for $20 for the past year or so.

The nose reveals that there’s got to still be a pretty good corn component.  I smell caramel, straw, sweet corn, sweet tobacco and dark cherries amidst a mild alcohol burn. A drop of water accents the tobacco a bit.

The taste is of vanilla, caramel, straw, honey, candied cherries, ginger, plum and pear.  The finish lingers nicely and is fairly spicy with black pepper and ginger and has a leathery feel that fades reasonably quickly.  After adding just a drop of water, the whiskey takes on a sweeter profile with less spice on the finish.  The only new flavor I detect is lemon drop, but the flavors blend together more than before and the leathery mouthfeel and mild wood on the finish remain.

This isn’t a very complex whiskey, but it’s a solid one with a nice mouthfeel and a good balance of fruit, candy and spice flavors to make things interesting, while finishing with enough wood presence to show some age.  I also like the fact that it gives me a bit of insight into wheated bourbons, by showcasing the wheat a bit more.  This is a regular bottle, but I have a store selection that I’ll taste at some point in the not-too-distant future for comparison.  At $20, you can’t go wrong by trying it out, but it’s worth the experience even at $28.

Mellow Corn Kentucky Straight Corn Whiskey

Mellow CornI received another request from Cap’n Jimbo for a review of a bargain whiskey, so I stopped in at Total Wine & More and picked up a bottle of Heaven Hill’s Mellow Corn for $10.49+tax… definitely a bargain price. Being a bonded whiskey (or bottled in bond) means that it’s aged at least 4 years and bottled at 50% ABV.

Isn’t corn whiskey called bourbon, you say?  Actually, here is a good explanation of the differences, but I’ll highlight them for brevity.  Bourbon is distilled from a mash of at least 51% corn, while corn whiskey is at least 80% corn in the mash.  Bourbon is also aged in charred new oak barrels, while corn whiskey is aged in un-charred new oak or used oak barrels.  That’s the law!  So, on to the whiskey….

The nose is a bit hot with a definite corn aroma… corn husk, sweet corn as well as caramel, honey and mild tobacco.  It’s not very different from some bourbons that I’ve had and water doesn’t seem to change things much.

The taste is initially sweet, then transitions to a slightly woody and peppery finish.  Making a brief appearance after the initial sweetness are caramel, honey, fresh cut grass and a bit of cigar box in the background that’s hard to pick out initially, but is more apparent after a while.  The finish is slightly bitter, tannic, leathery and starchy along with the aforementioned spiciness.  The finish lasts a while, but the lingering components are mostly starch and wood.  A drop of water subdues the flavors a bit and kind of muddles them together, but they last a bit longer.  The finish becomes less starchy, but the bitterness and woodiness remains with a bit more spice than before.  More water makes the flavors retreat, but the spicy and starchy finish remains leaving what some might call a mildly harsh whiskey.

It’s not bad, but it’s no winner either.  If I were looking for a whiskey around $10, I would buy a bottle of Evan Williams White Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon (also bottled in bond).  It’s usually $11-12 and is a much better whiskey than Mellow Corn.  Another option is Tom Moore Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon (only 1.75l here) at about $20, which amounts to a lower price per ounce, or Old Grand Dad Bottled in Bond (haven’t had this one, so I’m just basing this on recommendations from others).  If you’re willing to spend a bit more, then try Old Grand Dad 114 for less than $20… it’s quite good.  If corn whisky is really what you’re looking for, then the next best alternative that I know of is Balcones Baby Blue for about $45… not exactly a bargain, though.

Tomintoul Tasting

This month’s tasting at Trinity Hall Irish Pub featured the Tomintoul (pronounced tom’-in-tool), The Gentle Dram.  Here’s what we tasted:

10 Year Old ($40) – Notes of caramel, honey, mild smoke, grass, bitter orange, mild ginger, white pepper, but not very interesting… don’t bother with this one.

12Year Old Oloroso Cask Finish ($70) - Notes of vanilla, white raisin, fresh cut hay, ginger and black pepper with a mildly leathery finish… getting candied ginger after a while… this is better, but way overpriced for an average whisky.

14 Year Old Speyside Glenlivet ($75) - Notes of ginger, grass, pepper, lemongrass, orange peel, honey, leathery and menthol…  bitter and spicy, although a few drops of water tame the bitterness (it is 46% ABV)… another pass.

16 Year Old ($64) – Notes of honey, ginger, vanilla and grass…  mildly bitter and boring… don’t even think about it!

Peaty Tang ($50) – Plenty of peat with a mild sweetness… plenty of spice, but leathery and bitter… a bit of candied ginger after a while… just not that good.

Yamazaki 18 Year Old ($200) – This was the bonus pour for the night and one that I’ve had before at a private tasting.  The Peaty Tang hold over was not good for this fine whisky and almost ruined the experience.  We should’ve had this one before any peat.  Fortunately, I knew how good this one was and worked to cleanse my palate so that I could enjoy the only pour of the night worth enjoying.

Well, the tasting was fun, but the Tomintoul line was a dissappointment.

Private Tasting

GlenDronach Cask Strength, Batch 3Another whiskey tasting hosted by a fellow aficionado, which included (brace yourself):

Old Grand Dad 114° 1980 ($18) - Notes of cherry, vanilla, lemon, pear, tobacco, char, anise… somewhat tannic… very good!

Brenne Single Malt ($60) - dark red grape, bubble gum, strawberry, ice cream, black pepper, overripe banana… very interesting and a decent dram.

Linkwood 18 Year Old Sherry Butt 1988 (Cadenhead’s Cask Ends) - 58.7% ABV with notes of gunpowder, sulphur, ginger, cherry, white pepper, apple, grass… spicy and tangy with too much sulphur

Balvenie 15 Year Old Single Barrel Sherry Cask #4449 ($90) - bright fruits, ginger, lemon, woody finish, clove, bitter honey… sounds better than it is…. not impressed

Balvenie 15 Year Old Single Barrel Sherry Cask #4443 ($90) – milder nose than #4449… same notes, but sweeter with additional clove… better balance than #4449 and the winner of the two, but neither of these is as good as the now discontinued 15 Year Old Single Barrel (Bourbon Cask), which is excellent

Amrut Single Cask August 2012, Batch 10 ($74) - 61.8% ABV with notes of cardamom, clove, lemon, ginger, truffle, pear, honey, black pepper… distinct earthiness about this one… very good

Amrut Intermediate Sherry ($119) - 57.1% ABV and has a mild earthy sweet nose with a woody finish… notes of cinnamon and cherry… very good

Balvenie 42 Year Old 1971 Cask #5034 Sample #130613031 - We were quite fortunate to have 1 of only 3 bottles in the world present for this tasting tonight.  This is one of the components of Tun 1401, Batch #9… 52.4% ABV and mildly earthy with notes of truffles, straw, fresh cut grass, apple, pear, mild honey and white pepper with a mildly woody finish… it just got better and better as I let my pour linger for the rest of the evening… outstanding!

Bruichladdich 22 Year Old October 9, 1991 (Exclusive Casks) – 50.6% ABV with a briny, spicy sweetness of honey, ginger, white pepper, black pepper, vanilla and  cereal… very good stuff!

Probably Speyside’s Finest Distillery 22 Year Old June 1991 Single Cask Refill Hogshead ($120) – This was a Binny’s selection that is probably from Glenfarclas at 50% ABV… notes of honey, white pepper, ginger, apple and pear with a great mouth feel… excellent!

Yamazaki 18 Year Old ($200) – nice balance with great mouthfeel… notes of dark fruit, honey, pear, mild spice, mild wood… excellent!

Glendronach Cask Strength 2013, Batch #3 – 54.9% ABV with earthy notes as well as caramel, vanilla, tobacco, truffle, ginger and pear… outstanding!

Aberlour A’Bunadh Batch #45 ($70) – 60.2% ABV with notes of ginger, bright fruits and pepper… another very good batch.

MacAllan Cask Strength ($80) – 60.1% ABV from a sherry cask… notes of ginger, pepper, honey and cocoa… pretty good.

Brora 30 Year Old 2007 6th Edition - fantastic as when I had it before… farmy, earthy, fruity, spicy… outstanding!

Strathclyde 29 Year Old Single Grain 1980 (Duncan Taylor Cask #1497) ($180) – 56.7% ABV best Scotch grain whiskey I’ve tasted… fruity, mild spice… very nice.

JJ Neukomm Single Barrel Missouri Malt Whiskey – cherry wood, tannic, green apple, herbal, anise… not bad, but nothing great.

Ardbeg Corryvreckan L9 2009 – less peated than any Ardbeg I’ve had… fruity, sweet, slightly medicinal… typical Ardbeg and very good.

There were 4 others after this that I missed:  Ardbeg Auriverdes, Glen Mhor 26 Year Old 1978 (Scott’s Selection), KaVaLan Single Malt 2013, KaVaLan Single Malt Port Cask Finish 2012.  I was just too tired to continue at this point.  I did get a quick taste of Auriverdes in order to decide whether I wanted a bottle on hold for me… it was pretty good, but I passed at $82.

These private tastings have been the most rewarding and interesting, if not the most grueling.  For tonight, the highlight for me was the Glendronach Cask Strength, with the Balvenie 42 Year Old Cask Sample as a close second.  Of course, I was delighted to have another go at Brora 30, which is one of the best whiskies that I’ve tasted.  Honorable mentions go to Probably Speyside’s Finest Distillery 22 Year Old, Yamazaki 18 Year Old and Strathclyde 29 Year Old Single Grain.

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.