Ron Matusalem Gran Reserva 18 Year Old

Cuban Rum, 18 Years, 40% ABV, $32

I originally learned about this rum a few years ago from Cap’n Jimbo’s Rum Project, where it was put forward as a reference standard for Cuban style rum.  Last year, it was discovered from court documents related to a dispute between members of the Matusalem family that the original recipe included macerated prunes and vanilla.  Since then, the current producers apparently started using artificial flavors resulting in the aforementioned dispute.  In any case, this is a relatively inexpensive rum with quite a heritage that has gone through some unfortunate changes recently.  Let’s give it a go….

Nose is sweet with a rich charred character and laced with overripe banana, vanilla bean, sweet tobacco and a feint reediness.  There’s also a bit of black pepper that comes through with more intense inhaling and overripe stone fruits with a softer approach.  It’s not very complex, but very enjoyable, especially if you enjoy sweet fruity aromas.

The taste is immediately sweet and that sweetness carries through to the finish.  Like the nose, there are lots of overripe fruits, but that’s tempered with a mild bitterness like the caramel at the bottom of a good flan.  The reedy character is more noticeable here while the banana and vanilla are joined with soft cocoa before fading into the mildly bitter finish.  It’s an interplay of spices, overripe fruit and sugar cane that takes you from a sweet entrance through a flavorful cascade ending in a fairly long finish of caramelized banana peel and charred wood.  After a while, the black pepper becomes more evident and seems to linger with the reedy quality… like there’s an affinity between the two.  It’s never strong or pronounced, but it’s more noticeable.  With each sip, the sweetness intensifies as it counters the woody caramel finish and reveals overripe pear, overripe dark cherry, orange marmalade (thanks Cap’n Jimbo) and banana peel.  While these other fruits and flavors are noticeable, the initial ones continue to dominate, namely the overripe banana and vanilla.

This is a moderately complex rum that is very enjoyable.  The sweetness played against the bitterness provides some contrast and keeps things interesting, while the overripe fruit character with mild spice develops over time and then lingers with each sip.  We know that this rum is sweetened and I imagine that this is too counter some of the bitterness that is present.  Unfortunately, the added sugar probably mutes some of the flavors that would be expected with a complex rum.  I don’t mind the added fruit and vanilla, as long as it’s natural (not artificially flavored) and clearly labeled, but the added sugar can’t be helping the quality.

For me, this lies between the demeraran and agricole style rums with characteristics consistent with both while never fitting into either category.  The 15 year old is almost as good as this 18 year old and the price is only marginally different.  I’ll be looking for a new reference for Cuban style rum.  In the meantime, give this one or the 15 year old a try.  Both are pretty good.

Balcones Rumble

No Age Statement,
47% ABV, $49

With all of the mess happening in Waco this week, I thought I should have a drink of Rumble tonight.  This is batch R11-6 bottled on April 11, 2011 and I particularly like seeing the initials “CT” handwritten on the label in the Distiller field.  Of course, CT stands for Chip Tate, the head distiller at Balcones and the creator of Rumble, which is a spirit made from Texas wildflower honey, Turbinado sugar and Mission figs.  It’s also the first product offering from Balcones and is bottled at 47% ABV.

Nosing Rumble reveals notes of straw, honey, dried fig (really), dusty cocoa, overripe banana, field-burned cane sugar (as in for harvest) and a bit of cigar box.  At full proof, there’s a bit of alcohol burn, but not much.  Just a touch of water tones that down nicely.

The taste is honey, reedy cane, dried banana, grass, straw, bitter cocoa, bourbon vanilla bean, bruised banana peel and a mild amount of toffee.  The mouthfeel is quite good throughout with an oily coating and carries a bit of white pepper into a finish that is mildly tannic and leathery.  The overripe fruits balance well with a mildly peppery spice and fade slowly into the finish.  After a while, ginger and white pepper become more evident just after the overripe fruit entry and the grassy and reedy notes move to the background.  Just a drop of water opens up the flavors even more with a bit more spice, but it does little else to affect the balance.

This isn’t just unique, but it’s quite good.  I’m reminded of rum, but there’s no confusing this with any rum that I’ve tasted.  It’s enjoyable, easy to drink and distinctly different from start to finish.  You really should give it a try if the profile sounds at all interesting.  If you’re lucky enough to find a bottle of Rumble Cask Reserve, then I would opt for that instead… the $20 premium is well worth it.  Although I’ve tasted it, the only bottle I’ve seen for purchase was deferred to a guest from Canada who went home happy (he probably has the only bottle in the country).

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.