Monthly Archives: April 2008

Knob Creek

After last week’s screed against nostalgia-based marketing, I chose a bourbon that relies less on grandfather-distillers of yore and focuses more on stuff their grandchildren are making today.

Presentation:

Knob Creek’s marketing material on the bottle is refreshingly contemporary, while not completely eschewing references to less mechanized times. They use sans-serif fonts, irregular angles, and intersecting text while making nod to the past with the wax-sealed top and the singular serrated label edge. The bottle text does not speak of ancient recipes or generations old practices, rather it focus on the care that goes into the product itself: 9-year aging, small batch, straight bourbon.

The one deceiving element, however, is the fact that this presentation would have you believe that Knob Creek is a small-time craft distiller, when in fact it’s an arm of Jim Beam and created on the same stills with similar methods.

Tasting:

Opening the bottle releases a sweet whiff of post-rain freshness, but the real fireworks start after it’s poured. The nose definitely tells you this is an assertive drink – definitely 100 proof: warm, wet asphalt, oak, hard candy.

Knob Creek is even less subtle on the palate. It comes in swinging with sweetness and and almost-citrusy tartness. This is followed by a fruity, meaty depth you can sink your teeth into. It finishes long and slow with spice mellowing into a lingering oak.

Over all:

This is a very assertive drink and equally enjoyable. The extra few years in the barrel seem to have done a lot of good. Knob Creek is perhaps the first bourbon I’ve tasted in the course of this blog that could go head-to-head with many single malt scotches as far as complexity and meatiness go.

Definitely my favorite so far.


American Whiskey’s Nostalgia Fetish (and Bulleit Bourbon)

The American whiskey industry’s fetish for nostalgia marketing: it baffles me. It really does. It’s not as if Scottish whisky is branded too differently, but American brands have gone to great lengths to manufacture a – largely imagined – distilling past that involves rugged mountain men hewing a nation out of raw nature.

Sure, it’s romantic, and I’m just as susceptible to these narratives as the next guy, but ultimately this strikes me as a destructive practice. We are in the midst of an unprecedented moment: an explosion of variety, techniques, and interest combined with competitive pricing in comparison to Scottish product and a market hungry for innovation. In my mind, brands should be highlighting characteristics that feed this unique postion for American whiskey.

Look at Old Potrero and Buffalo Trace. Both are active in driving American liquor production to new territory, actively tweaking and expanding upon tradition to create exciting, new offerings. Yet, at the same time, both brands’ flagship products are painted with a thickly nostalgic brush. They should be coming out and trumpeting their innovation to the broader market, rather than the Malt Advocate crowd alone.

This leads me to this week’s tasting: Bulleit Bourbon.

Presentation:

At first glance, Bulleit leans heavily on nostalgia. From the serrated label, to the blocky font, to the medicine-flask bottle, they would have you believe that they dug this out of old Augustine Bulleit’s grave. In fact, none of the copy on the bottle speaks to what the product inside might be like – it is entirely devoted to convincing the consumer that this whiskey has a long history and has never changed.

The most telling indication of the nostalgic reliance is in the labeling of the product as “frontier whiskey” – as if this bottle was produced in the days of nascent American whiskey production.

Tasting:

Upon first opening the bottle is a gentle, sweet nose with a not-insignificant corn presence. Goes with their “frontier whiskey” claim, certainly.

The full nose is not too different from the initial impression: sweetness, corn, some latex. I was a little surprised by the lack of charcoal and post-rain freshness to it.

Upon drinking, Bulleit is largely unassuming. It begins and ends quietly, with a clean sweetness throughout. There is less corn on the tongue than in the nose and there is a noticeable flash of not-altogether unappealing must in the middle.

Over all:

This is certainly drinkable, but all in all is a little boring.

Clearly, Bulleit has focused all effort on making their product fit into the correct nostalgic category. They would be better served focusing on what they fill the bottle with, rather than what misleading narratives they print on it.


Hudson Single Malt Whiskey

After trying my hand with some well-buzzed Kentucky bourbons over the last two weeks, I’ve decided to venture out from the Bluegrass State and try something a little closer to home – both geographically and nominally. I’m a single malt Scotch drinker in New York and this week I tried Tuthilltown Spirits’ Hudson Single Malt Whiskey (HSMW).

Presentation:

HSMW comes in a short, stout little bottle with varying thickness of the glass, especially around the top. This, along with the hand numbering and un-machinic wax-sealed cork, gives off a very homemade, little guy impression. I have to say that this is not at all unwelcome, especially given the carefully crafted reflective nostalgia of Buffalo Trace’s flagship brand and (to a lesser extent) Four Roses’ Small Batch offering. Tuhilltown’s products come across as unpretentiously American, authentic, while still reviving an older style of liquor production.

My expectations for HSMW were mainly drawn from 1) the 100% barley mash and 2) the use of petite, new charred oak casks. I expected a higher complexity of flavor compared to the Kentucky bourbons I’d sampled the past two weeks, as well as heavy charred oak influence with a bit of vanilla. Basically, I imagined the influence of the smaller casks used in Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask translated to a less corn-driven whiskey.

It turns out I was a bit off.

Tasting:

To the nose, HSMW was wonderfully light and oaky with an every so slight hint of vanilla. This was more akin to the Four Roses Small Batch than it was to most Scotches or the Buffalo Trace.

Upon drinking the oakiness becomes very dominant. There is no doubt that the choice of casks had a strong influence. After the oak though, there were waves of freshly cut grass and an almost hidden twinge of nectar. The finish was very clean.

Over all:

HSMW was far less complex than I had expected or hoped. Still, this was a very enjoyable, drinkable whiskey that stands out from the crowd.

It seems that what they have here is a promising, but largely blank, canvas that could do with more aging and varied cask selection. Clearly the whiskey drew much of its character from the petite oak casks, so I’d be curious to sample a variation with either more time in that cask, or influence from sherry, zinfandel, or other casks along those lines.

That said, I can see myself coming back to HSMW more regularly than Four Roses or Buffalo Trace. I’m intrigued to find out more about the other Tuthilltown offerings.


Four Roses – Small Batch

The bottle of Four Roses Small Batch was sold to me to contrast the Buffalo Trace I was purchasing at the same time. Supposedly the Four Roses would play the good cop to Buffalo Trace’s intense and bold bad cop.

Presentation:

Without even opening either bottle it’s pretty clear that Four Roses has something like this in mind. Small Batch comes in a distinctively feminine bottle (in shape) compared to Buffalo Trace’s prominent phallus – a bottle one would sooner expect of cognac than bourbon. This dissonance in comparison with other bourbons’ presentation is underscored by the wide-mouthed cork and raised-glass roses at the center of the face.

Overall, the presentation is quite attractive and succeeds in presenting the product as something deserving of both savor and a higher price tag. It pushes the drink away from a Buffalo Trace-style of Americana to an Americana more genteel and refined, and perhaps toward those who might otherwise shy away from bourbon.

There is at least one nod toward the manly-bourbon style: the faux-aged label that surrounds the raised-glass roses. What is it with bourbon that requires a faux-aged label? For all that Four Roses does with Small Batch to differentiate it, this is one irksome backtrack.

Tasting:

Upon opening a new bottle, the aromas take some time to sneak out as opposed to leaping from the mouth to our nose as a Talisker or Buffalo Trace might. When poured, the aromas manage to be both gentle and rich somehow. There is certainly a sweetness reminiscent of fruit juices and vanilla, but there’s also something resembling a distant barbecue on a summer evening. It wasn’t the easiest combination of scents to pin down, yet at the same time it has a steady presence to it.

On tasting, the sweetness certainly hits you first – the fruitiness and almost-citrus. Immediately after is a slight spiciness. These flavors are not intense but are self-assured. There’s very little wavering leading up to the very clean finish.

This would be a great bourbon to give to folks who have only experienced the Jack Daniels and Jim Beam end of things. Four Roses Small Batch is an interesting case. Simple, yet with enough depth to satisfy.


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