Category Archives: Bourbon

Buck Bourbon

Picked up this bottle  back in January while on a pilgrimage to NYC’s Astor Wines. I haven’t seen it many places and there isn’t too much written about it out there, so it seems like as good a way as any to reignite my summer tasting schedule. Judging from the Frank-Lin Distillers site, this upper-midrange bourbon is made for “ranchers and cowboys” — more the self-styled variety than the actual no doubt. I don’t plan on rustling any cattle later, but I have seen The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly before, so here’s hoping that’s good enough.

Stats:

- $40–45ish

- 90 proof

- Made by Frank-Lin Distillers

Presentation:

Affected, yes; unattractive, no. The main feature of Buck’s bottling is a rodeo-rider on a bucking horse underneath the name of the whiskey and its age (a rodeo-appropriate 8 years). There’s some tan/black filagree along the top of the label and framing the prominently placed basic info: “Old Fashioned Sour Mash”; “Small Batch”; proof/percentage/volume; “Ranch Hand Certified.” Useful, but that last one makes me feel a little silly buying this at all. The shape of the bottle is satisfying — feels heftier than most 750ml bottles and has a nice tall stance to it. I also like the design of the cork wrapping. It’s a nice detail to the over all appearance.

Tasting:

There’s dried grass and pineapple at first on the nose, followed by more sweet scents (strawberryish) and but with the dry grass remaining strong with almost some maple-like hints. Liking this so far.

That sweetness almost completely disappears on the tongue. The dry grass bursts forward and is followed by a lingering bitter pepperiness. Though there are some sweet notes later on they are drowned out by the assertive spiciness that dominates throughout. This is is an aggressive bourbon. If it weren’t already obvious, the finish is long and strong.

Over all:

Well, I guess ranch hands and cowboys are no wimps and Buck isn’t either. Even as a non-smoker, this makes me want to drink it with a nice cigar. I’d recommend having it on ice and only giving it to bourbon newbies if your want to scare them off from your collection. Despite all this, it’s good and well worth the money if you’re a fan of bold and spicy bourbons.


Angel’s Envy

I’ve heard about Angel’s Envy every now and then over the past couple of months and its launch earlier this year seems to have been well received. It certainly is intriguing if only for the fact that the plan is to make a different expression each year. This has worked well for Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbons and I like the potential for an evolving product line. On top of that, it seems that this year’s expression has been finished in port casks — this is the kind of development and experimentation I like to see in American whiskey production. While it’s a familiar process across the Atlantic, sometimes it seems like the Bourbon Purists scare the experimental streak out of whiskey production over here, so even a modest level of experimentation like this is welcome. Here’s hoping it lives up to its promise.

Stats:

- $45ish

- 43.3%

- Made by Louisville Distilling Company

Presentation:

Unfortunately, all I have is a sample-sized bottle in front of me, so I can’t go into too much detail in this respect. However, from what I can tell from the image, the bottle avoids gratuitous nostalgia, but perhaps tries a little too hard to pull at the heart-strings of the whiskey-hipster set with that typeface. I appreciate the simplicity and flowing profile, so over all not too bad.

Tasting:

On the nose, I get a solid ripe-grain scent integrated with dark cherry and a distant char. It’s forward, but solid to the nose, with some lingering alcohol wafting up more than I might usually like. Tasting  it, the bold spicy/peppery character comes across immediately, beneath that there’s vanilla and caramel with some hint of that dark cherry note from the nose. The finish is very long and pleasantly spicy with some pine notes coming toward the end.

Over all:

Maybe it was my focus on the port cask finishing, or the delicate bottle design, but I was expecting a much lighter style for Angel’s Envy. That said, I’m pleasantly surprised by its forward character and bold spiciness. It was hard to distinguish what came from the port casks, it came across with a unified, confident profile. I’m impressed, nice work.

*Note: This review was based on samples sent to me by a representative of LDC. I assure you, this did not affect my review except prevent me from criticizing the bottle.


Black Maple Hill – Small Batch

Black Maple Hill is a bourbon that friends have been recommending for a while now, but I haven’t gotten around to tasting it until now.  It’s become a common sight in the growing number of bars in NYC that stock a decent selection of bourbon – so it’s clearly not an under-the-radar newcomer.  In fact, it’s apparently produced by Heaven Hill so there’s significant heft behind this brand.  Looking forward to seeing what it’s got.

Stats:

- $30ish

- 95 proof

- Made by Heaven Hill, bottled by Black Maple Hill

Presentation:

Black Maple Hill’s bottle is understated compared to some other bourbons you’ll find in this range.  The label uses just one color and that color very closely matches the color of the whiskey inside, creating a soft melding of all the bottle’s elements.  The proof is listed in faux handwriting, but the etching on the main front label avoids this type of approach, rather the simple horse/forest scene pushes the eye up toward the brand name at the top.

Tasting:

To the nose, Black Maple Hill comes across first as dominated with charred oak but it seems like there’s something young about it in the background with corn and alcohol sneaking through.  On the tongue, however, the first impression is a peppery burst, which gives way to a full-mouth sensation of dry summer grass.  This builds up to a nice grainy sensation then dies down into a medium-warm, medium-long finish.

Over all:

I like this, but it’s not my favorite.  I’d like to see a better texture to this bourbon, which otherwise feels quite light.  That said, I quite like the ‘dry summer grass’ notes to it and this might (just maybe) be something I’d have with a cube of ice – but I reserve the right to take that back.


W.L. Weller Special Reserve

W.L. Weller Antique is one of the earliest bourbons I tasted for this blog (now about 2 years old, wow).  Back then, it impressed me over time, proving surprisingly meaty for a wheated bourbon.  Tonight, I’m giving another W.L. Weller expression a try – the W.L. Weller Special Reserve.  This bottle seems to have more than its share of fans out there on the internet as a bourbon with a good quality to price ratio.  This internet thing has led me down some dead ends before, but let’s see what this seven-year aged, wheated bourbon has to offer.

Stats:

- $17ish

- 90 proof

- Made by Buffalo Trace

Presentation:

Judging from what I’m seeing on Google image search, it looks like Weller Special recently switched bottles from the common, broad shouldered bottle to something more bulbous and generally more dignified – if only because it’s not the same bottle that Rebel Yell uses.  The label sits very low on the bottle, right down near the base, and informs its viewer that this bourbon has been enjoyed by connoisseurs since 1849 – the same year referenced by one of my favorites, Old Fitzgerald.  This is no surprise considering these brands share a common heritage in Mr. Weller.  The name and description is printed in old-timey bourbon script while the rest of the type in gold-trimmed block lettering on a white background.  The low placement and rounded contours of the new bottle do a lot to show off the bourbon inside and is generally quite appealing.

Tasting:

On the nose Weller Special comes across very sweet with notes of raspberries and mango as my first impression.  There’s also a bit of grass in there, but with an edge of char from the barrel.  Very bright and pleasant.

That same sweetness comes through on the tasting as well, in fact it’s sweet from start to finish.  It’s one of those bourbons with a light mouth-feel and high berry flavors such that it comes across as almost juicy.  Right at the start the grassy flavors and wheat influence express themselves and stick around even as berries and candies come into play.  This bourbon dances toward the tip of the tongue as the finish is still boldly lemon-drop filled, but retains a slight spicy/warm edge to it.

Over all:

This couldn’t be more different from Weller Antique in its disposition.  Where Antique is an ornery companion with some good stories to tell, Special Reserve is happy-go-lucky and filled with bright colors.  This isn’t my favorite style, but this is done pretty well I have to admit.  The grains come through in a great way and this is really just a pleasant drink.  I have to say I can see why this is seen as such a good deal – at $17 it certainly over-delivers.


Sam Houston

The folks who brought us a bourbon named for Thomas Jefferson also produce one honoring first and third President of Texas, Sam Houston.  What are they getting at with this brand?  Texans?  Southern Union-sympathizers?  Modern-day Know-Nothings?  I can’t claim identification with any of these but I’m running out of new bourbons at Astor Wines (and it is such an odd yet stereotype-fitting name) so I picked up a bottle last week.

Interestingly, this bottle of Sam Houston clocks in at a precise 85.6 proof, which got me thinking this is some veiled reference to they year 1856.  After some quick searching though, this seems to have been a quiet period in President Houston’s life – though he did lose out heftily in the Know-Nothing party’s Presidential nominations to Millard Fillmore.  Not quite juicy enough to be legit.  Onward.

Stats:

- $30-35

- Made by McLain & Kyne

- 85.6 proof

Presentation:

Though styled in a manner typical for bourbons (faux-aged, script, block letters, dark background) Sam Houston pulls it off comparatively well.  At first I thought that the scuffing around the edges of the label was intentional, but after looking at a number of other pictures of the bottle, it seems to be unique to mine.  If this is, in fact, real scuffing, I’d say it’s a happy accident that the Houston boys should emulate.  If not, however, they’ve done a convincing job.

On a more general level though, the cut of the label compliments the curves of the bottle and the layout is largely uncluttered.  It places its focus on the name and portrait of the man himself, while the other elements fade back.  The rear label has the usual shtick about reflecting the nature of the man in bourbon form and so on.  To top it all off, the foil wrapping over the stopper carries a lone star and the words “Republic of Texas.”

Tasting:

The scent comes across as very hard and closed.  There’s a dominant sense of hot asphalt just as rain is beginning to fall.  Beyond that it’s just wood.

That hardness translates into a smooth and rich opening on the tongue.  This begins with a near-creamy sweetness that develops into a pleasant, mouth-filling rye and dry grass flavor.  The finish is long, warm, and peppery.

Over all:

President Houston and I may not have much common ground personally, but this whisky (they don’t use the ‘e’) is fantastic.  It’s dry, meaty yet well balanced, and has a good amount of depth to it.  This is certainly one of the best bourbons I’ve had recently.  Well done.


Old Crow Reserve

“Old Crow Reserve” probably sounds a little ridiculous to those who have had some experience with the standard Old Crow.  When I originally tasted that bourbon I was disappointed by its bland, unremarkable character, so it’s hard to imagine that whatever Beam has managed to “reserve” from their Old Crow line is going to be all that special.  In fact, I’m curious about their motivation in releasing this label.  Beam already has a full range of easy-to-find bourbons from Old Crow to Booker’s and everything in between, taking the Old Crow brand up a notch seems gratuitous.

I don’t mean to knock bottom-shelf bourbons here.  I’m a big believer that in the American whiskey world in particular price isn’t always a reliable indicator of quality.  The modestly priced Old Fitzgerald 1849 remains one of my favorites, and I’m sure there are plenty of folks who love their Old Crow.  Was there really someone thinking to himself “Gosh, if only this Old Crow were just a little bit better, but not as good as Jim Beam white label….”?  At least the financial risk of finding out whether it’s worth it is low.

Stats:

- $14ish

- Unless straightbourbon.com misleads me, this is a Jim Beam product

- 86 proof (Old Crow original is 80)

Presentation:

I’m a sucker for black labels I think.  The dark background makes all the other elements pop that much more.  On top of that, the empty white of the regular Old Crow label just looks unfinished.  On the Reserve here, we see a black and gold pinstripe pattern overlaid by the standard bourbon descriptors: “Kentucky straight,” “original,” “sour mash,” and the like.  (It’s important to note here that Old Crow is named for the originator of the sour mash method.)  I do appreciate the red-lettered “86 PROOF” on the left side and the way it contrasts with the rest of the presentation; on the other hand, I think they could do a lot more with their crow logo than they are now.  Crows are such loaded signifiers: they’re harbingers of bad news, they gather in ‘murders’, they accompany witches and demons in pop culture.  They should leverage this.

Tasting:

There’s a lot more to the nose on this one that its unreserved sibling.  Beyond the clear char, there’s an element that I find difficult to describe, but the closest I can get is the smell of a dry pine plank after you’ve sanded it down for a few minutes: strong wood, but not resinous and not exactly oak.  So far so good.

On the tongue, I get a strong sweetness up front with touches of orange and honey.  This moves into a vanilla then quickly switches to charred oak and leaves a medium-dry and prominently woody finish.

Over all:

This is a significant improvement over the regular Old Crow.  It’s just one extra year in the barrel, but that does make a good amount of difference – in fact this verges on being overly woody in the end.  There aren’t any unpleasant flavors to it but it is lacking in some depth.  For the price, I’d say this is a decent choice.  I think I have to retract my earlier doubts about the purpose of this bourbon – in my book, as long as it tastes good and has a good quality-to-price ratio it’s worth having around.  Now if only they’ll replace regular Old Crow with this…


Old Williamsburg

I’ve lived in Brooklyn for nearly four years now, but I’ve never had the occasion to try Old Williamsburg Kentucky Straight Bourbon.  This isn’t much of a surprise since this 80 proof version doesn’t exactly rake in the good reviews.  It is, however, quite cheap and that picture of the Brooklyn Bridge on the label ignites a little local pride (though I have to note that the Brooklyn Bridge does not actually connect to the neighborhood of Williamsburg at all).

I can’t say that I’m expecting too much from this one, but it might have some potential to win in the quality-to-price ratio department given the small denominator in that equation.  Let’s see.

Stats:

- $15ish

- 80 proof

- Bottled by Old Williamsburg Products Co. (who makes this stuff, anyone know?)

Presentation:

Old Williamsburg does not have a bad design.  While the bourbon itself is a little on the sickly yellow side, that actually goes pretty well with the black and gold of the label.  In the center is a print of the Brooklyn Bridge and surrounding it are some standard bourbon descriptors: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.  The only flourishes are some gold curls and a small crown atop it all.  This front label, while hardly innovative, is certainly appealing.

The rear label tells us that Old Williamsburg was the county seat for the city of Brooklyn in the late 19th century and requests that we make this our drink of choice.  At the very end, in all caps, they’ve inscribed “THIS WHISKEY IS THIRTY-SIX MONTHS OLD.”  I suppose that might fool some folks into thinking that it’s pretty old, but three years is considered to be on the young side in the world of bourbon.

Tasting:

This smells a bit like car tires on a hot day and wet rope fibers.  There’s some char and a decent amount of corn in there too.

There’s not too much going on taste-wise however.  There’s definitely some asphaltiness, a hint of wood toward the sides of the tongue, and corn, but for the most part it’s just heat and a clean but hot finish.  Not unpleasant, though.

Over all:

Sadly, I’m impressed with the lackluster performance of Old Williamsburg – I wasn’t expecting even this.  If I were throwing a party and needed something to mix with ginger ale, I might just use OW.  This won’t hit the spot if you sip it on its own, but it won’t make a cheap cocktail into a terrible one.


Rowan’s Creek

A month since my last post!  Sorry about that.

I’m back with one of those bourbons I’ve had my eye on for years but haven’t gotten around to trying: Rowan’s Creek.  I have tried a few of the other offerings from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers out of Bardstown, though.  Their line includes Johnny Drum, Willett’s, Noah’s Mill, and Kentucky Vintage among others – an impressive range for sure.  Rowan’s Creek in particular has a solid reputation among the folks I’ve spoken to about it so this is one that should be interesting.

Stats:

- $35

- 100.1 proof (precisely)

- Made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers

Presentation:

Rowan’s Creek walks a fine line between appearing charmingly amateur and looking cynically so.  The simplicity and written-out sentences on the front labels don’t come across like marketing-department copy, but the intentionally roughed edges and stained coloring just seem to be trying a little too hard.  The rear label also goes off on one of those origin tales that bother me about a judge and his creek way back in the good ole days.  That said, there is a theme of unabashed and unrefined pride in the product throughout the packaging, which for some reason comes across like they mean it.

Otherwise, the bottle has a nice, more wine-like, shape and is topped off by a simple wax sealing.

Tasting:

There’s a nice big nose on this one: I get sweet peaches, hot bricks, dried grass, and a touch of the alcohol coming through.  On the tongue, that dried grass comes through but the sweetness doesn’t express itself until mid-way in the form of an almost-raspberry.  The last half of it is strong on the oak end of the spectrum with spikes of dark chocolate in there.  The finish is long, warm, and still oaky.  What’s most impressive about Rowan’s Creek though is the mouth feel.  This has a luxurious full texture to it almost to the point of feeling syrupy.

Over all:

Now that I’m a few sips into this one, I’m liking it more than when I wrote those words above.  It is certainly developing over time in interesting ways.  I like this quite a bit, but I think my expectations were a little high because it’s not quite what I’d hoped it would be.  Oh well – I should enjoy it for what it is, a very good bourbon.


Old Forester

I’m a loyal fan to the Old Forester Birthday Bourbon series – every year I look forward to its release and each year it is surprising and interesting in a different way.  However, I’ve somehow never managed to try their main release.  Old Forester claims to be America’s first bottled bourbon, and if I remember my Cowdery correctly, this is a result of George Brown desiring to guarantee the quality of the ‘medicinal’ bourbon he sold.  By bottling only the spirit from barrels that met his standards, his customers/patients could be assured that they were getting the good stuff by making sure to purchase his personally signed bottles.

At first glance the recently redesigned bottle in front of me makes some allusions to this history, hopefully it will measure up to its Birthday brethren.

Stats:

- $24ish

- 86 proof

- Made by Brown-Forman

Presentation:

The Old Forester bottle has a simple, round, and reasonably tall base and a slightly bulbed neck leading to a small mouth.  The front label is dominated by a red and cream diamond in the center with the brand name and the proclamation of being America’s first bottled bourbon.  Behind this in pale gold script are some hyperbolic lines about the bourbon.  In most cases this is nothing special, but on Old Forester it recalls the original use of bottles to convey the legitimacy of the product it contains.  Just as George Brown presumably inscribed his bottles with descriptions of its quality – so too today.  Over all the bottle looks fresh and appealing.

Tasting:

The nose on Old Forester is strong but smooth.  The dominant scent is of sweet orange – almost like orange soda.  Behind that is some combination of oatmeal, oak, and maybe cinnamon.  That sweetness is not nearly as strong upon tasting.  There is a spark of it at he very beginning, but it quickly flips to a dry grain and oak profile that disappears quickly leaving a light, oaky (with a touch of that spice) finish.

Over all:

This certainly does not live up to the Birthday Bourbon releases, but that would really have been too much to expect for something at this price.  I do wish that the flavor profile would have matched the far more appealing nose, though.  I think this is not quite the type of bourbon I’d regularly sip on its own, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use it in my Old Fashioneds and Manhattans.


Four Roses Yellow

Four Roses Small Batch was one of the earliest bourbons I tasted for American Hooch and now I’ve come back to try their entry-level offering here in the US, the so-called ‘Yellow’.  The Four Roses series is often described as a less aggressive, rounder bourbon in contrast to the the many big, oaky, charred offerings on the shelf.  The Small Batch definitely lived up to that, here’s hoping that the lower-priced Yellow doesn’t mean significantly reduced quality.

Stats:

- $20ish

- 80 proof

- Made by Four Roses Distillery (acquired a few years ago by Kirin)

Presentation:

The Four Roses Yellow packaging, like that of the Small Batch, has a bit of a feminine streak to it.  This is likely a conscious choice to match the cognitive associations with roses, but it’s done in a very understated way: a story about a “Southern belle” on the rear label, the round edges of the bottle and labels, and – of course – the flowers.

They have done a good job of not over-doing it here.  There are very few unnecessary flourishes in the script and the decoration consists of simply text and the four-rose logo.  This is a good thing.

Tasting:

The nose is disappointingly shallow.  It’s got Band-Aid and some honey-lemon in there and some sharp alcohol, but that’s about it.  Not displeasing, but just not much.

On the palate, Yellow is definitely smooth.  It’s also pretty fruit-driven with melon, lemon, and only the slightest bit of heat.  The finish is almost non-existent making this seem like I’m drinking a very subdued cocktail instead of a straight bourbon.

Over all:

There’s nothing fantastic about this bourbon, but nothing really wrong with it.  It is pleasant and has a refreshing quality that you don’t see in most bourbons – so it’s got that going for it.  For $20 though?  Not too bad, especially if you’re new to bourbons.


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