Foiled by Pine Nuts

I had planned to do another tasting tonight, but after making some pesto the other night, some questionable pine nuts have made everything taste bitter to me.  Apparently this will last anywhere from 2-14 days – ugh.  Looks like no tastings until this passes.

WebMD even has a video on the topic: http://www.webmd.com/video/pine-mouth


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…


Buffalo Trace – White Dog

Buffalo Trace puts out some good whiskeys and what I’ve got here is where a lot of them begin: White Dog.  “White dog” refers to the unaged distillate that eventually becomes bourbon.  These unaged whiskeys are starting to pop up more and more in liquor stores (see: Death’s Door, Georgia Moon, etc), and they’re growing on me slowly.  I’m not sure if I’d ever choose one over any full-blooded bourbon, but let’s see how Buffalo Trace’s offering measures up.

Stats:

- $15ish

- 125 proof

- Made by Buffalo Trace

Presentation:

Buffalo Trace White Dog comes in a short, simple bottle with a faintly mottled tan label.  The front label shows the Buffalo Trace logo, the words “White Dog”, “Mash #1″  and a listing of the grains and proof.  The rear, however, gets into some nostalgic tale about the “brave pioneers” who traveled to Kentucky, distilling all the way.  I guess when you’re selling white liquor it becomes more about the marketing than the complexity of the whiskey, but this story is pretty standard fare.  Generally, though, I like the straight-forward design and it goes well with the simplicity of the product.

Tasting:

The scent is surprisingly rich and smooth – it’s like rising bread dough, full and soft.  This definitely is close to the grain.  It’s also pretty big in flavor – the same rising sourdough flavor but a little sharper at first and settling down into something more yeasty.  The finish is long (for something unaged) and yeasty as well.  This is quite powerful at 125 proof and it’ll numb your mouth a bit if you don’t add some water, but try it both ways.

Over all:

I’m impressed.  I can’t say I like it better than their main line bourbon, but this is far more flavorful than the other unaged whiskeys I’ve tasted lately.  Strangely, this is something that could be a decent sipping drink if you’re in the mood for something different.


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.


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