Jim Beam Distillers Series

JB_distillersIt looks like I’m about a year late on this one particular bottle.  Announced and released around this time last year, Jim Beam’s Distillers Series was supposedly available only through January 2009, but I managed to pick up a bottle at Astor place just last week.  I was intrigued by the friendly price point right around $20 and since I’ve enjoyed most other Beam releases I’ve tried – Jim Beam Black being one of the better bangs for your buck.  Then again, maybe there’s a reason this “limited” release is still on shelves a year after it hit them.

Stats:

– $20ish

– Jim Beam Distilling Co.

– 90 proof

Presentation:

JB Distillers Series comes in the classic Beam bottle, but has done away with the classic paper label.  Along the sides are six of the past distillers for Jim Beam: from Jacob Beam on the top left to Booker Noe at the bottom right.  Right up front is the current distiller Fred Noe.  Beside each miniature portrait is a brief, nostalgia laced biography.

Other than these portraits and biographies, there isn’t much.  No description of the whiskey beyond the age.  No old-timey flourishes.  Nothing much but the clear glass bottle.  One hopes that this is because they believe the contents need no introduction beyond sight, but really it seems they’re so singularly focused on their genealogy that they may have lost sight of what these men were actually making.

Tasting:

This is definitely a Jim Beam on the nose, but in a richer, sweeter way.  I’m getting sap and honey in there with some dry oak.

On the tongue, this is much smoother than I’d expected and than most other Beam releases.  There’s definitely that dry oak flavor to it and a sweet, warm finish.  Up front there’s also a bit of hay or dry grass.  I do get the sense that this is a little thin for all its smoothness, however.

Over all:

This is not something that is particularly interesting or exciting, but it is quite good for its simplicity and smoothness.  The best way to describe Jim Beam Distillers Series would be ‘austere’.  The ultimate test for whether I like something is if I pour myself a second tasting as I finish the review, and this one certainly passes.

High West Whiskey – Rendezvous

rendezvousWell this is a new one for me.  High West Distillery is a relatively new outfit from Utah – and is the first legal distillery to open in that state.  It seems that while they’ve started distilling their own product, none of it has aged enough for their standards, so Rendezvous was created from two whiskeys distilled in Kentucky: a 6-year old rye and a 16-year old rye.  This seems like a decent way to solve the problem of having to wait for the barrels to do their work before having anything to sell – this way High West has product on the shelves, paving the way for their own stuff.  It also doesn’t hurt that their blend has won some accolades either.  Let’s see what it’s like.

Stats:

– $50ish

– Blended by High West Distillery

– 92 proof

Presentation:

Hmm.  Rendezvous crosses just about every line of taste I’ve outlined in the past year plus on this blog.  Two large paragraphs of text on the back, faux-aged type, Old-West rustic style bottle, and questionable claims to an authenticity-granting history.

Some quick research shows that High West ran into some trouble among the bourbon community for not being clearer that Rendezvous was not distilled, but only blended, by High West itself.  I’m not sure how important this ultimately is so long as the end-product is good – but it is odd to try so hard with the packaging to grasp at historical and narrative authenticity while remaining a little shady on an actual issue of authenticity.

Tasting:

To the nose I get a sensation of pancakes and maples syrup as well as some citrus/orange.  The mouth feel is pretty luxurious on this and this comes across right away.  Over it all, there’s a bit of smoke lingering around.  There’s a creamy taste to this that moves into a strong rye flavor with a bit of a tart bite to it at the end.  The finish is reasonably long and quite spicy, which is a nice touch.

Over all:

As I said before, Rendezvous goes against all my sensibilities when it comes to American whiskey packaging – but this is one of the better whiskeys I’ve tasted lately.  The product itself is definitely impressive and I’ll come back to this one for sure.  Let’s just hope they revamp their angle when it comes to presentation.

Elmer T. Lee

I bought this bottle in the same trip as last week’s Wathen’s and I can’t say it wasn’t because they use the same bottle.  Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel is named for the Master Distiller Emeritus of the Buffalo Trace distillery – supposedly having selected the barrels for this bottling himself.  This alone sets the expectations pretty high (especially considering the price), let’s see if it lives up.

elmertlee

Stats:

-$25ish

– Made by Buffalo Trace

– 90 proof

Presentation:

As previously noted, the bottle is the same fat-upright rectangle of the Wathen’s bottle with slight indents on the side for grips.  Elmer T. Lee, however accentuates the bourbon inside with a fully clear front label that contains on the the basic descriptive text.  Through the contents, one can see a line-portrait of an old man – one who I would guess to be Mr. Lee himself.

The back label has only a very short description, telling us that Mr. Lee has fifty years of experience and that he selected the bourbon for this bottle.  Nice and simple.

Tasting:

Sweet and smooth to the nose: grape juice, dried leaves, and a bit of pine resin.  Very pleasant.

On the tongue, that pine resin with a bit less of the dried leaves and a different sweetness – almost a tart blackberry.  ETL starts quiet, then bursts into a bright climax with that berriness, and smoothly descends into a medium strength vanilla finish.

Over all:

I could imagine I’ll reach for this with some frequency given the low price and high availability, traits that don’t often accompany a bourbon of this quality.  I’m not saying this is the best I’ve had, but it’s interesting enough, easy enough, and definitely tasty.

Wathen’s Single Barrel

wathensWathen’s was a new one for me when I saw it on the shelf a few weeks ago.  I’d never even heard of this brand which claims to be the product of “whiskey’s royal family”.  A little digging on Google reveals a ten-year old string of postings on Straight Bourbon in which Chuck Cowdery and some others discuss the arrival of this new bourbon – so apparently I’m a bit late to the game.

Wathen’s seems to have an interesting and typically complicated (for bourbon) history as a brand, having been the result of distilleries being bought, sold, closed, and revived.  In the end however, we have Wathen’s on the shelf of a New York City liquor store, where I got my hands on a bottle from barrel number 841.

There is no age statement on this one with the exception of the statement of the bourbon-making family’s age (eight generations / 250 years).  This worries me a bit, not knowing what I’m getting into, but I’ll hope for the best.

Stats:

– $40ish

– Made by the Charles Medley Distillery

– 94 proof

Presentation:

Wathen’s comes in a rectangular bottle whose height is approximately twice the width – this gives it a slight squat look.  The sides are marked with indented grips, and the neck is short and thin.  The labels are made of a rough brown-paper-bag style material and adorned with the image of a barrel over which the name and family’s distinguished age is declared.  At the bottom is a short note from C. Medley himself, assuring the reader that the contents of the bottle are from a barrel which he himself has selected.

The bottle also includes an informational tag that’s filled with the familiar familial chest-puffing of bourbons.  We have here whiskey royal family, I’m led to believe.

Tasting:

On the nose it’s a soft, dry wheat and bananas for the most part.  There’s something of a burnt-pine deep at the center of it.  Also, while taking these whiffs, I can’t help but note the fine legs on this bourbon, I’m expecting a quite velvety texture here.

At first on the tongue, Wathen’s comes across with a crisp cherry, then oddly I get a bit of that dried/burnt pine sensation going on in the background.  There’s a touch of that banana there as well, but very slight compared with the scent.  The finish is long, slow and warm.

Over all:

For some reason ‘crisp’ is the word that keeps coming to mind in describing Wathen’s.  My fears about the age turned out to be unfounded: however long it sat in that barrel, that was the right time.  I can see myself pulling this off my shelf from time to time, it’s not overly complicated, but there’s a subtlety behind that crispness which I enjoy.

Harvest Spirits’ Pear Brandy

pearbrandyBack on the brandy train I guess.  This time, however, will be the first non-apple brandy I’ll have written about.  This time, I gone with pears.  Pears don’t have quite the same aura of Americana that apples do – no Johnny Pearseed, for instance.  In fact, according to this map of the pear harvest from Wikipedia, the only place where pears are grown in the US is the Northeast.  Fortunately – that is where both I and Harvest Spirits are based.

Harvest Spirits also seems like and interesting operation.  First of all, if their distiller’s notes are at all accurate, they’re quite new – about as old as this blog is, in fact.  Secondly, their main product is an apple-derived vodka, a spirit I’ve only tasted once when Ralph Erenzo from Tuthilltown Spirits ran a tasting at a nearby liquor store.  Finally, they actually have a decent website.

Stats:

– $25ish

– Made by Harvest Spirits

– 80 proof

Presentation:

There’s not much to their bottle.  It’s tall and slim with a textured label that almost completely wraps around the bottle.  The name “PEAR” falls vertically down the front and is topped with the eponymous fruit.  The back of the label has a small block of text that begins with the over-dramatic statement: “Pear.” before going on the describe the brandy in sparse terms and suggesting that you serve it chilled.

Tasting:

This definitely smells like fresh distillate.  It’s sweet, with pear, and something almost oily to the scent.  On tasting, there’s an immediate and very full mouth feel.  To its credit, it is not nearly as harsh as the aroma, but at the same time there isn’t as much of the fruit to it as I’d hoped, or as much as you might expect after tasting so many apple brandies.

Over all:

This is a pretty descent brandy.  I would really like to see this after a bit of aging to smooth some of the rougher edges.  That said, impressive mouth feel and solid pear-essence comes through.  I would recommend chilling it though.

Death’s Door Whisky

deathsdoorwhiskyThe more I look into it online, the more I’m thinking I’m lucky to have got my hands on a bottle of Death’s Door Whisky.  First of all, the spirit isn’t mentioned at all on the company website and second, according to their blog it seems they have little distribution beyond the Midwest.  Well, I thank Astor Wines & Spirits for getting it in stock!  That said, the reason I’ve been frequenting Astor of late is because my usual go-to shop, LeNell’s, had been on something of a hiatus.  To my great disappointment, that hiatus became permanent not too long ago.  We’ll all miss you, LeNell, come back to Brooklyn any time!  …and Astor better start stocking some more new and interesting stuff like this Death’s Door because I’ve just about had everything there.

Back to the subject at hand.  What makes DDW stand out above all else is the fact that it’s clear.  Its description at the store says it has been aged in steel drums, then for a day or two in oak casks, but nothing more.  This has me expecting something only slightly less harsh than the fresh-off-the-still taste of something like Georgia Moon.  Where it could differ though is in the fact that it’s made with a 100% wheat mash, which I could see softening some of the sharper edges you’d see in a fresh corn whiskey – but still-fresh is still-fresh no matter what the mash.  We’ll see.

Stats:

– in the $40-50 range

– Made by Death’s Door Distillery

– 80 proof

Presentation:

Ah, beautiful simplicity.  If you’ve read a few of my past entries, you’ll know that one of my frequent complaints about whiskeys are their over-done label design.  Death’s Door takes the radically opposite approach with their clear bottle, clear label sticker, and absolutely minimal use of text.  The only adornment is their double D logo.  Otherwise the vessel serves only to tell the whiskey aisle shopper that its contents is indeed clear and still a whiskey.

In certain contexts this minimalism could be interpreted as pretense, but sitting on the table in my apartment, it just looks clean and serious.

Tasting:

Yep, as you might expect, this smells like fresh distillate.  The harshness is a little muted from what its peak no doubt was, but I don’t know whether to chalk that up to bringing it down to 80 proof, the brief aging period, or both.  Difficult to make out anything particularly wheaty like you might whiff in something like Bernheim.  Generally a pleasant nose though.

When drinking, the first sensation is sweet and dry: raspberries and the smell of sun-bleached driftwood.  There’s a good deal of warmth on the palate for something this young and it’s surprisingly smooth.  The berry/driftwood sense continues throughout, then fades into a slightly bitter, short-lived finish.

Over all:

This is a good one.  Definitely a change of pace from your usual  line-up of brown liquors and surprisingly different from the Georgia Moons of the world.  As for how to drink it, putting it on the rocks might mute the more delicate flavors beyond repair, but adding a drop or two of simple syrup and some mint might not be a bad idea to compliment DDW’s strengths.  It’s not an all time favorite, but I have to say I’m impressed what they’ve done to make an enjoyable white whiskey and it’s a worthy addition to anyone’s cabinet if they’re looking for something that’s a change of pace.

Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel

rockhillBack in full health and back into bourbon blogging – with a well regarded single barrel no less in Rock Hill Farms.

I think I may have tried one this a few months ago when checking out a (then) new bar in my neighborhood which was rumored to have an extensive bourbon menu.  While the bourbon listing was a little diappointing compared to my lofty expectations, I do recall seeing Rock Hill there and at least discussing it with the bartender, if not drinking it.  Either way, I’ve got a bottle of it with me now so I can give it a fresh eye.

From a little internet-research, it seems Rock Hill Farms is produced by the Buffalo Trace Distillery, and that’s a good thing.  Buffalo Trace is one of the more forward-looking producers these days, or at least their numerous experimental varieties often seem to make their way into my path every now and then with pleasing results.  Without any further delay, here we go.

Stats:

$40-45

– 100 proof

– Made by Buffalo Trace

Presentation:

The Rock Hill Farms bottle really tries to get across the familiar/cliched sense of Kentucky class.  On the one hand, the short square bottle, rounded top corners, and large glass bulb for the stopper make this a bottle that implies it should be placed in a display case.  The gold-painted, etched-glass illustrations of horses trotting about, on the other hand, place this bourbon firmly among the bluegrass.

There is nothing in the way of descriptive text on the bottle, just the gold and the horses.  Presumably the bottle is supposed to speak for itself.  I appreciate this in as far as I find most descriptive text on whiskey bottles to be tiresome at best, but there’s also something a little conceited about the whole presentation.  We’ll see if it lives up to it.

Tasting:

A very pleasant nose to this one – smooth, a bit of maple, and wood that’s been out in the sun for a few years.  On tasting it, there’s a very full mouth feel and pretty heavy wood right off the bat.  This really lingers on the tongue for a while and develops into a buttered popcorn then a touch of butterscotch and ending with a hint of fresh-cut grass, but really not very sweet for a bourbon.

Over all:

Fortunately, Rock Hill Farms is not nearly as woody as the Elijah Craig single barrel I tasted a while ago.  It is definitely not messing around though.  This is a luxurious bourbon with a very full flavor that sticks with you for a while.  It’s not my favorite, but it’s definitely going to find its way into my glass again.

Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy

Well!  It’s been nearly a month since my last post – far too long.  I’ve been busy with things like organizing my bourbon collection (finally) and being sick with a pesky summer flu – still have it in fact, so today’s post will be structured a little differently than usual since I’m not drinking at the moment.  However, I haven’t neglected my brown spirits all together, in fact along with some help I’ve made some headway with a bottle of Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy.

lairds_full lairds_empty

I’ve had Laird’s before this, but only their Applejack, which is merely their brandy diulted with neutral spirit – really a disappointing venture in all.  So I was looking forward to sampling their good stuff.  Before going any deeper into this post though, I have to note that the logo for this particular brandy is wonderful, the kind of thing apple brandy distillers should get tattooed on their forearms.

lairds_logo

I’ve written a couple times about apple brandies before, with American Fruits and Clear Creek, and the two seemed to represent a range from young & bright to more mature & mellow – as we’d expect comparing any liquor aged a few months to on aged a few years – but each also represented different approaches to the craft: Clear Creek is openly drawing inspiration from the French traditions around Calvados, while American Fruits seemed to be in more of an experimental mode and at the beginning of crafting what may or may not be a lasting line.

Laird’s is perhaps the standard when it comes to American apple brandies and it employs a process very different from those other two products.  Instead of aging in limousin oak as Clear Creek does, they use charred American oak and age it six to eight years before bottling.  In other words, they follow the same aging process as bourbon.

The result is a brandy that is, at times, more bourbon-like.  It’s a little brighter than Clear Creek’s, but far more apply.  Since I’m not drinking it at the moment (much to my dismay), I can’t go into finer-tuned notes, but I can say that at its full 100 proof, it can be a bit much to take.  I’ve found adding a bit of water brings out the cider qualities, and adding an ice cube or two makes it into a fine casual dram.

All in all, I would recommend giving this a try – just avoid their Applejack.

Hirsch Selection – Small Batch Reserve

Lost my camera again...apologies.
Lost my camera again...apologies.

The Hirsch Selection Small Batch Reserve is the cheaper offering of a Hirch Small Batch trio that includes a 25 year old and a 28 year old.  Given that the other two are $270 and $450, this is really the only one within the range of affordability.  I have yet to taste something worth that much, frankly.

This particular variation of Hirsch is not the most common when you run a Google search, returning mostly wine and liquor store listings.  What that implies is not clear, but usually there are a few more blog entries, a Wikipedia article, and an official website at the very least.  This one came up nearly empty.

Let’s get down to it.

Stats:

– $35

– 92 proof

– Made by ???

Presentation:

The Hirsch bottle is simple, steady, and not unlike the Russell’s Reserve Rye bottle.  The label’s background has faint script lettering from some supposed document singing the praises of the Hirsch bourbons.  It’s unclear exactly what the sentences are but they involve words like “…25 years…” and “…every drop!” so it must be something written by a marketing department.

Above the faded paean for Hirsch bourbon is a five-star logo, some red, white, and blue ribbons and the name.  Fairly straight forward over all.  The back is fille with some dull text from Preiss Imports, but otherwise doesn’t even attempt to follow the motifs of the front label.

Tasting:

Very clean on the nose.  There’s something bitter lingering there…tar?…algae?  Not entirely pleasant, but very muted as to be almost unoticable.

On the palate there’s a good bit of burned sugar, dark raspberry, over all pretty bright and with something salty in there.  Medium finish, but quite warm.

Over all:

There’s a decent amount going on here and it improves with a few drops of water.  That said, for the same price you could probably get something a little better.  It’s pretty clear that this little guy is trying to ride on the coat tails of his elder brothers, the 25 and 28 year olds.

Rebel Yell

Where to start with Rebel Yell?  How about with this picture from their website:

Picture 1…or this one:

Picture 2You have to give Rebel Yell credit for avoiding the usual bourbon stereotypes of old men with their heirloom recipes and magic touch.  Instead they’ve gone with a different motif, but stereotypical no less: the romanticized (Southern) Male Outcast figure.  The Rebel Yell website is festooned with these tropes and often ends up focusing on this ‘rebel’ image more than the whiskey itself.

As for the whiskey itself – it’s a wheated bourbon that traces its roots to the WL Weller family in 1849 – though the name has only been around since 1949.

Stats:

– $14-20

– 80 proof

– Made by Luxco at the Bernheim Distillery

Presentation:

Compared to the website, the Rebel Yell bottle is pretty restrained.  Instead of steely glares from unshaven men, we have old-timey lettering, Confederate iconography, and the tiny image of a horse and its Confederate general rider.

The back label text begins with hilarious attempted-masculinity in the words “Unique.  Commanding.  Unforgettable.”  OK, Rebel Yell, I get it.

Tasting:

Quite a powerful nose on this one: freshly cut grass, marachino, and canvas.  Not as much of the harsh liquor scent I as expecting.  Tasting is a bit of a different experience.  The dominant flavor is mostly salty from start to finish.  Really, this is a strong saltiness that sticks around.  After a while you can tease out some raisin flavors, but then right back to salty.  The finish has some sense of tobacco.

Over all:

I can’t say that I was disappointed with Rebel Yell  This is better than something along the lines of a Cabin Still in that its flavor is pretty intense, but I wouldn’t reach for this on a regular basis.