Tag Archives: whisky

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.

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.

Old Rip Van Winkle

The second of the Van Winkle line I’ve tried for this blog, Old Rip Van Winkle (107 proof variety) is one of the entry-level tiers of the esteemed line of bourbons that includes the famed Pappy Van Winkles.  All the Van Winkles are wheated bourbons, so I’m expecting that softer edge to come through, but the extra aging (ten years total) might complicate that a bit.

Apologies for not providing my own photo here, the camera is having some battery trouble tonight.

Stats:

– $30ish

– Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery

– 107 proof

Presentation:

This is definitely a package that pushes its old-timeyness to the forefront.  Several different fonts adorn the front label, including an elaborate script that dominates most of the bottom half.  These sorts of things usually get on my nerves, but it does avoid old-timey anonymity with the two charming storybook prints from the Rip Van Winkle tale that stand on either side of the front label.  Old Rip asleep with his gun and and jug of booze make this packaging unique.

The back text, however, says nothing of substance or note and even describes the whiskey’s character as “great”.

Tasting:

The wood from its ten years in the barrel is very strong on the nose, but backed by a honeysuckle scent and a distant hint of smoke.  When tasting it, the first impression is how strongly the high proof comes through – this is a hot one.  Beyond that though, the wood character is prominent but balanced by a good amount black pepper and some of sweet apple peeking through at times.  The finish is medium-long and peppery.

Over all:

Once you get past its strength, this bourbon is quite good.  It’s definitely something to sip slowly and I might even try it with an ice cube to tame the power a bit.  Definitely not on the same level as the others in the Van Winkle family, but a something I’ll surely come back to.

Eagle Rare Single Barrel

Eagle Rare seems to have changed hands a few times in its history.  Starting off in the ’70s as a Seagram brand, the bourbon is now in the hands of Buffalo Trace Distillery – and that’s a good thing considering they produce some of my favorites like W.L. Weller and Buffalo Trace.  By all accounts this seems to be a classic bourbon aiming for a classy slot on the shelf yet comes in cheaper than I’d expected.

Stats:

– $25ish

– Buffalo Trace Distillery

– 90 proof

Presentation:

The first descriptor that comes to mind for the Eagle Rare line’s packaging is ‘boring’.  From the neat outlines of the bottle and labeling to the etched image of the eponymous bird, this bourbon does not excite much interest.  It has something of the air of a scotch, but with just enough jingoistic hints to make it a disappointment.  The text on the rear label doesn’t help much – it compares the liquor to both the Declaration of Independence and “a fine port wine”.  Come now Eagle Rare, stand on your own legs.  The best thing I have to say about the packaging is that they chose a nice foil with which to cover the cork – I do appreciate a good foil.

Let’s see what this distilled patriot of ours does in the glass.

Tasting:

ERSB smells immediately like almonds and leafy vegetation, but there’s a little must in there too.  It’s a sweet scent over all and definitely not overpowering.  All in all it has a pleasant nose and very smooth.

It’s a very different beast on the tongue however.  All bright citrus and oak with a sunny disposition that lasts for a decent amount of time.  That is a little strange now that I think about it, the finish is not so much spice or oak, but lemon-drop.

Over all:

If anything, I would say that this is a summer time bourbon.  I could drink it alongside a lemonade.  Despite the disappointing packaging, the bourbon inside is pretty decent and seems priced about right in the $25 area.  I do want to mix a cocktail with it rather than sip it though; might be best suited for an Old Fashioned.

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.

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.

Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky

wasmundsI picked up Wasmund’s at Astor Place last week because it is a non-bourbon American whiskey that I’ve never heard of before.  That intrigues me.  I’m always looking for people who are innovating and trying new things in the spirits industry here in the US, even if that means attempting to recreate another nation’s approach, as the “single malt” moniker implies.

Another intriguing element of Wasmund’s is its age of…wait for it…four months.  Four months!  There I was, looking at a bottle filled with brown whiskey that’s four months old?  At the very least, this would be an experience similar to Georgia Moon or perhaps last week’s brandy, both young spirits.  At best, the creator had worked some distillation magic and produced a fine, but extremely young drink.  Either way, it would be interesting.

Stats:

$30-40

– Made by Copper Fox Distillery

– 96 proof

Presentation:

Wasmund’s label is nothing special.  It displays its name in bold red letters at its curved top, below which are depicted an axe & chopping block (having recently chopped some wood chips), a copper pot still, and a trio of casks.  In no fewer than four more fonts, the label describes where it’s from, that it’s non chill-filtered, that it’s a single malt whisky (no ‘e’), and that it’s falvored and colored with applewood, cherrywood, and oak.  In the background there’s a stylized fox.

There are too many fonts to allow me to enjoy this label.  The color scheme (red, black, tan) is attractive enough, and – individually – the graphic elements are passable, but over all it comes across as cluttered and unfocused.  They would be better off focusing on the fox logo as a central element and cutting down the font-madness.

I have seen worse, however.

On the back label, creator Rick Wasmund makes the case for his whisky.  He describes following a traditional Scottish method, except replacing peat with fruit woods: interesting.  He also says that the spirit is aged in casks along with wood chips: that explains the mere four months of aging!

Aging with wood chips is a common practice amon home-distillers who lack access to proper casks to mature their product, but I can’t recall any other commercial brand that uses this practice.  In theory it makes a lot of sense: whiskeys reach maturity as a result of its contact with the wood, therefore if you increase the exposed surface area of wood, you wll reach maturity faster.  Having been founded only in 2000, Copper Fox is a young operation, and most likely saw this method as a way to bring the product to the market in a shorter time frame – namely, four months.

Clever.  Whether or not this turns out well, I applaud Mr. Wasmund for his willingness to experiment and question orthodoxies in the American whiskey industry.  We need more people trying more methods in order to stay relevant and to push our industry further.

Tasting:

To the nose, Wasmund’s is largely made up of smoke, rubber, wood, and alcohol.  The wood scent is not the familiar oak; this must be the apple and cherry woods described.  Yet, the youth of this whiskey comes through in the harsh alcohol scent that accompanies it.

On tasting, the prominent sensation is something like salt cod, beyond which lies that non-oak wood, a bit of smoke, and a general impression of the ocean.  The finish is long, hot, and peppery.

This is surpisingly mature for a four (!) month old whiskey, but still clearly young.  The flavors come and go with a speed and clarity that belies their variety and its heat, if nothing else, betrays its youth.

It is also definitely in the Scotch style.  That oceanic sensation is a reflection of this, perhaps owing to the smoking of the barley before fermentation.

Over all:

This is not my favorite whiskey.  It is, however, a good effort at breaking the accepted practices of whiskey making in America.  We should judge practices like aging with wood chips by the spirits they produce, rather than by the processes we are familiar with. In that light, though they are far from where they could be, I encourage Mr. Wasmun in his efforts, and hope to see other varieties from Copper Fox soon.