Category Archives: Bourbon

Fad Focus 3 – Barrel/Cask Strength

It’s that time again. It’s time for me to highlight another growing fad or trend within the whiskey industry. We’ve discuss rampant peating levels of scotch and the explosion of wood finishes across the industry. Today I want to talk about strength. Not strength of character but rather the alcohol strength at which whiskeys are bottled.The level of alcohol content in a bottle of whiskey is measured in one of two ways. The most straightforward is using “ABV” or “alcohol by volume” measures. If a whiskey states that it is 43% ABV that means that 43% of the liquid content of that bottle at the time of bottling is alcohol. What’s the rest? Mostly water.

“Well then, what’s this ‘proof’ I see on some of the bottle?”

The term “proof” comes from 18th century Great Britain. The idea being that a “proof spirit” was the minimum level of alcohol in a particular spirit that would sustain combustion of gunpowder. The term originated when the rations of rum to sailors were “proofed” by seeing if gunpowder would still light when doused with the rum. This made sure the rum wasn’t watered down. In today’s terms the proof of particular spirits is twice the alcohol by volume. For example, a 90 proof spirit contains 45% ABV.

Originally, whiskey was sold by the barrel. You’d go to your local merchant and fill up your bottles from the barrel. The whiskey you get then was always barrel strength. (Unless the merchant water it down!) Over time distilleries and merchants began bottling the whiskey themselves. For the larger part of the 20th century whiskeys on both sides of the Atlantic were commercially bottled near 40% ABV. Mostly because this was the minimum legal alcohol content allowed if you wanted to call your product whiskey. If you’re trying to maximize your profits then you want the least amount of alcohol in the bottle as possible. That way the alcohol coming out of your barrels will go farther, thus allowing you to sell more bottles and make more money. There were some obvious exceptions to this. Wild Turkey 101 is probably the most well known.

In the last 15 years or so we’ve seen this trend change. More and more bourbon, and scotch distilleries are bottling at higher and higher strengths. They’ve determined that the flavor profile loses something in the process of watering down. This varies by whiskey. Some lend themselves more to higher strengths than others. The most prevalent example in my mind is George T. Stagg. Stagg is an uncut and unfiltered barrel proof bourbon that is part of Buffalo Trace’s annual Antique Collection releases. It’s never hit the bottle at less than 64% ABV. Despite the high alcohol content this stuff is scary smooth. Matt bought a bottle of Stagg for me a few years back and he, my wife, and I dusted off half the bottle that night. It didn’t seem like much at the time but the next morning we were all feeling it.

While Stagg is quite wonderful, if you look at the numbers, it can be pretty scary. The lowest proof release was in 2004 at 129 proof/64.5% ABV. There have been four releases that topped 70% ABV. These were referred to as “Hazmat” releases. They were called this because anything 70% ABV or higher can’t legally be brought on commercial flights and is deemed Hazardous Materials. The Hazmat releases culminated n the 2007 Hazmat IV release. It was bottled at a whopping 144.8 proof/72.4% ABV. That’ll wake you up!

Unfortunately, not all whiskey is George T. Stagg. I’ve found none that are as smooth at that strength. In my opinion, bourbon tends to hold up better at higher proofs than other whiskeys. Scotch, Irish, and Japanese seem too subtle and delicate of flavor and balance in most cases to drink above 50% ABV. So what do you do? You add water. Which really gets us back to the 40% or so ABV that the whiskey used to be bottled at. There’s nothing wrong with bottling at 40% to 43% ABV. Some of my favorite whiskeys are bottled in that range.

There are arguments both ways. On the one hand I like being able to pour something from the bottle and drink it. I don’t like having to monkey around with water to get it to an enjoyable balance. On the other hand, you get more for your money when you buy at higher strengths. The whiskey lasts longer.

Then there are those that want it at cask or barrel proof for the “purity of the spirit”. The easiest example I can think of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They buy and store their own barrels and always bottle uncut and unfiltered for their members. More power to them. It’s just not my thing.

It’s really up to you to decide what you prefer. If you like to drink it from the pour like me, then the ever escalating proof can be annoying. If you want the value or the barrel purity then it’s a boon for you. Either way, you should drink, enjoy, and proselytize.

Slainte,

Richard

Char No. 4 Redux

The ceiling at Char No. 4 (pic by Tamir Karta)
The ceiling at Char No. 4 (pic by Tamir Karta)

Back to Char No. 4 with some of my Brooklyn peeps. Like my last trip, I looked at the menu online to

prepare. This time, we sat at the bar and our lithe bartender, Charlotte, repeatedly broke my heart as I rattled off a litany of whiskeys from my online research only to find out that they were out of each one. Battered, but not beaten, I settled in to studying the whisk(e)y list. Although not planned this way, this trip to Char No. 4 became an exercise in inexpensive (mostly) American whiskeys.

I started with the A. H. Hirsch 16yo straight bourbon. I’ve been wanting to try this for a while. This bottling is the very last of the whiskey from the old Michter’s distillery in PA. I don’t really know the history of the distillery, but I cannot believe that they failed due to inferior product. It is always harder for an “off-the-slab” whiskey to compete against the Kentucky bourbon giants, but this whiskey really stands up on taste. The nose is complex and delicate with distinct notes of corn, nuts (cashews?), and Christmas spices. The palate delivers on the promises of the nose and adds some extra sweetness and a little salt. Overall, this is a very balanced whiskey and I encourage you to look for it (not one of the cheap ones though).

Next, we decided to do a little experiment. We ordered some Rebel Yell and some Rebel Reserve for a comparison. Rebel Yell is a wheated bourbon that smells terrible and luckily tastes like nothing. It makes me think of drinking distilled water in the desert sun (wet and tasteless that evaporates the moment it hits your tongue). However, the Rebel Reserve is very drinkable. Rebel Reserve is also a wheated bourbon, but it is made in small batches with a different recipe. The nose is like a lady’s perfume on fresh linen. The palate is smooth and sweet. You can definitely taste the wheat influence. I would not put this in the same class a some of the really high end bourbons, but is definitely stands up to some whiskeys that are twice the price. A very good every day bourbon and an unbeatable price (around $20).

We followed with the mouth numbing Old Weller Antique (107 Proof). With a little water or ice, this is very nice. Plus, it’s almost like getting two whiskeys for one (and for $20!).

Ezra Brooks Single Barrel (12yo) was next on the list. The palate is buttery and sweet with hints of rye and spice. This whiskey doesn’t stick around long, but the finish is pleasant without much burn. The price won’t burn you either (around $30).

I had intended the night to end with the Ezra Brooks, but one of my compatriots insisted on treating me to a dram of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 23yo. Who would say no to that? This was a great whiskey (not cheap). However, the consensus around the table was that the 20yo is better. The extra three years smooths the edges a little too much.

I know that most people don’t have access to a place like Char No. 4 in their neighborhood, but I encourage you to seek out some of these cheaper whiskeys and let me know what you think.

BTW – I think I figured out the pricing at Char No. 4 (I have complained of gouging before). The selection was built on the owner’s personal stock. Therefore, much of the pricing is collector pricing that has little to do with the list price of the whiskey. You may find things there that you can’t find anywhere else, but you will pay dearly. But what’s money compared to a once in a lifetime dram? That’s for you to decide.

Drink well and drink responsibly.

-Matt

Fad Focus #2: Wood Finishes

Today I want to talk about the next part of my multi-part series on the notable fads in whiskey today. I started this series a couple of weeks ago talking about the growing levels of peat used in whiskey production. Today I want to talk about wood finishing.

What is wood finishing you ask? Wood finishing is the process of taking mature whiskey from its aging barrel and putting it into another barrel, hogshead, etc. to impart additional characteristics on the whiskey beyond its normal profile. Barrels that previously held different wines and other spirit are used to varying degrees of success to add some part or character of the barrel’s prior occupant to the new whiskey. Port barrels can add color. Rum barrels can add sweetness. Some of the previously seen variations include Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tokaji, sherry, port, rum, etc.

Glenmorangie was one of the first major pioneers of this technique. They originally came out with a range of 12 year old single malt scotches that included finishes in sherry, port, and burgundy wood among others. Many distilleries, mostly scotch distilleries picked up on this trend as a way to offer new and different varieties of their spirits in a relatively quick amount of time. Remember, for scotch most of their product doesn’t see the light of day for at least 10 years. That’s a long lead time for innovation. Whiskey can be wood finished for any amount of time from around 6 months to 6 years or more. Glenmorangie’s wood finished range spent 10 years as regular Glenmorangie and then spent another two years in wood finishing. Even in their case two years is a lot quicker turn around than ten.

How did all this innovation and creativity turn out? Originally, not too bad. There were and still are a number of products that really did well with wood finishing. One of my personal favorites is the 21 year old Glenfiddich Havana Reserve which was finished in Havana Rum casks. Mmm..tasty stuff. But as with most things, over proliferation leads towards some less than stellar examples. We’ve chided Glenmorangie on their Burgundy Wood finished whiskey and it really was pretty bad. “Was” being the appropriate word because they have since discontinued it. Another humorous example of how far this particular fad went was an attempt a number of years ago to finish scotch in used Tabasco barrels. The resulting product was an undrinkable concoction that was repackaged and sold as condiment called Hot Scotch. Jumping the shark a little? I think so.

So where is wood finishing now? It seems to be on the down swing. There are still a number of products out there, both good and bad that tout wood finishing. There continues to be a few new ones popping up from time to time. However, you may not recognize some of these newer ones. “Wood Finish” has become passé in the scotch industry. The new nomenclature? Glenmorangie, the granddaddy of all wood finishers now refers to their products as “Extra Matured”. My personal favorite is Bruichladdich. They refer to their program by the acronym “A.C.E”, meaning “Additional Cask Enhancement”. Wood finishes aren’t dead yet. This particular fad hasn’t quite played out. What will come in the future? Who knows? One particular bright spot seems to be Buffalo Trace. Bourbon wood finishing? Yep. They have a new line of very limited releases under their Experimental Collection. I have not had the opportunity to try any of these but I hear good things.

So what does all this mean? A wider variety of whiskey to enjoy. That’s never a bad thing. However, as with all whiskeys it is a good idea to try before you buy. Just because you love Glenmorangie’s Original 10 year old doesn’t mean the Burgundy Wood should be a staple of your home bar.

Drink wisely my friends.

– Richard

Hudson Four Grain Bourbon Whiskey

46% ABV/92 Proof
Year ’08, Batch 6, Bottle 410
Available in the New York and California – around $45 for 375ml

What the distillery says:
Hudson Four Grain Bourbon Whiskey brings together the distinct characteristics of corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley. Each batch starts with 800 pounds of grain which is ground at the distillery, cooked and fermented, then distilled twice. It is aged in our signature small barrels (the barrels they use are about the size of a rugby ball, or slightly bigger that a football for those who have never traveled abroad -matt). Our Four Grain Bourbon is a rich full flavored spirit. The grains are perfectly suited one to the others so that the end result balances the soft richness of corn, the sharp peppery notes of rye, all the smooth subtlety of wheat and the sweetness of malted barley. Each bottle is hand numbered.

What Richard says:
Nose: I get the light odor of candied fruit with this one. It’s much lighter and more floral than a typical bourbon. This could be from the relative youth and short time spent in the barrel. The nose itself isn’t young per se, just delicate.
Palate: The palate is surprising and tells more of the whiskey’s age than the nose. There is no sweetness at all. The flavor profile less complex than I would have hoped and all I really get is a hint of licorice. There is not spice at all and the only other flavor or sensation is an alcohol burn if you hold it hold the palate.
Finish: Even sips leave a mellow finish that disappears all but for a lingering warmth at the back of the mouth. Little flavor hangs around. A larger sampling leaves an almost medicinal ending.
Comments: I applaud the effort made here. We should all try to support the inovation seen in the burgeoning craft distilling movement. That said, this whiskey just doesn’t move me. The nose promises something nice and different but the palate doesn’t deliver.
Rating: Average

What Matt says:
Nose: It smells somewhat sweet with hints of caramel and butterscotch. I can also smell the char from the barrel, but only very slightly.
Palate: This whiskey tastes young. Not that it’s harsh, because it’s not. However, it tastes like it has not come into it’s own yet. A slow and careful tasting can almost dissect this whiskey into it’s separate grains. A few more years in the barrel would help the flavors marry and develop into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Finish: This whiskey does not stick around long. It leaves a slight sweetness on the tongue and a burn along the edges that makes my mouth water. Perhaps this would be good as an aperitif?
Comments: I have tried most of what Tuthilltown Distillery (the makers of this whiskey) have to offer and this is not the best whiskey they make. I too applaud the effort, but it falls just shy of some of their other whiskeys. If you find yourself standing in front of a few bottles of Hudson Whiskey, I say try the Single Malt or Baby Bourbon. However, I’m giving this one a ‘Must Try’ because I think everyone should try these boutique whiskeys. They are at the forefront of whisk(e)y innovation. Additionally, I suggest trying this one with a little water. The water opens up the flavors a little, making this dram much more interesting.
Rating: Must Try

Overall Rating: If you were a fan of the Woodford Reserve Four Grain and were hoping to find a replacement, this is not your answer. I suggest writing Chris Morris (the Master Distiller) directly and begging him to make it a permanent part of the Woodford line. This is more like a smoother version of Michter’s American Whiskey. Good, drinkable, not a stand-out favorite. Average

Drinking In A Depressed Economy

Despite the worldwide economic crisis, the whiskey industry continues to see growth. While people are spending less at bars, liquor stores are feeling flush. Unfortunately for the consumer, this means that prices are going up as supply comes down. So, you ask, how am I to expand my whiskey experience without going broke? Well, that is the subject of my latest blog, the best values in whisk(e)y.

Face it, if you are on a budget, you are not going to go out and buy a 25 year old Macallan. However, that does not mean that you have to subsist on Rebel Yell and Bell’s Scottish whisky. You can get some bang for your buck.

Of all the types of whisk(e)y, bourbon is going to give you the best value. If you live in Kentucky, or a state with low interstate and alcohol tariffs, then this is doubly true for you. Finding a decent bourbon for under $25 should not be difficult, regardless of where you live. To my mind, the standard issue Buffalo Trace or the yellow label Four Roses bourbon is the best you can get at this price point. For a few dollars more, you can upgrade to the Four Roses Small Batch or Elmer T. Lee.

If you can handle it, rye whiskey is also a great value. Russell’s Reserve 6yo is quite affordable, but my recommendation is the Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond 100 proof. Russell’s Reserve is still a little harsh for my taste.

You will not see us write about Canadian whisky very often, but one of the best deals in whisk(e)y is Forty Creek Barrel Select. In my experience, you typically need to spend a lot of money to get a Canadian whisky suitable for anything other than a cocktail. Forty Creek is the first affordable (around $25) Canadian whisky that has a great taste and a full bodied profile that stands up to other whiskeys (stay tuned to Whisk(e)y Apostle for a formal review of 40 Creek).

For other whiskeys, we are going to have to go up a bit to get a decent dram, but you still don’t have to break the bank.

If you are looking for a deal with Irish whiskey, I will once again suggest Redbreast. Redbreast is one of a handful of pure pot stilled whiskeys from Ireland. You will never find another whiskey this complex at this price (around $45). The nose and palate are both filled with sweetness and botanicals. If you don’t have a bottle of this on your shelf, shame on you. You can also pick up some Irish blends (Black Bush is my favorite). Stock standard Jameson or Bushmill’s are also great values, but will likely not take you on the sensuous journey that you should expect from your dram.

When it comes to Scottish whisky, most distilleries offer a 10yo or 12yo option for a reasonable price. Chance are, if you like a more expensive version, you will like the economy version. Just don’t expect the same nuance. You can also get a deal on older whiskies by purchasing independent bottlings. However, unless you can taste before you buy or can find a review you trust, you can really get burned on independent bottles that do not retain any of the characteristics of the distillery from which they originated.

Blended Scotches are always an option, but most good blends cost as much as single malts. Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle are trusted brands. If you are going to go with Johnnie Walker, you should be able to find the Green label for less that $50, the Black for less than $40, and the Red for less than $30.

If you want to get the most of your whisk(e)y selections, find some friends who are also into whiskey and coordinate your purchases. Then get together and have a tasting. After all, what use is a good dram if you can’t share?

*Prices are estimated. Actual prices in your area could vary greatly.*