Category Archives: Bourbon

Two More Reasons To Love Buffalo Trace

Here at Whisk(e)y Apostle, it is no secret that we love Buffalo Trace.  Not only do they make some really excellent whiskies (Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, and Sazerac Rye to name a few), but they approach whiskey making with an almost religious fervor and a sense of experimentation rarely seen in such a large scale operation.  This week, the folks at Buffalo Trace announced two more reasons to get excited.  Here’s the press release:

What’s next? After more than twenty years of experimentation, Buffalo Trace Distillery is rolling out the latest release of the prized Experimental Collection. This round of tinkering was conducted to find out how barrels with different wood grains affect bourbon aging. In particular, what impact do barrels made from fast-growth oak trees with coarse grain patterns have on bourbon aging, versus barrels made with slow-growth trees with fine grain?

Here are some answers to that question:

1. FINE GRAIN OAK: These barrels were filled July13, 1994 and bottled May 7, 2009. Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #2 was used and the product entered the barrel at 125 proof. After more than 14 years of aging, the slow-growth of fine grain wood concentrated the sugars and imparted extra doses of caramel and vanilla.  The bourbon is rich and exceedingly sweet with an almost syrupy character.  It also has a nice balance of flavors and complexity.

2. COARSE GRAIN OAK: The filling and aging time on these barrels is the same as with the fine grain. After nearly 15 years in the barrel, this whiskey is dry with a balance of smokiness and wood with herbal qualities. The finish is quick and woody and it is slightly heavy with a powerful complexity.

“We continue to learn new and interesting information from these experiments. We never know how they are going to turn out,” said Harlen Wheatley, master distiller. “It’s also great to see the excitement that surrounds these releases. The customer feedback is great.”

There are more than 1,500 experimental barrels of whiskey now aging in the warehouses of Buffalo Trace. Each of the barrels has unique characteristics making it different from all others. Some examples of these experiments include unique mash bills, types of wood and barrel toasts.  In order to further increase the scope, flexibility and range of the experimental program an entire micro distillery complete with cookers, fermenting tanks and a state of the art micro still has been constructed within the Buffalo Trace Distillery.

The Experimental Collection will be packaged in 375ml bottles. Each label will include all the pertinent information unique to that barrel of whiskey. These whiskies will be released in late May of 2009 and retail for approximately $46.35 each. Each experiment is rare and very limited. For more information on the Experimental Collection or the other products of Buffalo Trace Distillery,

Gateway Series #2: Jim Beam Black

For part #2 in our Gateway Series, we’re looking at the next tier in the Jim Beam family.

Jim Beam Black 8yo Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
43% ABV/86 Proof
Available just about everywhere

What the distillery says:
Elegant.  Smooth.  Refined.  That’s what eight years of aging will do to a bourbon.  Until it’s sweet like caramel.  Meant to be sipped.  Savored.

It’s not bragging if you can back it up.  And the Beverage Tasting Institute of Chicago gave Jim Beam Black the highest rating among leading North American whiskeys in 2003.  We knew that beforehand.  But it’s nice to have some confirmation.

What Richard says:
Nose: More complex than the standard white label.  There’s a lot of caramel
with a herbal almost medicinal under current.
Palate:
More robust than the white label in flavor but still plenty of
kick.  It continues to be rough around the edges but you can taste the
improvement of age.  There is a sweeter center to the palate but it’s
still peppery with a good bit of alcohol.
Finish:
It goes down smoother than the standard expression but that’s not
really hard.  It is still one of the rougher 8 year old bourbons that I’ve
had.
Comments:
Black label is something that stands up well in cocktails.  Much
more so that the standard white label expression.  You actually get some
bourbon flavor instead of just alcohol content.  That said, this still
isn’t something I’m going to sit and sip neat.
Rating: In cocktails: Average, Neat: Probably Pass

What Matt says:
Nose: More pleasant than the White Label.  Lots of caramel.  With water, the sweetness turns to floral with overtones of nail polish remover.
Palate: A boatload of oak (too much) and much mellower than the White Label.  The sourness present in the younger expression is still there, but sits further back and smooths out.
Finish: I’m with Richard on this one.  Rougher than most 8yo bourbons but much less burn than the White Label.
Comments: Good in cocktails.  While whiskeys like Jim Beam White Label give bourbon a bad wrap, Black Label takes it up a notch (not a big step though).  Again, I’m with Richard.  Not something I would voluntarily drink neat.
Rating: In cocktails: Average, Neat: Probably Pass

Overall Rating:  Probably Pass unless it is for a cocktail

It’s Derby Time

The Kentucky Derby is this weekend. You know what that means… Mint Juleps. This year, Early Times Mint Julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby (even though Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon). There are a few Mint Julep recipes out there. The ingredients are all the same, but the mixing and ratios often vary. The ingredients are bourbon (of course), sugar, water (some recipes use simple syrup instead of sugar and water), mint and ice. I’m going to break down a few methods for you.

Advanced:
The official Early Times Mint Julep calls for 2oz. Bourbon, 1 tbsp simple syrup, 1 tbsp water, mint sprigs and crushed ice. What makes this one ‘advanced’ is the simple syrup is infused with mint. To make the simple syrup, boil 1 cup of sugar with 1 cup of water for 5 minutes. Pour the simple syrup mixture over a bunch of of mint leaves. Gently crush the leaves into the mixture. Chill, strain, and chill some more.

Crush mint leaves into the bottom of an 8 oz glass. Fill the glass with crushed ice. Add 1 tbsp water, 1 tbsp simple syrup (our mint infusion), 2 oz. bourbon and stir until frost forms on the glass. Garnish with mint.

A little easier:
If you can’t be bothered to make your own simple syrup, you can also muddle 2 tsp water with 2 tsp sugar and 6-8 mint sprigs. Add bourbon and ice and you are good to go.

For the truly lazy:
Early Times makes a premixed Mint Julep Cocktail. Serve it over ice with a mint garnish.

Some Trader Joe’s stores also carry simple syrup for a hybrid of the recipes above.

I’m not a big fan of Early Times bourbon, so I’ll be making my Juleps with Buffalo Trace this year. I recommend using something good but not very expensive. The flavors of the sugar and the mint complement the bourbon, but they do cover up some things. Do not waste the last of your Woodford Reserve Four Grain on one of these.

Drink well. Drink responsibly.
-Matt

Gateway Series #1: Jim Beam White Label

In honor of the Kentucky Derby, we have decided to kick off our “Gateway Series” with Jim Beam “White Label.”  The gateway series is an attempt at preparing the neophyte for a trip to the average (or below average) bar.  We will be reviewing the most common “well” whisk(e)ys and other easy to find drams.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (it’s the one with the white label), Aged 4 Years

40% ABV/80 Proof
Available just about everywhere

What the distillery says:
Constant.  Guaranteed.  Like gravity.  Sunsets.  Taxes.  But a hell of a lot more satisfying.  The same bourbon.  Made pretty much the same way.  By the same family .  For 213 years.  Sweet.  Satisfying.  Seductive.  This is the world’s #1 bourbon.  For a reason.  Or several.

Seven generations of craftsmanship go into every bottle.  Ingredients:  Corn, rye, barley malt, water, time and pride.

What Richard says:
Nose: Honey and fresh cut wood.  With water lighter vegetal notes start to creep out.
Palate: Spicy black pepper with the slightest, and I mean slightest hint of sweetness.  It’s very harsh with a lot of alcohol sting.
Finish: This stuff goes down rough.  All pepper, fire, and burn.
Comments: This is the bourbon most neophytes think of when they think of bourbon.  It’s sweeter than scotch but harsh as hell.  Not something I would reach for by choice.
Rating: Probably Pass

What Matt says:
Nose: Rubbing alcohol, vanilla, and something sour at the back (vaguely reminiscent of the excrement of an infant).  With a little bit of water, it opens up to grape lollipops and the sweet smell of decay.
Palate: Big Red chewing gum and wood smoke.  There’s also something hard to place that rolls around at the back of the tongue.  It’s almost like drinking the beer from the sour mash straight.  With water, the palate disappears.
Finish: Burns all the way down, comes back up and wraps around the edges of the tongue leaving traces of that sour smell.  With water, the finish tastes like a three day old wet cigar butt.
Comments: I don’t want to sound like a snob by saying that I would rather drink just about anything than this.  There is a reason it is primarily used as a mixer.  If you want a Beam and cola, that is fine by me.  I would not recommend this either neat or on the rocks.  This Jim Beam expression desperately needs something to mask the taste.  If you want a good sipping whiskey, this is not the one.  There are other whiskeys in the Beam family that would be much more appropriate.  Remember, Booker’s, Baker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Knob Creek are all part of the Jim Beam line and more and more bars are carrying these in addition to regular old “white label.”
Rating:  Probably Pass

Overall Rating:  Probably Pass

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