Faultline (K&L Selection) Bourbon Review

Faultline BourbonType: Bourbon

Age: No Age Statement

ABV: 50.0%

Price: $39.99

Although I adore bourbon, I cheerfully admit that its flavor spectrum is fairly limited when compared with that of single malt scotch.  The flavor profiles of modern bourbons are dominated by the twin pillars of sweetness and spice.  A few outliers, in particular some Four Roses Single Barrels, also offer intriguing herbal or red berry flavors, while W.L. Weller 12 year-old provides a bright counterpoint of cherry, and some Beam bottlings like Old Grand-Dad 114 and Booker’s offer a bit of orange-y pop.  Contemporary bourbons, though, overwhelmingly work in a palette of sweet flavors like vanilla, fudge, caramel, and maple syrup, and spices, a category in which I’d include leather, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, and black tea.

The tastiest 10 seconds of your childhood

By gently deviating from this fairly predictable flavor spectrum, the K&L Faultline bourbon offers up a refreshing surprise.  It’s fairly nondescript on the nose—just a bit of Four Roses-style tobacco aroma—but the taste is absolutely bursting with fruit flavors.  Not a specific fruit, but a mish-mash.  A delicious, juvenile jumble of supercharged, totally artificial tropical fruits, all at once.  Sipping this bourbon reminds me of my childhood, and stuffing my cheeks with Beech-Nut Fruit Stripe Gum.  There’s a flash of bright, mouth-watering juiciness that promptly disappears—just like the flavor of Fruit Stripe gum, which lasts just seconds, in a manner seemingly designed to enrage its 10 year-old customer base.  It’s followed by a wave of spice and pleasant alcohol bite, both of which fade into a very dry, but tasty finish.

These three components—huge fruit, rye spice, and a dry finish—don’t seem complementary, or even compatible, but they mesh very smoothly, indeed.  And the process is so quick that I found myself taking sip after sip, savoring the lighting-quick transition between kiddie artificial fruit flavors and grown-up spices.  In fact, I’m a little embarrassed at how quickly the contents of this bottle disappeared down my craw.  It is perilously easy drinking, and a lot of fun.

That I would find so much to enjoy in this whiskey is surprising, because it is comprised of two separate bourbons, both produced at the MGPI distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.  As discussed in an earlier review, I am not a fan of the rye whiskies churned out at MGPI, finding them brine-y and totally lacking in mouthfeel.  The Faultline bourbon, though, suffers from neither of these issues.  It is actually a vatting (whiskey-speak for “combination”) of two bourbons, one a 10 year-old low-rye whiskey and the other a 7 year-old high-rye whiskey.  The two bourbons were in the possession of Smooth Ambler, a West Virginia-based independent bottler, and vatted at the behest of K&L’s spirit buyers.  The resulting combination of bourbons, reduced to 50% alcohol, is then sold at K&L Wines.

The Faultline bourbon is worthy of sampling for another reason, too.  In addition to resembling a lighter, fruitier version of OBSV yeast Four Roses Single Barrel, it also reminds me of some hard-to-find, dusty bourbons.  Yes, it lacks the butterscotch richness and 5W-30 mouthfeel characteristic of some of my favorite dusties, but the fruit-forward flavor and the near-total absence of the most typical modern bourbon flavor, vanilla, is characteristic of old bourbons I’ve been privileged to sip.  In that sense, it really does strike me as a callback to dusty bourbons that seem plummy and almost rum-like.  To be clear, though, the Faultline bourbon doesn’t taste of dark fruits, and doesn’t remind me of rum—it’s the combination of fruit-forward flavor combined with spice, all at the expense of more familiar vanilla sweetness that reminds me of dusty bourbons.

Bottom line—this is entertaining and unique bourbon that offers a fruity flavor profile, remarkable drinkability, and an undeniable sense of fun.  Yes, it costs about $40 a bottle, and in that range bulletproof options abound: Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon, Ardbeg 10 year-old scotch, or a bottle of Elijah Craig 12 year-old bourbon plus $12 in walking-around money, just for a warm-up.  These, though, are workhorses, with reliable (or predictable, depending upon one’s perspective) flavor profiles.  The Faultline bourbon offers an intriguing alternative: for your $40 you get a chance to experience a throwback flavor profile that you might otherwise be spending hundreds of dollars to sample, supreme smoothness, and the foundations of a dandy Manhattan.  Me, I’ll be buying more.

Posted in Bourbon Reviews

High and Low: Buffalo Trace Straight Rye Head-to-Head – Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. vs. Sazerac

E.H. Taylor RyeType: Straight Rye Whiskey

ABV: 50%

Age: No Age Statement

Price: $75

Once I’ve spent money on a bottle of whiskey, I try to  never again think about its price.  I prefer to focus on the contents of the bottle, and the extent to which they will embiggen my swagger after I exhume the cork.  But there are some whiskies, like this E.H. Taylor Rye, that relentlessly draw my attention back to the matter of cost.  In isolation, I might be able to overlook the price of this bottle and focus on the rye whiskey within that cost me seventy-five dollars.  But I can’t, because I also have an open bottle of Sazerac Rye produced by the same distillery (Buffalo Trace), that cost me one-third as much.  Neither bottle bears an age statement, and one is vastly more enjoyable than the other.  So, here I am with two bottles of whiskey, one of which makes me feel like a savvy shopper and the other of which makes me feel like a massive chump.

I accept that whiskey collecting isn’t a rational pursuit.  Sometimes I just see a bottle and buy it, even though I’ve read reviews warning me off, or I strongly suspect that, based on prior experience, no non-age-stated straight rye whiskey on earth is worth seventy-five of my damned dollars.  In this case, a reviewer whose tastes often align with mine, and who had surprisingly good things to say about E.H. Taylor rye whiskey swayed me.  Also, dusty E.H. Taylor bourbon from the 1970s and 1980s is some of my favorite whiskey, so I succumb to a Pavlovian slobber reflex whenever I see the bright yellow Taylor label.

Little ol’ MGPI distillery, down in a holler.

Thanks to these two reasons I overrode my primary concern about E.H. Taylor Rye, which is that it is made from a mash bill of rye and malted barley, exclusively.  Unlike bourbon, or many straight rye whiskies (including Rittenhouse Rye, Wild Turkey Rye, Sazerac Rye, Thomas H. Handy Rye, and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye), it contains no corn.  I – and likely you – have tasted a lot of straight ryes made without corn, because most of the young ryes on the market are made this way.  These include Templeton Rye, a variety of Willett Ryes, Bulleit Rye, George Dickel Rye, and any number of faux-artisanal ryes, all of which actually emerge from the imposing, Stalinist-scale MGPI distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

None of these corn-less ryes are inherently bad, but I don’t much care for them. Sure, they’re fine in a Manhattan, but so are alternatives like Rittenhouse Rye, Sazerac Rye, or any number of high-rye bourbons like Old Grand-Dad or Four Roses, all of which are sanely priced, packed with corny goodness, and reasonably easy to find.  And consumed neat, these corn-less ryes are totally unentertaining.  So, after being burned a handful of times by MGPI ryes, I just stopped buying the stuff.

Why my opposition to rye made without corn?  I offer two reasons.  The first has to do with sensation: I have not yet tasted a corn-less rye that has much in the way of mouthfeel.  They’re thin and nearly unnoticeable on the tongue.  For me, this is a big bugaboo, because I place a high priority on a heavy, oily mouthfeel.  It makes the whole sipping experience vastly more enjoyable, and is exactly the sort of detail that can justify shelling out $75 for a bottle of rye without an age statement.  The second reason has to do with taste: all of the corn-less straight ryes I’ve encountered taste fairly uncomplicated.  The MGPI-produced ryes often taste minty and a little briny with a short finish.  I absolutely can’t chalk these issues up to a lack of corn; there are too many other variables at work.  But I can and do highlight these shortcomings as universal to all the no-corn ryes I’ve encountered.

But this E.H. Taylor was something new – a no-corn rye from Buffalo Trace, a different and highly respected distillery, which meant in defiance of all logic and experience that it could be worth an inflated price tag.  Right?  Right?

The nose on the E.H. Taylor Rye is lovely—soft and a bit citrus-y, and dominated by the musty, dusty quality that marks rye out as a less sweet alternative to bourbon.  At full strength, the taste follows through on the promise of the nose: it leads with some light, bright lemon flavors, and follows with a warming wave of very dry, classically musty rye flavor.  Then, a bit of alcohol burn follows up the grainy, almost rye bread-like flavor.  The finish is fairly short, leaving a trace of that initial bright citrus flavor, along with the rye mustiness in my cheeks.  But it’s quickly gone.  What’s missing is any trace of mouthfeel or personality.

In a just world, a world that rewarded childlike enthusiasm and naïve hope, I’d now be writing a paragraph extolling E.H. Taylor rye as the glorious exception that proves modern corn-less ryes need not be thin and uninteresting.  But this world is cruel, perhaps most of all to those of us with high hopes and bright hearts.  Don’t misunderstand me—this is very drinkable, very polished whiskey.  It is a major step up from any of the MPGI-distilled ryes I’ve tried (if only because it lacks any hint of that repellent brininess or pickle juice flavor I find in most MGPI rye).  It is also, though, wickedly close to dull.  The watery mouthfeel, the two-dimensional taste of citrus and mustiness, and the short finish all work against me reaching for another sip.  This is a thin whiskey, in both texture and taste profile, with an exceedingly rich asking price.

Let’s move over to the bottle of Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey, also from Buffalo Trace, and also absent an age statement.

Sazerac RyeType: Straight Rye Whiskey

ABV: 45%

Age: No Age Statement

Price: $27

How does it differ from the E.H. Taylor Straight Rye Whiskey?  Well, the Sazerac cost $27 – about one-third as much – and its mashbill includes plenty of corn.

On the nose, the Sazerac is much ballsier.  It has a sweet, rich backbone running beneath that glorious rye mustiness, which is turned up considerably over the E.H.  Taylor rye.  It smells of Goetze’s bulls-eye candies and dank spice, a combination that reminds me of my grandparents’ house in Clifton, New Jersey, where as a child I sat in a musty living room and wolfed those delicious caramel creams from a green and gold glass bowl.  The memory trigger is wonderful, and of course it biases me a bit towards the Sazerac rye.

In the mouth, the story is much the same.  Everything is deeper, richer, and darker than the E.H. Taylor Rye.  Where the Taylor rye offers a hint of citrus sweetness, the Sazerac clouts me over the head with the taste of candy corns.  The dank, musty spiciness is amplified, too, which balances out the initial sweetness.  And the mouthfeel is a revelation.  The Sazerac is no world-beater in this category, but compared with the E.H. Taylor rye, it is simply more tangible on the tongue.  The finish isn’t long, but certainly outlasts that of the E.H. Taylor.  I enjoyed a lingering taste of bulls-eye candy and dry rye spice along my cheeks for a minute or two after my last sip.

Is the Sazerac rye a classic?  No, but I’m not looking for such things at a sub-$30 price.  It is dense with delicious flavors, has a pleasant mouthfeel, and is perfectly enjoyable neat, as well as in a Manhattan.  In contrast, the E.H. Taylor is not something I particularly enjoyed drinking neat.  It was perfectly unobjectionable, but far from memorable.  At three times the price of the Sazerac, it’s nothing I’d ever buy again. The Sazerac, on the other hand, is not something I’m likely to pass up.

 

Posted in Rye Whiskey Reviews

Ezra Brooks 15 Bourbon Review

Please excuse the cave-like photo setting, as I was really excited to open this bottle.

Type: Bourbon

Age: 15 Years Old

ABV: 50.5%

Price: N/A

I was recently reading McCay Coppins’s remarkable profile of Donald Trump.  It left me chewing on a couple of questions: first, why a man with so much – not simply wealth and fame, but also a family – seemed so fragile, so stripped of all joy, and second, why Trump, after all these years, remains compelled to stamp his name into every object, no matter how incidental, associated with his properties and products.  Maybe, in a dark and primitive place Trump understands that once he’s gone nobody else will ever affix his name to so much as a book of matches.  If so, then he also knows that his physical legacy is completely in his own hands, and since he will have no other kind, he remains fixated upon whacking “Trump” into every object within reach, even if the act ensures only that future generations remember his name as an eyesore.

Perhaps Ezra Brooks 15 year old bourbon, then, is the perfect opposite of Donald Trump.  It spreads joy wherever it is dispensed (at least my bottle did).  It certainly is not fragile; indeed, this bourbon’s sheer oomph silenced an entire table full of tasters in my kitchen.  And it is a relatively little-known product made decades ago under a brand that now exists only in name.  Which means that we – the whiskey geeks – bear the happy responsibility of maintaining and burnishing its memory.  And so we should.  In a world in which artisanal achievement received proportionate reward, men and women would name streets, buildings, even children after this bourbon.  I adore it.  I want to learn Italian, so I can sing soulful Neapolitan ballads of its greatness.  Yes, taste is subjective and we are to be cherished for our differences, but if you’re a whiskey geek and this stuff doesn’t chisel a wistful, thousand-yard-stare of a smile into your face, the problem lies with you, not this bourbon.  Full stop.

“Blacker than a hundred midnights / Down in a cypress swamp” — the bourbon is darker than the brown label!

Let’s pause for a moment, so I can stop panting and provide some background.  First, the knee to the groin: this is a dusty bottle of long-ago discontinued bourbon and you can’t easily buy it.  Moving on to less painful specifics, the bottle bears a federal tax stamp and metric (as opposed to earlier imperial) measurements.  There is no state tax stamp and no bar code.  The bottle is sealed with a cork, rather than a screw top, the design of which might provide an additional hint as to its age.  The digits stamped into the bottom of the bottle yielded nothing to me, but perhaps others could extract knowledge from their sequence.  Based on the available information, I would guess that the bottle dates from the early 1980s – after the implementation of metric measurements in or around 1979, and before the phase-out of federal tax stamps in the mid-1980s.  I believe it was made at the Medley distillery (DSP-10) in Owensboro, Kentucky.

In practical terms, I’d give up a bottle of almost any bourbon or scotch in my stash for another bottle of Ezra Brooks 15.  I’d give up a bottle of the damned antidote for more of this stuff, were I lying somewhere, a victim of poisoning.  Ezra Brooks 15 offers everything I’m looking for in a bourbon: a 5W-30 mouthfeel, heavy but not overwhelming barrel influence, powerful spice, a smell of leather so strong it’s as though I’ve wandered into some sort of cowboy/S&M outfitter, and a backbone of butterscotch that is absolutely gorgeous.  Butterscotch is a flavor I’ve come across in other dusty bourbons, but not to this extent, and it might be overwhelming if not for the heavy-duty spice and wood keeping it in check.  Everything is in balance, and the effect is glorious.  To clarify what an achievement this is, understand that Ezra Brooks 15 is an extremely woody and spicy bourbon.  So spicy that it leaves a tingle on my lips not unlike a hot pepper.  Yet it is not at all dry, and the spice never overwhelms the rich, buttery sweetness and luxurious mouthfeel of this whiskey.

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Everything about this bourbon walks a glorious edge between richness and aggression.  Its color is best described, with my apologies to author and Civil Rights activist James Weldon Johnson, using a phrase from his poem, The Creation. It is “Blacker than a hundred midnights / Down in a cypress swamp.”  Place this Ezra Brooks 15 next to a contemporary bottle of Elijah Craig 18 (a very old bourbon, by the standards of any era) and the modern bourbon looks like apple juice.  Of course, looks do not necessarily reflect upon smell or taste, but in this case, the opaque surface of this whiskey is a pretty solid indicator of what lies ahead.   The nose, as I mentioned, is so full of leather and spice – actual hot spiciness, not nutmeg or cinnamon – that it almost, but not quite hurts.  And it’s much the same on the tongue.  The assault of wood and dryness from 15 years in a barrel verges on painful, but is always saved by huge waves of that incredible, soothing butterscotch and fruity sweetness.  Interestingly, there’s not a lot of vanilla to be found.  That’s something I’ve noticed in other dusty bourbons and I’m not sure how to explain it, as vanilla is such a staple aroma and flavor in modern bourbons.  The finish is hilarious.  It is so powerful, so enduring, that I actually found myself chuckling as I chewed at my cheeks, at least ten minutes after finishing this bourbon, and felt as though I’d last taken a sip just moments earlier.

Cautions and concerns?  From a strictly sensory perspective, I’m coming up blank.  I’m picking up every aspect of what this whiskey is putting down.  The nose, the taste, the mouthfeel, the seemingly never-ending finish – they’re all textbook.  Other aspects, such as the butteriness, are singular.  Still, if you’re looking for subtlety or the maple syrup-y embrace of a Stitzel-Weller bourbon, it simply isn’t here.  This is balanced and beautiful bourbon, but it’s far more wooly, woody, and complex than a standard-issue Pappy Van Winkle or Stitzel-Weller dusty from the 1990s or 1980s (or even, he whispered, the 1970s).  There’s one additional meatball hanging over everything I’ve written: even if you’re lucky enough to find some of this stuff in circulation, it’ll be 30-plus years old and potentially suffering from cork taint, contamination, evaporation, or any other affliction that can bring down a glorious old bottle.  And I’ve come across a couple of old ceramic decanters – not bottles – of Ezra Brooks whiskey, as well, all of which have tasted heart-wrenchingly foul, perhaps due to lead or other unpleasant industrial goodies leaching out of the ceramic and into the whiskey.

I wanted to hoard this bottle; really, I did.  But I found myself pouring samples for friends, simply to savor the expression on their face as they smelled and tasted this beast of a bourbon, and to enjoy our subsequent conversations. That’s the point of this whole exercise, right?  The odds that I’ll find another bottle of Ezra Brooks 15 are cruelly low, but it brought me a lot of joy while it was here.  I’m glad that I shared it, and I weep rich, butterscotch tears that it’s gone.

Posted in Bourbon Reviews, Collecting and Commentary, Dusty Bottles

Fettercairn 1995 “Exclusive Malts” (K&L Selection) Scotch Review

The Eyebrow(s)!

Type: Single Malt Scotch

ABV: 56.1%

Age: 17 Years Old

Price: $89.99

Look at this picture of Greta Garbo.  Grasp for the now-clichéd superlatives required to describe her skin, as free from flaws as the lacquer finish of a prewar Bugatti, her utterly empty yet captivating eye(s), and her exquisite lips that seem perfectly uninterested in forming a smile.  Even now, eighty years past the time when her beauty drove men and women berserk, and she earned $250,000 per picture to wear pants and kiss whoever the hell she wanted on-screen, Garbo remains beyond critique.

Garbo’s first spoken line of dialogue– her very first after years of making silent pictures – was: “Geef me a vhiskey, geenger ale on the side.  And don’t be stingy, baby!”  Of course it was.  Can you imagine a better one?  Think about her, whiskey geeks, and give thanks the next time you clomp up to the bar, that your drink of choice has been infused with such glamour.

FettercairnI certainly keep thinking about Garbo and her spectacular first line from Anna Christie while drinking this Fettercairn.  And like the impeccable Garbo, I’m finding it very, very hard to find fault with this scotch.  Its color is beyond reproach – a rich, gorgeous gold.  Its nose is equally appealing, stuffed full of flowery aromas, a honey sweetness, and a bit of graininess.

After drinking one and a half bottles of this Fettercairn (yes, I bought a second bottle), I’m compelled to conclude that almost anyone who enjoys scotch will find some pleasure in this pour.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting this Fettercairn is my favorite scotch, because it’s absolutely not.  Just as Garbo, despite her beauty, isn’t my favorite actress.  But I’m having one hell of a time finding a flaw in it.  This Fettercairn is perilously close to seamless.

I’ve always had a soft spot for clean, straightforward scotch.  Sure, I dig the sludgy goodness that oozes from Islay, and I have a growing taste for sherried Speysiders, but I adore the delicate scents and tastes of unadorned Highland whiskies.  In particular, I really like the floral and honey flavors these whiskies have to offer, as well as the tastes of tropical fruit lurking in others.  And this Fettercairn is awash in all of these flavors.  Taken neat, it is pure honey and lavender, but with a bit of water added some mango suddenly appears, makes itself perfectly at home, and all is right in the world.

So, if you absolutely insist upon a certain degree of swampiness or tooth-ringing sweetness in your scotch, then you are not going to pick up what this Fettercairn so delicately places down.  And that’s fine.  But anyone who appreciates a whiskey that announces itself with a delicate clearing of its throat, rather than an enormous belch and an open palm to the middle of your back, may well find some pleasure in this very graceful, but somewhat tight-assed pour.  Just don’t reach for this scotch when you’re hungry for a challenge because you simply won’t find it in this bottle.  Other issues?  Well, the biggest — as usual, these days — is price.  I say that without judgment.  Ninety dollars for a full-fat, unfiltered scotch from a tough-to-find distillery isn’t out of line in 2014.  But the simple fact is that ninety dollars remains a lot of money, period.  And if you’re saving pennies for intense, one-of-a-kind bottlings, this won’t fit the bill.  It’s too graceful.

Meanwhile having found the Garbo of scotches, I’m still on the lookout for the Rita Hayworth of whiskies.  Also the Barbara Stanwyck.  Any suggestions?

Posted in Single Malt Scotch Reviews

Laphroaig 1991 “Signatory” (K&L Selection) Scotch Review

Laphroag 16 K&LType: Single Malt Scotch

ABV: 55.2%

Age: 16 Years Old

Price: $115.99

The nose on this Laphroiag is familiar to any adherent of the brand.  Opening the bottle unleashes the mingled stenches of tar, smoke, and Band-Aids.  What’s missing is the sweetness I associate with the standard 10 year old bottling, and indeed most Laphroiags I can remember.  In its absence, the nose is not very welcoming.

The mouthfeel is very watery.  It seems ruthlessly filtered of all oiliness and personality, to the point that there’s almost no sensation on the tongue except alcohol burn.  The taste is hardly an improvement.  As with the nose, there is none of the expected vanilla softness that balances out the dark smoke and brine of a standard Laphroiag.

This whiskey is a disappointment.  Period.  It’s thin, one-dimensional, and doesn’t offer me a single reason to refill my glass.  And I say that as a fan of Islay whiskies, and of Laphroiag, in particular.  The issue with this specific bottling is that it packs an abundance of familiar smoke and burnt plastic flavors, but surprisingly little of the peat and welcome sweetness I associate with Laphroiag.  It is painfully out of balance, and not in an interesting sort of way.  If I try to tease out another, more pleasant flavor, I can get a bit of lemon or indistinct citrus, but this is basically liquid smoke and alcohol.  If that’s your thing, hurry to K&L and buy a bottle.  Price aside, it’s the most underwhelming Laphroiag I can remember drinking, and at over $100, it’s a major kick in the crotch.

Drinking this reminded me of my first experience with Balcones Brimstone Corn Whiskey.  The two don’t taste at all alike, but they’re similarly one-dimensional.  Both offer the drinker a punch in the mouth from a well-smoked fist.  There’s a blast of alcohol, the taste of an upwind charcoal barbecue, and not much else.  I don’t care for either whiskey, but if you’ve tried the Balcones Brimstone and enjoy it, you may like this K&L Laphroiag selection.  I emphasize, though, that the Balcones is a much oilier and entertaining whiskey, in spite of its youth and relative lack of pedigree.  It’s also massively cheaper.

This K&L-selected bottling illustrates the dark side of retailer picks, the yin to the glorious yang that is the Four Roses OBSV also selected by K&L Wines or the George Dickel offered by the Party Source.   It is a reminder that unless you’re in a position to taste a retailer selection before buying, you need to trust that your palate is in alignment with that of the store’s buyer.

Posted in Single Malt Scotch Reviews

Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV (K&L Selection) Bourbon Review

Four Roses OBSVType: Bourbon

ABV: 61.6%

Age: 10 Years and 6 Months

Price: $59.99

This bourbon smells overwhelmingly of tobacco.  Closing my eyes and sniffing the glass is like shoving my head into a (well-stocked) cigar humidor.  On the tongue, it’s more of the same – dark, tobacco flavors mingling with woody, cedar spice.  After a few moments, a very pleasant wave of red berries surfaces through its heavier predecessors.  The overall effect is terrific, although now seems a good time to note that OBSV formula Four Roses Single Barrel is one of my favorite bourbons.  Bluntly, I’m picking up what this whiskey is putting down.  I’m being painfully clear about it because it’s useful for readers to know how their tastes align (or clash) with mine when evaluating the reviews on this site.  And if you’re looking to understand many of the qualities and flavors I seek in a currently-produced, sanely-priced bourbon, this would be a reasonable place to start.

This bourbon tastes well-aged without suffering any of the glaring downsides of time spent in the barrel.  There is no unpleasant dryness, for example.  Nor does the woodiness outweigh the more delicate red berry flavors in this whiskey.  At 61.6% alcohol, it is drinkable neat, but there is plenty of heat on the tongue.  Most Four Roses Single Barrels I’ve tasted take well to water or ice, which is how I typically drink them.  And this one falls right in line.  A splash of water doesn’t do much to open up the nose, but man, does it limber up the goings-on in my mouth.  The red berry sweetness is amplified and some previously-hidden mint makes its way through the wood.  The mouthfeel remains pleasantly thick and oily, too.  Whether consumed neat or with water, the finish is fairly long, and the combination of high proof and tobacco flavors leaves me chewing at my cheeks for minutes after my last sip.

Complaints?  Hmmm.  Well, it did cost me $60, and even after finishing the bottle I’m still overweight.  Thanks a lot, Four Roses.  And despite adding water and/or ice, there’s still more alcohol on the nose and tongue than I’d like.  For all the lovely subtlety of the flavors in this bourbon, they’re always in peril of being clouted into oblivion by the burn.  Overall, though, this is really enjoyable bourbon.  I almost – ALMOST – wrote that I wish I’d bought another bottle or two from K&L, but one of the great things about Four Roses is that their bourbon is relatively easy to find.  No, I won’t uncover any more of this exact bottling in the future, but odds are solid that I’ll turn up another excellent retailer-selected bottling of OBSV formula Four Roses Single Barrel.  And at a time when more and more whiskies are becoming “rare” and “collectible,” that’s a relief.

Posted in Bourbon Reviews

Mortlach 1990 “Chieftan’s” (K&L Selection) Scotch Review

IMG_0920Type: Single Malt Scotch

Age: 22 Years Old

ABV: 58.1%

Price: $169.00

The color of this Mortlach, aged in barrels that previously held sherry, is absolutely striking.  If red velvet cake were a liquid, it’d look like this stuff.  Visually, this has to be one of the most inviting bottles of whiskey I’ve ever seen.  In general, I’m not a huge fan of heavily sherried scotch, often finding it excessively sweet, but the instant I had this baby out in the light I was pawing at the cork like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend.  It was undignified.

Ray Milland

The nose, assuming you like red velvet cake, is equally inviting, and smells of red berries – raspberries, in particular.  All of these aromas are very sweet and rich, even at full strength.

This Mortlach is a bit less welcoming – and vastly more frustrating – on the tongue.  Overall, I like its taste quite a lot.   Its dominant flavors are of the red fruits that first appeared on the nose, followed by a very sweet combination of prunes and raisins.  What’s odd is that I don’t much care for prunes and I can’t stand raisins, yet I keep coming back to this bottle of whiskey.  Much of that can be chalked up to its color, nose, and great mouthfeel.  It’s really oily, which is one of my favorite characteristics in a whiskey.  Plus, it just looks delicious (or, like flat Dr. Pepper, depending on one’s perspective).

But there are a couple of factors making it tough to really savor this Mortlach.  The first is an ever-present harshness, whether taken neat or with water.  I’ve tried it with water, with ice, with water and ice – I just can’t dull the edge off this stuff.  The second is a dry, ashy note that really detracts from the overall sweetness of the whiskey.

I’ve read reviews of heavily-sherried whiskies that refer to a “sulphurous” or “phenolic note” associated with long periods of time spent aging in sherry-soaked wood.  Now, even I, a massive nerd, have encountered the word “phenolic” just once outside the world of whiskey writing.  When I was thirteen, I uttered the following phrase, with a regrettably straight face, while clutching a copy of Bass Player magazine: “Mom, for my thirteenth birthday, can you give me $200 towards the purchase of a used Modulus bass guitar with a phenolic fretboard?  It’s just like the one Flea plays!”  That said, I’ve never smelled or tasted phenolic (or touched it, sadly, as my birthday request was rejected with a laugh).  So, perhaps the dry, ashy taste I pick up in this Mortlach is what others refer to as “sulphurous” or “phenolic”?  The flavor reminds me of nothing more than burnt garlic.  It has the off-putting, bitter notes of garlic that’s been left in the pan for just a few moments too long.

To be clear, this remains a very enjoyable whiskey.  The nose, the mouthfeel, the taste and the overall sense of richness absolutely agree with me.  But there’s no avoiding the very bitter, dry flavors or the extremely hot, harsh backbone running throughout this whiskey, from start to finish.  It certainly doesn’t make it impossible for me to enjoy this Mortlach.  Indeed, I think it’s very good — as well it should be at over $150 per bottle. But if the ashy, bitter note could be eliminated, this whiskey would be a smash.

Posted in Single Malt Scotch Reviews

George Dickel Single Barrel (The Party Source Selection) Tennessee Whiskey Review

IMG_1248

Type: Tennessee Whiskey

Age: 9 Years Old

ABV: 51.5%

Price: $45.99

George Dickel is “the other” Tennessee whiskey – the one that’s not Jack Daniels.

This 9 year-old selection is rich and sweet.  Hugely sweet, even.  It’s also remarkably smooth.  I can imagine someone drinking it and thinking, “This isn’t terribly complex or interesting,” but he’d be wrong.  Well, with the proverbial gun pressed to my temple I admit that it’s not complex, but I simply don’t care.  Because the integration of sweetness and barrel influence, and the near-absence of alcohol bite even at 51.5% ABV is just as compelling as complexity.  And its unshakeable drinkability – whether neat, over ice, or with water – is such a wonderful core trait.  Doesn’t it sound good to you?  Perhaps on an evening when you’re not looking to be whacked in the mouth with peat and smoke, or challenged by a 72% ABV, or a rye-heavy bourbon?  Of course it does.  Surrender and take a tickle of the Dickel.  Yesss… everything’s better now.

Oh, you’re still unconvinced by the charms of a straightforward whiskey?  Still transfixed by your maddeningly complex bottle of Islay single malt scotch, with its lashings of bacon, boiled sweets, and kippers?  Give me another chance to sway you.  The essential beauty of this 9 year-old Dickel is that it asks nothing of you, and gives so much.  You don’t have to pay attention while you’re drinking it, even taken neat at 51.5% ABV.  It just meanders around your teeth and warms its way down your throat while you enjoy a conversation or a book.  And then every few minutes this whiskey quietly surfaces in your consciousness, like a shark fin in the middle of the Atlantic, and you suddenly realize you’re enjoying the hell out of it.  It’s mature and sweet, with just enough wood and alcohol bite to remain satisfying rather than boring.  It certainly doesn’t taste like anything else on the market, either.

But — and it’s a big one — the flavor that makes this whiskey so unique may also be off-putting to some.  I classify it as a gravelly or minerally taste that’s evident in all the modern Dickels I’ve tasted.  It’s close to the metallic tang of a chewable Flintstones vitamin tablet, for those of you whose taste memories reach back well into the last century.  I don’t find it at all unpleasant.  Then again, I tried to eat handfuls of Flintstones vitamins when I was a kid.  I’d say the taste is also reminiscent of the gravelly funk in Rolling Rock beer back when it was brewed in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  Again, something I quite liked.  That said, it’s absolutely possible this flavor may offend those of you less drawn to the taste of, well, rocks.  It’s definitely unique to Dickel, so there’s only one way to find out.

Other issues? Putting aside the matter of complexity, which we’ve already established as overrated in the context of this whiskey?  Well, it lacks any trace of a mouthfeel – a real disappointment in a drink that tastes this rich.  (If I had to guess, I’d blame chill-filtration for the total absence of any nice, oily texture.  But that seems to be a point of pride with Dickel, as it’s proudly advertised on the label.  This at a time when many “enthusiast bottlings” are released without chill-filtration, to preserve flavor and mouthfeel.  Go figure.)  Look, the nose is sweet, the taste is sweet and gravelly, and the finish is sweetness, with a bit of gravel and woody dryness.  Bada bing, bada boom, that’s it.  I think it’s terrific.

Posted in Tennessee Whiskey Reviews

Fighting Cock Bourbon Review

IMG_0924Type: Bourbon

ABV: 51.5%

Age: 6 Years Old

Price: $18

About a year ago, my wife and I spent an evening at the home of our friends Phil and Mary.  Soon after we arrived, one or the other of them handed me a glass of Fighting Cock bourbon to sip while we talked.  Being extremely gracious hosts, that was expected.  What surprised me was that the glass of Fighting Cock utterly reset my expectations for sub-twenty dollar bourbon.  While not at all complex, it was loaded with vanilla and caramel, and remained perfectly enjoyable at its full 51.5% ABV.  But adding a bit of ice only sweetened the whole proposition.  It smoothed out what little alcohol burn was present, and brought forward a pleasant woodiness to balance the vanilla sweetness that dominated the bourbon when consumed neat.

Most significantly, although Fighting Cock is a product of the Heaven Hill distillery, this particular bottle totally lacked the distinct, unappealing funkiness I pick up in many bourbons of this approximate age produced by Heaven Hill (such as Heaven Hill 6 Year Old Bottled-in-Bond at 50% ABV).  It’s tough to describe, but to me these bourbons often have a raw flavor that can be a smidge yeasty, a little metallic, or sometimes just a bit like Vicks Vapo-Rub.  And, as someone terrorized throughout his earliest years by a Vapo-Rub wielding grandfather, to describe a flavor in bourbon as “just a bit like Vapo-Rub” is to echo the charming old woman in Shaun of the Dead who admits, reluctantly, that the horde of flesh-eating zombies chewing their way through her home and husband are “a bit bitey.”

Not even Vapo-Rub can save him now

However one describes this flavor, it makes clear in no uncertain terms that the whiskey from which it emanates is still pretty young.  It fairly screams, “THIS is why the bottle costs less than $20.  You want smooth, balanced bourbon?  Go back in your wallet and come back with more money.”  It’s not that the flavor stops me from enjoying younger Heaven Hill bourbons – quite the contrary, because I think they comprise some of the great bargains in whiskeydom – but it’s something to work around, rather than to savor.

Phil and Mary’s bottle had no such funky-fresh flavor.  To be clear, though, it was not a dusty bottle.  It appeared in every way like current production Fighting Cock, yet it tasted much older than the six years indicated on the label.  So, of course I asked them where they’d found it.  Someone had brought it over as a gift, said Phil, but he couldn’t quite remember who or when.  What else could I do?  I went to a few stores in town, bought bottles of Fighting Cock, and tried them all, both in isolation and in comparison with the bottle at Mary and Phil’s house.  The Fighting Cock I’m reviewing is the last from the batch of bottles I purchased.  And every single one bears almost nothing in common with the bottle I’ve been enjoying every time I’ve visited Phil and Mary over the past year.

The bottle I’m currently drinking is quite hot.  Whether consumed neat, with ice, or with a bit of water, the sensation that overrides all aromas and flavors is that of alcohol burn.  I’m not averse to a whiskey that’s “a bit bitey,” but this is a too much.  Working through the burn we find that raw, funky flavor I associate with younger Heaven Hill-produced bourbons.  Digging a little deeper there’s an undeniable vanilla sweetness – a reminder of the fundamental charms lurking within this whiskey.  There’s also a pleasant taste of dark chocolate.  The finish starts out very nicely, as a continuation of the dark chocolate that began on the tongue, but it returns to where everything started, becoming a little funky and hot.  Overall, there’s not much to keep me coming back to this bourbon.  And that’s a shame.  Not just because I know exactly how good this whiskey can be, thanks to Phil and Mary’s bottle, but also because in an era when so many bourbons are shedding age statements, lowering ABV, and raising prices, Fighting Cock remains 6 years old, a hairy-chested 51.5% ABV and under twenty bucks, tax included.

For these reasons, I can’t quite bring myself to condemn this bourbon.  No, I won’t be buying it regularly, but as a bourbon lover, whiskey geek, and friend to all things good and right in this world, how can I dismiss completely a bottle that checks off so many of the proper boxes?  I don’t love it, and I suspect “love” is too strong a word to describe anyone’s reaction to Fighting Cock, but you may well dig it, even though it’s not my thing.

If you’re looking for a reasonably priced, grab-you-by-the-grapes sort of bourbon, and want to try something other than Fighting Cock, you’ve got a few solid options.  The easiest would be to buy a bottle of Wild Turkey 101, although nobody would ever use the terms “smoothly integrated,” “harmoniously balanced,” or “sufficiently aged” to describe Wild Turkey 101, either.  If you want to try a bourbon from Heaven Hill and either live in Kentucky or have access to bourbon sales via the internet, I’d suggest you purchase a bottle of Heaven Hill 6 Year Old Bottled-in-Bond.  It costs about $10 and for that amount of money, it’s much easier to overlook traits that become problematic at twice the price (and remember – it’s the same age as Fighting Cock).  Or, for just a few dollars more you could buy or order a bottle of Very Old Barton 6 Year-Old Bottled-in-Bond.  Very Old Barton has a very unique profile, one that I quite enjoy.  I can’t promise you’ll dig it as much as I do, but at $13 a bottle, the risk-to-revelation ratio is off the charts.

Posted in Bourbon Reviews

“Things change, people change, hairstyles change, interest rates fluctuate.”

"I know a little German.  He's sitting right over there."

“I know a little German. He’s sitting right over there.”

*The title of today’s entry comes from the 1984 film Top Secret.  This marks the first, but likely not the last time that I will apply insights from Top Secret to the world of whiskey.

Until about fifteen years ago, whiskey was simply something I consumed alongside co-workers while sitting at a bar, lamenting that the late-1990s tech boom hadn’t yet made us cartoonishly rich.  Then, when our fragile little start-up company crumpled along with so many others, I suddenly lost both the will and the means to go out and buy drinks in a bar.  But on my last day at the office, in the midst of the sadness and chaos of a business disintegrating, a co-worker handed me a box containing three unopened bottles.  He smiled and whispered, “These were in one of the executive conference rooms and nobody claimed them.  I know you like whiskey, so go ahead and take them.”

Two of the bottles in the box were familiar to me.  They were Dewar’s blended scotch (still a favorite of mine) and Maker’s Mark bourbon (an early love, but a bit of a disappointment in recent years).  The third, though, was a revelation – eventually.  It was a bottle of 10 year-old Laphroiag single malt scotch.  Because it had a very plain black-and-white label with little visual appeal, I put it away and focused on the Maker’s Mark.  When that was gone, I opened up the Laphroiag, poured some in a glass, and took a sniff.

That first whiff of Laphroiag is still clear in my mind.  It was so offensive, so aggressively unappealing that I imagined something terrible had happened to the bottle.  Could whiskey, I wondered, go bad?  It stank like asphalt.  Incredibly, this brutal-smelling stuff was the color of straw.  Based on its odor, I figured it should have been dark and tarry-looking, but it actually appeared quite pleasant to the eye.  So I figured, what the hell, and took a sip.

And as all of us know who’ve learned to love Laphroiag and others like her, that first taste was surprisingly sweet.  Sure, there was that unmistakable funk of roadway construction that first appeared on the nose, but overall, the flavors were actually pretty smooth and gentle.  And the smoky elements turned out to be compelling, rather than appalling.  From then on, I was smitten, and I spent a lot of time and treasure seeking out the latest and greatest peat-heavy releases from Laphroiag, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and the other Islay distilleries.  (Along the way, though, some of my favorite peated whiskies have come from BenRiach, which isn’t on Islay.)

It’s been a good run but in the last year, I’ve found my tastes veering sharply away from peat-heavy scotches.  I can’t explain why, but a lot of the whiskies I used to adore are starting to taste a little… much.  Where I used to seek out a bracing smack of peat, now I find myself reaching for bottles of unpeated whiskey or even bottles of whiskey that have been finished in casks that previously held wine, or fortified wine, like sherry.  I’d long found sherried whiskies to be unpleasantly sweet (and confusingly, sometimes burnt-tasting and ashy, as well), but I guess my tastes aren’t quite as resolved as I’d thought.

My point – and thank you for bearing with me – is that one of the beauties of the whiskey world is its variety.  If you find yourself a little bored with old favorites, take a gamble on a bottle of something unfamiliar and new.  If you’ve been drinking a lot of well-aged bourbon lately, try a bottled-in-bond bourbon for a a glimpse of a younger, angrier, yet still high-quality American whiskey.  And although I find many of the new wave of American craft whiskies to be overpriced and underwhelming, there are certainly gems to be found, like the Leopold Brothers Maryland Style Rye Whiskey.  Or, if you’ve been consuming the same brands of single malt scotch lately, alternatives call to you from far-away continents.  There are some excellent Japanese whiskies available in the U.S., and a growing number of quality Indian single malts, as well.  You may not fall immediately in love with any of these products — if I’m being honest, I haven’t — but they’re certainly fun for a change, and can be tried without spending an unreasonable amount of money.

I’ll do my best to walk the walk, and post some reviews of unpeated and sherried whiskies in the near future, beginning with a 22 year-old independent bottling of Mortlach from K&L Wines.

Posted in Collecting and Commentary, Single Malt Scotch Reviews