Linkwood 1991 “The Sovereign” (K&L Selection) Scotch Review

IMG_0902Type: Single Malt Scotch

ABV: 58.8%

Age: 21 Years Old

Price: $109

The nose on this honey-hued whiskey is pretty subdued.  Some concentrated sniffing yields a pleasant whiff of white grape and … apricot?  Peach, perhaps?  Sipped neat, there is a terrific saltiness across the tongue, followed by flavors of tropical fruits like coconut or mango.  Although the flavors are quite light, the mouthfeel is pleasantly heavy and oily.  However, at full strength there is quite a bit of alcohol in the way.  Adding water doesn’t necessarily help matters, though.  Although it does amplify the delicate fruit flavors, it also brings out some not terribly appealing woodiness.  Overall, this is a style of scotch that I enjoy, with flavors that I tend to seek out, but it’s a bit hot taken neat, and a bit muddled with water.  If you don’t mind a bit of burn, I think this bottle has a lot of appeal.  It reminds me a bit of K&L’s earlier 21 year-old Littlemill, bottled under the retailer’s Faultline label (another somewhat alcohol-forward bottle with plenty of tropical fruit flavors).

 

Posted in Single Malt Scotch Reviews

Old Forester Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon (1960) Review

IMG_0910Type: Bourbon

ABV: 50%

Age: 5 Years Old

Price: N/A

The government tax stamp indicates that this whiskey was barreled in 1955 and bottled in 1960.  Despite spending such a short time – by modern standards, at least – in wood, the bourbon is a deep, rich, and very appealing reddish-brown.  The nose and taste both bear little resemblance to most modern bourbons I’ve encountered.  The nose is pleasantly musty, without any other distinct notes.  The flavors are reminiscent of Christmas – heavy with spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, with dark orange, too.  The expected bourbon notes like maple, vanilla, or wood, aren’t easily found.  Tasted blind, I’m not sure I’d even be able to ID it as a bourbon.  On the tongue, this whiskey feels pleasantly thick and oily.  I really enjoy these dusty bonded Old Foresters, as they’re incredibly rich and don’t look, smell, or taste much like anything else.  Frankly, if modern five year-old bourbons were as unique, and as rich-feeling and tasting as this Old Forester, I wouldn’t spend nearly as much time searching out old bottles.

 

Posted in Bourbon Reviews, Dusty Bottles

Weller 12 Bourbon Review

IMG_0907Type: Bourbon

ABV: 45%

Age: 12 Years Old

Price: $25-30

This one’s a bit of a heartbreaker.  I have been a regular buyer of Weller 12 for about a decade.  During that time, a (welcome) guest in my home could expect to be offered either a glass of 12 year-old Weller or a pour of its punchier younger brother, Weller Antique.  I liked nearly everything about Weller 12 – its luxuriously sweet, maple syrup-y nose, the way it seemed to coat every surface of my teeth and tongue with vanilla and cherry, and its gentle manner, which made it remarkably pleasant to drink neat.  Was it complex?  No, not really.  But its simplicity never bothered me, especially at $25 a bottle.

In recent years, though, Weller 12 has turned thin, hot, and a little too woody.   And this bottle, unfortunately, displays all three of these unwelcome traits.  I wouldn’t call it overly oaky, at least not in the manner of a truly old bourbon like Elijah Craig 18, but it does seem as though a lot of the vanilla and cherry flavors I expected to find have been overwhelmed by the sort of dry, tannic sensations I associate with many extra-aged bourbons.  Even the addition of a bit of water or ice doesn’t fully eliminate these tendencies.  I suppose the clearest way to describe the overall aroma and taste is to say that the sense of rich smoothness that used to define this bourbon is now largely missing.  It no longer seems like a luxury product at a mid-shelf price.  Instead, it seems defined by its age and the effects of its time in the wood.

That said, Weller 12 is still a must-try, both because of my (admittedly emotional) affinity for the brand and for bottles past, and because if you find it too dry or lifeless, there’s a potentially simple fix.  Simply combine it with some Weller Antique and whip up a bourbon that’s a little younger, livelier, and less flat.  The members at StraightBourbon, where this solution originated, termed the resulting whiskey the “SB.com blend.”  Oh, and when you do buy a bottle of Weller 12, be sure to try it over the course of a few weeks.  For whatever reason – and I’m not prepared to exclude witchcraft as an explanation – in my experience Weller 12 improves once a bit of air has a chance to loiter in the bottle.

 

Posted in Bourbon Reviews

No Pappy? No Problem.

IMG_0911

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings”

Like many of you, I’ve been conditioned to genuflect before bottles of bourbon bearing the name “Pappy Van Winkle.”  It’s hard to resist the allure of the brand, as articles in major newspapers and men’s magazines trumpet Van Winkle as the pinnacle of American spirits, and online whiskey forums grow increasingly larded with gauzy, near-pornographic images of massive Van Winkle bottle collections.

I’ve certainly played a part in the Van Winkle mania, and I’ve had some magnificent bottles of Van Winkle-branded whiskey.  I was an enthusiastic buyer of their 15 year-old bourbon and the Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, both of which remain among my favorites.  I’ve also had at least a couple of Van Winkle products that made me feel a little foolish, including two different versions of their 23 year-old bourbon.  After spending hundreds of dollars on each, I tried mightily to convince myself that I enjoyed their woody, excessively dry profiles, but I never succeeded.

I probably learned about Van Winkle in much the same manner as many other people.  I’d been drinking Maker’s Mark for years, and when I started searching the internet using phrases like “I’m bored with Maker’s Mark and want a bourbon that tastes like it, only much better,” I soon found myself at the gates of a remarkable online bourbon community called straightbourbon.com.  Within minutes, I was wading through a torrent of posts about “the best bourbon,” “Van Winkle,” and “Pappy.”  Within hours I had mapped out every liquor store in town and commenced pawing though their shelves, brandishing my credit card and croaking, “Heyabuddywherzavanwinkle” at anyone behind the register.

At the time, liquor store employees were only too happy to direct me to the Van Winkle, if they’d even heard of it.  I was lucky enough to enter the world of American whiskey collecting at a time when Pappy Van Winkle 15 and its predecessor, Old Rip Van Winkle 15 were, if not exactly straightforward to find, at least regularly available to those willing to invest a bit of time and a reasonable amount of money.  Even the elusive Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye sat on shelves, undisturbed, its generic brown label sometimes peeling away from the bottle.

I brought these bottles home, opened them, drank, and waited for enlightenment.  And waited, and waited.  Sure, they were good, but where were the angel’s trumpets?   Time passed, and I realized the problems inherent to my approach.  I’d made two assumptions: first, that my tastes mirrored those of the men and women posting opinions online, and second, that I had the ability to understand why, exactly, more experienced bourbon consumers considered Van Winkle whiskies so special.

If you are a whiskey collector, then presumably taste is a relative matter.  You like bourbon X more than bourbon Y for reasons 1, 2, and 3.  And you are familiar with bourbon Y and reasons 1, 2, and 3 because you’ve tasted a wide variety of whiskies and understand what aromas, flavors, and textures appeal to you.  The issue with leaping right in and spending $500 on a bottle of Pappy 20 is that you’re denying yourself a frame of reference within which to evaluate it.  If you skip right from everyday pours to a 20 year-old bottle of bourbon that’s held up as the epitome of American whiskey, you leave yourself only three possible reactions:

“Yes, that IS better than the $15 bourbon I’ve been buying at CVS.”

Or:

“Hmm.  It’s good, but it’s not INCREDIBLE.”

Or:

Wow.  This $500 bourbon sure tastes, uh, different from what I’m used to drinking.”

So be patient; don’t repeat my mistakes.  Learn what sorts of bourbons you like and –equally important – what sorts of bourbons you dislike.  When you develop a vocabulary, you’ll be better equipped to decide whether or not you really enjoy whatever Van Winkle whiskey you get to taste, whenever you get to taste it.  And then you can decide, confidently, if it’s worth the time, effort, and money to hunt down more.

And if you’ve never tasted Pappy and that’s frustrating you, or if you’ve tried it and feel let down, here’s a thought: In a sense, it’s to your advantage as a consumer and a collector if you don’t fall in love with Pappy.  It leaves you free to focus on other, more easily obtained whiskies.   And if you have tried a Van Winkle whiskey and can’t get your mind off it, I promise you there is hope.  I’ve found at least five or six other whiskies that I enjoy more than any Van Winkle-branded bourbon or rye.  Are they easier to find?  Well, no, not really.  But they’re certainly cheaper when they do turn up.  And I’ll discuss them in a separate posting.

Posted in Collecting and Commentary

Before You Bid, Buy, or Bunker

It’s increasingly easy to spend large amounts of money on various rare and limited whiskey releases. Not only are companies issuing more and more super-premium bottles, but the proliferation of internet sales, online exchanges, and auctions have made these bottles widely available, although often at wildly inflated prices. And this very availability can put pressure on consumers, who feel they have scant time to grab as many bottles of a particular release as possible, despite having never tasted it.

For me, a lot of the thrill of collecting is tied up in the process of searching out a particular whiskey “on the ground” rather than in the digital world. I geek out on talking to people, moving bottles around with my hands, and the singular charge that comes from finding what I’m looking for, lurking on a shelf. Of course, this tactic doesn’t always work, no matter how much I might prefer it. And as the song says, it takes diff’rent strokes to move the world. So, if your tastes differ from mine, or if circumstances compel you to buy expensive whiskey bottles through online retailers, trading sites, or at auctions, I strongly encourage you to do some preliminary reading. Here’s why:

Sanctioned whiskey auctions at established houses are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. And as the links below make clear, there have been some pretty savage bumps in the road, even at this early stage. So it’s essential that you educate yourself and know what to look for before bidding. There’s a lot to learn about the characteristics of glass bottles, labels, tax stamps, bottle closures, bar codes, fill lines, and other variables. It’s tough enough to apply all you’ve learned when looking at a bottle standing in from of you, but it can be next to impossible when looking at a small digital photo. So if you’re planning to bid, don’t be afraid to ask for plenty of additional pictures and information. It’s up to you to be confident in a particular bottle before bidding.

Similarly, before rushing off to spend hundreds of dollars online to bunker 6 cases of this year’s never-to-be-repeated 29 Year-Old Roger W. Snead Warehouse X Dirigible Accident Survivor Bourbon, pause for a moment. Ask yourself some basic questions. Are you acting out of a (perhaps understandable) panic that if you don’t buy immediately, you won’t have the chance? (Hey – we’ve all done it.) Do you enjoy the taste of extra-aged bourbon? And if so, have you tasted any whiskey bottled under the Roger W. Snead label? What’s the history of the brand, and what can it tell you about the current release? And what are people who have the opportunity to taste virtually all of the limited release whiskies writing about this particular bottling?

There are a few exceptionally informative sites out there with which every whiskey geek should familiarize him or herself. They are written by people who clearly love whiskey, and who’ve invested an enormous amount of time and energy learning about it and sharing that knowledge with the rest of us. It’d be ridiculous not to take advantage of their generosity in posting their knowledge so freely. So, before you begin bidding at whiskey auctions, buying bottles in stores, or bunkering a whiskey collection in your home, start reading.

The LA Whiskey Society

In addition to the society’s very useful archive of whiskey reviews, pay particular attention to the Adventures in Whiskey section, which contains an enormous amount of useful information on the perils of buying old bottles of whiskey, and how to ensure that you avoid any unhappy purchases.

And please read this very informative section on whiskey auctions, as well.

Sku’s Recent Eats

Sku posts a lot of excellent reviews and is absolutely unafraid to call ‘em as he sees ‘em. His style is crisp, his knowledge is vast, and he’s generous with it. If you have questions regarding the American distilling industry (or are curious about his opinions on a wide variety of non-American whiskies) the answer probably lies somewhere on this site. Sku is also a member of the LA Whiskey Society, and more of his reviews are posted on the society’s site.

The Chuck Cowdery Blog

It seems appropriate to describe Mr. Cowdery as the dean of American whiskey writers. His book, Bourbon, Straight, certainly helped to nourish my interest in the history of American distilling, as I imagine it has for many other enthusiasts, as well. It is worth noting that Mr. Cowdery’s experience in the American whiskey industry is decades-long, and that he was writing about American whiskies long before the current popularity of bourbon and straight rye.

The K&L Spirits Journal

Although K&L Wines is a retailer, and obviously has an interest in selling the products it carries, the information in its blog is, in my opinion, fair and open-minded. The whiskey-buyers for K&L (David Driscoll and David Othenin-Girard) provide a fascinating window into the state of retail whiskey sales, and the reasons why we, as avid consumers, aren’t able to buy all of our favorite whiskies whenever we want. If you want to enrich your understanding of the whiskey industry in the U.S., read this blog.

Posted in Collecting and Commentary