Tag Archives: Bourbon

…Bourbon keeps being interesting – American whiskey tasting nr 11.

After forays into rye and malt whiskey, it´s time to return to Kentucky and a set of interesting bourbons.

Willett Pot Still Reserve, 94 proof (47%).

Willet pot still reserve

Coming from the Willett Distilling Company in Bardstown, Kentucky, we have yet another slightly convoluted backstory to this whiskey. The company was started in 1935 by Lambert Willett and several of his sons. After the death of Lambert his son Thompson took over responsibility of the company and served as president until 1984. Experience and knowledge of whiskey distillation went back much longer in the family, and their bourbons were made from family recipes from the late 19th century. In 1984 the facility was bought by Even G. Kulsveen, son-in-law of Thompson Willett, who together with his family runs the company today. Kulsveen renamed the company Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, initially bottling whiskey from existing reserves of barrels, since their own distilling facilities had been shut down in the beginning of the 1980´s. The company has since then been sourcing bourbon from other distillers, making a fairly large line of bottlings sometimes under fictitious company names. As of January 2012, the company again has distilling capabilities and is returning to calling themselves the Willett Distilling Company.

This particular whiskey is made from a distillate of unknown origin (even if the Heaven Hill distillery has been named as a suspect), and I´ve managed to find no information about the mash bill. Each bottle comes from a single barrel of new white oak, after having matured for 8 – 10 years. My particular one was number 67 of 110 from barrel number 7 077.

The whiskey shows a pleasantly glowing amber colour. On the nose you get a beginning of sweetness and vanilla, followed by some spice, orange peel and fleeting notes of eucalyptus. Neat in a tasting glass the mouthfeel is medium bodied with a light start of corn turning more complex in the middle, where wood, citrus and spice gives way to a fairly long finish dominated by oak. In a tumbler with ice you get notes of banana and chocolate both on nose and palate.

The bottle deserves special mention. A 1,75 liter giant formed as a pot still. Very unique and stylish and something I´m going to keep as a decanter. To sum it up, a very nice and complex whiskey that would be fun to try again sometime.

Jim Beam Black, 86 proof (43%).

Jim Beam Black

Here we have a producer with a long and winding history beginning in the late 18th century, after members of the Böhm family emigrated from Germany to Kentucky. Changing their name to Beam, seven generations has been involved in the distillation of Kentucky bourbon as well as being Master Distillers at the famous Heaven Hill Distillery. Later acquired by Japanese company Suntory, this is one of the giants in the whiskey business, with many different products in their inventory.

This variety of Jim Beam bourbon boasts of being triple aged, which means that it´s matured in barrels for 6 years, three times the requisite two year aging needed for the “straight bourbon” epithet. The version I´m writing about is for the international market, the US Jim Beam Black is actually aged for 8 years.

Deep amber colour. The nose shows corn, caramel, vanilla and some wood. Neat in a tasting glass there´s a start of caramel and vanilla, changing into toasted oak and spice in the middle which carries on into a short finish of slightly adstringent wood. In a tumbler with ice the wood on the nose becomes stronger, and the taste shifts into much sweeter vanilla and caramel notes, finishing on sweetness instead of oak. Not that much to say about the bottle, it´s instantly recognizable as Jim Beam and as such serves its purpose well.

In my opinion superior to their regular 4 year old bourbon. Very nice and smooth, balancing the usual bourbon sweetness with it’s somewhat dry, woody character. Nothing stellar, but competent and honest.

Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 100 proof (50%).

Knob Creek Bourbon

Aiming at restoring bourbon to its pre-prohibition splendor, this drink goes a long way towards achieving its goal. The mash bill contains the 51% corn regulated by law, along with an undisclosed percentage of rye and malted barley. Pure, limestone-filtered water together with a proprietary yeast strain is used during fermentation, and “set back” (mash from previous distillations) is added twice at different stages of production. It´s then double distilled and aged for 9 years in heavily charred barrels of new American oak, at an initial proof of 125. For the finished bottle a selection of small batches stored at different locations in the warehouse is blended to assure an even quality.

The colour is a radiant, dark gold amber. The nose is big and bold, with loads of maple syrup, burnt sugar, caramel and strong oak notes. Neat in a tasting glass (I´m discounting three drops of water) you get less of an alcohol kick than could be expected at this proof. There´s a big, chewy mouthfeel to this whiskey, beginning with sweet maple syrup and caramel turning into spice, toasted oak and wood resin at the middle, with a long and lingering finish of dry oak. In a tumbler with ice it manages to retain the big nose with a slant towards oak instead of sweetness. On the other hand, the palate turns sweeter and slightly less complex.

The bottle is square and chunky in a very distinct way, and along with the label recreates pre-prohibition bourbon bottles. The plastic/cork stopper and wax seal also aims at a higher degree of sophistication. Personally, I must confess to quite liking it.

A really well made and distinctive bourbon with lots of character and punch. I´ve enjoyed this immensely and would very much like to try the single barrel variety and their other products.

 John Medley´s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 80 proof (40%).

John Medley Bourbon

One of the cheapest bourbons available in Sweden, with not that much information to find out about the distillers. Made from a mash bill of 51% corn and 49% barley you can´t really accuse the makers of John Medley´s of being that original. What we get is a pretty traditional Kentucky Straight Bourbon, but with a much longer barrel aging than necessary.

A medium amber colour. The nose has oak, caramel and vanilla. Neat in a tasting glass it gives a smooth and mild impression of caramel, vanilla and some oak, with a short and quite unremarkable finish. In a tumbler with ice much of its to begin with pretty mild character is diluted and you end up with something rather anonymous. The bottle just as the whiskey is a no-frills square and chubby variety without any unique design features.

A whiskey well worth its admittedly low price, but too lacking of character to merit another tasting.

Maker´s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 90 proof (45%).

Makers mark

Many years of tradition lies behind this whiskey, which has a definitive edge its own. Clear, limestone water combined with a mash bill of 70% corn, 16 % wheat and 14% barley. Replacing rye with red winter wheat making this what is called a wheated bourbon. First introduced in 1958 this whiskey has a long history, and is one of the staples of American whiskey production.

Golden amber colour. A nose dominated by oak, caramel and vanilla. Neat in a tasting glass you get a well balanced combination of caramel, vanilla, spice and oak. In a tumbler with ice much of the complexity is lost, and a dominating sweetness takes over.

The bottle is both distinctive and unique, with its square format and wax seal. One of the true originals and a whiskey I would like to always have in my liquor cabinet.

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…American Whiskey tasting no 1 is on the schedule.

I must confess to Jack Daniels having a special place in my heart. Not considered much of anything amongst serious single malt drinkers, it´s still the rock ´n´roll whiskey, making it undeniably cool to the twenty-something rock fan that I was when I first came in contact with it. No lover of rock ´n´ roll could have escaped the lure of this easily recognizable brand. It´s very easy to imagine Keith Richards in front of a microphone with his guitar, a bottle of Jack dangling from one hand and a cigarette in the other.

I´ve never used it for mixing cocktails or in Jack ´n´Coke or something like that, instead always enjoying it in a tumbler with a single ice cube. Something of a guilty pleasure, you could say, just like the old Eurythmics albums I keep stacked in the back of my vinyl LP collection. Maybe not that hip, but still definitely enjoyable.

Jack Daniels

Jack Daniels Old No.7 Brand, 80 proof (40%).
The Jack Daniels distillery was established in 1866, making it the oldest in America and claiming to still make it´s famous Old No.7 Brand precisely as it´s always been done. A Tennessee whiskey crafted from cool, iron-free water from their own spring, with a sour mash based on corn with an addition of rye and malted barley, mellowed by dripping through 10 feet of maple charcoal before maturing in barrels of new white oak, made and charred at the distillery. No specified time of barrel maturation is said to be needed, “it´s ready when it´s ready”. Whiskey from different barrels are blended to give a consistent taste and quality.

So, how does it taste? Let me begin by saying that this is not a very demanding whiskey to drink. A nice, fairly light colour with a nose that´s also on the light side. Sweet and with notes of caramel and vanilla, with just the slightest hint of charcoal smoke. A second sniff gives you pretty strong banana notes. Straight, in a tasting glass, you get a very smooth and mellow drink, with some fresh oak and distinct caramel and vanilla notes, followed by a finish dominated by sweetness. In a tumbler with an ice cube the sweetness is more marked and some fruitiness appears. This description might give the faulty impression that Jack Daniels is an unremarkable drink, which is not my opinion at all. I really like this whiskey and while it´s quite light and pleasing from the first sip, it still holds a certain measure of complexity. Of course, it can´t be compared to a 25 year old Highland Park, but that´s not really what it´s about is it? I would say that it´s perfectly possible for the same person to enjoy both the Allman Brothers Band and Radiohead´s latest.

Elijah Craig

Elijah Craig Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 12 years old, 94 proof (47%).
Produced by the large Heaven Hill distillery, this straight Bourbon was named after the Reverend Elijah Craig (1738 – 1808), who has been claimed to be the first to make true Kentucky Bourbon, after storing his whiskey in barrels that had been accidentally charred in a fire. Be that as it may, you don´t have to believe this story to try the whiskey. It is marketed as a small batch Bourbon, coming from a dump of not more than 100 barrels. If that´s really to be considered small batch can of course be discussed, but let´s not be overly elitist here.

In this day and age where packaging and design is becoming more and more important, Elijah Craig is either an anti-statement or just plain old fashioned. Everything about this bottle looks cheap and uninteresting, not that different from the generic rum I once bought back in the eighties in a Prague government store. That said, drinking the contents of the bottle will make you happier than looking at it. Here we have a whiskey with the light amber colour that could be expected from 12 years of barrel maturation (I haven´t found any information about the presence or absence of artificial colourings, so let´s believe in a natural process for the time being). The nose carries a strong and full sweetness with no sharpness of alcohol whatsoever, along with vanilla and banana toffee. Tasting it straight reveals more of the sweetness and a certain creaminess in the medium long finish. Toasted oak is evident, combined with a hint of vanilla. Iced in a tumbler the oak is played down and a discrete aniseed or liquorice tone develops. Not sure that ice really improves on this whiskey, unlike what I´ve found during the years for Jack Daniels. There is a definite Bourbon character to this brew that I enjoy, even though the likes of Woodford and Blanton´s reach much higher in that respect. Not sure I´m going to buy this again, but let´s see.

Rebel reserve

Rebel Reserve, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 90,6 proof (45,3%).
William Larue Weller (1825 – 1899) initiated the use of wheat instead of rye in the mashbill of Bourbon whiskey, which of course had to contain at least 51% corn. Now several other types of wheated Bourbon exists, and the WLW brand has been sold to the Sazerac Company. Rebel Yell and it´s sister whiskey Rebel Reserve is currently produced by the Heaven Hill distillery. Claiming to be hand-crafted in small batches my particular bottle is number 53 549 from batch 1 065. Seems like industrial production trying to mimic artisanal. Wheated Bourbon definitely has a different character compared to the others, whether you like it or not is a different story. An earlier tasting of Rebel Yell that I did found it to be entirely unremarkable. Rebel Reserve however is marketed as the more exclusive alternative, with more bells and whistles. It shows a light amber colour, probably consistent with its undisclosed time of barrel maturation. The nose carries a distinct alcohol sharpness that almost completely displaces tones of oak and caramel. Tasting it straight will show you a pretty decent wheat character, but not so much else. Unfortunately this whiskey is fairly one-dimensional and severely lacking in complexity. The finish is short and unsatisfying and not something that will get you excited. Tasting it in a tumbler with an ice cube doesn´t really change anything. There is a definite lack of character here that can´t be overlooked. Not something that I´m going to return to.

…the hipsters might be on to something – American whiskey

Every other year a new trend in alcoholic beverages comes along, making it possible for the self-appointed hip guys (yes, it´s always guys) to set themselves apart from their pals by amassing tons of nerdy knowledge. I should know since I´ve been one of those guys for years. We´ve seen single malt whisky, matured rum, Italian grappa, premium vodka, Carter-head still gin and several others go from cult to mainstream, and now the time in the limelight has come for American whiskey. For many years, the Systembolaget store (the only licensed seller of alcohol in Sweden) has offered just a handful of pretty basic Bourbons. This has definitely changed and now you can get over 70 types of American wiskey, many of them by special order and some with prices even higher than premium Scottish malts.

The many centuries of history of this type of drink in Ireland and Scotland is very hard to overlook, and that story deserves it´s own telling some other time. To simplify things you could say that Scottish whisky is made from either malted barley (malt whisky) or from other grains (mostly wheat or rye). Single malt whisky is distilled from a mash containing only malted barley, while the equivalent single grain uses either rye or wheat. Several blends of the different types of whisky also exists; blended malt, blended grain as well as blends of malt and grain whiskies.

American whiskey follows the same ground rules with some noteable exceptions. The spirit is still distilled from different kinds of fermented grains – barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat and corn. Several distinctive types of this whiskey exists with different rules of what they are allowed to be made of. Rye and rye malt whiskey must contain at least 51% rye or malted rye. Similarly malt and wheat whiskey must use at least 51% malted barley or wheat respectively. Corn whiskey on the other hand contains at least 80% corn, something that sets it apart from all the others.Bourbon is maybe the most well known of American whiskeys and can only be distilled from a mash of at least 51 % corn and then aged in charred new oak barrels. No artificial colour or flavouring is allowed and the length of barrel aging is not closely regulated. To be called straight whiskey a distillate needs to be not more than 80% alcohol, aged for at least two years and without additives.

George Dickel

Tennessee whiskey is a special case of straight Bourbon produced in the state of Tennessee. Relatively few producers of this type of whiskey exists due to a statewide prohibition of alcoholic beverages that has endured much longer than the national prohibition. Many of the Tennessee whiskeys will not use the Bourbon label in spite of technically qualifying as such. The main producers of Tennessee whiskey are Jack Daniels, George Dickel and Benjamin Prichard. All of these companies manufacture several types of whiskey with their own unique character. Some of these are made with the Lincoln County Process, meaning that the whiskey is filtered through or steeped in maple charcoal chips before going into oak casks for aging. The Jack Daniels and George Dickel distilleries have different ways of doing this, which is claimed to affect the taste of their products. The sour mash process used in making the Tennesee whiskeys is a way of achieving an even quality over time. Some of the already used mash is added to the present batch to start fermentation, ensuring that the same yeast is used and lowering the pH to avoid proliferation of bacteria that could affect the taste of the distillate.

charcoal mellowing

Having a story explaining why your particular whisky is better and more special than the rest has always been important, and the lore of Scottish malts are full of special ingredients and techniques, single-minded master distillers, unique combinations of new and previously used barells, as well as storage locations exposed to salty sea air or other environmental factors perceived beneficial. The same goes for American whiskey, however with several important differences. While age is an important factor in Scottish whiskies, American ones have no way of competing in that department. Instead we get a lot of unique compositions of the fermentable material, paired with some special manufacturing steps like for example the Lincoln County Process. The tales behind American whiskeys are in no way less intriguing than those behind their Scottish counterparts. Very often you have a strong personality initiating manufacture of whiskey in a different way than what´s been done before. It might be a water supply of remarkable quality, a special combination and/or treatment of the grains used, different extra processes like maple charcoal mellowing, and innovations in barrel maturation. How the distillery dealt with the Prohibition Era is often a part of its history that´s recounted with pride, and of course adds colour to its background. Having been the favorite whiskey of different luminaries from Abe Lincoln to Al Capone is also used as part of the mythology surrounding a certain brand.

There´s been a lot of debate about whether to add water or ice to your drink, and even though no distinctive truths are to be found there are still arguments for the different practices. When talking about single malts, many agree that a splash of water is needed to release the full taste of high alcohol content whiskies like cask strength varieties, that can go up to 60% or more. At this high percentage the alcohol can actually prevent your taste buds from registering the subtler nuances of the whisky, and instead leave you with an anaesthesized feeling. For single malt whiskies ice is never an option even though it´s sometimes used for blended ones. American whiskeys on the other hand have a long history of drinking on the rocks, and there might even be a point to this practice. It´s true that the lower temperature in a glass of whiskey with an ice cube in it will withhold some of the tastes. Still, some of the high end Bourbons like Blanton´s have such a high alcohol content that some water might help to release some of their finer nuances. While tasting American whiskey it might be a good idea to first try it neat and then continue by adding an ice cube and see how it changes. Future posts in this blog will be doing exactly that, with different products from a number of distilleries.