Thursday, September 13, 2018

Elijah Craig Barrel Select 125 Proof Review

Here today we have a gift shop only release from the folks over at Heaven Hill which is affectionately referred to as the Elijah Craig "hand grenade" for obvious reasons. It seems this product exists solely for the purpose of gift shop distribution which I think is great - I wish more distillery gift shops would do bottle sizes like this. The standard Elijah Craig dropped an age statement a couple years ago but is still a blend of 8+ year old stock. I actually like the new blend better than the old age statement product simply because it's not as oak forward / bitter. I'm expecting this is a higher proof version of the current standard product and as such I expect it will be pretty good.
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; No Age Statement; 62.5% ABV; $25 / 200ml
Nose: A bit hot for 125 proof - the ethanol is very noticeable. Underneath that it is a wallop of wood and maple syrup sugary notes which are reminiscent of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.
Taste: Upfront taste is more of the same from the nose, a ton of woody sugar notes. Lots of oak but it's not overly bitter or dry. Along with all that wood influence are syrupy sweet notes for days - it's like drinking bourbon pancakes. The finish is a lot of those woody and sweet notes but there are also traces of ashy char and harsh ethanol which are just a touch too hot for my taste.
Thoughts: This is good but not great. It's not as elegant or easy as the standard Elijah Craig nor is it as bold / punch you in the mouth as the 12 year Barrel Proof. As such, it seems to kinda dance around in the middle without much of an identity. It wants to be brash and it has the proof to be so but it's missing all the wood punch that makes that boldness work for the Barrel Proof. It's a nice novelty product but I won't be clamoring for them to release anything like this nationwide anytime soon.
Rating: B / B-
Note that price is not considered when assigning a rating.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Virgin Bourbon Review

Here today we have an uncommon bottle from a weird off brand of Heaven Hill. It's a bit of a sleeper due to the fact that it has very limited geographical distribution but if you happen to live in North Carolina apparently this stuff is dirt cheap and plentiful. I also hear that it's available in Alabama and Japan but I have no idea if it is quite as cheap there. I've had good experiences with similar Heaven Hill products like their 6 year old Bottled in Bond as well as a Luxco Heaven Hill sourced bourbon that shares these exact stats in Old Ezra 101 7 year so I expect this to go well.
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; Aged 7 years; 50.5% ABV; $11
Nose: The poster child of a no frills bourbon - corn, vanilla, oak, sweet caramel. There are hints of grainy new make which tells that while it has plenty of age, there is still a little youth to it.
Taste: A well rounded combo of sweet and oak with a little rye and char bite in the finish. The 101 proof gives it a nice kick in the pants without being overly hot. Again there are traces of younger new make grainy corn mash which are in-line with what you'd expect from a bourbon at this age. It's about as classic bourbon as you can get.
Thoughts: No surprises here, it tastes exactly like a seven year old 101 proof bourbon from a long tenured distillery should. I'm going off memory but this is on par with the Old Ezra 101 so it wouldn't surprise me if it's the same product with a different label. Considering this is significantly cheaper than the Ezra, that makes this the best bourbon I've ever had under $20. If this was available here at the same price it would easily overtake Wild Turkey 101 as my house whiskey since it's less than half the price and just about as enjoyable. 
Rating: C+ / B-
Thanks to /u/rhinusdax for the generous gift of this bottle and be sure to check out his review here.
Note that price is not considered when assigning a rating.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Evan Williams Review

Here today we have the flagship of the Heaven Hill whiskey line. Last I checked, I believe this is the third best selling American whiskey in the world behind Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's. I like the Bottled in Bond variant of this which is also no age statement but comes in at 100 proof. While the proof on that one is nice, it definitely drinks like a barely no age statement bourbon in that it tastes right at 4 years old with a good bit of corn / grain forward mash notes. I've can't recall the last time I had regular Evan Williams though and even if I could I've never had much of it so I'm going in with a blank slate here. 
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; No Age Statement; 43% ABV; $7 (375ml)
Nose: Yep, smells like bourbon. A lot of sweet wood sugary notes and a good amount of oak. It's got a fair bit more wood depth than I expected as the young grainy notes are there but minor. 
Taste: A lot more of the nose. It's mostly all sweet and wood. Upfront it's sugary caramel which transitions to a darker burnt sugars like creme brulee in the finish. There are hints of a nutty note like peanut brittle which is something I am getting more and more often in Heaven Hill products these days. Again there's quite a bit more wood influence than I expected which is doing well to keep any young corn grain mash notes at bay. It's as easy to drink as you'd expect for 86 proof though I wouldn't say it's watery. 
Thoughts: This is better than I expected. It certainly runs circles around Beam and Jack as it has a lot more depth than those. I went in guessing this was barely four years old but going off profile here I'd guess it's more like 6-7. In a similar comparison, I consider Maker's Mark the baseline of an average drinkable bourbon and this is better than that too. If I had to nitpick, it is pretty much a two trick pony of sweet and wood with not much else and the proof is holding it back. Overall, it's a nice, classic bourbon that comes in at a great price and would be a great choice as a house bourbon to share with company.
Rating: C+ / C
Note that price is not considered when assigning a rating. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Russell's Reserve 2002 vs. Wild Turkey Master's Keep Revival Reviews

Two limited edition products from Wild Turkey released around the same time. One is an expensive 12-15 year old at 101 proof and finished in 20 year old Oloroso Sherry casks. The other is a super limited, super expensive, barrel proof, 16 year old. I love Wild Turkey and Eddie Russell is easily my favorite current master distiller in the industry so this should be fun.

Wild Turkey Master's Keep Revival

Aged 12 - 15 years; 50.5% ABV; Batch 0001; Bottle 38558; $150
Nose: Fruity, older bourbon. The sherry notes are pretty evident and add a nice grape jam layer on top of the sweet, spice, and oak. 
Taste: Lots of typical bourbon notes up front - honey and vanilla followed by familiar Wild Turkey baking spices and lots of fruit glaze. The tail ends off with a hefty dose of charred oak, light spice, and a lot of fruity jam. Again the sherry finish is very evident. Without the fruit notes it very much reminds me of the exported 12/101 that was still being sold overseas up until a few years ago.
Thoughts: I've loved this from the moment I opened it and that feeling remains. It has all the familiarity of a great Russell's Reserve Single Barrel or 12/101 Wild Turkey with a nice dose of fruitiness mingled throughout. This is easily my favorite release in the Master's Keep line and the first one I've ever liked enough to buy a second. If I had any criticism it would be the finish is a touch char heavy / bitter.
Rating: B+

Russell's Reserve 2002

No Age Statement (Distilled 2002, Bottled 2018); 57.3% ABV; Bottle 3085/3640; $250
Nose: A lot more intensity than the Revival which is to be expected given the proof bump. It's not any hotter than it should be for 57% though. Smells like a ramped up older Russell's Reserve Single Barrel. 
Taste: Lots of sweet bourbon notes initially - honey, caramel, graham cracker. That slowly transitions to more wood and baking spice in the middle and lingers on through the finish. It is hefty on the wood and baking spices. I get faint hints of what nerds often refer to as dusty turkey notes. Tasted blind I might suspect this was a vintage Wild Turkey like the donut bottling.
Thoughts: As someone who loves Russell's Reserve Single Barrel, this is very good. There are no surprises here, it tastes exactly like what it should based on the specs. If there are any faults it might be that it is a touch heavy in the oak department on the finish and almost starts to trigger my bitterness flags.
Rating: B+ / A-

Overall Thoughts: I don't really want to pick a winner here as these are two totally different animals. I love the dark brooding fruit forward profile of the Revival as it's very unique. On the flip-side, the 2002 is a classic high proof old bourbon. Though the 2002 might be the slightly better of the two, I've had more things like the 2002 than the Revival so if you pressed me to pick a desert island pour, I'd ask for the Revival. As for the value, I certainly wouldn't recommend the 2002 at retail or anything beyond that. There are lots of bottles I'd rather have that were 1/5th the price so I'm glad I split this one with a buddy rather than going all in myself.

Note that price is not considered when assigning a rating.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Belle Meade Cask Strength Reserve Review

Nelson's Green Brier is a local distillery in Nashville that has been distilling their own bourbon for about 2 years. Like most other startup distilleries, they have been selling a sourced product while their own distillate comes of age. Belle Meade currently comes in quite a few forms, all of which is based on MGP bourbon. Of all their products, I find their higher aged cask strength single barrels to be the best. MGP bourbon like any single barrel can vary in quality though and as such off the shelf bottles can sometimes be a slight gamble. That's why I was intrigued to learn the Nelson's released a new product, Belle Meade Cask Strength Reserve. According to the website, it is a cask strength, non chill filtered, small batch blend of 7-11 year old high rye bourbon.
No Age Statement; 59.4% ABV; Batch no. 1; $60
Nose: Classic spicy bourbon. Vanilla and caramel wood sweets with tons of rye spice. The heat is well tamed for 120 proof.
Taste: Honey caramel sweets upfront, spicy cinnamon blast in the middle, and a finish of sweet / spicy oak. Throughout the start and finish are the hallmark red fruit notes I usually get in Four Roses OBSV which makes sense since MGP shares the mother V yeast with them. While there are touches of old oak, the wood notes have a lot of maturity and depth without being overly bitter. 
Thoughts: This is great - sweet, spice forward, and the right amount of wood balance. Unlike some older MGP bourbons I've had that could be a touch too bitter, the blend of ages is really working well. On top of all that, it's rather easy to drink considering it's 120 proof. While this isn't quite the best MGP bourbon I've ever had, it's better than any MGP bourbon I've had in quite a while. I love that this is a blend so if you get the same batch you know exactly what you are getting. I wish more folks buying up MGP whiskey would do this with their older stock.
Rating: B+
Note that price is not considered when assigning a rating.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Wild Turkey Longbranch Review

In 2016 Matthew McConaughey signed on as Wild Turkey's creative director. At first his presence was just a short film and then a few commercials but here today we have a new product from them with his name on it. According to a press release it's an 8 year old Wild Turkey bourbon that's been refined (read: filtered) through oak and Texas mesquite charcoal because McConaughey has roots there. It sounds rather gimmicky to me but as a fan of Wild Turkey that is saddened a lot of drinkers don't take their products seriously I'm all for any positive publicity.
No Age Statement; 43% ABV; $40
Nose: Light and easy. Smells like your typical bourbon of vanilla, caramel, honey, and oak. It has some age as any grainy corn mash notes are virtually nonexistent. 
Taste: Like the nose, it's mostly all sweets and oak. It's on the light side in terms of heat so super easy to drink. The lack of proof makes this slant heavily towards a sweet profile which dominates over any woodiness. There's some of the familiar Wild Turkey baking spices in the finish but the spices are mild compared to their flagship 101. Again it tastes like it has some age as there are not really any youthful corn grain notes like I get traces of in Wild Turkey 101.
Thoughts: It tastes exactly like what you'd expect - a slightly more mature Wild Turkey 101 but less bold and noticeably more thin. The flavors are nice but I can't help but think how much better this would be at 101 proof. As a whiskey nerd knowing the significance of 101 to them, I find the proof here mildly infuriating. Having said that, I realize I'm not the target market - this is likely aimed at people who think "smooth" is what makes a great bourbon. Along those lines they've certainly succeeded because it is definitely easy to drink yet still carrying that hallmark Wild Turkey profile. If I were asked to recommend a bourbon to a new whiskey drinker this would be a good suggestion. As for a salty old dog like me though, it was fun to experience and I hope it's successful for them but it's not going to topple my reigning house whiskey, Wild Turkey 101.
Rating: C+
Note that price is not considered when assigning a rating.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Knob Creek Cask Strength Rye Barreled in 2009 Review

Here today is a limited edition release from Beam. When this was first announced it raised a lot of red flags that had me suspecting it would cost $150 to $200 - vintage statement, rye, cask strength, and the words "limited" on the label. Much to my surprise, one of my locals got in a bunch of them at a price that isn't terrible so I took a chance.
Though this says "Barreled in 2009", here's a reminder that vintage statements are not age statements. I seriously doubt Beam has done anything other than dump this straight from the barrels but you have to wonder why this doesn't have an age statement. Even more curious is that like standard Knob Creek Rye, you won't find the words "straight rye whiskey" anywhere on the label. Straight doesn't have a whole lot of meaning when it comes to Bourbon but in the rye world omitting that term does not preclude the addition of up to 2.5% additives. Again, I really doubt Beam is doing that here but as a whiskey nerd I find all this mildly infuriating. 
Beam, wat r u doin. Beam, stahp.
No Age Statement; 59.8% ABV; $77
Nose: Woody with a touch of rye bread dough. I'm assuming this is a barely legal 51% rye and it certainly smells that way as it could easily be mistaken for a high rye bourbon rather than a rye, almost like an extra aged Old Grand Dad 114. The familiar Beam peanut funk is evident.
Taste: Honey corn nuts upfront, burnt wood sugars in the middle, and a brash finish of darker tannins and rye baking spices. It has the good characteristics of a 9 year old Knob Creek Single Barrel with a bit more rye spice. Things are okay upfront and in the middle but the hot slightly bitter finish is where it falls apart.
Thoughts: Meh. Blind I would probably guess it was a high rye Beam bourbon or maybe even a home blend of Beam and some other rye as it's disjointed. There were nights with this that I could barely drink it and here today I waffle between it being okay and not good. While the cost here isn't terrible in today's market for an aged high proof rye, I would have been much happier with something like a Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Rye or store pick Whistle Pig Single Barrel Rye over this. Beyond that, I was recently in on a barrel pick of the 115 proof Knob Creek Single Barrel Rye and I enjoyed all the ~5.5 year old barrels we tasted over this. 
Rating: C-
Note that price is not considered when assigning a rating.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Woodford Reserve Batch Proof Review

I'm not the biggest fan of Woodford Reserve or even many of parent company Brown Forman's products either. Old Forester 1920 is the only one that comes to mind that I've enjoyed enough to buy more than once. I was in Kentucky a few months ago though and decided to knock out the last major distillery tour I had yet to do which was Woodford. I'd always heard the grounds are nice and they are but despite their best efforts to make you believe otherwise it's actually a potemkin distillery in that most all of the Woodford you drink is actually made in their Louisville distillery. The tour was actually really good, the guide didn't mess up any of the basic bourbon facts which sadly is the norm these days on distillery tours. On my way out I happened to notice the Batch Proof product in the gift shop. Normally I'd say I dislike Woodford special releases even more so than the regular product but I was in vacation mode and feeling loose with my wallet so I decided to take a chance in hopes of proof being the missing ingredient that would make me enjoy a Woodford product.
No Age Statement; 62.9% ABV; $130
Nose: Hefty blast of the typical vanilla caramel notes you'd expect from a high proof bourbon. There are some grainy corn and fruity mash notes that indicate it's not very old but they play well with all the ethanol umpf and sweet bourbon notes. It's as hot as it should be for 125 proof but not overly so. I guess we'll call that a win as I was worried it would blow my face off.
Taste: Ooof, there's the heat blast I was worried about. It's a big bold bruiser on the heat front taste-wise. Up front there are some of the caramel / fruity banana / corn new mash notes you'd expect from a slightly younger bourbon but on the mid and back end it's almost all wood. The finish is a lot of dry oak, almost with a lingering sawdust flavor. There are some nice darker sweet notes like cocoa that are there as well which are nice but it's hard to overlook the dry oakiness.
Thoughts: I probably have no idea what I am talking about but given the amount of oak influence here from what I expect is not a very old product, I'm guessing this was aged in the upper floors of a warehouse where it sweat its ass off. It's almost like it was aged too rapidly and the wood influence took over too quickly. All in all, I'd rate my enjoyment of it a little better than the standard product just because the added proof gives it some excitement but it's got some hot tannic tendencies that prevent me from loving it. For my money, Stagg Jr and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof are two products that cost 1/2 as much as this but offer more balance and nuance at the equivalent proof.
Rating: C+
Note that price is not considered when assigning a rating.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond Arts & Crafts Review Series Part 7/7 and Closing Thoughts

Here is the followup to a huge side by side tasting I did involving twenty years of Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond. The TL;DR version is after trying some amazing Henry McKennas distilled in the mid 80s that run circles around the current product, I thought it would be fun to run through the years since then to see how the profile has changed. The grand side by side turned into a bit of a disaster though as there were just too many samples involved. In an attempt to salvage some sense of usefulness, I'm running through what vintages I have remaining in a more typical review style. On deck we have:
* Technically not an arts and craft bottle, this was right after the switch over to the new label.
(Left) Aged 10 Years; 50.0% ABV; Barrel No. 2979, Barreled on 03/14/06
(Right) Aged 10 Years; 50.0% ABV; Barrel No. 1024, Barreled on 09/30/2002; Thanks to /u/flavorjunkie for the sample
Nose: Considerably more dense and compact than the current bottle. It smells more like a 10 year old whiskey should - lots of oak, lots of condensed caramel sweets. There are hints of dusty funk which is nice. By comparison, the modern bottle smells more flat, young, and fruity. 
Taste: Largely a reinforcement of the nose. It's not as dense as some of the best of these but it's rather compact. Everything about it taste-wise is just bigger than the current version. The mouthfeel is full, lush, and thick. The traditional caramel and vanilla sweets are very heavy, like thick cake frosting. On the oak side it's very woody but in a nice way with only a touch of bitterness in the finish. Side by side the 2016 bottle tastes fruitier, more honey forward, and younger with way less oak influence. 
Thoughts: Another jarring experience. While the last post fire bottle was a bit disappointing, this is considerably better than any McKenna I've had in the last 4-5 years. Like all of the other standouts in this series, color is again a huge tipoff in quality as the differences here are dramatic.
Rating: B+
Note that price is not considered when assigning a rating.

Final Thoughts: Going into this adventure, I expected the decline in quality of these to be gradual over time, coinciding with the switch from pre to post Heaven Hill fire. That's certainly not been the case - there were low points in even the pre-fire barrels and a high point in a barrel that was dumped just six years ago. What I haven't seen are any standouts any later the last one here. My previous best theories on the differences in quality were things like old-growth wood, bottle conditioning, and environmental factors but I'm less confident in those ideas now given the bottle covered today was so recent. Given that, my best guess for the change in profile is it coincides right with when the bourbon boom started to surge. I'm thinking better quality casks and or warehouse locations were gobbled up by other Heaven Hill brands as they struggled to keep up with demand. That's really the only answer that makes sense to me and if so, I doubt Heaven Hill would ever own up to that reasoning. 

Update 06/19:
I forgot to add some commentary about the volume of barrels over the years. From 1994 to 2012 there were about 1000 barrels selected. From 2012 - 2015 the next 1000. They doubled all that from 2015 - 2017. 

There's your bourbon boom in one concise picture.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond Arts & Crafts Review Series Part 6/7

Here is the followup to a huge side by side tasting I did involving twenty years of Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond. The TL;DR version is after trying some amazing Henry McKennas distilled in the mid 80s that run circles around the current product, I thought it would be fun to run through the years since then to see how the profile has changed. The grand side by side turned into a bit of a disaster though as there were just too many samples involved. In an attempt to salvage some sense of usefulness, I'm running through what vintages I have remaining in a more typical review style. On deck we have:
(Left) Aged 10 Years; 50.0% ABV; Barrel No. 842, Barreled on 10/24/01
(Right) Aged 10 Years; 50.0% ABV; Barrel No. 3035, Barreled on 03/14/06
Nose: Pretty typical bourbon flavors - vanilla, caramel, and a good bit of oak. The current bottle smells slightly fruitier and more grain forward but it's not as noticeable as with previous instances.
Taste: Very caramel and sweet forward with a lot of dry oak starting in the mid and back palate. Those notes continue but then there's some unpleasant musty earthiness like dirty oak barrels that linger in the finish. The heat is overly evident for 100 proof and I'd even say it drinks hot. Tasting this side by side with a current bottle they are slightly different in profile but I can't say I prefer one over the other. The newer version tastes less oak forward but isn't as dry nor does it have any off-putting notes in the finish.
Thoughts: This finished near the bottom in the big blind tasting of these and here today I'm standing by that. It's not a bad bourbon but compared to the pre-fire versions previously covered it has a lot of flaws. It's not well balanced, it's missing the condensed bourbon flavors noted in previous bottles, and it's a touch too hot. Most all of the ones leading up to this have drank way under proof and have been incredibly dense flavor-wise so this is a big change. 
Rating: C+
So is post-fire where things went downhill for McKenna? We've got one more lined up to find out.
Note that price is not considered when assigning a rating.