Barrell Bourbon 15 Year Old Cask Strength Bottle #138 - Best American Whisky?

Barrell Bourbon 15 Year Old Cask Strength Bottle #138 - Best American Whisky?

Barrell Bourbon isn’t a distillery. They’re a bottler that purchases barrels from distilleries selling barrels. Because Barrell Bourbon gets to sample the barrels they purchase, and distilleries often sell barrels that don’t meet with their standard taste profile (which doesn’t make them bad, just not right for that distillery), this gives Barrell Bourbon the freedom to release interesting flavor profiles.

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Barrell Bourbon Batch 011 Review - Batches Unbourboned (that are delicious Bourbon!)

Barrell Bourbon Batch 011 Review - Batches Unbourboned (that are delicious Bourbon!)

Barrel Bourbon seeks out unique barrels of whisky from various sources, batches them, and bottles them when they’re ready to go. Their mantra is “no two batches taste alike.” It’s a good mantra. It’s a fantastic idea. It’s a play on a weakness, since smaller producers buying barrels have a challenge of producing a consistent product.

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W.L. Weller C.Y.P.B. gets a ton of whisky collector hype, and it's great!

W.L. Weller C.Y.P.B. gets a ton of whisky collector hype, and it's great!

The people behind Buffalo Trace did research a few years ago, asking their fans on the type of whisky they’d like to see. A website asked several questions, including the preferred recipe of whisky (rye, bourbon, wheated bourbon), the age, the proof, etc. The results came in, and the Craft Your Perfect Bourbon was born. It’ll be an annual release. The first release, priced at $40, is already selling for hundreds of dollars in the after-market. Welcome to the bourbon craze. I’d hate to contribute to the hype, but Weller C.Y.P.B. is a terrific whisky. It’s probably the best in the Weller series.

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Booker's Bourbon Review - Wonderfully Proof Obsessed

Booker's Bourbon Review - Wonderfully Proof Obsessed

Does one ever forget their first sip of Booker's? My first taste goes back many years. Booker's was one of a dozen or so whiskies featured during an LCBO media event at their tasting lab. The proof levels of the whiskies kept increasing throughout this self-paced tasting.

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Larceny 1870 92 Proof - The Affordable Wheater with Character

Larceny 1870 92 Proof - The Affordable Wheater with Character

Larceny is in the category of a wheated Bourbon, a sub-brand of the Bourbon category that's glorified by big hitters like Maker's Mark, W.L. Weller, and of course Pappy Van Winkle. Most bourbons use a combination of corn, rye, and malted barley in their starting recipe. Wheaters use wheat instead of rye. It's still a bourbon, but a different take on bourbon.

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Old Forester 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Reviewed

Old Forester 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Reviewed

Released as part of Old Forester's Whiskey Row series, the 1897 honors the Bottled-in-Bond Act and the old way of making whisky. Old Forester doesn't always get lot of love from whisky enthusiasts, but these new product releases seem intended to attract today's whisky drinker. This release definitely seems designed to bring enthusiasts willing to pay for premium bourbon back to the Old Forester brand.

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Wild Turkey Forgiven Discontinued & Single Barrel Rye Introduced

Wild Turkey Forgiven Discontinued & Single Barrel Rye Introduced

Wild Turkey Forgiven is the result of an accidental blend of bourbon and rye. The story behind the whisky is straight-forward—An employee accidentally blended Wild Turkey Rye into a batch of Wild Turkey Bourbon. It’s not necessarily an easy mistake to make, but distilleries re-route whisky into big vats before bottling. Mistakes happen, though rarely are they this expensive.

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W.L. Weller 12 - The Darling Sipping Whisky

W.L. Weller 12 - The Darling Sipping Whisky

This whisky was once the secret darling of the whisky connoisseur, easily available and wonderfully enjoyed. It still is the latter, but with Weller 12’s association with Pappy Van Winkle, it’s no longer a secret. Like Pappy, Weller is a wheated bourbon that uses wheat as the second ingredient in place of rye (both whiskies are made at Buffalo Trace Distillery). Wheat offers a slightly thicker mouth feel, and without rye, those harsher spicy notes associated with rye are lacking. However, because this bourbon is aged for 12 years, you do get these softer peppery spice notes from the oak throughout the flavour profile that's quite wonderful. 

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Glassware, Swirling Whisky, and Winning Whisky Competitions

In the San Francisco 2015 Spirit Competition, Knob Creek won best bourbon. Knob Creek is a fine bourbon (I often use it whisky tastings!). But is it the best bourbon? Fred Minnick, one of the judges at the competition, summarized the problem perfectly:

While I’ve always liked Knob Creek, I’ve never put it in the super elite, the Staggs and Pappys of the world. I’ve not even considered Knob Creek the best bourbon in the Jim Beam portfolio; Booker’s has held that crown. Has Knob Creek been hidden under my nose as the best bourbon this whole time?

The competition had judges using the Neat tasting glass. Neat glassware is broad on the bottom and top unlike the traditional tulip-shaped whisky tasting glass. The Neat Glass definitely changes the flavour and structure of the whisky. The fundamental flaw/feature in the design has to do with swirling the broad-bottomed glass. On the Neat Website:

When using NEAT, swirl, swirl, swirl … and when in doubt, swirl some more.  Swirling enhances evaporation.  Swirling the NEAT glass “powers” the evaporation engine that brings up all aromas … Convergent rim glasses (rim smaller than bowl diameter)  produce concentrated alcohol right at the nose when swirling, obscuring other aromas even more.  That is why other glassmakers tell you “Don’t swirl”

With whisky, in a narrow glass, swirling creates an excessive amount of alcohol vapour blowing out the senses. In wide-rimmed glassware (such as Neat glass), you’re better off swirling the whisky to further excite those molecules because of the broader opening. Neat's clever short design helps in this over the traditional rocks glass, as an example, despite the broad top. So far, so good.

Swirling the glass does, however, change the flavour of the whisky on the palate. Don’t believe me? Take two glasses with the same whisky. Swirl one for a few minutes, and don’t swirl the other. The swirled whisky will likely be sweeter, less textured, muted, and more even-flavoured. For me, in my tests, the essential character of the whisky starts to disappear the same way it would if the whisky was left overnight in the glass.

Excessively swirling a whisky accelerates the natural evaporation process, changing the dynamic of the whisky. This could be good for some whiskies, and bad for others. The same is true when you warm the glass, though at least this is a controlled gentler approach.

However, consider this. Most whiskies are nosed and tasted by whisky makers using tulip-shaped glass. Using broad glassware that requires swirling changes the whisky. To put differently, when reviewing whisky, if I swirl a whisky for four minutes, I’m no longer tasting the same whisky the reader is tasting.

Which brings me back to Knob Creek being picked as the winner in the best bourbon category, over better bourbons such as Booker’s and Stagg Jr. Both Booker’s and Stagg Jr have an incredible thick wonderful nose, that is beautifully balanced with flavour and alcohol on the palate. Knob Creek is a very good bourbon, but in a tulip shape glass, it doesn’t have enough on the nose to keep-up with these stars. In wider glassware, all the best features of Booker’s and Stagg Jr are muted. After excessive swirling, Knob Creek might even stand a chance.

Jamie Johnson and I did a blind tasting earlier in the week, and we recorded it for The Whisky Topic Podcast. While we didn’t use Neat Glass, we used the Canadian-style Glencairn glass. The results were fascinating! I won’t spoil the winners and losers, but this was a very small sampling.

The larger sampling happened in San Francisco, though, when a group of experts picked Knock Creek as the best bourbon in a blind tasting. Maybe for its price-point, but not in a category when  Booker’s and Stagg Jr are also included.

Straight American Bourbon Round-up

Although the recommendations of my Spotlight Toronto piece are more directed at Ontario readers (where one government corporations sells all the whisky), it's still a good piece to brush up on American whisky, and the subtle labeling differences that make all the difference with how the whisky is made:

Each country regulates the requirements for whisky, and these regulations have a big impact on the final product. In Scotland, single malt scotch is defined as being from one distillery, and made of 100% malted barley. The only additives allowed are water and a touch of caramel for colouring. In the United States, “Straight Bourbon” is even more heavily regulated than single malt scotch. Without “straight” on the label, however, the bourbon might contain additional flavouring.
— http://www.spotlighttoronto.com/buys-guide-american-whisky/