husband, father, whisky lover, blogger, freelance whisky writer, and head of the New Jersey Whiskey Society & leading the USBG NJ efforts...currently the New Jersey Whisky Ambassador for Diageo & therefore leave the recent writing duties to guest bloggers, primarily that Bourbon loving fella named Gerard

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

BenRiach Dark Rum Finish 15 Year Old


Lucky me, I have some friends.

Even luckier me…some of them love whisky…and are willing to share!

My buddy Jim had me over to his home a while back and I was able to soak up all the joy that was his Scotch collection.  Tons of paraphernalia, tons of wonderful options…it was like a zip file of Scotch.

A little slice of heaven.

One of the many drams he shared with me was the BenRiach 15 Dark Rum Finish.  Matured in ex-bourbon American oak casks, then finished in casks from Jamaica that were previously used to mature Dark Rum.

We both usually enjoy a rum finish, so it was a nice choice on a chilly evening last winter.



Tasting Notes:

Appearance:  Light Gold

Nose: Sweet and Island-like (tropical) with nutty overtones

Palate:  Bananas, vanilla, fruits, brown sugar

Finish:  Rum, toffee

Overall:

In a night that saw me drink some of the finest and oldest Scotches I have had to date, it was easy for this one to get lost in the mix.  However, it did make an impact as another in a long line of Rum finished Scotches that I enjoy.  A straight shooter and a fine dram, this one takes care of business.  All in all though, it was just a tad too light for me, and while I respect its complexity, I’d likely go for the Glenfiddich 21 or the Balvenie 14 over this one.

Score:  84

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Very Old Fitzgerald 8YRS Old BIB - Barreled in 1959 - Bottled in 1967

Every now and then an opportunity presents itself, and it is up to the individual to make a decision.

Such an opportunity presented itself last Thursday at CatherineLombardi in New Brunswick.  Once again, Francis Schott had handpicked another fine bottling to share.  I already have a great deal of respect for many of his previous selections.  Virtually all of his Single Malt Independent Bottles have been stellar, and when he does venture into Bourbon, I want to be there!

As is customary with the Spirits Project (which I have written about before) a few shades prior to 6:30pm, Francis appeared with bottle in hand.

Not just any bottle mind you, but a bottle older than most of the people in the bar!  Somehow, it was still encased in its original packaging and was breathtaking to behold.  It is not every tasting when you see the bottle itself being passed around for viewing pleasure!  Needless to say, the group that had gathered was excited and singing the praises of this spirit the whole time.

Francis is clearly a people person.  (an essential characteristic of anyone in the hospitality business)  He worked the room with a variation of anecdotes and factual data in his classic disarming way.  Watching him pour each ounce out behind the bar, while happily entertaining everyone, really makes you feel at home.  It’s that personal touch that leads to such a great atmosphere here.  Combine all of this with bartender Chris on hand.  Chris answered any questions thrown his way with wisdom and ease, and his  stunning shaking style kept us all entertained.

Well, that’s great Joe, but what about the freakin’ Bourbon!?!?!?!?

First, as it was explained in Francis’ email:

This bottle of Very Old Fitzgerald 8-Year Bourbon was barreled in 1959 and bottled-in-bond in 1967.  The label says "Original Sourmash by Stitzel Weller Distillery."  Now we know that the master distiller of that time was grandfather of Julian Van Winkle, who is now president of the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery.  Here is why this is important.

Julian Van Winkle, III is the third generation Van Winkle to be involved in the Kentucky Bourbon whiskey business. His grandfather, who was known as "Pappy", started the family in the business back in the 1870s when he was a salesman for the W.L. Weller & Sons liquor wholesalers in Louisville. He later built and was president of the Stitzel-Weller Distillery in Louisville, which opened its doors on Derby day, 1935. Their prominent brands were W.L.Weller, Rebel Yell, Cabin Still and Old Fitzgerald bourbons.

Julian's father, Julian, Jr., operated the distillery until the family sold it in 1972. At that time Julian, Jr. started the Old Rip Van Winkle brand with some of the whiskey he made while he was at Stitzel-Weller. Julian joined his dad in 1977. Julian continued to operate the business after his father's death in 1981.

Julian now has his whiskey produced under his grandfather's original wheated bourbon recipe
, and ages and bottles the Old Rip Van Winkle brands in Frankfort, Kentucky.  His whiskeys are the highest rated Bourbon whiskeys PERIOD. The 20-year old "Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve" has received a rating of 99 by the Wine Enthusiast magazine, and good luck finding it.  It sells on the internet for hundreds or thousands of dollars.  We only get a few bottles a year (and we get everything).

So what we have here tonight, ladies and gentlemen, is not Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon, which would be special enough.  We have what Pappy Van Winkle is based on!  We have bourbon history here ladies and gentlemen! 

In 2001 Julian's son Preston joined the business with his dad. He is the fourth Van Winkle to sell these premium bourbon and rye whiskeys.  I wonder if the Pappy Van Winkle line will change the name someday to Grandpappy Van Winkle!

Tasting Notes:
Appearance:  Amber

Nose:  Shockingly fresh, vanilla pods, light fruits

Palate:  Silk, stunning, vanilla & oak, very floral now, fruity, heather

Finish:  No burn, just love, thick & rich vanilla ice cream meets fresh cut flowers

Overall:

This bourbon was so floral my body was telling me to take more Zyrtec.  Wowza…I am almost speechless! (rare)  This is about as close to the ‘Holy Grail’ I have come with Bourbon.  Really stellar stuff.  There was not a single aspect that I could find that disappointed me.  I even reached the point where I wanted to try and unearth an imperfection, but alas, I could not.  Absolutely stunning!  I believe I have heard that they are re-opening the Stitzel Weller distillery.  Man, I truly hope that someone kept notes on how they made this juice, because it is wonderful!

Score:  95

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Balcones Side By Side

It is hard to go anywhere these days in the whisky world without hearing about Balcones.

After putting out some fantastic whiskeys, Balcones has received much acclaim. 

Deservedly so!
Chip Tate and his team have truly outdone themselves time and time again, proving to be an anchored ship in a sea that seems to wash out most craft whiskeys.  They launched to even greater fame by beating out legendary Scottish distilleries Balvenie and Macallan in a blind panel taste test called Best in Glass. 

They piled on ever since, taking other awards including 2012 Craft Distillery of the Year by both Whisky Magazine and Wizards of Whisky, 2012 Global Distillery of the Year, plus others!
Generally, American whiskeys are based off of corn and rye type of recipes.  But Balcones puts twist upon twist inside their expressions, and they are truly making a name for themselves.  Along with other American offerings from  Long Island Spirits, Lost Spirits Distillery, St. George, and Tuthilltown (I could go on and on!) these craft distillers are truly shifting paradigms around the world about what American whiskey is and more importantly…what it can be.

I had the luxury of meeting Chip aboard the Spirit of the Hudson last year during a whiskey tasting event in NY.  Although our encounter was fairly brief, I got the vibe that he is one heck of a guy.  Chip and his team do everything by hand, from crafting the liquor to creating the stills themselves!   I was immediately struck by his passionate take on whiskey.  That passion is echoed in his whiskey.
Having gathered a small lineup of Balcones offerings I thought it may be fun to have a playful sit down.

Call it a Balcones Flight…ALL ABOARD!
Passengers, please buckle your safety belts...
 
BALCONES BABY BLUE

Quick Description:  A fairly young whiskey from a craft distiller in the USA…that usually leads to disappointment in my experience.  However, this is Balcones we are talking about here!  This is one of the few teams that can harness something special in a short period of time.
Appearance:  Light Straw

Nose:  Doesn’t smell ‘young’ fairly complex, vanilla, oak, sweet caramel

Palate:  Not just corn but cornbread, tortilla chips, spices and more caramel

Finish:  Medium and sweet

Overall:  This whiskey is quite better than all of the ‘young’ whiskeys I have tried up to this point.  It has a welcoming warmth that rivals Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve.  This is evidence that you can still have a complex and flavorful corn whiskey without many years in the barrel.  86/100

BALCONES TRUE BLUE
Quick Description:   Lots of handwriting on this one.  The proof itself was written in silver marker, so there are likely to be some variances in ABV for each batch.  This is essentially the Cask Strength version of the Baby Blue, so let’s see how it stacks up.

Appearance:  Darker than the Baby Blue, more of an Amber brownish color
Nose:  Sweet, Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, cornbread

Palate:  Dark chocolate, caramel, start to get the heat of the proof but that is not necessarily bad, more like a super hot cinnamon kind of thing
Finish:  Long and warming

Overall:  There is a lushness in this one that was not in the Baby Blue, but on the other hand there were more delicate corn notes in the Baby Blue.  This Cask Strength expression is highly drinkable and delicious, but if I had to pick a regular sipper, I’d likely take the Baby Blue over this one by a hair.  85/100

BALCONES RUMBLE CASK RESERVE
Quick Description:  This one is extra special.  The bottle notes that a special cache of Rumble casks was discovered and yielded some exceptional stuff.  Still based off of Rumble's style of being created from Texas wildflower honey, Mission figs, Turbinado sugar and Texas Hill Country spring water, this has all the makings of a stunner.

Appearance:  Deep Auburn
Nose:  Beautiful, Sweet and fruity, but yet there is a backbone of wood that is undeniable

Palate: Rich and thick.  Deep sugary sweetness (like crunching a packet of Sugar in the Raw), dark fruits, oak
Finish: Long and strong (in a good way) just the faintest chocolate note

Overall:  Man, I could drink this stuff all day and not be bored.  Another strong effort.  I may have to put this and the standard Rumble side by side for another tasting.  Rock Solid.  88/100

BALCONES SINGLE MALT

Quick Description:  This is the one that stole the show at BiG.  Another perplexing offer from Chip as this one has some classic Scotch like undertones, but still has some of that good old American ‘in your face’ barrel spiciness.  Very different from the Baby Blue and True Blue thanks to the Malt, but nevertheless completely outstanding.
Appearance:  Reddish Amber
Nose: Freshly cut wood, fruits, spices, oak (lots of fun)

Palate: Sweet, rich grains, Cinnamon, Caramel

Finish: Outstanding and long, spicy

Overall:  Balcones sets the bar high.  This is what most craft distillers are working towards.  It has the body of Scotch, the sweetness of a corn Whisky, the oak notes of a well aged Bourbon, and the spice notes of a Rye.  A true American Single Malt benchmark if there was one.  90/100

AT THE END OF THE DAY:  I love what Balcones is doing.  I can’t wait to see where they go from here…it is clear that they tend to their casks quite seriously, and that shines through in the juice.  Color me a Balcones Fan.  At this point I would likely try anything they offer.  I could read something like, “Chip recently found this old sweat rag from a basketball game he played five years ago, so we squeezed the sweat out and aged it in our bespoke casks”  Sign me up…I’ll drink anything these guys come up with.  But, as always, I encourage you all to give it a try and to form your own opinion.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Glenlivet Alpha

Few Scotch releases have been as playful as the recent Glenlivet Alpha launch.  From the pitch black bottle to the complete absence of clues of its origin, it has been a fun ride.

That being said, they have created a tasting tour type of experience online, where you can 'challenge your senses'.

Now, when following along online via Facebook or their main site, and other videos, you can get some pretty obvious clues as to some of the key specs making this one up...but I love a good mystery.

Especially one involving Scotch!

There was an interesting little box awaiting me when I got home from work today.  I am lucky enough to have been provided a sample gift from The Glenlivet, and asked to provide an objective review.  I am truly thankful as I know this is a limited release with only 3,350 bottles created by their Master Distiller Alan Winchester.

The Alpha has been much hyped, and I've heard some online perspectives that run the gamut...so let's get to it!

Tasting Notes:

Appearance:  Light Straw

Nose:  Citrus, floral...really opened up later with a few drops of water that revealed clean and crisp scents, apples and a very gentle oak in the background.

Palate:  Bursts on the tongue hitting different areas like the first few bites of Juicy Fruit gum, thick mouthfeel, apple pie crust with a tart peak, shades of bourbon

Finish:  Progressively becomes nutty, caramel and chocolate (think Rolo candy)

Overall:

Based on the website it sounds (and seems) like this is a 1st-fill ex-bourbon and 2nd fill new wood.  I can see something else being at play here, not only by this video clue, but by the experience itself.  I have heard many references to Nadurra, and I think they are just.  I can truly see the family resemblance.  All in all, I have to applaud The Glenlivet.  Regardless of their ad campaign, they are putting out a solid whisky at 50% ABV.  The world needs more high ABV whiskeys!  At the end of the day the proof is in the pudding, and I enjoy Alpha.  I have heard it may retail for around $120, in which case I will likely stick with the Nadurra, but this is certainly one ride I would take again. 

Score:  88

Monday, June 3, 2013

Highland Park 15


The Orkney Islands.  Nestled and secluded, this distillery takes its peat from Orkney where it is molded over decades on the heathery high grounds before becoming the fuel to smoke some of the malted barley.  Highland Park is usually an all around great one in my book, a ‘five tool player’ to use a sports term…they can do a little bit of everything.

It is honeyed and sweet up front, smokey on the back end, creamy and flavorful throughout…this distillery usually makes drams that have it all!

One thing that is cool about Highland Park is their use of Cask Harmonization, where basically each batch of whisky, after a primary maturation period in different types of casks, is vatted together.  Then they are returned to casks for six or more months of additional maturation. The older Highland Park expressions are “harmonized” for longer periods. This process intends to add consistency to the releases.

This 15 year old is matured in 30% first fill casks, and I was told mostly in American oak casks.  (in addition to Spanish Oak)  While this recipe will likely lead it to have a few different characteristics vs. the 12 & 18 which use mostly Spanish Oak, let’s see how it stacks up.

Tasting Notes:

Color:  Light Copper

Nose:  Floral, like a full bouquet of flowers freshly delivered, honey, certainly some ocean notes as well…complex and layered.
 
Palate:  Slightly sweet at first, but the citric style of lemon-limes is muted a bit by the honey, mid-palate the malt and smokiness evolves into baked sweets. (cinnamon/sugar)
 
Finish:  Cinnamon sticks and creamy maltiness, slightly spicy and extinguished fire smoke
 
Overall:

A little bit of everything.  That is why I love these Orcadian drams!  But, let’s be blunt here…when putting this HP15 up against the affordable and fantastic 12 Year old, and the exceptional 18 year old, it is easy to see why the middle child gets neglected.  But, this bottle will not disappoint and like many middle children I know, it is a bit underrated. 

Score: 87