Friday, October 30, 2009

Monthly Bourbon Recommendation – Wild Turkey 101

I'll have to admit that this one surprised me. I have a number of dusty bottles of Wild Turkey 8 and 12 year 101 and they're terrific. I've had the standard 101 over the years but have never been too impressed by it. It was a good bourbon in a pinch and good all around for mixing but drinking neat wasn't something I usually did with this one. Call me a snob (go ahead) but at least I can admit when I'm wrong, and I was on this one. Now, let me quantify my apology with saying that no matter how hard a distillery attempts to repeat the flavor profile on a consistent basis, that's not always the case and I believe that's how it is with the current Wild Turkey 101. I've had enough Wild Turkey over the years to know when one bottle is better than others and that's what I found with the current release; I almost have to believe that it's slightly older that previous versions.

I'll not say a whole lot about the packaging since it's pretty much been unchanged for years and it's a pretty recognizable brand. For a 101 proof bourbon reported to be around 8 years old, the price is very reasonable for around $20 for a 750ml bottle.

When I purchased this bottle, my intent was to use it as a mixer but upon nosing the bourbon, I got some nice hints of wood, char, rye and a subtle sweetness so I was curious. I poured about 1.5 oz in a glass and sipped it neat and as I said, I was pleasantly surprised. On further nosing, there were hints of honey, vanilla, and slight floral and of course the proof was evident also. Sipping this bourbon was pleasant and not too aggressive like some rye bourbons tend to be (e.g. Fighting Cock 103). I found this bottle to have a balance of flavors that I don't remember the standard bottle having in previous years. At first taste, the rye is very much up front but not overdone and the transition to mid palate introduces a nice subtle sweetness that lingers on to the finish. For new drinkers, they may find the 101 proof to be "too much" and may opt for the 80 proof version but I would recommend getting the 101 proof and knock it down with a splash of water or a cube or two. The price difference between the 80 and 101 proof is nominal so you're getting "more" whiskey in essence if you drink at a lower proof using the 101 version.

I'll confess that this Wild Turkey 101, while good in many respects, is not a bottle I would necessarily keep in my bunker. I may have a bottle on occasion for mixing purposes but with so many other personal choices, this isn't a bottle I would hit on a regular basis. For others, drinking this as a daily pour might be just the ticket. Bottom line, a good, consistent bourbon priced reasonably.

Personal rating: 7/10

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bourbon - the art of the dusty hunt - final post

So here we are having gone through a number of posts talking about dusty hunting. This last post will cover some safety and etiquette practices to employ when hunting.

Keep in mind that retail store owners are looking to make a buck so don't get too greedy when looking to score the big dusty. While I've negotiated the price down on bulk purchases, I don't make insulting offers but am simply looking for fair prices. On the flip side, it's not your job to educate the owners on what they have. You've done the research and leg work so there should be some reward for arming yourself with the relevant bourbon information.

To set the environment, most of my hunting is done is stores that have bars on the windows and scratched up Plexiglas between me and the cashier so the clientele are what's to be expected in a place like this. It's good practice to strike up a conversation with the proprietor on mundane topics; weather, latest football game, etc. assuming they're open to chatting. If the store is busy, I'll tend to stand back and scan the shelves before approaching the counter and engaging in conversation. What I want will take time whereas most other customers are looking to purchase their Wild Irish Rose and a lotto ticket. There's been many times I'll just wander about waiting for the lotto line to die down before asking to see a bottle of bourbon. When engaging the owner or cashier, be open and friendly. If I see something of interest, sometimes I'll buy a soda and chips or candy bar and snack before getting down to business. Don't be anxious or pushy as many folks will be curious or guarded toward you at first. I've found that most store cashiers or owners have no clue about bourbon so when asking to see a particular bottle, expect that they will grab the wrong one or be unsure what you are asking for. Be patient in directing them to what you want to see. It's key to not appear too excited about the bottle and showing indifference will many times help with the total sale price in the end. There may be instances where you experience a language barrier and trying to get the bottle you want can be difficult. Again, have patience and be respectful; in the end this will help you achieve your overall purchase. Be sure to thank the store clerk for assisting you along the way. There's been many times once the comfort level sets in where the owners or clerks will begin to help you find additional bottles. When you get to that point, it's a simple process of digging through all the shelves or back store rooms to find those elusive dusty's. Remember, if they don't feel threatened or irritated by you, chances of getting behind the counter or storage room are pretty high.

Let's talk safety. The reality is, many of the best bottles are found in the nastiest places. I wouldn't recommend hunting alone in areas that are prone to violence or drug problems. Having someone along with you projects strength in numbers. There are times when I've shopped with 2 or 3 other guys and we're left alone for the most part. When you shop is important, especially in more dangerous areas. Most of my shopping is done on Saturday mornings shortly after stores open, usually around 10:00 a.m. Most folks that are up and around early on a Saturday and most likely going to work or shopping. The baddies are typically sleeping off all their rabble rousing from the night before. Shopping at night is not recommended. Keep in mind that if you hit a store that has a good selection of dusty's, chances are you will be buying quite a few bottles and doing so will attract attention. Finalizing your purchase and getting back on the road is a good thing. Hanging around, not so much. Finally, use common sense and if you feel uncomfortable in a certain area or feel something isn't right, listen to that inner voice and move on. You can always go back another day.

Hunting for old bottles is fun and certainly thrilling when you hit the mother lode. When shopping you may not be able to purchase everything you see as has been my case. I take notes as I shop, recording the store name, address and what was left behind.

Have fun hunting but please use common sense when doing so.

To read the complete series, see part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Spinning the Spice Rack

Warning: this blog pokes a little fun at those conducting whiskey reviews.

I'll caveat my comments by saying I do have a lot of respect for those that conduct whiskey reviews for a living. Training one's palate over the long term to pick out nuances of whiskey is a deft skill and one that is informative and interesting most of the time.

But…..for those of us not used to licking wet stone or chomping on sea spray scones, when was the last time you tasted or smelled any of the following:

Fig Paste, mossy river stone, bracken (look it up), sea tangle, rose hips, ozone, wet sheep, smoked seaweed……and I could go on (actually wet sheep wrapped in smoked seaweed sounds very appetizing).

Seriously, when nosing or tasting a whiskey, and in this case, bourbon does anyone really pick up these very obscure features, assuming they exists at all? The reality is I could write anything about any whiskey and have people agree with me. Don't believe me? Well, I have a couple folks that conducted a little experiment and wrote reviews using the spinning spice rack routine. The idea was born from a friend of mine who provides reviews on cigars. His contention was that most folks writing elaborate cigar reviews were full of their own doo doo, and I quote "The best written cigar reviews are composed by experts with god like palates who don't smoke so to insure that flavor and fact won't get in the way of a well crafted review that we mere mortals will salivate over......... I suspect the same of those who review alcoholic beverages". He noticed the bandwagon effect with others agreeing with these god-like reviews. So, in order to test his theory, he went into the kitchen, sat down and wrote his review while spinning the spice rack. Wherever the rack stopped, he would use the item that was visible to describe the smell and taste of the stogie; cream of tar tar, caraway, bay leaf, crisco? So, using various descriptions, he posted his review and not surprising, had respondents agreeing with his review.

After hearing this story, and after we stopped laughing, we got to thinking. Are folks swayed by the power of suggestion just because it's in review format, or because they respect the reviewer's opinion or because they just don't know any better? When I first started drinking whiskey (both scotch and bourbon), I would read the reviews and see the responses and in all honesty, felt intimidated to offer my own thoughts. I thought here are folks picking out all these smells and flavors and all I get is bourbon, and maybe some vanilla. Over time though, my palate began to mature and I did indeed pick out other features like bubble gum, corn flakes, hay, maple syrup, brown sugar, green apple, caramel, toasted nuts, cherry's, etc. I can honestly say that I have never nosed a bourbon or scotch and picked out something as obscure as wet sheep or fig paste.

As I mentioned, some bourbon reviews were created using this spinning technique and sure enough, people agreed with the appraisals. Is that mean? Maybe. Is it informative? Sure. Is it important that you pick out obscure smells and tastes in a bourbon? To me, not really. The real question is, do you enjoy what you are drinking and if so, then tasting wet dog or moldy stick doesn't really matter and in reality, tasting either of those would be pretty gross.

I can't argue that it's fun when you can pick out a smell or flavor but I would just say, don't work so hard at it. Enjoy the experience and if aged hairball pops up as a taste, stop drinking, dump the bourbon and get a new bottle.

There are techniques the everyday consumer can use to begin the process of training the palate to recognize various flavor qualities in bourbon. Just as high end athletes in the process of rigorous training begin to acquire muscle memory, so too the palate can be trained to "remember" specific tastes. There is actually a kit you can purchase with respect to Scotch to train your smeller to pick out various odors. It's an interesting idea and one that can be used for bourbon also. Keep in mind that when you nose a bourbon, what you taste should confirm what you smell. If, when nosing the bourbon, you pick up maple syrup and wood, those same qualities should arrive on the palate at some point. Simple, low cost practices you can employ right at home are taking a look at your spice rack, pantry and refrigerator and within those cabinets you hopefully have any of the following:

Maple Syrup, nuts, cinnamon, brown sugar, oatmeal, vanilla, butter, custard powder, toffee, coffee, tea, grain cereal like Corn Flakes or Wheaties, apples, cocoa, dark chocolate, maraschino cherries, oranges, etc. I could make a long list but you get the idea. Start by nosing some of these various items just to reinforce your memory, especially items that you wouldn't normally come into contact with on a regular basis. Another practice is to purchase a bag of dried fruit and munch on those over the course of a week. Going through the exercise of smelling and tasting these various food items will help introduce and train your palate to recognize these flavor components found in bourbon or rye whiskey. I still remember years ago I was drinking an Eagle Rare 10 year 101 and kept commenting on a specific smell and flavor that was very appealing yet I couldn't put my finger on what it was (ever have that happen?). All of a sudden a light bulb went off and malted milk balls sprang to mind. While it may seem goofy, I was pretty pleased with that revelation as that was the beginning of going beyond just smelling or tasting wood and vanilla in my bourbon.

There are two primary areas where the aroma and flavor in whiskey is generated; production (yellow) and maturation (orange). Here's how they break down as described by

While the tasting wheel speaks specifically about Scotch, these various smells and flavors do appear in bourbon also.

While I've poked a little fun at the whole tasting and review scene, I did so just to point out that taste is purely subjective and just because an expert smells and taste Atlantic sea spray and wilted violet, doesn't mean you will. The next time you pour yourself a bourbon (or Scotch), enjoy it for what it is and if you can pick out apple pie or cocoa, good for you. If not, don't sweat it, it'll come eventually for the important part is just enjoying the dram.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection – breaking the piggy bank

The Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is a series of 5 bottles distributed by Buffalo Trace Distillery. The first release was in 2000 and consisted of only 3 bottles which, in my opinion, were more true to the namesake of Antique; Eagle Rare 17, Sazerac 18 and Weller 19. All super aged whiskey and all sitting at 90 proof. Following are the release details by year:
2001: Eagle Rare 17 year, Sazerac 18 year and Weller 19 year, all 90 proof
2002: Eagle Rare 17 year 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, Weller 19 year 90 proof, George T. Stagg ~15 year 137.6 proof. This is the first time we see GTS and the last time we see Weller 19.
2003: Eagle Rare 17 year 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, George T. Stagg ~15 year 142.7 proof. Any proof above 140 is legally considered Hazardous Material, thus this second release of Stagg is affectionately called Hazmat I.
2004: Eagle Rare 17 year 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, George T. Stagg ~15 year 129 proof
2005: Eagle Rare 17 year 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, William LaRue Weller 12 year 121.9 (first release year). This year alone there were 3 Stagg releases. George T. Stagg ~15 year, 130.9 (KY only Spring release), 131.8 (Spring release), 141.2 (Fall release, called Hazmat II).
2006: Eagle Rare 17 year 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, William LaRue Weller 15 year 129.9 proof, George T. Stagg ~15 year 140.6 proof (Hazmat III), Thomas H. Handy 8.5 year 132.7 proof (first release year).
2007: Eagle Rare 17 year 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, William LaRue Weller 10 year 117.9 proof, George T. Stagg ~15 year 144.8 proof (Hazmat IV), Thomas H. Handy 6.5 year 134.8 proof.
2008: Eagle Rare 17 year 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, William LaRue Weller 11 year 125.3 proof, George T. Stagg ~15 year 141.8 proof (Hazmat V), Thomas H. Handy 6.5 year 127.5 proof
2009: Eagle Rare 17 year 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, William LaRue Weller 11 year 134.8 proof, George T. Stagg ~16 year 141.4 proof (Hazmat VI), Thomas H. Handy 7.2 year 129 proof
2010: Eagle Rare 17 year 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, William LaRue Weller 12 year 126.6 proof, George T. Stagg 17 year 143 proof (Hazmat VII), Thomas H. Handy 6.5 year 126.9 proof
2011: Eagle Rare 17 year 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, William LaRue Weller 11 year 133.5 proof, George T. Stagg 16 year 142.6 proof (Hazmat VIII), Thomas H. Handy 6 year 128.6 proof,
2012: Eagle Rare 17 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, William LaRue Weller 12 year 123.4 proof, George T. Stagg 17 year 142.8 proof (Hazmat IX), Thomas H. Handy 6.5 year 132.4 proof 
2013: Eagle Rare 17 90 proof, Sazerac 18 year 90 proof, William LaRue Weller 12 year 136.2 proof, George T. Stagg 16 year 128.2 proof, Thomas H. Handy 6 year 128.4 proof 

I've collected these releases over the last three years but also have a smattering of bottles from earlier years. I'll admit I have not tried all that I have (too much whiskey, so little time) so can't speak to the profile of all releases. Taste being subjective, it wouldn't be appropriate to level a blanket statement that a particular bourbon or whiskey is better than any other. What I will share is my own personal preferences which are the only ones I care about anyway. I like the barrel strength offerings as it gives me the ability to control the drinking proof. I may want something high test because I'm in a pissy mood or lower the proof to open up the more subtle flavors that the high proof may mask. Having control is a nice feature with barrel strength whiskey. I won't speak to each individual year since I haven't tasted all years but I will give a broad opinion and rank them in order of general preference; William LaRue Weller, George T. Stagg, Thomas H. Handy, Sazerac 18, Eagle Rare 17. This list may change a bit depending on the release year but for the most part, that's how I stack them up.
Understand that these are super premium whiskey's due for the most part because of age and price. On first release these bottles retailed for around $39.99. Today, those prices have almost doubled as I've seen in Virginia where prices are over $70 a bottle. In fact, the West Virginia ABC website has last year's release listed at $42 a bottle but a friend recently informed me they have increased the price to over $60 which they blame on increases from Buffalo Trace. It's getting harder and harder to justify spending upward of $350 for the release, and that's just for 5 bottles, so chances are, I'll pass on this year's release. I have many bottles of previous years BTAC bunkered away so my consolation will be to just drink what I have.
So now my curiosity is piqued; do you think it's worth paying that much for this series?
Edit: For a review of the 2009 release, see John Hansell's review of each bottle here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Does it matter – Age Statement

So there's much ado about the recent drop in the Old Weller Antique Age statement along with the change in packaging and label. There are pretty much two camps:

Wait and see what happens, but in the end, if you like what's in the bottle, does it matter.

I like an age stated bourbon and I'm mad as hell about this change….it does matter.

Where do you stand? Does the age statement on a bottle mean something to you and if so, what? Does the marketing aspect appeal to you? Does the age statement speak to a level of quality? Does it affect your purchasing decision in favor of the age statement? Is it not a factor at all?

I'll tell you where I stand. I like the age statement. I agree that taste is the important factor when it comes to bourbon and everything else is secondary, for the most part. BUT….if given a choice, I'm more apt to lean toward age stated bourbon over an NAS sitting side by side on the shelf. For the average consumer, I think price is the determining factor, e.g. more expensive means better quality. For those of us that have been around bourbon for a while, we know that's not true, Woodford Reserve 4 Grain is a good example. Some good bourbon has lost their age statement over the last number of years and to me, it's a shame. But, the market and bean counters drive change and as such, it is what it is. I wrote in my earlier blog about the OWA I recommended you grab some bottles to bunker and I think it's still good advice.

My impression in reading the various forums is that an age statement is important to the majority, and I fall into that camp. I would rather have an 8 year Old Fitzgerald 1849 than the current NAS bottling. I would also argue that when the age statement is taken off the label, and younger whiskey ends up in the bottle, taste suffers, but that's just my personal drinking opinion.

So, what say you…..matter or not matter?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Exam-o-Dram-Ancient Age Bottled in Bond

One recipe I've enjoyed over time is the one produced by Buffalo Trace and that's the Ancient Age mashbill. As I've mentioned on this blog and on various bourbon forums, I really like the Ancient Ancient Age 10 year offering (now only available in Kentucky), and in fact was named "Best Buy of the Year" by Malt Advocate in 2008. A relative of this bourbon is the Bottled in Bond release which is low price, about $15 or less in most markets, and for the most part is a good bourbon. If your palate is tuned to distinguish more age in bourbon, you will pick up some youthfulness present in this bourbon which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The bottle I have is a square, 750ml bottle with a light tan (or off white) cap, neck and front label with Ancient Age written in script type lettering. The bottle reminds me of an old style bottle. The Bottled in Bond designation on the front label means it's a 100 proof, at least 4 years old and from the same distillery of the same distillation season. This bourbon I have was bottled in 2006 and while there is no age statement on the label, I don't think it's much older than 4 years. An interesting thing missing from the label (front or back) is the Distilled Spirits Plant designation which would be DSP-KY-113 and would indicate Buffalo Trace Distillery. The reason may be because there is a brief history of the Buffalo Trace distillery on the label on each side of the bottle. My understanding is that it's a legal requirement to indicate the distillery for Bottled in Bond bourbons and the fact that they have the distillery name rather than the DSP number satisfies the legal condition.

On nosing this bourbon, I pick up some youthful vigor as the rye is evident up front. I don't pick up much in the way of wood, vanilla or floral as I would expect with a rye bourbon, therefore, I'm thinking this is probably not more than 5 years old or less, but that's just my opinion. The initial taste is a spirited burst of rye flavors, not much in the way of sweetness and it transitions to a mild tannic state and then diminishes. The finish is pretty short for the proof as I have lower proof bourbons with much longer finishes. In a very slight way, this reminds me of Wild Turkey on the initial taste, but the Turkey has more depth attributed to more age. All in all, this is not a bad bourbon for the price. I think this would do well in a Manhattan, Old Fashioned or mixed with a nice Ginger Ale like Blenheim's Hot. Another concept to try, if you're feeling adventurous, is vatting; the mixing or blending of two bourbons attempting to get an outcome that is better than either of the two individually. I do this with Charter 101 and Ancient Ancient Age 10 year. The higher proof and younger age of the Charter, blended with the older lower proof AAA makes a very nice vatting.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Busy, not absent

Sorry folks but owning my own business sometimes requires long hours and little sleep and such has been the case over the last week and a half. I'm working on an Exam-o-Dram and will post in the next couple of days. Cheers.