Monday, November 28, 2011

Q&A #3/4 with Four Roses Master Distiller - Jim Rutledge

Q1: Jim, many of the members here are passionate about "dusties".... whiskey that I will describe as being produced pre-1990 for lack of a better description. When one tastes many of these whiskey's, most of which are between 80 and 100 proof, they find a great concentration of flavor, a very creamy and coating mouth feel, little heat from alcohol and overall a very different "style" of whiskey than we find being produced today. One that jumps out for me is the Benchmark bourbon from the "old days". What was different pre-1990 that produced this different style of whiskey? Folks have speculated it is different corn, lower off the still proofs, different distillation techniques, etc, etc, etc. Can you shed some light on what you feel has changed over the years in whiskey style and the reasons for it?

Q2: What has been the most detrimental development or change in the bourbon/rye distilling industry? Examples: Dry yeast instead of liquid, change in water sources(from wells to city water), higher barreling proofs, higher distilling proofs, change in sources of barrel wood, consolidation of factories and therefor styles(range) of products, change to stainless fermenter rather than cypress, etc, etc....

Benchmark was an excellent Bourbon distilled at Seagram's Calvert Distillery in Louisville. Going back further in time Henry McKenna was one of my all time favorites when it was distilled at Seagram's Fairfield distillery in Nelson County, prior to its closing in the late 60's.

I think increasing the barreling strength in 1984 had more of an impact on finished product than the optional higher distillation strength. I only know of one distillery that distills near the maximum 160 proof, and I believe too many good flavors are lost at higher distillation strengths. Most distilleries stayed relatively close to the distillation strengths of pre-1984. However, too much influence was exerted by the finance/accounting people in distilleries relative to barrel entry.... Moving the entry strength from 105 or 110 proof up to 125 proof or there about generated huge annual savings in the cost of barrels.

Distillers, blenders, quality personnel argued and argued with the change but their words and logic fell on deaf ears. In the end it was found that it generally took at least an additional year of maturation for the barrels at higher entry proof to be somewhat equivalent to the barrels in which the entry proof was less. As a result the anticipated savings were nearly off-set by the necessity to age the barrels longer to attain target flavor profiles, but I still think something was lost with the higher entry strengths.
Also, since 1990 the focus has been on premium single barrel and small batch Bourbons - many of which are bottled at higher proof.

The additional strength will mask some of the flavors present with lower strength bottling, but the perception is that higher proof means quality.
Economics may have an impact on the purchase of grains as well - negotiating lower costs for bulk purchase of millions of bushels of grain. This has had no impact on Four Roses. Since the early '60's - when Seagram opened its own grain division. Mr. Sam (Sam Bronfman) once said "to be the best of the best we must start with the best raw materials." Hence, Seagram's grain division. Since that time we've paid a premium for our corn and we're still purchasing corn from the same small geographic area in Indiana, and from many of the same farmers - or their families.

I can only speak to what we (Seagram > FRD) does today and yesteryear.
I don't see much difference in today's distillation process, except we are A Lot better today than years ago. Computer technologies in operations has made us (the industry) a lot more consistent in what we distill today. Another Big influence (perhaps the biggest difference) was the trend to age Bourbon barrels longer. The perception was/is that if Scotch gets better with age the same must be true with Bourbon, but that's not so - if you like sweeter and creamer Bourbons. The sweet flavors of Bourbon are generated by the natural sugars present in the white oak barrels, and the peak of Bourbon maturity is between 5 and 8 years age. Beyond that age too many of those sugars have been depleted and the product is dryer (less sweet) and begins to pick up too much of a woody character.

If you look at those "dusty" Bourbons most of them were aged 4 to 6 years, so the older Bourbons of today are very different in flavor profile. I believe that's the biggest change. (That expression of opinion will probably cause a long-lasting debate.)
To me (again a controversial statement) the "perception" that the more age on a barrel the better the Bourbon of rye. The perception is augmented by very high costs of bottled older whiskeys. But, keep in mind that the distilleries are paying ad valorem taxes every day a barrel is in a warehouse and that in combination with the industry average outage factor (angels share) of ~4.4% the cost per bottle must be A Lot higher to re-coop much higher costs that are spread over far fewer proof gallons and we all know if it's expensive it's got to be good. Right? - Not in my opinion. There are some really good older Bourbons, but they're the exception to the norm - 5 to 6.... In addition to recouping tax dollars handling costs are also higher with older Bourbons - more barrels being handled.

We only use dry yeast for distillery start up (one yeast tub) or in an emergency situation. Other than that we propagate our yeast from a test tube slant. I don't like dry yeast. When a distillery uses city water it loses too many of the minerals that create flavor. Most distilleries have their own water source - rivers and wells. I believe today's barrels are better than they were decades ago. In the 1960's and `70's long-term experiments proved that it doesn't make a difference if fermentation takes place in wood or steel or any container. The construction of the fermenter and the materials used have no impact on the chemical process.... These experiments were again confirmed in the `90's. We use both red cypress and stainless steel fermenters, and one's not better than the other. Today's technologies in distillation have come light years since the `60's, `70's and even the early 90's. Distillation has improved, in my opinion, but other influences may have offset enhanced distillation processes. 

Question #5/6

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Q&A #2 with Four Roses Master Distiller - Jim Rutledge

One question that has rolled around the bourbon sites has to do with chill filtering and the effects it has on the bourbon. I've never been able to get a reasoned answer when asking the enthusiast population but the question was posed to Jim and his response made for some good reading.

Q: Jim, there has been an ongoing debate for some time as to the impact of chill filtering on the flavor and mouth feel of whiskey, Some claim it has little impact others say it has little. Do you feel chill filtering impacts your bourbon and if so in what ways? Does Four Roses chill filter every bourbon that has water added to it

JR: Chill filtering came about in `70's after the minimum strength of bottled distilled spirits was reduced from 86 proof to 80 proof. The more water added to reduce the strength the greater the probability of fatty acids precipitating out and it didn't take long at 80 proof for this to be discovered. The precipate first forms a haze and eventually visible solids floating in the liquid. The solids resembled a small piece of cotton; I call them "puff balls." I was involved with the first incidence of fatty acid precipation with a Seagram shipment, via rail car, to Washington or Oregon. The rail cars were stranded for more than two weeks in Idaho in late January after a blizzard with temperatures well below zero. Soon after R&D finished their studies of he returned bottles Seagram began chill filtering Bourbon that was bottled below 90 proof. Fatty acids are present in nearly all foods and are Absolutely Not a health issue, but when a precipate develops it is definitely an aesthetic and marketing issue. One of the reasons it was difficult to first get a grasp on the seriousness of the issues is when a bottle is disturbed (a little swirl will do it) the fatty acids quickly go back into solution and disappear.

FRD chill filters YL and both Small Batch and Single Barrel, and I've tried to explain the NON-necessity to chill filter both higher strength labels. We don't chill filter any of our Limited Edition offerings or barrel strength private barrel selections.

Chill filtering involves lowering the temperature of product to below 20 degrees F. and letting it set for ~24 hours. After that period of time the fatty acids are not visible to the naked eye, but they have begun to solidify and may be filtered. I'd far prefer Small Batch, and especially Single Barrel were Not chill filtered. With removal of fatty acids some flavor, and body, are lost. In lieu of chill filtering some distillers add a chemical to generate a precipate. Of the two options I prefer chill filtering - even if it is far more costly....

I don't think it makes a difference what type equipment is used to chill the Bourbon, except from an efficiency perspective. The major change we made a few years back was in our filtering media which after changed aided us by not removing as much color in the process. Flavor was not impacted - once the fatty acids are gone they're gone. I'm an advocate of chill filtering Bourbon equal to or less than 86 proof, but when it's not necessary I'd far prefer Not Chill Filtering. 

Question #3/4

Friday, November 25, 2011

Turkey day drinking......

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving with friends and family. Along with the food, I hope you enjoyed something tasty whether it be wine, beer or spirits. For our family get together, I ended up bringing along a number of goodies:

Beer: Green Flash Trippel. This was a new one for me and found it to be somewhat sweet with a moderate hop profile. Not a bad brew and one I would grab again. Second was a Firestone Walker Porter, another great selection from this brewer.

Whiskey: I just grabbed various selections that cross cut whiskey in general. For bourbon I brought along Old Charter Proprietors Reserve at 13 years old, an Old Rip Van Winkle 10 yr 107 and a private selection of Four Roses Single Barrel (OBSK mashbill) 9.5 yrs old. On the Irish front I brought along a Bushmills 21 yr and Jameson 18 yr. I also brought along some darkside selections starting with a Aberlour a'bunadh batch 29, '05 Edradour SFTC Marsala Finish and Arran Cream Sherry Cask which is barrel strength.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Q&A #1 with Four Roses Master Distiller - Jim Rutledge

Our group recently had the privilege of participating in a Q&A with Jim Rutledge; Master Distiller at Four Roses distillery. I found Jim's answers to be very informative and detailed. I thought it would be interesting to share some of his answer to the questions we posed. Jim brings a long history in the distilling business so I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I enjoyed participating in the Q&A.

Q: Can you tell us what your early years were like? Where did you start at Seagrams? How did they teach you the trade? What is the education process like now for young people getting into the craft of distilling whiskey?

JR: My first day at Seagram was November 14, 1966. I can still recall to this day the emotions I felt as I walked through the gates and headed back to Seagram's R and D Department. Most new hires got their start in the control lab - analyzing fermenters at different ages for sugar and alcohol content, learning the methods to propogate yeast.
My first job was running mini-gin stills. I distilled all the botanicals used in gin production. After distillation I began to learn to use my organoleptic senses to analayze and accept/reject botanicals based on smell and taste. (I think everything back then smelled and tasted the same to me - at first - but it was the beginning.) I later worked under experienced managers and supervisors in various operating departments. In my stints as a distillery shift supervisor I learned under Jules Kahn (distiller) and two of his key supervisors eventually became master distillers - Bill Freil (Barton) and Ed Foote (United.) It was crazy back in those days and I think about 70% of new hires left the business within the first year, and most of them moved directly into supervisory positions at other distilleries. I fell in love with Seagram and the Bourbon business and knew I'd found a home - hopefully for a lifetime. As with most of life a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time seems to have been my good fortune. I was Very Fortunate when I was transferred back home to Kentucky in 1992 (from New York corporate office) and I've been living a dream come true ever since. Seagram hired numbers of people and hoped to find and keep the ones they believed had potential. Today a "person" is hired based on qualifications to fill a specific position. Often times these people are bogged down in one area. I don't agree with the Seagram philosophy back in the `60's but the ones who survived the initial training and assingments in operating departments generally had a good chance at success. By the early `70's Seagram had slowed down the numbers of people hired to move into training slot. 

Question 2

Saturday, November 19, 2011

2011 North Coast Brewing Old Stock Ale

It was a busy day that ended with fast and furious yard work before the sun went down and I was looking forward to pouring a brew. One that I received for my Birthday back in Sept was North Coast Brewing's Old Stock Ale (2011 release). At 11.9% ABV, it's a heavy weight but doesn't drink like it. This bad boy is fantastic.

Aggressive pour produced a minimal caramel colored head and lacing. Color is opaque and muddled orange. Nosing brings forth big malty goodness and mild hops. There's a lot going on with the entry; big caramel, coffee, chocolate, dark fruit/raisins with a chewy, boozy profile and a perfect amount of hops influence (IMO).

From the North Coast website: "Like a fine port, Old Stock Ale is intended to be laid down. With an original gravity of over 1.100 and a generous hopping rate, Old Stock Ale is well-designed to round-out and mellow with age. It's brewed with classic Maris Otter malt and Fuggles and East Kent Goldings hops, all imported from England."

This is a big drinker and one I'm going after to put down in the beer bunker. A great pour and a must buy.

2010 Parkers Heritage Collection

We gathered 13 bourbon nuts willing to participate in a double blind tasting and provided samples of last years release of Parkers Heritage Collection which was 10 years old and a wheat mashbill. This is Heaven Hill's yearly premium release with the price being premium as well. I always like the double blind as it it forces the reviewer to focus simply on the sample without any outside influence (label, age, proof, etc.). Here are the results and some feedback from some of the reviewers.

" Really nice mouth feel with caramel trending to burnt sugar right up front followed by oak which was readily apparent, but not overwhelming"

" Nice and thick. Oily with dry oak. The flavor is woodsy heat. Lovely. Really had me chewing"

"Nose which is very forward and sweet, toffee, canned pears, tangerine, honey and threads of spice. The palate shows immediate sweetness of brown sugar and hints of toffee. The mouth feel is a bit thin and seems to clean rather than coat the palate. A bit more heat than expected in the mid-range which wants to hang around for a bit and has a masking impact on flavor. Fruit, fall spices, vanilla, honey and some citrus notes come forward. The finish is OK length wise but the sweetness drops off quite quickly leaving a fairly flat after taste. I will need to revisit this whiskey as it is coming across a bit disjointed. Lots of stuff I like here but just does not seem to come together and a bit hot to boot"

"This deep copper whiskey is a high proofer. You can feel the alcohol when nosing, but it is not overpowering. It smells of sweet candied pear and caramel, toffee and vanilla. This is a huge whiskey it enters very sweet then the proof kicks in. A lot of the pear/apple character from the nose carries through for me on the taste. It is chewy with lots of vanilla. It is evident that this is a barrel proofer but again, the alcohol is not overwhelming. This whiskey finishes forever and is extremely well balanced. You get hints of everything: Vanilla, apple/pear, barrel character, alcohol but none of them take over. Very, very nice pour."

95-100 Classic Whiskey 1 7.69%
90-94 Excellent Whiskey 5 38.46%
85-89 Very Good, Above Average Whiskey 5 38.46%
80-84 Average Whiskey 2 15.38%
75-79 Fair Whiskey 0 0%
74 and Under - Pass on This Whiskey 0 0%

The PHC release each year has been above average to great over the years. The 2011 release has a Cognac finish. I've had it and I'm not sure the Cognac influence is doing the bourbon any favors. That's my first impressions but I need to go back and revisit this years release to give it a fair shake. If your hunting around and come across the 2010 release, do yourself a favor and bring one home as it's a very decent pour. Retails for about $70 and up.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It's Alive! Pappy!

Pappy is alive! A local liquor store called me yesterday evening to inform me that they have......(drum roll please) bottle with my name on it. Yes, I'm thankful but really? One bottle? Ok, guess they have to make sure everyone on the list gets one. I dropped in last fall and asked to be put on the waiting list so kudos to the store for following through and giving me a call. Now if I can just get the same call from the 6 other stores that have my name.

There's another store that has a small allotment of Van Winkle Family Reserve 12 year (Lot B). This is another wheat bourbon expression but the price is silly; $47. I would like to add a couple bottles to the bunker but for that price, I'm getting slightly younger barrel strength offerings. Guess I'll be passing on those.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Oskar Blues Old Chub....good beer in a can

I've found a sweet spot in beers and it resides on Scottish Ales such as Founders Dirty Bastard, Bells Scotch Ale and Oskar Blues Old Chub.

From the OB website "This jaw-dropping Scottish strong ale (8% ABV) is brewed with bodacious amounts of malted barley and specialty grains, and a dash of beechwood-smoked malt. Old Chub features a skim-milk mouthfeel, semi-sweet flavors of cocoa and coffee, and a kiss of smoke. A head-turning treat for malt heads and folks who think they don’t dig dark beer."

To me the smoked malt comes through giving it a distinctive character. Color has a dark rudy color similar to a Porter. The flavor profile definitely coincides with the description from the website and includes bittersweet chocolate, dark roast coffee bean and a creamy caramel sweetness and no hops that I can detect. The mouthfeel is a little thin side but that's about the only negative. This is an outstanding Scottish Ale and it comes in a can no less. If you like malty beers leaning toward a dessert profile, check out Old Chub.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Green Spot comes home

My love of bourbon is no secret but I also love other whisk(e)y including Irish. I've slowly been collecting various offerings over the last year or so and find Irish whiskies to be very inviting to my palate. Last night my wonderful mother-in-law produced a bottle of Green Spot (in a canister no less) and placed it gingerly in my hands. Oh baby! I love this expression.

MIL traveled to Ireland last week and she made the mistake of asking "is there anything you want me to pick up for you?" Well, as a matter of fact....yes. Green Spot. For the first half of the week she looked high and low as they toured various towns and came up empty. Finally, after conversing with a bar manager she asked if he had ever heard of Green Spot. "Best Irish whiskey there is" was his response. He pointed her in the right direction to a local store where she found said bottle. The price was a whopping $67 which has been reimbursed but that's not all it will cost me. She had to walk in the pouring down rain a number of blocks to get the whisky. I know I'm not going to hear the end of it nor will re-payment for her wet adventure be quick and easy.

I'm ok with paybacks as she did me a solid and picked up the one bottle I wanted to add to the bunker (now I have two).

2011 release of Pappy Van Winkle

Chuck Cowdery's blog as well as other blogs are reporting on the imminent release of Pappy Van Winkle with the most coveted being the 15 year old. I won't belabor the point as others have already done their duty in reporting this. Look for it right after Thanksgiving and move fast as it won't sit on the shelves. I've got my name on multiple lists which I would encourage everyone do in the event you want to grab some PVW. Good luck.