Sunday, August 30, 2009

“You can’t handle the proof!”

At least I think that was the line from A Few Good Men. Ok, it wasn't but let's talk about proof, and specifically, barrel proof. A barrel proof bourbon or rye whiskey is going to be whiskey that is bottled at proof from the barrel (e.g. not cut with water). That proof varies depending on age and warehouse location. There's been speculation that Booker's Bourbon from Jim Beam was the first barrel proof bourbon to be released to market but that's debatable as Stitzel Weller put out their Original Barrel Proof Weller Special Reserve 10 year old bourbon which was 110 proof. Of course, 110 is low compared to what is found today with the limited release stuff like Parkers Heritage, Willet, George T. Stagg which can exceed 140 proof. There's also some evidence that there were barrel proof offerings in the early 20th century. Whoever was first really isn't important in the grand scheme of things, but what is important is that there are a number of barrel proof offerings that are really great pours.

Drinking barrel proof bourbon or whiskey may not be for the novice or adventurous. The novice probably won't have the developed palate to power through the alcohol to pick out the finer nuances of these power house drinks. The adventurous may want to slam back a barrel proof to impress friends but all it will do is most likely cause injury. Remember, 140 proof bourbon is 70% alcohol and must be sipped not gulped.

I have a number of barrel proof bourbons and whiskey's that are very good pours but I only drink these when I can take the time to sit, sip and enjoy; never rushing through a barrel proof drink. I once attended a luncheon with Fred Noe, the great grandson to Jim Beam and he commented that bourbon should be enjoyed any way you wish. I agree so if you need to cut your barrel proof with water or ice, go for it.

The list of barrel proof offerings is pretty limited as these bottles are typically limited or one off releases. Here's a list of a number of the barrel proof bourbons and rye's that are on the market:

William LaRue Weller; George T. Stagg; Thomas H. Handy; Parkers Heritage Collection; Blanton's Straight From The Barrel; Bookers; Willett; Old Grand Dad 114; Four Roses Limited Edition 2009; Wild Turkey Rare Breed. This is not an exhaustive list but gives you a pretty good idea of what's out there.

One of the things I like about barrel proof whiskey is it allows me to control the proof of my drink. I can drink the whiskey at barrel proof or begin cutting to any proof down to 80. Because the concentration of alcohol is so high, this can mask many of the overt and more subtle characteristics of the whiskey. Being able to pick out the barrel or grain characters could be difficult at full strength. If I find this is the case with a barrel proof whiskey, I begin to cut in very small increments until the full personality of the whiskey is realized. Sometimes this takes a couple of tries but experimenting with it is part of the challenge of enjoying a whiskey with this much power. Just this evening I sipped on a 2008 release of Thomas H. Handy, a straight rye whiskey. This whiskey came out of the barrel at 134.8 proof but in my opinion, does not need any cutting as it's enjoyable at full strength.

If you're into bourbon or rye whiskey, you should have at least one bottle of barrel strength in your collection as a way to fully round out your whiskey experience.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bourbon - The art of the dusty hunt pt 2

This is the second blog in a series related to the practice of dusty hunting. Part 1 we introduced the concept and in this blog we'll get into more detail.

Ever taken a close look at a bottle of bourbon? Probably only close enough to check out the price tag and maybe the proof, but there are many clues that reside on that bottle that tell a story few consumers will ever know.

By loose definition, a dusty bottle is any bottle of bourbon that is out of production and the dusty hunt is the act of rummaging through a liquor store looking for older, out of production bourbons. The sheer volume of information on out of production bourbon's is too much to articulate in these short blogs. What I will attempt is to give you some basic information and guidelines on what to look for and where to look for older bottles of bourbon. Believe it or not, there are many stores that still carry bourbon that has been sitting for 20, 30 or more years on the shelves just waiting for someone to come along and snatch them up; or, if not on the shelves, sitting in a cardboard box in the back store room. Let me caveat that bourbon does not age in the bottle. A 10 year old bourbon distilled in 1965 and bottled in 1975 is still a 10 year old bourbon even if opened in 2005.

I'll digress for a moment and tell a story that happened the summer of 2007. My brother and I were hunting in a major metropolitan city and walked into a downtown liquor store. Instantly my eyes began to scan the shelves looking for key indicators that would tell me this store had gems to offer. Within a few moments my eyes locked on a bottle of Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond. Instantly I knew that bottle was a prize so I asked the proprietor if I could see the bottle. Sure enough, this is a major find, a 1965 distilled Stitzel Weller Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond. The bourbon was 6 years old so the bottling was done in 1971. One of the holy grails of dusty bottles and I now held two of them in my hand. The damage? $11.95 each. So, do the math, 2007 minus 1971 would make that bottle 36 years sitting on the shelf. Oh, and by the way….it's one of the best bourbons I've ever had.

Let's discuss some of the factors to look for when seeking out that dusty bottle. First, we'll discuss the bottle itself. The glass bottle comes with various markings on the front, back and in particular, the bottom of the bottle. Most, but not all, bottle manufacturers place a 2 digit number on the bottom of their bottles denoting the year the bottle was produced. Looking at the picture on the right, you'll see the two digit year circled which denotes 82 meaning this bourbon was bottled in 1982. This particular bottle is of Jim Beam White. This is important because this is a key indicator of the year the bourbon was bottled. Distilleries do not store glass bottles and when delivered, those bottles go into the bottling line. So, if you see 78 or 82 or 99 on the bottom of a bottle, you can reasonably assume that the bottle was produced in 1978, 1982 or 1999 respectively. Another indicator of a bottles age is whether the volume is listed in metric or standard. A pint, quart or gallon bottle will indicate pre 1980 before metric took over. A bottle that has both metric and standard will indicate the transition years typically between 1978 and 1980. Metric only will then indicate early 80's and on.

In part 3 we'll continue our discussion on visual indicators to look for when dusty hunting.

Happy hunting!

Next, part 3.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Grain, yeast, water & wood….oh and pigs

Comedian Jim Gaffigan once said "The pig is an amazing animal, you feed a pig an apple, it makes bacon." It's kind of the same thing with Bourbon; you throw together this mix of grain, yeast and water, cook it up and throw it in a wood barrel and out comes this bounty called bourbon. I was at this party last night with a mix of bourbon enthusiasts and cigar enthusiasts and the discussions were centered on bacon…………just kidding, bourbon and cigars of course. I was chatting with this one guy from Canada and he was talking about the diversity of cigars when it comes to the look, feel, color and taste. Of course, those are the same qualities a bourbon drinker will look for in bourbon. Early on in my whiskey experience, I thought one dimensional when it came to bourbon. Bourbon was just bourbon. The cigar guy said kind of the same thing. But as you explore either cigars or bourbon, you begin to find variances that actually contrast on a broad basis. Cigars go through a similar process as bourbon where the harvest is selected, aged and fermented. Then the rolling process begins and after that they are "laid down" for final aging and distribution. Bourbon as most enthusiasts know is similar in process; the grain selection, cooking process, fermentation, distillation and then storage. What I find amazing is that using these simple ingredients, cooking process and aging produces bourbon profiles that differ in many ways. For instance, last night I had some Elijah Craig 18 year. It's been some time since I've had this particular bourbon and didn't really remember much about it but at first nosing I picked up green apple. I don't think the distiller was dropping in apple slices into the cooker but as your palate develops, you will begin to pick out many attributes both on the nose and palate as you try different bourbons.

So, if you love bacon, you gotta love the pig. If you love bourbon, then you gotta love the diversity that bourbon brings.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Exam-o-Dram - 1969 Old Crow 86pf 10 year old

This particular bourbon actually came in giant chess pieces about the size of a 5th. Each playing piece had bourbon in it....or at least most of them did. I poured off two pieces and re-bottled. This Old Crow is the darkest bourbon I've ever seen come from a bottle (or in this case a chess decanter). While I can't say with confidence the reasons why this particular bourbon would be so dark compared to another bourbon of equal age and equal proof, one guess would be that the age of the bourbon is not actually 10 years old. There may be environmental factors that darkened this bourbon over time but all I can say is that this is one fantastic 10 year old 86 proof whiskey. In fact, I would argue that this is not actually 10 years old but older. As a comparison, I placed one bottle that contains the Old Crow next to another bottle that's the same age and proof (1999 Evan Williams Single Barrel). The contrast is striking as you can see from the picture above. The color of this Old Crow is super dark with traces of orange to amber in hue, it has a great nose that hints of butter. On the palate there's a deep sweetness and creaminess to the flavor that evokes toffee and maple syrup. The legs are slow going down the sides of the glass. One of my favorite qualities of decades old bourbon (e.g. 40's, 60's, etc.) is the antique quality I've found in many of them and the Old Crow has this quality to it on the finish. It'll be a sad day when this stash is gone but for now....I going to enjoy it very slowly. It's sad, they just don't make them like this anymore......

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Exam-o-Dram - 1980 Old Grand Dad 114

If you're old enough to remember the 1960's then you certainly remember Batman and Robin. At some point during the show, they would get into a scuffle and you'd see action pop ups showing the destruction of their foe. The only reason I mention this is because I'm having a small pour of a 1980 Old Grand Dad 114. At the first sip, the high rye bourbon explodes on the palate and let's you know this isn't a lightweight bourbon. The color is rich amber and as I said, the flavor really bursts on the tongue. When nosing this bourbon, you can pick up the alcohol so it's a warning of what's to come. I would say that this drinks a little hotter than 114 proof but maybe I'm just wimpy today. This is a very good high rye, high proof bourbon and not a beginner's drink. I can't give any impressions on the current release of this bourbon but at first pour, you may want to add a small splash of water or a couple of cubes. As Batman once said "Fore-warned is fore-armed."

Monthly Bourbon Recommendation

Just had a thought that maybe I'll do a recommendation every month or so. We'll see how it goes. For this month my recommendation is Very Old Barton (VOB) Bottled in Bond (BIB). First, this is good whiskey at a value price. I picked up a couple bottles in KY last year and paid around $12 a bottle. Montgomery County, MD is a controlled county (rest of the State is non-ABC) and is a not for profit ABC and as such, the prices are very reasonable. They have the VOB BIB for $8.69 a 750; a real steal in my book.

Second, Constellation Brands recently sold the Tom Moore distillery where Barton and Ridgemont Reserve are made to Sazerac Company who owns Buffalo Trace. I'm not sure what BT plans to do with the Barton brand and whether they will keep producing this product in the same fashion using the same mashbill. Over time, I'm thinking not. So, this is one of those times where if you like VOB BIB and want to stock up, now's the time. I got caught sleeping at the wheel last time BT pulled a product from the shelves and barely managed to pick up 8 bottles of Ancient Ancient Age 10 year, a great whiskey and now only available in KY. This bourbon was named "Best Buy of the Year" by John Hansell at Malt Advocate magazine.

So, the specific reasons I think this is a bourbon worth picking up and bunkering is:

1. Taste is above average
2. Age stated at 6 years old
3. 100 proof
4. Great price
5. Longevity of the brand unknown

If you're not familiar with VOB BIB and want to give it a spin, go pick up a bottle, it's a low cost investment and I think you'll like it. Please remember to drink responsibly. Cheers.

Personal rating: 7.5/10

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bourbon - The art of dusty hunting pt 1.

In some other posts I've mentioned dusty bottles. Many bourbon enthusiasts acquire numerous bourbon releases whether they be current production they enjoy or limited release stuff like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Another aspect of collecting involves looking for bourbon that is no longer in production. Believe it or not, there's a lot of older bottles still sitting on store shelves or in some liquor store basement. You may ask "how can this happen?", well it does and it's surprising how much older bourbon is still sitting on shelves waiting to be purchased. I'm fortunate to live in an area that is well stocked with older bourbon. For instance, back in 2007 I found a bottle of Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond sitting on a store shelf that was distilled in 1965 and bottled in 1971. I bought that particular bottle for a whopping $11.95 and for any bourbon enthusiast they understand there's really terrific bourbon in that bottle distilled by the now obsolete Stitzel Weller Distillery.

In a series of blogs, I'll go through and explain what dusty hunting is. I'll start with the following....

If you're dusty hunting in your home you're probably spending the afternoon cleaning the house. If you're a serious bourbon enthusiast and dusty hunting, you're more than likely lurking in some seedy downtown liquor store looking for that special "dusty" bottle of bourbon. I'll mention that most of the older bottles of bourbon I've found had layers of dust on them.....thus, dusty bottle.

Dusty hunting can be described as looking for that out of production bottle of bourbon that once found makes you giggle like a little girl. As you hold the bottle in your hand, you turn it over looking for those special markings that give tell tale signs that what you now hold is truly something special. That's right, an older bottle of bourbon will have visual markings that give away its heritage, age and many times, the goodness that resides within.

While finding that special bottle is terrific, that's only half the game. The other half is the actual hunt. Moving from store to store scouring the shelves for bottles that are no longer in production, just sitting there waiting for someone to notice it.

Of course the goal is not to acquire and then display the bottle as a conversation piece but to actually open the bottle and enjoy a taste of yesteryear. What's particularly great is tasting bourbon that is no longer produced and comparing that to something current. I see a lot of folks who inherit grandpa's old bourbon bottles, or someone picks up some stuff in an estate sale and they invariably ask the question "how much is this bottle worth?". My answer is typically not as much as you think but to me the real value is enjoying something rare and out of production. So, if you inherit grandpa's bourbon and you enjoy sipping on a dram now and then, keep the bottle, open it and drink to grandpa's memory.

I'll post additional information on the tactics to use when dusty hunting so stay tuned. I'll caution you though, once you start hunting, it becomes addictive.

Next, part 2.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The growth of a bourbon collection

Ok, collection may be the wrong word to use because I have no intention of displaying my bottles to be admired but rather each one will get opened and enjoyed in solitude or among friends who appreciate fine bourbon. So, maybe hoard is a more appropriate word as it describes what I'm doing; stockpiling bourbon for future enjoyment. I'll admit that I've amassed somewhere north of 300 bottles of bourbon, a number of those being duplicates. Let me explain why I've done this. First and foremost, the majority of my "bourbon bunker" consists of out of production bourbon and rye whiskey, or more affectionately known as "dusty bottles". This is a literal term as most times when finding an older bottles there's dust all over it. I've determined that I like the older offerings over the current stuff. Not that the current shelf brands are bad, they are just different in a number of ways. The distillation practices employed today are different that those used 20, 30 or 40 years ago. For example, the barrel entry proof years ago was about 100-110 while today it's about 120-125 (the legal limit). The higher entry proof cooks off more flavor components. Additionally, some feel the practice of chill filtering also removes flavor as some ester's and fatty acids are removed during this process. I believe other factors like changes in corn harvest and the age of the oak used in barrels impact a bourbon profile and as such I find these older bourbons and whiskey's to be more flavorful and contain more depth, some even at 80 proof. This is not meant to be a blanket statement but merely an observation and personal preference.

The second reason I hoard out of production bourbon comes down to economics. My State is an ABC for profit controlled State and as such, they can charge whatever they want....and they do. Going out of state I can find a large supply of dusty bottles and the proprietors of the stores that contain these bottles are only too pleased to sell them at a discount to move all that old, nasty product. As such, I can find great bourbon at a real value. For instance, I recently picked up a couple bottles of Old Charter Classic 90 which is not produced anymore. This is a 12 year old bourbon and I paid a whopping $10.50 each. A real bargain in my book and great bourbon to boot.

So, if you live in a non-controlled state then you may be fortunate enough to find older bottles that will provide some great pours. If you have any questions about older bottles or wish to share a successful find, please let me know.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

At first blush.....bourbon

When I first started enjoying bourbon I was younger and cut my teeth on Wild Turkey 8 year and 12 year old bourbon. Of course looking back now and knowing that I mixed those with Coke makes me cringe. Later in life I kept a bottle in the pantry to sip on every so often and pretty much stuck with Wild Turkey products because that's all I knew. I always thought of bourbon as one dimensional; bourbon is bourbon.

Little did I know that variances in bourbon are as diverse as those found in wine. Later in life I began to venture outside the Wild Turkey product line and found a wide open array of products that varied greatly. Once I had my eyes and palate open to different product lines I began to explore different bourbons that varied in age, proof and mashbill. If you simply drink Jim Beam or Jack Daniels (which is not bourbon....more on that later) you may want to expand your horizon and look beyond the mass produced products. There's nothing wrong with Jim Beam or Jack Daniels, but as I stated above, the differences are noticeable when you begin to experiment with other offerings.

For friends that express an interest in bourbon, I typically suggest they start with something low proof and lighter in expression. There are two types of bourbon; those with a rye mashbill and those with a wheat mashbill. A rye recipe will give the bourbon a spice and kick that makes some folks wince. A wheat recipe will give the bourbon a smoother, less "spirited" profile. So, I suggest Makers Mark for new drinkers. It's a wheated bourbon at 90 proof and if that's still too high, you can pour it over ice or cut it with a splash of water.

For friends who are scotch drinkers, I bypass the Makers Mark suggestion and point them towards a rye bourbon or rye whiskey. A rye bourbon would be something like Old Grand Dad. A rye whiskey would be something like Baby Saz. I do this because they typically find the wheated bourbons to be uneventful and if you're a Scotch drinker, you'd understand.

So, if you are new to bourbon, old to bourbon and have any questions, please feel free to post and ask.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

My first bourbon posting

Over the years I've spent plenty of time trolling the internet for websites devoted to bourbon. I've found a couple sites that do a good job of following the bourbon market as well as provide good discussion about bourbon in general. I hope over time to articulate my passion for bourbon in a responsible fashion. If you read something of interest, please let me know. If you feel I've posted something in error, let me know that too. Thanks for stopping by.