Sunday, December 18, 2011

Exam-o-Dram - Abraham Bowman 18 year barrel strength bourbon

I posted recently about a group trip down to A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg, VA. During the tour, Master Distiller Truman Cox brought out three bottles of Bowman bourbon; Bowman Brothers Small Batch, John J. Bowman Single Barrel and Abraham Bowman Limited Edition 18 year exhibiting a whopping 138.6 proof.

The Bowman Brothers was a nice pour but average overall and not very captivating. The John J. was more appealing and overall an above average bourbon and I ended up purchasing two bottles. The Abraham Bowman was fantastic. To quote a friend after trying it "Big, huge, sweet, delicious!!!"

The color is golden amber and in the glass is viscous producing slow, well placed legs. The nose is very inviting showing little heat, dark fruit, caramel, cooking spice (clove, cinnamon). What's lacking that I fully expected is a woody profile, at least in some fashion, but it's not there. For a bourbon this old, this is unusual.

The entry is big on flavor, showing minimal heat, no oak or woodiness at all which reinforces the nose. The mouthfeel is very nice, thick with a syrup quality showing flavors is caramel, spice, sweet fruits of plum, dark berries with some barrel char popping up at the back of the palate. The finish is long, long, long. Transitions on the back of the palate start with those dark fruits and moves on to dark chocolate like quality and then very slowly diminishes. At the very tail end, the barrel strength heat numbs the palate ever so slightly. A full two minutes after the last sip, the finish is still present.

If you let the bourbon sit in the glass for a period of time, say 20 mins or so, the spice and berry flavors come forward a bit and the nose opens up and exhibits age like an old leather bound book.

Truman was asked about the various provenance of Bowman bourbons and he succinctly stated "Kentucky". Well, that doesn't narrow it down very much. At 18 years old, this bourbon pre-dates the purchase of Bowman by Buffalo Trace so where this bourbon came from is a bit of a mystery. It could be Ancient Age but who knows where Bowman was sourcing their bourbon from in the early 1990's.

This bourbon is fantastic. At barrel strength, it's way too easy to drink right out of the bottle and it does handle water very well and right around 107 proof, it opens up very nicely exhibiting a flavor profile that includes burnt brown sugar and dark chocolate.

I know that The Party Source has done two barrel picks of the 18 year making both of those single barrels over this bourbon which is a small batch. If you're traveling through Virginia and near Fredericksburg, stop off a ASB and pick up a bottle or three.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Q&A #8 with Four Roses Master Distiller - Jim Rutledge

Q: I've been able to enjoy the various "standard" expressions -- Yellow Label, Black Label and Platinum/Superpremium -- in Japan even before the reintroduction to the States. I understand that they are made of various combinations of the 10 recipes. Did those come from Seagram's days or were they introduced under Kirin? Are the ratios fixed, or are there some batch-by-batch adjustments similar to those of a Scotch whiskey blender?

JR: Seagram introduced the black label and super premium in ~1990 to increase our Borubon market share in the major growth market in the world. We were already #1, but these news brands opened the market to various, and premium, price ranges of our brands.

Super Premium uses several of our recipes and 80% of the Bourbon must have been aged a minimum of 8 years while 20% aged 10 years or greater. Like our YL the formula can be tweaked to hit the target flavor profile as close as possilbe. Black Label uses both mashbills but only "K" yeast to create a full-bodied Bourbon with more spice. The mashbills are used at a 50:50 ratio so there is less variability and ability to tweak the formula - only different ages and different barrels.

Seagram always looked at quality as a "conformance to standard." We maintain that philosophy today. Conformance to standard is the reason Seagram started distilling and aging 10 recipes (and flavor profiles) of Kentucky Bourbon. This was started well before the time I began my career with Seagram's R&D in 1966. Since there are no two barrels a like it is impossible from bottling run to bottling run to consistently bottle the Same flavor.... The theory behind the 10 recipes was that prior to a bottling run we would sample the barrels, tweak the target formula and bottle the same flavor time after time. Well, it still wasn't possible, but the bonus behind the efforts was the variable lables we can now bottle and each will taste different because each labels blend formula will be different. For example, OBSV used for Single Barrel is not one of the four recipes used for Small Batch - OESK, OBSK, OESO AND OBSO. Note the yeast "V" yeast culture is not used in Small Batch and even a whiskey expert - that was not familar with FR - could not identify in a blind taste test that both were produced by the same distiller.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Q&A #7 with Four Roses Master Distiller - Jim Rutledge

Q: With all the attention the ultra aged Bourbons are getting (15 to 20 yrs old) It stands out that Four Roses does not offer an "older" age stated bourbon. I would have guessed that the lighter char on the barrel, and the lower proof in the barrel, would be great conditions to produce a great "aged" bourbon. Why is it you don't have one? Any plans to release one?

JR: I know older Bourbons have gathered more interest in recent years, yet I am not a fan of older Bourbons as a general rule, but I have seen some nice ones. As a norm, Bourbon peaks in performance between 5 to 8 years age, but there are exceptions. Most of the flavor and color during maturation are developed during the first year in a barrel, but continues at a far slower rate up to the time the natural sugars present in the white oak have dissapated. Then the Bourbon begins to take on too much woody characters and harshness.

I've had debates over the years with our marketing people who tell me we NEED an Older Bourbon with an age claim on the label. My response is always - "not as long as I'm around." The reason is we never know when the sugars will be depleted and once that happens we need to use the barrel within about 6 months. IF we must wait on "Birthdays" of barrels to attain say a specified age we could have a few barrels that have "gone south" in quality which would destroy the target flavor profile. And, if we can't be assured we're doing our best to fill bottles with only great Bourbon it's just not worth it to me. However, I also know (as mentioned) that there are some really good older Bourbons and that's what we use for our Limited Edition renderings.

I talked about our LE series previously and there were questions regarding our 2008 and 2009 Mariage offerings. I liked 2008 better than I did 2009, but in lab analyses I preferred the 2009. When I tasted the finished product I Knew something was not right. We were to use ~9.3% of a 19 year old OESK in the recipe. (We also used a 12 YO OESK at a far higher percentage.) When the barrels were dumped the 19 YO barrels were dumped first, but the average proof gallon yield was greater than anticipated and we ended up with about 20% of the 19 YO in the Mariage. 9.3% of the 19 YO complemented the flavor profile, but at the higher percentage the end product was a bit too woody (with a touch of harshness) BECAUSE of the Older Bourbon. Some people told me that was the best LE we've ever bottled, but in asking questions everyone that told me that were also Scotch drinkers and the `09 Mariage had less sweetness.... But, I'm an old-timer and a traditionalist and prefer the targted sweetness of Bourbon.

It is correct in saying that most of our better aged Bourbons are found in the bottom two tiers of our 6 tier high single story warehouses, but there are exceptions even here. I've seen some really good older Bourbon in which the barrels were aged in the top tiers. I don't "think" that would happen too often in a multi-story warehouse - from the 2nd floor up.

The vast majority of our barrels are heavy (4) char, but we use ~15% medium (3) char. We fill our barrels with 120 proof distillate. We've run experiments at 105, 110, 115 and 125 proof. We continue to run experiments, but I have been amazed that in blind taste tests the 120 proof filled barrels (with a little more age) has faired as well as the lower proofs. The taste tests were so close it was not worth changing our entry strength - even if we have to age the barrels 6 mos. to a year longer at 120 proof. Plus, at a lower proof the age in the bottle could be lowered and as discussed earlier the perception is that more age is a good thing. Lowering the age of Bourbon for bottling might be an economic plus on the production end of business but totally offset in the market. (I'm just talking out-loud and theorizing as I go along.)

Our single story warehouses benefit us via conformance to standard flavor profiles and consistency and could be beneficial IF we had an older Bourbon (including an age claim) on the market.

I think most Bourbons on the market (> 15 years age) are limited editions -even if it is not stated on the labels. That's all we will ever have LE older Bourbons - at least until the time I retire. I hope someday we can have a really old LE Bourbon, but in all honesty it's doubtful.

Question #8 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

High West coming to town.....

David Perkins from High West Distillery will be here in the Washington DC area December 6th for a whiskey dinner at the Granville Moore, a Gastropub featuring gourmet bar food and ales.

Tomorrow evening, David will be traveling to Northern Virginia where we will meet at a local enthusiasts home for pulled pork and fixins. After dinner we'll be enjoying a wide selection of High West products as David talks through his various offerings. I plan on asking questions and taking notes so look for posts about this event.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Q&A #5/6 with Four Roses Master Distiller - Jim Rutledge

Q1: A lot of folks want a FR Rye but how about a wheated FR bourbon? Have you ever experimented to see how your five yeasts would work with a wheated mash bill?

Q2: I'm not certain if Q1 is asking you to make a Straight Wheat...or using wheat as the second grain?? If you could...answer for both. Is working with wheat any different than working with rye, as the second grain? How would you change the amount of malt...if you changed from rye to wheat as the second grain?

JR: No, we have not used wheat as a small flavoring grain. We use more small flavoring grain in our mashbills than any other Bourbon. We use rye grain to generate a little more spiciness than found in Bourbon brands. Wheated Bourbons are sweeter than rye, and that's not because wheat itself is sweet. Rather it lacks flavor in comparison to rye grain; i.e., rye bread versus wheat or white bread. Sweet flavors in Bourbon are actually generated via the natural sugars present in the white oak and the flavorful rye will mask some of the sugar/sweetness that the wheat will allow to show in the finished Bourbon. That doesn't make one better than another - just different. With our unique 10 Bourbon recipes we distill and age separately we have an infinite number of blend formulas to create a different flavor with each of our labels/expressions. (The 10 recipes are created via two mashbills and 5 proprietary yeast cultures. I don't know of another distillery using more than one yeast culture.)

We have no plans of using as a small flavoring grain or as a straight wheat whiskey. If we made another straight whiskey it would be a straight rye, which I've been advocating for a number of years. Hopefully, one day my efforts will come to fruition. We'd have so many options with the 5 yeast cultures. For instance, we could replace 16% corn used in our "B" mashbill with rye and have a straight rye. Using our "K" yeast, which generates spiciness the resulting straight rye would taste like a straight rye that was made with a mashbill far greater than the minimum 51%.... We could also use a mashbill using 80% to 95% rye in combination with our "O" yeast and have a spicy straight rye with a lot of rich fruitiness. There are so many options available to Four Roses. I wish I knew the secret to be more convincing to our owners of the potential of Staight Rye....

Our regular FR Single Barrel (OBSV) averages greater than 9 years age. Most master distillers will tell you Bourbon peaks between 5 and 8 years age. There are some really good older exceptions to the norm. We don't put age claims on our labels (and never will as long as I'm around, despite pressure from marketing and sales people for obvious reasons.) We try to use our Bourbon barrels at the peak of their maturity and flavor. When the natural sugars in a white oak has been depleted the barrel needs to be used very soon else the Bourbon will begin to take on too much of a woody taste and character. We do hold barrels that are maturing slowly and creating good flavors. These barrels are used for our Limited Edition Single Barrel and Small Batch annual renderings.

Wheat has less enzymes than rye grain and is actually easier to work with than rye relative to fermentation and drying the by-product of distillation.

We would not change the amount of malted barley if we were to make a wheated bourbon or a straight wheat.

Question #7