Michter’s 10 Year Straight Rye Whiskey
The 2017 incarnation of Michter’s 10 Year Rye is the first release greenlit by new Master Distiller Pamela Heilmann. If you had concerns about quality lost in the changeover from Willie Pratt—and I’ll confess that I did, simply because the 2016 release was that good—let go of them. Right now. This is excellent whiskey and worth every cent of its top-shelf MSRP.
The nose on M10R is a storybook grandmother’s kitchen: brown sugar, sweet caramel, and banana bread. This is something of a departure from last year’s batch, which did have hints of sweetness but also featured a more pronounced spiciness (mainly a mix of cinnamon and black pepper). As with last year, the texture is all velvet. Unlike 2016, Heilmann’s initial rye run has primary notes of wood and leather, with background hints of banana bread, cinnamon, and citrus. This isn’t a “hot” whiskey by any means (and at 92.8 proof, I didn’t expect it to be), and it’s finish isn’t massive in terms of burn, but it seems to linger forever. More importantly, M10R comes with the signature warmth from start to finish that makes it—in my humble opinion—the best rye on the market for the second straight year, which is really saying something given my affinity for WhistlePig 10.
For all of this praise, there is also a catch. While not as absurdly difficult to find on store shelves at the Van Winkle line or the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Michter’s 10 Year offerings (not to mention the unattainable 25 Year special release) are moving in that direction. As more and more folks find out just how good these bottles are, the more the flippers take notice, and the higher secondary prices climb. I’m generally not an advocate of bottle hoarding. But if you find a few of these on the shelf at MSRP, grab them all, they’re worth the investment.
Value: Normally, at $150, I would have a hard time giving a bottle two thumbs up in this category, but M10R is the exception that proves the rule for me. If you can find this at MSRP, buy it.
Drinkability: Highest. (Though, ironically, I’d probably share bottles with much higher price tags on the secondary market with house guests before I parted with too many drams of this one.)
If you’ve spent much time on B&B, you know we’re fans of Michter’s whiskey. And you might also have picked up on the fact that I, personally, lean toward ryes. That said, I’m not generally one to go nuts for a barrel proof offering—so I wasn’t altogether sure what to think about Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye as I pulled the cork.
The nose on MBSR is mellow; sweet (caramel/vanilla), hot (duh), and surprisingly lacking in black pepper. You pick up on the “umph” almost immediately, but it’s not overwhelming—and it actually lulls you into thinking the difference between a standard 90 proofer and a 111.8 is only about 11 percent. Plus, on the octane spectrum of barrel proof whiskeys, MBSR is technically residing on the moderate end. Rare Breed and Maker’s Cask hover around 112, Old Granddad is at 114, and then things only go up from there: Bulleit at 119, Booker’s at 120+, E. H. Taylor Jr. in the high 120s, Stagg Jr. at 135, and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof in excess of 135. So how hot could it be?
In short, if you’re drinking MBSR neat, it’s hot. Too hot for most folks, likely—but then, most barrel proofs are too hot for the average drinker to take straight. The texture isn’t as velvety as the Small Batch or 10 year labels; oak, a mix of caramel and vanilla, and just a touch of dried fruit come through. Given the heat and given that we’re talking about a rye whiskey, I was admittedly surprised that this wasn’t spicier. The finish is where MBSR excels; and by that I mean, it goes on and on and on (and it might still be going, actually).
A touch of water is the golden ticket here. All of the fruit flavors—apricot and cherry, especially—lurking behind the heat are pulled to the forefront. The oak gives way and some of the natural rye spice also regains its footing, which will make people who specifically picked a barrel strength rye happy. (Rye should taste like rye, after all.) When mixed properly, MBSR essentially becomes a diesel version of Michter’s Small Batch—a great in its own right and preferable to many single barrel offerings—with significantly more pop, added pepper, and a drastically elongated finish.
Value: If you can find this appropriately priced at retail (somewhere in the vicinity of $70), it’s absolutely worth adding to your bar. I prefer it to the other barrel proofs within relative range (OGD and Rare Breed); it would make one hell of a Christmas present if you can find it.
Drinkability: As noted, this is a tough sell to sip neat. But that’s going to be the case for most people tangling with barrel proof whiskey. A splash of water transforms this rye into a very pleasant evening drink, especially when temperatures start to drop.
** Special Thanks to Lillie O’Connell and Michter’s for generously providing areview sample **
As fits with my general philosophy of whiskey consumption – that is, if it tastes good, I don’t care where it was distilled or what shelf it belongs on – I’ll start this review by stating that yes, the sample of Belle Meade graciously provided to us was born at MGP; and, no, I could not care less. (I gather that this will be changing in the future, but for now, what you find on the shelves will be the same.) This is a bourbon that I’ve had multiple conversations about but had not tried personally prior to sampling for this review. My expectations were admittedly high—and I wasn’t disappointed.
The nose on Belle Meade was one of the things I’d been told about; mainly, that it would be crisp and laced with sweet citrus. Ironically, that’s precisely what I didn’t pick up on. For me this was a medley of corn, sweet caramel (more so than more generic vanilla), rye heat, and hints of leather. The nose also gave me the impression that the texture would be silky. On first taste, the texture was lighter than I expected; not quite silky, but still pleasant and buttery. The first sip is a mouth full of heat—and it’s going to overpower the rest of the flavor profile, but be patient and things open up. A few sips in, the heat dissipates and gives way to dark chocolate and cherry, peppercorn, and hints of dried fruit (but still no citrus). The latter won’t come anywhere near the level of a Michter’s Small Batch, but it’s noticeable. On my second go-round, the chocolate/cherry combo remained, but more caramel managed to push through those initial waves of heat. The finish on Belle Meade, somewhat surprisingly given that first pop of heat, is relatively short; more than a vapor trail and a warm stomach, look for a low ember that lingers and builds over time. The real payoff here is an aftertaste of dark chocolate and cherry that sticks around for the duration of the dram and makes this a choice pairing for a mild cigar on the back patio (think: AF Hemingway Short Story).
Value: Slightly Above Medium—Belle Meade is currently going in the $40-$45 range; this is arguably the toughest battleground in the whiskey market. At this price point, you’re going up against virtually every label’s mid-level offerings (Russell’s Reserve, Rare Breed, High West, 1792, Michter’s, etc.) AND getting pretty close to the max a casual whiskey enthusiast is going to drop on a single bottle. In terms of quality, Belle Meade holds its own with this group, but there are just so many choices, it’s difficult to say this is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. That said, this is absolutely worth adding to the collection.
Drinkability: Medium High—Rye drinkers (like myself) are going to enjoy Belle Meade from the beginning; casual bourbon drinkers will come around, but it may take a little time and probably a little water or ice added to the mix.
Overall Rating: 8.2/10
Special thanks to Meaghan Donohoe and the folks at Nelson’s Greenbrier for providing a review sample.
Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey (10 Years Old)
Michter’s Distillery (Louisville) – 92.8 Proof
This review has been three months in the making. Not because I’ve devolved into a Faulknerian writing process or because I’ve lost interest in sampling and writing about some of the best whiskeys in the world. (The day that happens, you’ll also see me in a Florida State shirt, ripped skinny jeans, and listening to Bieber. For those of you who don’t know me, I wouldn’t hold your breath…) No, it’s taken so long to churn out because time has been at a premium since September 8. That afternoon, my daughter was born. She’s absolutely beautiful and, to celebrate her healthy arrival, I opened a bottle of Michter’s Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey graciously provided by Lillie O’Connell and the folks at Michter’s. To call this a good decision would be an understatement.
The nose on the Single Rye 10 is a perfect blend of mellow spice and pepper, buttery caramel, and a faint (cinnamon/apple strudel) sweetness—almost like a holiday candle. The texture is pure velvet; extremely rich but not syrupy. You’ll start with a low heat on the tip of the tongue. This will gradually build, but in a pleasant way. (It never gets very hot.) This is a mature whiskey at 10 years old, but not particularly woody. You’ll get just the right dose of spice (it is rye, after all, and it should taste like it) but this isn’t a pepperbox. Given the nose, I was expecting some of the other flavors, specifically the caramel, to make immediate appearances, but they just weren’t there for me, and I think it’s a better pour because of the absence. I also didn’t pick up on the traces of dried fruit that have been a hallmark of other Michter’s bottles reviewed on B&B. But if you’re reading this and thinking the Single Rye 10 sounds like an unremarkable pour, you’re jumping the gun. The real reward comes on the finish. That slow building heat translates into a very long but very gentle finish. Over the course of a solid dram, that sweetness does reappear and develops into a lingering aftertaste of warm cinnamon. That will stay with you for quite a while, almost like a very subtle numbing sensation. If this is what the good ole’ boys were drinking in their Chevys at the levy, they chose their final pours wisely.
Value: High—Yes, I know what you’re thinking. This bottle is going to run you $120 to $150. Very rarely will I spend more than $60 on a bottle. And only once in a blue moon will I spend more than $75 (usually involving a raffle win or stumbling onto a dusty gem). But this one is too good not to say retail is fair and still tout it. If you can find it, buy it. Buy as much of it as you can—because in a few years, we’ll probably look back fondly on the days when this wasn’t a $200 bottle.
Drinkability: Highest—Hard to overstate the quality of this bottle from start to finish. Ryes frequently get a bad rap among the uninitiated for being overwhelmingly harsh or spicy. Don’t be fooled: this is as finely flavored a whiskey as you’ll find just about anywhere.
US1 Unblended American Whiskey
Michter’s – 83.4 proof/41.7 ABV
There are times when my skepticism gets the best of me, and I wonder if a bourbon company known for providing a quality product should really branch out to try a single barrel, or a rye, or an egg nog. I was once a strict adherent to the creed that a brand that was known for providing one product of high quality should stick with that product and not, in the words of a workingman’s football coach, “get too fancy.” I’ve tasted enough false starts in the bourbon world to reinforce my righteousness (you can find examples in the B&B archives), but more than one has made me question it.
Michter’s is one of the latter. Their US1 line consists of Bourbon, Rye, a very popular Sour Mash, and an Unblended American Whiskey, the spirit featured herein. The bourbon and rye both received high marks here at B&B, and for those who can find them on the shelf, Michter’s also offers these two spirits in a variety of ages ranging from 10 to 20 to 25 years.
My preconceived positive notions in no way hindered me from questioning some of the cleverly crafted language surrounding the Unblended American Whiskey. Now, I understand that it’s not a bourbon because it’s not aged in new charred oak barrels, but in what the brand calls “bourbon-soaked barrels,” meaning previously used. It’s somewhat unclear as to whether these were used by Michter’s or someone else, but what seems clear is the barrels have a little less to offer the whiskey as it ages. A second point of linguistic contention is the “unblended” label, which Michter’s offers because the American Whiskey is never thinned with neutral grain spirits. That is excellent, but It does not meant that each bottle isn’t a “blend” of different whiskies of various ages and experiences. To be fair, these aren’t incorrect definitions, but excellent marketing.
But perhaps I digress. A man too consumed with truth will soon find his glass half-empty—or completely so—and this is no way to enjoy life, or whiskey, and as we know, both should be responsibly enjoyed.
It’s unusual for a whiskey’s reputation to be made on the nose, but I’ve read so many remarks on the aroma of US1 American Whiskey that I think Michter’s might consider partnering with Bath & Body Works for a candle and body lotion line. It really is pleasant, sweet and fruity like a bakery using almond extract, turbinado, and pears. The palate is excellent—thick and luscious, buttery, candied. This is delicious. Yet somehow the finish doesn’t quite bring it together, and I don’t know if it’s due to the used barrels or not. It’s a bit raw, heavy on corn and light on age. The barrels sugars are so apparent earlier in the drink; I’m not sure where they go in the finish, but I miss them.
Value: Medium-High—Michter’s is working against itself here. US1 Unblended American Whiskey is excellent, but at most stores the entire line is the same price, and I’d personally choose the Rye or Bourbon in the same $40 price point.
Drinkability: Other than the finish, High. A low proof, very full offering that I highly recommend.
Special thanks to Lillie O’Connell at Michter’s for graciously providing a review sample.
Steve Martin once quipped that “writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.” Before proceeding with this review, I’d like to provide both an apology and an excuse — though, unfortunately, while my apology is for not writing enough, my excuses are actually for drinking too little. RCP and I have been on a hiatus for a few weeks due to a mix of work, moving across the country, a one-year old boy (RCP’s), and a newborn girl soon to appear (mine). Anyhow, we’re sorry to have been offline for so long and appreciate your patience. We have shelves fully-stocked with samples to review and we’re ready to have Bowtied & Bourboned hitting on all cylinders again. Stay tuned.
Produced by Treaty Oak Distilling, Red-Handed Bourbon Whiskey is an appropriate choice for my first review as a Kentuckian-turned-Texan because it’s a mixture of whiskey distilled and aged in Kentucky (as well as in Indiana and Tennessee) and then blended and aged again in Austin, Texas. Most of you know where we stand on NDPs at B&B (read: tell me how it tastes, not where it came from) and Treaty Oak makes no secret of it (hence: “Red-Handed”). The nose on this bottle is oak, vanilla, and a just a touch of dry fruit — nothing approaching the level of Michter’s Single Barrel, but it’s there nonetheless. Given that the mash bill has such a high rye content, it’s a little curious that you don’t get a hint of spice before sipping.
Your first taste will be all wood and smoke, which isn’t a surprise given the re-barreling done in Austin.The vanilla, which dominated the nose, is largely absent, drowned out by the oak; fleeting traces of caramel come through but the aforementioned hints of dry fruit do not transfer from the nose to your mouth. The finish is smooth but very truncated, the result of a sub-90 proof. But don’t let that immediately turn you away. Red-Handed surprises with a quick flare of spice on the back of the tongue — that rye content arriving just a bit late to the party. I was pleasantly surprised with this medium dose of heat; combined with the inherent smokiness of Red-Handed, it makes up for much of the missing finish. Again, though, this clearly isn’t high octane stuff — so don’t come to the table expecting Booker’s or Boss Hog or even Weller 107. But if you’re willing to take a chance on something below 90 proof with a unique aging/barreling background you might be surprised to see how far above its weight class Red-Handed can punch.
Value: High. I’m tempted to make this “Very High,” but in the $35-$40 price range, there’s just so much competition. (If Red-Handed were $30, it’s value would be through the roof.) This is fairly priced, generally on par with Michter’s Small Batch and Basil Hayden’s, but much smokier.
Drinkability: Very High. The lower proof and muted finish make this an easy bourbon for anyone and everyone to drink neat, but it’s still got above average flavors. I.e., it’s easy to drink and worth drinking.
Overall Rating: 8.1. Definitely worth a try if you can track a bottle down.
Special thanks to Daniel and Melody at Treaty Oak for providing a review sample.
E. H. Taylor Seasoned Wood – Limited Release
Buffalo Trace Distillery – 100 Proof/50% ABV
Perhaps it is best, in the spirit of full disclosure, to open this review with the confession that I am openly enthusiastic about the EH Taylor line from Buffalo Trace. My bio for this website reveals that I am “currently pouring” the Small Batch expression, which I feel strongly enough about that I recommended it as a gift this holiday season in our Christmas Spirits wishlist. In that same piece, I mentioned that if you had been especially good, you might receive a bottle of the Single Barrel; apparently I was, because I did. As an unabashed fan of both the whiskey and its roguish namesake, it’s fair to say that I was pretty excited to receive a sample of the EH Taylor Seasoned Wood Limited Release.
What’s special about the Seasoned Wood? First, it’s a wheated bourbon, a grain that distillers say ages more gracefully than rye, meaning the flavor profile of the whiskey comes more from the mash than from the barrel. But the reason we’re talking Seasoned Wood here and not Seasoned Wheat is because this expression pairs the strong flavor of the mash with an equally strong-flavored barrel. Some of the staves have been uniquely soaked in a proprietary enzyme bath, while others were left to season outside for anywhere from 6 months to a year.
Aye, here’s the rub. If you know me well enough to know my appreciation of EH Taylor bourbon, than you probably also know that I appreciate simplicity and tradition just as much. I’m as skeptical of treatments that sound like they belong at a purification spa being applied to distilling as I am of commercializing something that sounds like a happy accident. What the hell is an enzyme bath? Is “seasoned” just a marketing term for “left outside too long?” But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of products with other unusual marketing narratives (Did someone say Orphan Barrel?) so I was still very curious what I’d find in this bottle.
My curiosity was met with a uniqueness typical of the EH Taylor line. One of the things I like about it is that, like its namesake, this line is willing to take chances to create results that are unmistakable (the Cured Oak version was a smashing success). This is without a doubt true of the Seasoned Wood. On opening the bottle, the nose is immediately one of heavy winter seasoning: cloves, mulling spices, gingerbread, fir. Add the heat of your first sip, which warms you down into your stomach and from the inside out, and I imagine that if a Saint Bernard were to find me snowbound in the Alps, this would be the ideal liquid to have in the barrel around its neck. But when the dryness kicks in on the finish, leaving me with near cottonmouth, I think that dehydration is probably not the feeling a stranded skier wants. Unfortunately, the dry heat overpowers what few flavors whisper behind those closed doors of tannic copper.
Value: Medium at best. With a $70 MSRP and expected higher prices due to the one time limited release, this has too much competition from lower price ranges to comb the liquor store desert—or snow-capped mountains—for a bottle.
Drinkability: Medium. While I applaud other EH Taylor iterations for the complicated challenge they represent, making this someone’s first bourbon would be like tossing a JV wrestler into an MMA cage match.
Overall Rating: 82. The introductory EH Taylor Small Batch remains one of my favorite brands, and the Seasoned Wood simply doesn’t stack up to its little brother.
Special thanks to Kristi Wooldridge at Buffalo Trace for setting us up with a review sample.
In honor of the Derby, we’ve decided to run our first ever dual review. RCP and I each sampled and reviewed Blanton’s separately, and combined our thoughts here. We’d like to thank John Shutt at Age International for generously providing our review materials.
Blanton’s just seems right to review for Derby week. I know it’s not the official bourbon of that most historic of horse races, but with its dapper stopper series depicting a horseback jockey in stop-motion stride, it seems fair to call it the unofficial bourbon of bluegrass horse racing. So after you don your seersucker and quaff that annual mint julep, there’s no need to drop the equestrian tableau just because you bet on some bob-tailed-nag in the hopes of a 50-1 payout.
Blanton’s enjoyed a reputation as “the original single barrel whiskey” prior to the bourbon craze that caused markets to boom, prices to rise, and shelves to empty. Considered a high end bourbon even before it had so many labels to compete with, its reputation (among consumers and popular media alike) has made it increasingly scarce. Finding a bottle isn’t the impossibility it has become with Buffalo Trace’s Antiques, but you might just find the one.
The nose is pleasant and warm to me, oaky with notes of orange and lemon and honey, almost like a hot-toddy. The palate actually is a little hot, still smooth, but the spice seems to drive some of the caramel and vanilla flavors underground, leaving you with fairly flat corn. The finish is pretty stiff, too, and lasts. I’ve read others describe this as “lean,” and I taste the appropriateness of that adjective, almost like a scrappy boxer that doesn’t have the moves for a KO but won’t stop punching, either. There’s something here I can’t quite put my finger on, either, in how the sweet nose turns so hot on the palate, or how that caramel chew tastes different at each stage.
Value: Medium – at $50+, this has some stiff competition in its price bracket from both craft and big name brands.
Drinkability: Medium – this isn’t a beginner bourbon, but it’s challenging without the complexity that some more critical bourbon fans are looking for.
Overall Rating: 8.5
There’s an indisputable “entity”—equal parts history, nostalgia, and maybe something best described as good taste—that tethers thoroughbred horse racing and Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. No label exemplifies this connection more than Blanton’s. It’s the granddaddy of modern single barrel bourbon as we know it. And it’s known the world over for the series of seven jockey figurines, one which adorns the cork of each and every bottle.
Your first sniff is going to be oaky, but not earthy. There are strong notes of spicy citrus—which is what I think gives the wood a “cleaner” character. A discerning drinker will pick up slighter hints of caramel and vanilla through the spice, but it’s definitely not a candy store nose. The spicy citrus is a harbinger of things to come: your first sip will produce a medium heat on the tip of the tongue, but that will quickly dissipate. The main flavor of Blanton’s is a mixture of oak and peppery citrus—those hints of caramel on the nose are mostly drowned out of the profile, but manage to peak through every so often. The finish on Blanton’s is, in my humble opinion, it’s most endearing quality. Expect a long, warm finish—this isn’t a flamethrower (i.e., Booker’s), though, so think “low and slow”—paired with a much sweeter aftertaste that offsets some of the lingering spice very nicely.
If you’re not initially thrilled with Blanton’s flavor profile, I would urge you to add a dash of water or a pair of rocks. The water will help unlock a little bit of the sweetness hidden down deep in the bourbon and add just a little bit of balance to the wood and spice. At the end of the day, Blanton’s flavor profile makes it a bourbon drinker’s bourbon. And, contrary to what you might be thinking, this is actually a very, very good thing. As the bourbon craze continues to spread and old middle of the road drinks suddenly reemerge as “luxury labels” (with costs to match) and the price tags on more established premiums jump from obscene to outrageously obscene—assuming you can even find it to bankrupt yourself paying for it!—there is something timeless about Blanton’s. There’s something very comforting in the fact that there will always be a consistently good, single barrel bourbon with a great history that I won’t have to win at a raffle or fret about the demise of its “original stock.” In other words, there is something comforting in the fact that there will always be Blanton’s on Derby Day. And perhaps more importantly, on the day after when you find those losing tickets in your coat pocket. (A maiden to win the Derby? What were you thinking…)
Value:High – I’m bullish on Blanton’s as a value buy—there’s an intangible mystique to Blanton’s, something about it paired with a well-lit Hemingway Short Story, that just feels worth the $50-$60 price tag.
Drinkability: Medium – This isn’t a great “starter bourbon,” mainly because some of the flavor profile is fleeting and/or difficult to locate. I would bump this rating to high, however, when rocks are added to the equation. Just a touch of cool water seems to cut some of the spice and lets more of the sweetness – mostly caramel to me – shine through.
It will come as a surprise to some of you—and I’m sure is fully expected by others—that there are bartenders out there who do not like to see me walk through the door and claim an empty stool. This has nothing to do with endless questions about the bourbon list or repeated requests for peanut bowl refills (though both will occur). Since I generally keep to myself, I doubt it has much to do with irksome inanities (“Some Brave’s game, right?”), and my preference for neat bourbon and traditional cocktails doesn’t send them diving into Mr. Boston’s table of contents or the downstairs buffet’s pantry (“What do you mean no freshly grated cardamon?”). But when I do order a cocktail, I utter words that cause bartenders and bourbon snobs alike to cringe, the occasional jukebox to halt mid-song and skip.
“Well whiskey is fine.”
I do not call whiskey for mixing. I will gladly call for something neat or on the rocks, but when adding a hefty dose of sweet liqueur, plain old cane sugar, and garnish, the first thing behind the bar will be fine. If it’s on a shelf—even the bottom one—I consider pouring it in Coke or ginger a criminal offense. There is a rule of diminishing returns at work here, in which I hypothesize that the more flavors a whiskey is going to be mixed with, the less you get out of using an expensive whiskey. This hardly seems controversial, but it’s never that hard to find someone at the bar who’ll brag that they won’t touch a Manhattan without a fifteen-year-old base.
But at home, or in the hands of someone who really knows what they’re doing, this rule doesn’t always apply. While traveling a few years ago I happened into an establishment of the type where the bartenders prefer to be called mixologists and the bar approaches the realm of chemistry lab. Trusting in their skills I relayed some of my preferred tastes and left the final product up to them. It was delicious, and my first question was about the rye they used. Michter’s Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey has been a staple of mine ever since.
In case you missed our sampling of their Small Batch Bourbon, we’re pretty big fans of the Michter’s brand at B&B, and this second review from their US 1 lineup is no different. Like the bourbon, the rye was only bottled by Michter’s, not distilled by them, and there is no age statement on the bottle. And, as with the bourbon, I recommend you get past that. Sure, there’s something to be said for shepherding your product from farm to bottle, but there’s also something to be said for being able to purchase premium distillate with a flavor profile you’ve sought out, to say nothing of the skill involved in proofing—and this rye is a very specific 84.8 proof.
The nose on the Single Barrel Rye is heavy with vanilla bean, a flavor that carries through the first sip, and light with cured tobacco, which does not. Sweet and aromatic, this opens on the tongue with sugary cola, like an old fashioned vanilla Coke mixed fresh in front of you at a drug store soda fountain or diner. There’s macerated black cherry and a campfire char—not the smokey peat of a scotch, but something sweet, more maple than oak—just before you swallow, when you get some rye spice but very little burn. I love the complexity of this stuff. Neat, it reminds me of some of my favorite challenging bourbons—a compliment that I wouldn’t give out lightly—and it won’t hide in a mixed drink but will noticeably elevate it.
Value: Very High—At around $40, this is like going to the track with an inside tip on an unlikely horse that will pay off big. My advice is to bet on it. I could see this leaving empty shelf space at $60-$65, though I hope it doesn’t happen.
Drinkability: Medium-High—This is a bold and chewy rye with some of the most distinct flavors I’ve come across. The thin, airy, constant notes of a highly drinkable whiskey can be easily missed, which is why I give Michter’s Rye a lower rating here. This stuff reminds you that you’re drinking it, but if you like fuller whiskies, you’ll be glad it did.
Overall Rating: 9.0
* Special thanks to Lillie O’Connell and the folks at Michter’s for a review sample.
Anyone who knows anything about distilling history has Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr. on the “Mount Rushmore of Bourbon.” As a technological innovator, an industry spokesman, and as an all-around lifestyle icon (let’s face it, the Colonel made whiskey cool long before Don Draper was kicking back rye in the corner office), Taylor changed the way bourbon aristocrats did business; in turn, he changed the way people the world over perceived bourbon. For decades, though, the site of his Old Taylor Distillery — nestled along a quiet stretch of river just outside of Frankfort, Kentucky — sat dormant. Over the years, metal rusted, windows broke, and ricks rotted. Nature’s reclamation threatened to erase Taylor’s last and most famous distillery.
That is, until a group of historically-minded investors decided to restore the Colonel’s castle (literally) and establish a new distilling operation on the grounds. In keeping with Taylor’s penchant for innovation, the distillery — recently christened Castle & Key — features Marianne Barnes as the first female Master Distiller in the history of Kentucky’s bourbon industry. Marianne was gracious enough to sit down with Bowtied & Bourboned for a chat about the history of the site formerly known as Old Taylor, the future of bourbon tourism in Kentucky, her thoughts on the current state of the industry, and even what she’d pour in the event of an impending zombie apocalypse.
MCH: Alright, so I’m sitting here with Marianne Barnes, the Master Distiller of the distillery formerly-known as Old Taylor, and we’re just going to ask her a few questions the first of which … when you came into this project, obviously Taylor’s a big name, in the whiskey industry, how much did you know about E. H. Taylor, Jr. in terms of history and the history of the distillery?
Marianne Barnes (MB): Most of what I learned about E. H. Taylor and the distillery site was through Mike Veach, I had learned bits and pieces through working at Brown-Forman, specifically with Chris Morris because he’s such a huge history buff—specifically bourbon history—and Kentucky history, really, but it was a Filson Bourbon Academy at Belle’s in Lexington, it really opened my eyes to the rich history of every other bourbon brand. You know, I was entrenched in Brown-Forman’s history and didn’t have much time to spend learning everyone else’s, so I found it really fascinating to learn about E. H. Taylor and the impact that he had on the industry—and then his vision in creating the castle and Millville and starting bourbon tourism as we know it today.
MCH: Did anything you found when you first got into the distillery, doing renovations, change the way you thought about Taylor?
MB: Well, you know, it’s a fascinating place. And as much as it’s changed over the years, the skeleton and the ambiance and, you know, the walls—if they could speak—I could only imagine what they might say about the Colonel. But the guts, the equipment, the pipes, and all the process stuff that I was fascinated to learn were really more National Distillers era. And it was really interesting just to envision, imagine, the feats of engineering and how they put this place together way back when. I think that really did open my eyes to how sophisticated—well, in bourbon terms, you know the process hasn’t changed much over the last hundred or so years—so, how sophisticated the process is.
MCH: So, given Taylor’s reputation as an innovator—the Colonel changed quite a bit about how bourbon was made, and, how it was branded and regulated, and then the history of this place, like you said, I mean there’s a castle out the window. This is not a normal distillery. What does it mean to you to be the state’s first female master distiller, but then also what does it mean to be the first female distiller here? Because this is a different type of place?
MB: You’re right. This is a history-making site in itself and I didn’t take this position with the thought, “Oh OK, I’m going to do this so I can be the first woman master distiller,” no, that wasn’t why I did it. It was because of my love of history that was ingrained in me from my time at Brown-Forman, and really, I felt like the place challenged me, from the moment I stepped on the grounds, I thought “if I wanted to leave something behind, wouldn’t it be wonderful for this to be the place and to recreate, or, re-envision a product here in his honor.” And, by extension of his legacy and the impact that he made, and also, starting something new in a historic place.
MCH: When you first got to the grounds, was there ever a moment where you sort of looked at, you know, broken ricks or a missing still and thought, “oh my goodness, have I bitten off more than I can chew here” or was it always sort of that this place not just needs to be preserved, but it deserves someone to kind of come back and maybe that helped carry you through rougher moments?
MB: You know, it was a tough decision to leave my former position at Brown-Forman, but I’ve never regretted it. Coming onto the site and being here every day, it feels good, it feels like home. I walk around and I know most of the nooks and crannies but there’s always things that surprise me. The structures are in great shape; the old equipment, it’s almost like it got stuck in 1972 when they closed it down and not a lot changed. We’re still turning agitators that hadn’t moved since 1972, we’re able to reuse a lot of these big steel tanks, and, we’re gonna have to put in new pipes lines, because Lord knows what’s been living in there for the last however many years. But it’s really just connecting one thing to the next. If we wanted to make 400 barrels a day we would’ve hooked back up to the old still because it would’ve worked, which is just amazing to think that they left a 72-inch stainless column still that would cost, you know, $350,000 today just sitting on this site for decades.
MCH: Do you have a favorite, sort of, historic spot on the ground or maybe more than one?
MB: I would say, you know, there’s definitely more than one. I love being in the sunken garden, particularly now that John has brought it back to life—literally: planting new plants and giving it a new form, reminiscent of what it would’ve been in the old days. I like sitting out there and looking at the castle, the old distillery, the new garden—kind of that dichotomy. And then looking across the street, who the two old 45,000 barrel warehouses would have sat at one point. And you know, it does make me sad that they were taken down just to sell off the wood in pieces, brick by brick, but we’ve stopped that process. It’s gonna be reborn and that’s an inspirational place—and I really like being on top of the castle, on the roof, because it’s really more of like that nerdy process thing. So I can see the whole site and we have a lot of the old engineering drawings, so some of the 30s, up until, most of these are National Distillers era drawings, but from the 30s when they first started their expansions and renovations, up into the 50s when they were this huge concrete warehouse that we have on site that holds about 65,000 barrels. When that was built, it was still moving and breathing and living and expanding, which I just think is fascinating. So I like being up on top of the castle, with the bird’s eye view of everything and then down in the garden are my two favorite places.
MCH: You’ve touched on it a little bit, and obviously there was quite a bit going on here between Colonel Taylor’s day and the present, so when renovations began, was there anything particularly cool found on the grounds? Any hidden artifacts? Anything other than, say, a $350,000 still that you made you think “what is this still doing here? I can’t believe someone just left this behind or how did this survive?”
MB: There are, I would say, two gentlemen, that are really responsible for the well-being of this site over the years. One is Gary Tate, we call him Shorty, he’s about 6’ 3”, he lives down the road and he’s working for us now. He’s the third generation of his family to work on this site, particularly in the warehouse, but he’s been a watch dog, really taking care of the site, because it feels like home. And another gentleman, whose name is Sandy, and Sandy actually works in the wood shop right below us, he’s been coming to this site for years and years and years, and there are many stories about Sandy in his red truck running people off in the middle of the night. So I really attribute the well-being of the site and the fact that there’s not a whole lot of graffiti and there’s a bunch of broken windows but there’s not a whole lot you can do for that. They’re fixable. But really the good condition that it’s in, I would attribute to them.
MCH: We’ve touched on this a little bit too, but I’m wondering if you could expand, in terms of Kentucky’s bourbon industry—and I think it’s fair to say, for bourbon drinkers, this part of Kentucky, really, the trail is sort of like Disneyland—what do you think restoring this place specifically means to that? How will it add something new or change the way the public is able to engage with not just distilling and bourbon but also the history of distilling bourbon?
MB: There is a lot of history in the industry—and it directly correlates with the history of the state. And I think what this site tells, is an interesting, different perspective. So it stopped producing in ’72, and just by the architecture of the buildings you can see the different eras, and the 1887 castle and the 1930s when National Distillers expanded. And you can see what Prohibition had done to the bourbon industry—it just created so much demand they had to expand rapidly. And then into the 50s, bourbon continued to be on the rise, and then unfortunately in the 70s when the place was shut down, and that’s the site that you see today. It’s the disrepair that the failing of the bourbon industry really brought on. It wasn’t the fact that the former owner didn’t have the money to keep it up, they simply didn’t need the capacity here. So I think that coming onto this site, it feels like a ghost town, it kind of feels like The Walking Dead. You walk through the site and it’s almost post-apocalyptic, and I think that really kind of hammers home where bourbon was—and the fact that we’re bring it back. There’s gonna be places on site that still feel old—well everything feels old—but it still feels a little bit in disrepair. We have to tackle the project in chunks. So we can’t get to every building, even though we plan to open this coming spring, which is really soon, we won’t be able to get to everything. So what we do get to is going to feel like it did in Colonel Taylor’s day. So you’re going to get that feeling, that nostalgia, almost going back in time with the top hats and tails and the ladies in the long dresses out by the spring house for the Colonel’s annual derby party. It’s going to be a whole different experience, with the formal gardens, and, it’s a bourbon factory, but it certainly doesn’t look or feel like that.
MCH: Down the road—and this could just be the history nerd in me coming out—are there any specific plans to showcase the history of the site? And obviously, the whole place is a historic site, but again, the nerd in me is imagining a small museum, something specific and permanent to sort of show off the history for people who might’ve just come for the bourbon or to see the gardens but have a chance to learn something that maybe you can’t learn at other distilleries?
MB: Absolutely. We haven’t figured out exactly what or where or how we’re going to execute that, but we definitely want to talk about the history of the site. And to educate people on the importance of the site, what Colonel Taylor contributed to the industry, and bourbon and Kentucky. So we’ve collected a lot of artifacts. There were some things that we found on site. But it had been so looted over the years, because of being abandoned, that there wasn’t a whole lot of super interesting stuff, but we did find some very old engineering drawings and that sort of thing that really tell the story of the expansion, which I think is fascinating. But people who are related to Colonel Taylor or who have family members who worked here are coming out of the woodwork and want to share their family memories with us; bringing pictures and old bottles and keepsakes, and awards from when their father was salesman of the year. It’s been really fascinating, and we’re trying to collect those things so that we can put them on display—and to tell the stories of the people who have such great memories of this place.
MCH: Fantastic. Is there a timeline for when our readers will be able to buy your gin and down the road, your bourbon?
MB: Thank you for asking! You know, we’ve had a couple wake-up calls with the timeline and anybody who has done a construction project can vouch for this… things happen, things pop up. Particularly when you’re working on an old site, doing historic renovation always has surprises to share. We were initially hoping to start production in March, but it looks like we’re going to be into April, potentially even May, to have gin for everyone to taste. And then we’re also on the same timeline for the distillery to open for touring and to share with guests—so they can actually come and see and taste here.
MCH: Very cool. Logistically speaking, are there any plans to possibly do anything with the road? We’ve been talking about “the road” to the liquor, but also the road to the distillery itself, which in Taylor’s day probably wasn’t quite as harrowing, but—and it’s a gorgeous drive in—but it would be interesting with the kind of traffic that I’m guessing you’re going to attract. So are there hopes to maybe work with the city or the county or whomever would be in charge of that to widen it?
MB: We have had the KDOT out several times. Our parking is going to be across the street from the distillery, so we’re very conscious of making sure that it’s safe to get across, and also making sure that folks are aware that there will be people crossing. You know, McCracken is a very narrow, winding road, as is Duncan, it’s just a pretty steep winding hill to get down here to us. But it’s not too far from the interstate, if you can make it here and get safely into the parking lot, we’ll make sure you get over to the distillery as safely as possible. But yes we’ve been keeping them [KDOT] informed of what our plans are and, yes, there’s not a whole lot of room on either side of the road to make a wider road, but hopefully we can make people more conscious and make it a safer drive.
MCH: If you had to pick one thing, what has been the most difficult part of starting a new operation at an historic distillery?
MB: The most difficult part, I would say, I think it’s been interesting to see how the production plans have changed over time. So before I started, they were thinking a small pot still in the old boiler room, we’ll leave the rest of the distillery as a museum and just have this small portion to make bourbon. And then as things moved along, and you know, before I started, they started looking at all the equipment in the distillery and thought, “hey we could probably use this and it’s free!” And then when I came on we decided to locate our new still in the same spot as the old still instead of doing a small pot still to do a couple barrels a week—we’re now up to 20-30 barrels a day. So it’s been interesting figuring out with the old infrastructure how to place the new equipment and where to put the new lines and what can we use and what can’t we use—and probably one of the most challenging things is figuring out what’s going on underground. There’s septic tanks and underground lines, and we have some ideas from the engineering drawings but they stop at a certain point, so you don’t know if that’s actually what’s there or if that’s how they were using it when they shut down. So we’ve had contact with a couple of the old superintendents, a gentleman named Charlie Lewis who worked here for quite some time and actually lived at the small house at the other end of the property where our botanical trail is going to be, and we’re also having a gentleman out named Bob Robinson, who worked for National Distiller for his entire career, and knows this site very well. I’m looking forward to meeting him and learning from the people that spent so much time here. So I think probably the most challenging thing has been trying to be Sherlock Holmes and figuring out how it was used and how we can plug in our new process—and quickly.
MCH: It sounds like in doing that sleuthing you’ve uncovered some good things, which leads then to the next logical question, what’s the best part about not starting from scratch? About getting to come into a place like this and open up shop?
MB: The best part, it’s the learning—that’s the obvious answer. I had a very specific path laid before me at my last job. At this job, you know, I’m an owner of a new distillery, or a new-old distillery, and responsible for everything from taking out the trash to figuring out financing to selling barrels. And ultimately what the product is gonna taste like and how the distillery is going to be run—and what people are going to see and feel and taste and hear when they get here. So the best part is ultimately being responsible for bringing the site back and it’s really an honor to just be part of the team and to be able to do this.
MCH: More generally speaking, since we touched on production, are there any trends going on right now in bourbon making that you—as Master Distiller—are specifically planning to avoid?
MB: Yes. [Laughing] There’s a lot of weird things going on out there, particularly with maturation. Our warehouse is very historical and Colonel Taylor was known for being the one to develop patent warehousing, and we are not going to put steam back into the warehouses. So learning how to use them in a different way is going to be a fun challenge. But I’m not going to go in with tiny barrels; we’re not going to try to force chemical reactions and have a 32 year old product in 6 days. Particularly with maturation, we’re going to stick to old way. It’s going to be 5 years before we have bourbon on the market and I’m going to take some time and learn this new warehouse; figure out where those sweet spots are and that certainly doesn’t happen overnight.
MCH: Is there anything going on right now with bourbon making that you think is a good idea—something new that you want to incorporate into the operation?
MB: I love all of the different grain recipes. I think that’s so fascinating. Grain is a really important flavor contributor to whiskey and traditionally folks have been using the same four grains. And wheat is fairly new, honestly, it was always barley, rye, and corn. And not always yellow corn. In Colonel Taylor’s day he was using white corn. So one thing that I’m planning to do is go back with an heirloom variety of white corn to give it a different flavor, and of course all of our grain is from Kentucky, which is something new. So following the local movement, the locavore movement, and sourcing from a local farmer.
MCH: Two questions now. And these are just you personally, we won’t make you speak for everyone. First: wheat or rye?
MB: Potentially both. Our core product will be a traditional recipe based on what Colonel Taylor would have been producing so it will be rye—a smaller percentage of rye because he was said to have used twice the amount of malt of anyone else in the industry at the time. Nowadays I would not make that statement, because that would be a whole heck’uva lot of malt, but I will also be using white corn in his honor and that rye recipe. We are looking at also producing a wheated bourbon, because we can! And I like the option of maybe blending the two together at some point. There’s a lot of things that I would like to try; there’s a lot of R&D to do to figure out exactly what we want to present to our customers. I’m working on a very small scale, producing a liter at a time, in my laboratory, so maybe both.
MCH: And last question—you mentioned The Walking Dead earlier and that sometimes there’s a post-apocalyptic vibe going on here—so if the world is ending, and you get one last sip of whiskey, what are you going to uncork?
MB: I’m gonna take a gamble. There’s a bottle on our shelf right now that I have not opened. It’s an Old Taylor product that was distilled here in 1915. The oldest Old Taylor product from that era that I’ve tasted so far is 1917—so I think I would rather not die without knowing what that tastes like. So that would be my last sip. I would crack open that bottle just to try it out.
MCH: The historian in me absolutely loves that. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate the time.
After our chat, Marianne led me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery. The grounds — from the castle to the spring house to the garden — are incredible; they’re unlike anything else on Kentucky’s famed bourbon trail. When the facility is opened to the public, this place will be a must visit for all bourbon and whiskey aficionados. It’s going to be a while before any liquor is ready for consumption (gin will come first, then bourbon), but after hearing Marianne’s plans, we’ve got a very strong hunch it will be worth the wait.