REVIEW: Michter’s 10 Year Rye (2017 release)

 

Michter’s 10 Year Straight Rye Whiskey
Barrel #17A37
92.8 Proof

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 tmichters 10 rye 2017his 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.)

Overall: 9.4 (edges 2016 by a tenth of a point)

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REVIEW: Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye Whiskey

Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye Whiskey
Michter’s Distillery (Louisville)
111.8 proof / 55.9% ABV
Barrel # 16D432

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.

michters bsrw.jpgThe 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.

Overall: 8.4

** Special Thanks to Lillie O’Connell and Michter’s for generously providing areview sample **

REVIEW: Belle Meade Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Belle Meade Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery – 90.4 Proof

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.

belle-meade-2The 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.

REVIEW: Michter’s Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey (10 Years Old)

Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey (10 Years Old)
Michter’s Distillery (Louisville) – 92.8 Proof

michters-bottle-1
46.4% ABV / 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.

michters-barrel-1
Mark Twain and Billy the Kid conspiring for a drink from barrel 16A1B.

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.

Overall: 9.3

REVIEW: Michter’s US*1 Unblended American Whiskey

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.

michters uam
Johnson, Jefferson, and Lincoln approve of US1 Unblended American Whiskey from Michter’s.

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.

Overall: 8.5

Special thanks to Lillie O’Connell at Michter’s for graciously providing a review sample.

REVIEW: Red-Handed Bourbon Whiskey

Red-Handed Bourbon Whiskey
Treaty Oak Distilling Company – 84 proof/42% ABV

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.

Red-Handed.jpgProduced 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.

REVIEW: E. H. Taylor Seasoned Wood

E. H. Taylor Seasoned Wood – Limited Release
Buffalo Trace Distillery – 100 Proof/50% ABV

seasoned wood.pngPerhaps 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.

DUAL REVIEW: Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon

Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon
Buffalo Trace/Age International — 93 Proof

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.

RCP

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

*****

MCH

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.

Overall Rating: 8.6

REVIEW: Michter’s Single Barrel Rye

Single Barrel Straight Rye Whiskey
Michter’s Distillery – 84.8 Proof

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Michter’s Single Barrel Rye, 42.4% ABV

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.

michrye2.jpgValue: 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.

REVIEW: Basil Hayden’s

Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Kentucky Springs Distilling Company (Beam-Suntory Brands) – 80 Proof

BH1.jpgBourbon, like barbecue, is a topic made for debate and often unwilling to lend itself to consensus. But where most discussions over the use of water or rocks boil down to personal preference and remain good natured, it seems that the quality of Beam-Suntory’s Basil Hayden’s can divide camps quicker than putting a brown sugar sauce on an eastern Carolina hog. The softest of Beam-Suntory’s “ultra-premium” offerings—including Booker’s, Baker’s, and Knob Creek—Basil Hayden’s has the ability to light up message boards with polarized opinions, and while others find much to question here, I find much to like.

Basil Hayden’s, as many of our readers may already know, is oddly not the only bourbon named after Basil Hayden. The other, named by his grandson R.B. Hayden, is Old Grand-Dad. But the two share more than a namesake: they share a high-rye mash, and some of the controversy comes from consumers who eye suspiciously BH’s mellower proof and higher price. Another issue—something running rampant in the entire industry these days—is the recent elimination of an age statement. BH once proudly announced it was 8 years old; now it is simply “artfully aged.” While there are plenty of quality NAS bourbons out there, not knowing whether BH is aged any longer than OGD has lead many detractors to assume that it isn’t, and that the only discernible difference between the two is the water used to drop Hayden’s proof. (If you’re curious how “concerned” we are at B&B about these “controversies,” we were more than happy to recommend BH as a holiday gift last year.)

While I can’t comment with a distiller’s authority on that issue, I can say that the “watered down” charges won’t be rebutted by Basil Hayden’s color. It is the yellow brass of many light wheated bourbons, rather than the brisk copper that draws most drinkers. The nose is light and enjoyable (an appropriate description for the entire sample) with allspice and black tea and mint. It hits the tongue a little flat with an oakiness that I didn’t find in the nose and maybe a drop of vanilla with little sweetness or sting. Like those of you reading, I was prepared for the finish to leave gently, and was pleasantly surprised when it did not. It’s the real draw here, when that high rye mash finally brings some cool-spice and a peppermint that lingers after all the other flavors have checked out. It’s like Ali not throwing a punch for 8 rounds and then delivering a KO. You think, Man, I want to see that again.

It probably goes without saying that I like Basil Hayden’s neat, and those I’ve shared it with agree. The low proof would get drowned by melting ice or branch water—though some people will like how easily that goes down—but it also allows that spicy rye finish to shine through and provide some of the bite that is missing in an 80 proof selection. While many Jim Beam loyalists will advocate Baker’s and Booker’s over BH, I’d recommend it over Knob Creek and the Signature Craft offering anytime.

BH3.jpgValue: Medium-High—Like opinion regarding it, Basil Hayden’s price seems to run the gamut. I’ve seen it for $54.99 and $38.99, and while the former almost excludes it from consideration, the latter can easily put it on your shelf.

Drinkability: Highest—The light body and low proof will appeal to almost everyone, and while it won’t become the nightly dram for cigar-chewing aficionados, they too will find a time and place to enjoy it.

Overall Rating: 8.4