REVIEW: WhistlePig Old World Rye

Old World Rye (12 year)
WhistlePig Distillery – 86 Proof

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Aslan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the Wright Brothers all look on in envy at B&B’s sample of Old World 12, 43% ABV

If you’ve followed Bowtied & Bourboned for long, it’s no secret that we’re fans of WhistlePig. NDP controversies duly noted (I still don’t care, in case you’re wondering), the WP10 scored a stellar 9.1 and the Boss Hog (2014) scored a very respectable 8.8. This offering, dubbed Old World, is a 12 year rye that more than holds up against its two highly-rated siblings. But unlike WP10 and Boss Hog, which came in at 100 and 120 proof, respectively, OW12 is bottled at a tamer 86 proof—but bear in mind that proofs can be deceiving.

The nose is an inviting carousel of rye spice, dry fruit (raisins and apricots), rich cherry, and buttery caramel—undoubtedly the result of OW12’s unique cask finishing process, which equals out to 30% French Sauternes, 63% Madeira, and 7% Port. I mentioned that proofs can be deceiving. Well, so can scent profiles! I can almost guarantee that your first sip of OW12 won’t be what you expect. Be ready for a significant but pleasant burst of spice and a lingering heat on the tip of the tongue. This fleeting shot of rye will give way to traces of slightly mellower caramel and dry chocolate. Despite the obvious fruit notes emanating from the wine finish, almost none of those smells will translate into the first taste. If you’re disappointed, fear not, their absence doesn’t last long. OW12 hits the back of your tongue with a flicker of black pepper and then that whole range of light, floral wine flavors opens up with background hints of caramel, wood, and dark cherry cough drops.

The finish on OW12 is relatively short, which surprised me given the initial wallop of hot spice, but by the time its hitting the back of your throat, all of the dry fruit flavors and that hidden woodiness have had a chance to commingle and mellow things out. And what the finish lacks in duration is more than made up for by a very nice, floral aftertaste and a lip-smacking, syrupy sensation left over from OW12’s thick, velvety texture. To make a long story short, if you’re a rye fan, you really, really want this stuff; if you’re a fan of dry, aromatic bourbons and ryes (think Michter’s US*1 or 1792 Port Finish), you still really want this stuff; and, if you’re just a fan of unique flavor profiles in general, you should still probably want this stuff—or at least a taste of it.

Value: Med—Retailing at $120 to $130 (that is, when you can actually find it in stores), this is definitely priced to be a top-shelf whiskey. In my estimation, it drinks like a top-shelf offering, with a flavor profile you just aren’t going to get anywhere else—but it’s just inevitable that anything in the $100+ range is going to restrict access.

Drinkability: Very High—Incredibly soft texture and a very rewarding second half; maybe the biggest change in flavor from front to back I’ve ever tasted. This is going to be great for anyone willing to take the first 1-2 seconds of heat—but in my house, it’s only coming out for championship games, holidays, and special guests!

Overall Rating: 8.9—The only thing holding this back 2-3 tenths of a point is the price. If you can swing the cost, this is a fantastic addition to your bar.

**Thanks to the folks at WhistlePig for graciously providing a review sample**

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REVIEW: Bully Boy Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned
Bully Boy Distillers – 71.4 Proof

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The Old Fashioned – 71.4 proof

Harry Truman was famous for enjoying a snort of whiskey, but my favorite story about imbibing in his White House is not about him but his wife, Bess. The straightforward First Lady, who according to the staff would “stand no fakers, shirkers, or flatterers,” knew her mind well and wasn’t shy about letting others know it, too. As befits our vision of the mid-century White House, she and Harry often enjoyed a cocktail in the residence sitting room before their evening meal. The first time Bess ordered an old fashioned, head butler Alonzo Fields fixed the drinks in classic style: an ounce of bourbon over orange slices, a teaspoon of sugar, and a dash of bitters. Too sweet, the First Lady pronounced, and the following night Fields tried a new recipe.

The next morning, Bess Truman found Fields’ boss and let fly with the kind of unflattering superlative usually associated with her “Give ‘Em Hell” husband. The drinks had been the worst to ever pass her lips, more like fruit punch than a quality cocktail. Alerted of her displeasure, Fields was ready that night when Bess again ordered an old fashioned. Pouring her a stiff double bourbon on ice, he stood by in case of disapproval. Taking a sip, Mrs. Truman smiled. “Now that’s the way we like our old fashioneds,” she said.

Bully Boy Distillers, owned and operated by two brothers in Boston, has its own historical tale, replete with a family farmhouse cellar stocked throughout Prohibition with illicit local spirits. Committed to following tradition but improving quality, Will and Dave Willis— who named their distillery after a favorite farm workhorse (are farm animal namesakes a rising trend in the liquor business?)—now produce rum, vodka, whiskey, and their bottled old fashioned. The latter, I’m afraid, would likely draw the ire of one Bess Truman, but drinkers who like to taste the difference between neat bourbon and a craft cocktail should give this a try.

Bottled cocktails are a tough sell, primarily because half the fun of having a cocktail is in the tradition and lore of the preparation. This could be doubly true of the old fashioned, which is, by Mr. Fields’ tried and true recipe above, one of the simplest to prepare, particularly when compared to a multi-step, multi-glass drink like the sazerac. There are no rinsed glasses, no one-part-this to three-and-a-half-parts that, no flavored syrup that needs to be prepared ahead of time. But that complexity is what mixologists—particularly the amateur ones—love about cocktails, which could also make the uncomplicated old fashioned the ideal pre-prepared potion. And, if I may, allow me to tout Bully Boy’s ingredients—whiskey, bitters, sugar—as equally uncomplicated in the face of infamous extracts and the “carrot coloring” dustup.

Bully Boy’s old fashioned is made with the distillery’s American Whiskey, an 84 proof spirit, but the cocktail is bottled at 71.4 proof, a significant drop that we can chalk up to simple syrup and flavorings. If you’re used to making old fashioneds with 100 proof rye, you will immediately miss the bite of the base spirit. The orange tones come through in the nose as they should, and are joined by the bitters on the palate and in the mild finish with hints of dried apricot. This is a really sweet and syrupy drink, and while Bully Boy suggests muddling an orange wheel and maraschino cherry in the glass, I found those flavors already prevalent and that an extra dose of bitters suited my taste more. They also recommend serving over an ice cube; I will admit that I enjoyed this without adding anything that melted, chilled but neat. The copper-red color itself is intoxicating.

bullyboy2While I’d like this with a bit more kick, allowing for the whiskey to shine without hiding its subtleties, I’m excited about what the brothers at Bully Boy are doing and what this portends for a quality prepackaged cocktail market. I can see keeping this on hand for when you want an old fashioned but don’t bring home an orange, and particularly serving it as an option at your next get together for guests who would rather drink and mingle than mix and muddle.

Value: High—A suggested retail of around $35 puts this craft in a lower price point than some of its big name competitors, and on par with buying a bottle of whiskey to fix old fashioneds yourself.

Drinkability: High—Sweet and straightforward, this will be attractive to many drinkers who would turn down a neat bourbon.

Overall Rating: 8.2

 

**Thanks to the folks at Bully Boy Distillers for providing a sample for review**

REVIEW: US#1 Small Batch Bourbon

US#1 Small Batch Bourbon
Michter’s – 91.4 Proof

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Michter’s US#1 Small Batch Bourbon, 45.7% ABV

If you want to hear three different pronunciations of “Michter’s,” just ask three different Kentuckians how to say it out loud. You’ll probably get a mix of “Mick-ter’s,” “Might-er’s,” and “who the hell cares just pour me a drink.” I’ve read in more than one place that the name is a fusion of Michael and Peter, hence, it should be pronounced “Mike-ter’s.” Then again, I’ve heard company employees featured on well-known bourbon documentaries refer to the brand as “Mick-ter’s.” (Think Mick as in Rocky Balboa’s trainer.) However you choose to say it, the name isn’t the only thing currently debated concerning the various Michter’s labels; as my bottle of US#1 Small Batch Bourbon indicates—and will continue to indicate for the foreseeable future—its contents were bottled at the Michter’s Distillery in Louisville, but not actually produced there. *Cue the dramatic music*

So yes, full-disclosure: much like WhistlePig, the Michter’s whiskey currently sitting on store shelves was contract distilled. (Most people guess by Brown-Forman based on its flavor profile. It’s also worth mentioning that the company has established a functioning distillery in Louisville, joined the Association, and is in the process of producing their own distillate—it’s just going to take a while to be properly aged and available for sale.) As usual, I’m here to tell you that when it comes to really judging the whiskey itself, there’s more to high quality than just on-site distillation. So stressing over Michter’s NDP status is as pointless as being hung up on a name. But for the folks who can’t get over it (and they’re easy to find on bourbon message boards), there’s always response number three above…

The nose on US#1 Small Batch (hereafter US#1SB) is a mix of sweet caramel, corn, black pepper, and just a hint of vanilla. Despite the sweetness, US#1SB has a unique “dry” quality—almost like you’d expect from a bottle of fine Merlot. The texture is thick and velvety, but not granular. The first taste isn’t anywhere as sweet as one might expect based on the caramel-dominated nose. The tip of your tongue will be inundated with a burst of corn and vanilla (the caramel is largely absent now); following that initial shot of pretty standard bourbon flavors, a robust mix of dry fruit and black pepper begins developing on the middle of the tongue and strengthens all the way to the back. Think fruit candies topped with pepper and rye instead of sugar.

The finish on US#1SB is relatively short and very smooth. Virtually no heat, which may not please folks who’ve been surviving the winter on Booker’s, 107, or Boss Hog, but this is a perfect bourbon to sip neat or straight up. Rocks simply aren’t necessary and only dilute some of the fruit flavors. (Whiskey stones wouldn’t be an issue, though.) It’s also highly recommended as a mealtime bourbon. Because why should the wine drinkers get to have all the fun, right? The dry quality, the lack of vapor trail, and the pleasant aftertaste of fruit and hearty oak make this a solid pairing for red meat and other wild game.

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As you can see, I went with the “horde for myself” option.

Value: Very High—In the $30-$40 range, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better all-around drink. This one works in the decanter for company—or for hording in your study/office.

Drinkability: High—As long as you’re not looking for a very sweet bourbon, or massive heat, this should be accessible to a wide range of drinkers. The short, painless finish is perfect for beginners while the dry, gradually-developing flavor profile is a welcomed change of pace from your average small batch.

Overall Rating: 8.5—If you haven’t tried this already, do yourself a favor: forget about the NDP-related nonsense or whether the linage actually goes back to Pennsylvania circa 1753 and buy a bottle (or two or three). The price on this is only likely to go up…

** Special thanks to Lillie O’Connell at Michter’s for providing review samples. **

REVIEW: Bowen’s Whiskey

REVIEW: Bowen’s Whiskey
“A Small Batch Handcrafted American Whiskey”
Bowen’s Spirits, Inc. (Bakersfield, CA) – 90 Proof

I came here looking for something
I couldn’t find anywhere else
Hey, I’m not trying to be nobody
I just want a chance to be myself
The Streets of Bakersfield

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Bowen’s Whiskey (45% ABV)

Merle Haggard may be considered Bakersfield’s most famous son, but it was Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens who opined that “you don’t know me but you don’t like me” on its streets. Today those streets are running with more than country music and oil, and if you don’t know Bowen’s Whiskey, I’d counsel you—as Dwight and Buck did—not to sit and judge, but to get to know a whiskey that’s not trying to be something else, just itself. That famously independent and unique Bakersfield sound may just be giving way to an equally independent and unique Bakersfield taste.

Bowen’s brandishes these qualities proudly, advertising somewhat indefinably that it’s meant for “trailblazers that seek and value true guts, quick wit, and a smooth finish.” While these tastes aren’t the standard ones to land on a drinker’s palate, Bowen’s doesn’t seem to mind. Their entire brand is built on boldness: “It just is what it is,” they say, and “you either like it or you don’t.” Bold and uncompromising is a great way to build a brand, but it can also be alienating, and Bowen’s is careful not to push too many people away: “We’re known as the whiskey that both scotch and whiskey drinkers appreciate.”

There’s a reason they say “scotch and whiskey” rather than “scotch and bourbon.” Using techniques from a fifth generation moonshiner, Bowen’s starts with a 100% corn base and ages with “reclaimed, fire ravaged oak” from California’s own forests. The result, every bit as inimitable as Wade Bowen, founder, could hope for, is exactly what you would expect if a corn liquor moonshiner made scotch. It has the bite of a young corn spirit with the smoke and earth of the Old World.

But not, I have to say, immediately. The first glass you pour from the bottle is sweet, much more American than Scottish. Let it open up a little and it jogs memories, like the smoke that lingers in your flannel shirt after a night around the bonfire. Put a cube of ice in there and you’ll swear you’re still sitting on a stump swapping stories and cooking hotdogs. The more time this stuff has outside the bottle, the more like a scotch it becomes. The nose is unsurprisingly woody, like freshly split oak and bittersweet chocolate. And the first sip is smooth—very little spice up front, a bit more pine than oak, and truly earthy. The finish is coppery and smokey and dense, even at 90 proof. There’s more spice at the end than at the start, and all that smoke and spice lingers.

bowens2.jpgIf you came here looking for something you couldn’t find anywhere else, Bowen’s is trying real hard to be that something, and coming damned close.

Value: High—at $39, this is a really attractive craft offering at a mainstream price.

Drinkability: Medium-High—Scotch fans will find this subtle and familiar with its own character, but it will challenge those who favor bourbons and ryes.

Overall Rating: 8.3

 

**Special thanks to Jo Bowen at Bowen’s Spirits, Inc. for sharing a sample of their whiskey with us.**

 

REVIEW: Buffalo Trace Classic Cocktail Party (2016)

REVIEW: Buffalo Trace Classic Cocktail Party
Buffalo Trace Distillery – (January 29, 2016)

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The Sazerac. (Each guest was allowed to keep one of these custom-imprinted glasses.)

The theme of the 2016 Buffalo Trace Classic Cocktail Party, the third event of its “Craftsman Series,” was the Sazerac. We entered the second floor of the Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse at 7pm to a live jazz duo (tenor sax and piano) and passed hors d’oeuvres—seared tuna on flatbread and pimento topped with mango salsa. Cocktail attire had been requested and, with very few exceptions, party-goers came dressed to impress. This promised to be a cocktail party of the sort that doesn’t happen often in the age of the selfie-stick.

In the middle of the room, a large circular table held an impressive assortment of fruits, cheeses, crackers, peppers, jams, and salsas. At the bar, self-described mixologists—bartenders to the unhip—from Old Bourbon County Kitchen were cranking out Sazeracs from scratch, mixed with none other than Buffalo Trace’s semi-elusive Sazerac Rye Whiskey.

After roughly thirty minutes of mingling time—in which most folks thought more about mingling than actually doing it (we befriended and sat with a very nice couple from Indianapolis)—hosts from Buffalo Trace offered an official welcome followed by a very (very) brief history of the Sazerac and Thomas H. Handy. (The billing for the event had promised a “historical presentation”; the talk we got didn’t quite live up to those expectations, but RCP has us covered on the history of the original Sazerac and the man who invented it anyhow.)

Before each of the three area kitchens—Dudley’s on Short, Local Feed, and Bourbon on Main—started offering up their main dishes, we were also given a brief explanation from OBC’s chief mixologist as to how and why each dish had been paired with its cocktail for the evening. After this, we were essentially given the green light to sample each dish/cocktail pairing in whatever order we pleased. Most people, including us, booked it over to Dudley’s on Short and weren’t disappointed.

On the whole, the food was excellent and, in my opinion, actually overshadowed the cocktails. I’m a fan of whiskey sours, so the Buster Brown was right up my alley, but at an event like this—with one all-time classic, the Sazerac, already on tap—I was hoping for something still historical, but a little more “off the beaten path.” Dudley’s on Short had by far the tastiest dish of the evening, and the best bourbon in the house (E. H. Taylor SB), but also the blandest cocktail. Bourbon on Main’s Blackberry Smash was the standout cocktail of the evening.

***

The Menu

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From Dudley’s on Short

Dudley’s on Short
Slow Cooked Prime Rib Eye
Smoked Potato Puree
Onion
Radish Arugula
*Paired with Manhattan

Local Feed
Chicken Liver Mousse
Pear Chip and Pickled Onion
*Paired with Buster Brown

Bourbon on Main
Grilled Halibut with Orzo and Fonduta
*Paired with Blackberry Smash

***

The Drinks

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The evening’s cocktail ingredients.

Buster Brown
1 part honey syrup (infused with ginger & thyme)
2 parts lemon juice
8 parts W. L. Weller Special Reserve
2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters #6

Shake or stir ingredients with cracked ice. If clarity is desired, double strain. Garnish with twist of lemon.

Blackberry Smash
1 part sweetened blackberry syrup
2 parts lemon juice
6 parts Buffalo Trace Straight Kentucky Bourbon

“Smash” two blackberries and a sprig of mint in shaker with muddler. Add blackberry syrup, lemon juice, and bourbon to tin. Shake vigorously with cracked ice. Double-strain into cocktail glass with crushed ice. Garnish with speared blackberry and mint.

Manhattan, Medium
1 part allspice dram
3 parts ruby port
8 parts E. H. Taylor Small Batch B. I. B.
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
1 dash Regan’s Orange Bitters #6

Combine all ingredients into mixing glass. Stir with cracked ice. Strain into cocktail glass neat. Garnish with twist of orange.

***

Overall, the 2016 Classic Cocktail Party was well worth the price of admission—and I understand now why tickets sold out so quickly. That said, given the cost, at least one drink featuring either Buffalo Trace’s Sazerac 18 or Thomas H. Handy Antique would have been an elegant touch, especially as online promo materials for the event featured images of these sought-after (read: impossible to find) labels. Liquor snobbery aside, our only other suggestion would be the addition of a few more high tops for guests to hover around while eating and drinking. Because we skipped the pre-party distillery tour, we arrived on time at 7pm, but after approximately 75% of the other guests—meaning virtually every sitting table or high top had been taken. Given their scarcity, once a table was occupied, it was likely gone for the rest of the evening. (As I said before, we did end up with a small table, but only because we were willing to befriend strangers. Most larger groups kept to themselves.)

Food Rating: 9.1 – No complaints here. I’d also like to point out that the kitchen crews and wait staff were exceptionally friendly.

Cocktail Rating: 8.3 – Would have replaced the Manhattan and/or dipped into the Antique Collection labels on this front. (Sure, some folks will scoff at the idea of mixing such an expensive whiskey. But we’re not talking about whiskey and coke, here, and I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to make a cocktail, make a cocktail.)

Worth the Price: Yes – Though most guests didn’t mingle, so your best bet might be coming with a larger group in the first place.

Overall Rating: 8.7 – Sign us up for next year!

REVIEW: WhistlePig Boss Hog Rye (2014)

Boss Hog Rye 2014 – “The Spirit of Mortimer”
Approx. 120 Proof – WhistlePig

The 1300 fertile acres of WhistlePig Farm could, in the spring, stand in for the rolling hills and pastures of Hazzard County, but the similarities probably stop with the landscape. You’re unlikely to see the General Lee kicking gravel this far North, just a few miles from Lake Champlain, and if the Duke boys tried to unload a trunk of clear corn liquor at this stop they’d be laughed back to Uncle Jesse’s farm. You won’t find any mason jars here: the liquor at WhistlePig is Straight Rye every time, aged to a beautiful copper for no less than ten years. At nearly fourteen years, their oldest iteration was barreled when Flash was a pup, and shares the name of the Duke’s love-to-hate-him rival, County Commissioner Jefferson Davis “Boss” Hogg.

J. D. was a moonshiner before he took up—as they say in Hazzard—politickin’, but it would be as disingenuous as the white-suited man himself to suggest that Boss Hog Rye Whiskey was named after him. Its subtitle, “Spirit of Mortimer,” is a more honest moniker. While WhistlePig Farm does grow acres of hardy rye for their own use, they do not grow rye exclusively, and the farm is home to honey bees, maple trees, goats, occasional ducks and, until recently, a proud Kune Pig named Mortimer, to whom the 2014 Boss Hog is dedicated. (Future barrels of their product will come from their own home-grown grain, but their distillery, though built in a refurbished 19th century barn, is brand new; thus, what you see on shelves presently was sourced. This has been a controversy for some, though, as mentioned in a previous post, not for the bowtie-clad proprietors at B&B. If you have any questions about the grain to glass process at WP, I recommend heading to their website, where even a cursory perusal reveals that they take quality at all stages very, very seriously.)

WP takes pride in how unique their whiskey is, and each bottle of Boss Hog is the product of a single barrel out of only 50 barrels released. Considering the age and single barrel bottling, even this limited batch leaves room for extreme individual expression, an independence that Vermonters have historically approved of.

bosshog1.jpgI could tell the “Spirit of Mortimer” I was fortunate enough to try was a rye from across the room. There is no waft of corn in the nose, none of the mixed bouquet you get in a bourbon. I got a hint of peppermint, but also felt it was equally notable for what it lacked: no eye watering, high octane diesel fumes. If it announces rye immediately, it whispers 120 proof in hushed tones, if it reveals it at all. The palate is equally impressive in this regard. It’s surprisingly mellow, easy and spicy at the same time. I don’t get a baking spice like cinnamon, but warm pepper and butter with fall flavors like cloves and a pinch of orange peel.

The rye spice continues through the finish, lingering like a mild hot sauce after you swallow, with the after taste of a good cigar.

My glass was empty before I even considered adding ice or water.

Value: Medium—Though representative of the craftsmanship and limited quantity, the suggested retail of $189/bottle is staggering and severely limits the audience. This is a wedding night whiskey, not a Wednesday night whiskey.

Drinkability: High—I’d even invent a new category—“Surprisingly High”—for the Boss Hog. You won’t believe the mash or the proof when you sip this, though you’ll believe every bit of the age. A rye you can drink neat is a rye to be savored.

Overall Rating: 8.8

*Special thanks to Lana Gersten and the folks at WhistlePig for kindly providing a review sample.

REVIEW: Breaker Bourbon Whisky

Breaker Bourbon Whisky
90 Proof – Ascendant Spirits

There’s a war coming. Strike that. It’s already here—and I’m not talking about humans vs. mutants. (Though, if Professor X and Magneto could’ve just talked things out over a dram or two of the good stuff, who knows what might’ve been?) In the bourbon world, nothing gets a forum riled up faster than a discussion of traditional, mainstream distillers (that is, the “big boys”: Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, etc.) vs. “the crafts.” From Florida to Vermont to California, new craft distilleries seem to be popping up all over the place. That said, we all know the one thing all solid bourbon has in common is age. But time is precisely what a new operation doesn’t have as much of when just getting started. So almost without fail, this debate will circle back to the fact that many craft labels begin life with sourced distillate, making the operation an “NDP,” or, “non-distiller producer.” Breaker Bourbon Whisky is one of these products—and they aren’t interested in hiding it.

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Breaker Bourbon Whisky – 45% ABV

The nose on Breaker is sweet and airy; secondary hints of vanilla, spice, oak, and smoke all swirled in a primary base of rich caramel. Despite the sweetness and its solid 45% ABV measurement, the distinct smell of corn that often comes with younger whiskey is largely absent. As it turns out, this lack of corn on the nose is also an indicator of flavor. The first sip of Breaker is a rush of caramel with a perfect, fleeting note of rye spice and black pepper on the tip of the tongue. The sweetness will linger upfront as more rye and oak (and more of the former than the latter) are released on the back of the tongue. The finish is exceptionally smooth. It’s a mix of oak and mellow smoke. This is a soft, pleasant warmth—not a burner by any means. In other words, if you’re looking for the “oomph” of a Noah’s Mill, Antique 107, or Booker’s, this is just a different can of worms.

Two things struck me as I completed the second tasting of Breaker for this review. First, this is a bourbon with a complex flavor profile, but they seem to have released in sequence. The nose made perfectly clear that caramel would seize the first sip—and it did. The nose also presaged that, eventually, I’d be hit with smaller clusters of vanilla, rye, oak, and smoke. To me, the caramel overtones mask most of the vanilla—you sort of have to work to find it—but the rye and then the oak/smoke also appeared in order toward the back of the tongue and then on the finish. The second striking feature of Breaker is the texture. I cannot overemphasize the silkiness of this bourbon. From start to finish, this is utterly smooth stuff—something I’ll fully confess to not expecting from a five year old product. (Note: for anyone already familiar with Breaker, my bottle was #1646 from batch #19.)

So how did a bourbon that started life in the Ohio Valley but was aged and bottled on the Central Coast of California turn out so well? The short answer is that while distilling is unquestionably an important part of the production process, so too are aging and blending. And when it comes to aging and blending, the folks at Ascendant Spirits know what they’re doing. As I mentioned above, Breaker is aged five years after being twice distilled (copper pot) and each batch is then culled from eight barrels (as opposed to the dozens or even hundreds that might be included in a small batch from a much larger distillery). This is where a relatively smaller operation can put size to its advantage and hone in on flavor in very small batches. Plus, with a little help from Cal Poly (praise science!), I think it’s fair to say that Ascendant has figured out how to maximize Buellton’s temperature fluctuations and put their natural climate features to work.

BBW.jpgWill a high-quality “NDP” like Breaker Bourbon Whisky help end the feud between mainstream and craft, new operations vs. old powerhouses? Can it ultimately bring balance to the Force? Probably not. And that’s actually OK. The bottom line here is that we, as drinkers, should probably be more worried about the quality of what comes out of the bottle and how it tastes than in endlessly nitpicking the process—so long as the people putting it in the bottle are honest about how it got there. This maxim seems to work just fine for NDPs like Willett, Jefferson’s, Blanton’s, High West, Michter’s, and the Van Winkle line, so why not relax a bit and take a chance on one of the new kids?

Value: High—At around $40, this is a can’t miss addition to the bar.

Drinkability: Highest—this is a recommended pour for anyone but, owing to smoothness and sweetness, also a great introductory pour for new bourbon drinkers.

Overall Rating: 8.9

Special thanks to Kyle Herman at Ascendant Spirits for providing a review sample. Also stay tuned for wheated and port barrel finished incarnations of Breaker—coming to B&B soon!

REVIEW: FEW Bourbon Whiskey

FEW Bourbon Whiskey
93 Proof – FEW Spirits

A new whiskey is making its mark in an area best known for its illegal booze and Al Capone. This time, it’s nice and legal.

Deep dish pizza. Steak. The Sears tower. Fires, floods, freezing temperatures. Not to mention reversing the flow of a major river. Chicago is famous for more than its chip-on-the-shoulder, “Second City” attitude. But while its culinary and tourism scenes have rightly had their own draws for centuries, until recently its alcoholic beverage offerings were considered fodder for a Boardwalk Empire side-story. It wasn’t the city for craft drinks, but was instead well known as a place where Prohibition and organized crime made Al Capone the king of the underground.

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FEW Bourbon Whiskey, 46.5% ABV

FEW Spirits gives a delightfully irreverent nod to that history while seeking to legitimize that reputation. Like many whiskies, it takes its name from a historical figure; unlike many whiskies, that historical figure is neither family nor famous. FEW isn’t fabricating an inauthentic lineage by borrowing the name of a long dead distiller, but instead pays humorous homage to someone who tried to put a stop to that industry: Francis Elizabeth Willard, head of Evanston’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In another nod to history, their wood-block-like labels portray different attractions at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, better known as the World’s Fair. The Chicago fair scenes denote a pride of place fitting for a company that considers itself a “grain to glass” operation, buying its raw ingredients locally from farming cooperatives.

What they’re doing—from the regionally sourced rye to the tightly grained, heavily charred, low-volume barrels they use for aging—works. The bourbon is pleasantly light and airy; not much chew or heft to this one. The nose immediately jumped out as sweet corn to me, with really ethereal floral undertones—rose, in particular—and baked brown sugar that turns to definite caramel on the palate while remaining…thin isn’t the right word for it…but truly light. I’ve heard this compared to a clear spirit like gin and I wouldn’t disagree, but it’s much more flavorful. The sugar and caramel lead to a mildly peppery butterscotch finish without being too sweet or spicy, and even at 93 proof, it doesn’t sting.

This is a really nice bourbon, and a brand that I could easily see expanding in the next few years. If their overall production doesn’t increase dramatically, recent write-ups in Men’s Journal, GQ, and Popular Mechanics almost ensure that their reputation and name recognition will. Their website has a helpful “Find the FEW” page mapping their distribution, with sales clustered in the midwest and California. If you’re the kind of bourbon drinker who likes that rare bottle your friends can’t find (and I feel this qualifier is a bit redundant after the label “bourbon drinker”) this is a bottle you’ll want to have on your shelf after that next business trip to Chicago.

Value: High—at $50, this is hardly a steal, but considering its scarcity and the craft model, not to mention its quality, you’ll want to pick it up if you see a bottle.

Drinkability: High—a smooth bourbon for neat or rocks drinking, I’d be worried its mild tones would be lost in a cocktail.

Overall Rating: 8.4

REVIEW: Noah’s Mill Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Noah’s Mill Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Small Batch)
114.3 Proof – Willett Distillery

Generally speaking, bourbon drinkers are familiar with Willett’s Pot Still Reserve. If you haven’t tasted it, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the still-shaped bottle on a bar or liquor store shelf. Far fewer have had an encounter—sight or taste—with Noah’s Mill, a small batch from Willett with some serious character. Given the number of popular offerings in its price range, from Old Rip Van Winkle 10 and E. H. Taylor Single Barrel to Blanton’s, OB Barterhouse, Belle Meade Single Barrel, and Jefferson’s Very Small Batch, this relative obscurity isn’t a great surprise. But it’s something, to quote William Wallace’s Uncle Argyle, “that we shall have to remedy.” This is for your own good. Trust me.

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Noah’s Mill, 57.15% ABV

Current offerings of Noah’s Mill don’t come with an age statement on the bottle. For past batches, Willett had guaranteed at least 15 years. (The company, which is owned by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers [KBD], also chooses not to divulge where the product was originally distilled — but this is a debate that’s been slugged out on enough whiskey forums to sidestep here for the time being. On the bright side, eventually more and more Willett products will not just be aged and bottled, but also distilled at home base in Bardstown, Kentucky.) Now, given the spiking demand for bourbons in the fifteen and up age range (read: the near overnight explosion of demand for Diageo’s Orphan Barrel labels and the hefty price tags currently appended to the eldest incarnations of Elijah Craig), it’s difficult to imagine Noah’s Mill is still this old and Willett simply didn’t think it was worth making official. Instead, the bottle now contends it is “aged until fully mature.” Regardless of how old it is—and my personal guess is a blend that averages to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-11 years—this is a bourbon with deep, bold flavors. The nose is an inviting mix of cherry, dark chocolate, pipe tobacco, and caramel, with a slight wave of heat that suggests the high proof to come. (That said, don’t fear the proof! This isn’t a throat burner and your bravery will be rewarded.) The first taste is buttery caramel on the tip of the tongue followed by a grainier sweetness and a steady heat. Hints of creamy chocolate come through sporadically on the middle and back of the tongue, but are much softer and less pronounced than on the nose.

If you’re drinking Noah’s Mill neat, you’ll get a steady crescendo of heat and spice that gradually overpowers the mellower, earthier flavors (tobacco and chocolate). The finish is very, very (very) long and quite hot—the perfect pour for a cold night out on the back porch, but not a drink to hand someone straight that isn’t expecting what more experienced drinks will know as an extremely pleasant kick in the teeth. A little water (not too much!) tones down this heat and seems to restore the darker notes from the nose. With the teeth of Noah’s Mill dulled just slightly, you’ll also bring out more of its natural sweetness (oaky caramel). After the initial drink, my recommendation is to put away the bourbon stones and get over your aversion to ice; the best bet here is a hearty pour with an ice cube or two and a small peel of citrus.

At the end of the day, however you choose to drink it, the real magic of Noah’s Mill is its combination of smooth and hot, and the number of distinct flavors that aren’t lost to its high alcohol content. If you want a robust change of pace that will give different flavors on successive sips, a bottle of Noah’s Mill should absolutely be a part of your plans for the New Year.

Value: High – In the $55-60 price range, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better. Noah’s Mill stands tall in its class of what I would consider “high end” small batch labels and, while obviously not a single barrel, it outpaces more than a few of those too.

Drinkability: Medium – This is a textbook case of a medium drinkability rating having nothing to do with a lack of quality and everything to do with experience levels. At 57.15% ABV, this is a drink for big boys and girls.

Overall Rating: 8.6

* Special thanks to Hunter Chavanne for providing a review sample of Noah’s Mill.

REVIEW: The Carry On Cocktail Kit

The Carry On Cocktail Kit
The Old Fashioned – W&P Design

On a transcontinental flight in the much maligned (wrongly so, in my opinion) second installment of Daniel Craig’s run as 007, James Bond foregoes a rest in his lie-flat seat to sit impeccably dressed but alone at the aircraft bar. Pensive, brooding, unable to sleep, he nevertheless maintains his constant air of suave by drinking a perfectly crafted, perfectly clear, perfectly backlit Vesper martini. Despite the fact that he has lost the woman he loves, is constantly taking beatings that would knock out an elephant, and must focus on a homicidal mission of revenge to stave off depression, in this scene, as in so many others in the famous franchise, viewers everywhere thought, He’s got it good.

That’s because, for most of us, flying isn’t usually a respite but an obstacle in the way of respite. We all have horror stories: the middle seat between two people who’ve forgotten how to use soap; delayed on the tarmac while lightning strikes impossibly close to what you can only guess are very important parts of an airplane; the neighbor who breaks out the photo reel after mistaking your “reading” for an intense interest in their rock collection.

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This well curated kit includes sugar, bitters, muddler/spoon, and cocktail napkin – everything but the booze.

W&P Designs has a cure for that. Known for their bar accessories and the immensely popular Mason Shaker, the Brooklyn-based group of designers is dedicated to increasing your enjoyment of food and drink—even when you’re on the road. To that end, they’ve curated several Carry On Cocktail Kits: delightfully packaged, drink specific tins that include everything (but the booze) to craft a delicious libation at 30,000 feet. Available for such classic drinks as the Gin and Tonic, Moscow Mule, and Champaign Cocktail, bourbon drinkers will no doubt opt for the classic Old Fashioned. Included in the kit are an ingenious spoon/muddler tool, a classy linen cocktail napkin, instructions, and enough cane sugar and aromatic bitters for two cocktails. They’re conveniently portioned to mix with the standard 50ml mini-bottles, which your friendly flight staff will be happy to sell you.

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The Carry On Cocktail Old Fashioned.

The kit makes a smooth Old Fashioned, thanks in no small part to the craft bitters that W&P developed with the good folks at PUNCH. The muddler tool works well—you’ll no doubt find a use for it in your home bar—and the napkin adds a touch of class. But the folks at W&P are selling more than just a cocktail—they’re selling a feeling. Crafting a cocktail on a plane conveys that same peace, that treat-yourself something-special, as leaving the office for a 2pm espresso or ordering room service. It’s an indulgence in quality. You’ll feel like you’re in first class even if you’re in coach. And if you’re in first class, you’ll be there with an Old Fashioned in each hand.

I can’t think of a better stocking-stuffer for the road-warrior in your life; better yet, give that special someone a surprise vacation and toss a few kits in your carry-on. As the people at W&P say, prepare to put that seat in the laid back position.

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The Carry On Cocktail Kit.

The Carry on Cocktail Kit retails for around $24 and is available online from W&P Design.

 

With special thanks to Elizabeth Tilton and the Folks at W&P Design for graciously supplying a sample kit for review.