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.

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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.

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

INTERVIEW: Marianne Barnes (Master Distiller, Castle & Key)

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.

MB1.jpg
Marianne Barnes, the first female Master Distiller in the history of Kentucky’s bourbon industry.

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.

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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.

***

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In front of the historic spring house, one of the most scenic spots on the distillery grounds and its natural water source.

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.

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: 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: 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

HISTORY: Becoming the Colonel – Part II

Becoming the Colonel:
E. H. Taylor and the Making of a Bourbon Aristocrat

MCH

This series, Becoming the Colonel: E. H. Taylor, Jr. and the Making of a Bourbon Aristocrat, will cover the life, career, and legacy of Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. in four installments. Along the way, we will explore the family history and social connections that “made” Taylor and helped him rise to the top of the distilling world. We’ll also assess how broader patterns within American capitalism and collisions with other titans of whiskey lore (such as the Pepper family and George T. Stagg) factored into the rise, fall, and rebuilding of Taylor’s business empire; and, we will ultimately take stock of how Taylor’s legacy continues to influence the contemporary bourbon industry – not just in Kentucky, but across the globe.

***

Part II: Casualty of Credit: The Fall and Rebirth of the Colonel

On February 12, 1873, Union General-turned-POTUS Ulysses S. Grant signed the Coinage Act of 1873 into law. The measure—which critics would later coin, if you’ll pardon the pun, “The Crime of ‘73”—established the mint of the United States as a bureau of the Treasury Department and placed the director of the mint under the direct supervision and command of the Secretary of the Treasury. (At the time the bill became law, Secretary George S. Boutwell ran the Treasury Department, though he was replaced roughly a month later by William A. Richardson.) In practical terms, the Coinage Act changed the way Americans could spend money; and, by changing the way money could be spent, it changed the way Americans did business. As with much of Grant’s presidency, the results were controversial, to say the very least.

Section 14 of the Coinage Act essentially established gold as the metallic substance of choice for future transactions and the production of currency.

“That the gold coins of the United States shall be a one-dollar piece, which, at the standard weight of twenty-five and eight-tenths grains, shall be the unit of value.” (Section 14 of CHAP. CXXXI. – An Act revising and amending the Laws relative to the Mints, Assay-offices, and Coinage of the United States.)

Meanwhile, Sections 15 and 17 drastically devalued silver as an everyday currency by stripping the metal of its “dollar status” and setting limits on how and when it could be spent. This meant that Americans could no longer bring caches of silver already in their possession to a federal mint for striking into silver dollars. In turn, the overall, domestic money supply dropped sharply and this newfound scarcity precipitated a spike in interest rates. This was especially bad news for farmers at a time when much of the nation was still engaged in agricultural pursuits.

“That the silver coins of the United States shall be a trade-dollar, a half-dollar, or fifty-cent piece, a quarter-dollar, or twenty-five cent piece, a dime, or ten-cent piece; and the weight of the trade-dollar shall be four hundred and twenty grains troy; the weight of the half-dollar shall be twelve grams (grammes) and one-half of a gram, (gramme;) the quarter-dollar and the dime shall be respectively, one-half and one-fifth of the weight of said half-dollar; and said coins shall be a legal tender at their nominal value for any amount not exceeding five dollars in any one payment.” (Section 15 of CHAP. CXXXI. – An Act revising and amending the Laws relative to the Mints, Assay-offices, and Coinage of the United States.)

“That no coins, either of gold, silver, or minor coinage, shall hereafter be issued from the mint other than those of the denominations, standards, and weights herein set forth.” (Section 17 of CHAP. CXXXI. – An Act revising and amending the Laws relative to the Mints, Assay-offices, and Coinage of the United States.)

Now, crime or not, the Coinage Act of 1873 wasn’t enough to trigger a financial catastrophe all on its own—it needed help from American’s biggest speculative “bubble,” which was the railroad industry, broadly defined, and from irrational optimism in that industry’s future growth. In the years following the Civil War, Americans had invested heavily—crazily, even—in all aspects of railroads; they’d laid down thousands and thousands of miles of new track, chartered myriad new transportation companies, issued stock and bonds, struck deals for land and resource rights with the government, inked exclusivity contracts with individual locales, and created untold jobs (along with still more investment opportunities) in the tangential industries—like mining, timber, freight, cattle, hotels, and so on—that provided materials, services, and manpower for or in conjunction with the rail operators.

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Coverage of the Panic of 1873 from The Daily Graphic. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

But the “Big Bang” of American railroad construction was actually too big and booming to support itself in the immediate short-term: the massive expansion of infrastructure and corporate multiplication had no way to turn quick revenue. Thus, for all of its iron grandeur, it struggled mightily to pay back investors. This was an industry that needed time to pay off. Track and steam engines weren’t innately profitable—they actually needed to carry people and products to make money. But owing to sagging currency levels and the aforementioned interest rates, debt was crushing. Dozens of otherwise impressive-looking railroads failed and thousands of ventures dependent on the railroads and their passengers for business also went under. In conjunction with this collapse and the Coinage Act came military conflicts abroad and urban disasters at home (the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the Great Boston Fire of 1872). Historians have dubbed the collective crisis “The Panic of 1873.”

***

As the nation teetered on the edge of economic disaster, in 1871, E. H. Taylor, Jr. convinced Lewis Castleman, a close family friend, to invest in a new distillery with him. Castleman wasn’t a distiller—he was a grocer—and required more than a little convincing. Eventually, though, he agreed to front money for the property and the distillation equipment on the promise that Taylor would lend his name and reputation to the whiskey and spearhead the marketing campaign.

Castleman purchased property and operated a small plant, the Glenn Springs Distillery on Glenn’s Creek in Woodford County, and managed to produce a batch. But Taylor utterly failed to uphold his end of the bargain. When all was said and done, Castleman sold the whiskey at far lower prices than Taylor had promised they could secure—largely in part because Taylor did nothing to help market or move the product. Given the projects he already had ongoing at O. F. C, it’s entirely unclear why Taylor thought opening yet another distillery made any sense—save for nostalgia. According to historian Dan G. Churchill, Taylor had grown up around the legendary James Crow, who worked at a small distillery on Glenn’s Creek before migrating to the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery in Woodford County. Regardless, after a brief stint in court, it was decided Taylor owed Castleman some $7,000 in costs, but no record exists of him ever paying the debt. In hindsight, this episode marked the first public sign that all wasn’t well with Colonel Taylor’s business empire.

Fresh off of the Glenn Springs fiasco, Taylor sank between $20,000 and $30,000 into renovations at O. F. C. Most of this infrastructure spending was done on credit, and it appears that even Taylor’s daily living expenses were siphoned from loans. As the debt mounted and sales dipped, the Colonel could only pay bills by selling whiskey futures (that is, supply not yet aged enough for sale at the time of purchase) or by selling the same stock to multiple buyers and providing each with a different receipt. For obvious reasons, this scheme could only last for so long. Eventually buyers expected the merchandise they paid for to be delivered and Taylor had to come clean about his lack of capital in both cash and whiskey.

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Coverage of the fallout of the Panic of 1873 in Leslie’s Illustrated, 1873. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Unfortunately for Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr., the effects of the Panic of 1873 made their way to Kentucky. Even less fortunately for Taylor, he was something of a poster-child for the sort of financial dealings that had helped bring about the collapse in the first place: inordinate debt, reckless investment, and unchecked expansion. In much the same way that railroads had spent too much borrowed money, too quickly, on structural expansion that couldn’t immediately begin to help pay down their debts, Taylor invested too heavily in mechanical and technological innovation at O. F. C. on credit. When the economy tanked in 1873, most of the nation’s budget for high end whiskey went with it. This isn’t to say Americans didn’t drink to cope with the financial crisis; rather, that Taylor’s product resided on the luxurious end of the market. This obsession with quality was what had helped make Taylor’s “Old Fire Copper” a household name. But Depression-coping booze is generally cheap, easy, and sometimes homemade. This was a lesson the Colonel had to learn the hard way.

By 1876-77, Taylor had fully tapped his local network of friends—which was really saying something, considering the wealth and prestige of his social circle—and had amassed debts to creditors ranging from Frankfort to Missouri to New York to California. Not surprisingly when we consider Taylor’s celebrity status, the Louisville Courier-Journal had a field day covering the Colonel’s fall from respectability. Taylor did himself no favors in the press; he disappeared from Frankfort for almost a week just as the most serious of the allegations came to light and left stunned onlookers wondering if he would ever come home to fulfill his obligations. (Rumors swirled that Taylor had absconded permanently to Europe to avoid prosecution for fraud.)

One article from June 3, 1877, noted that Taylor owed Gregory, Stagg & Co. of St. Louis, Missouri, $150,000 while an “examination of the books shows that receipts have been given for 7,104 barrels of whisky, whereas his actual stock does not exceed 4,722 barrels.” Another editorial of June 5, 1877, entitled “The Failure of E. H. Taylor,” estimated that the “total of his ‘larger liabilities’ is now reported to be about $485,000, with a great many smaller ones yet to be heard from.” (For perspective, a currency conversion estimate puts Taylor’s debt, which was approximately $485,000 in 1877, at around $11,000,000 in 2014.) “The creditors,” the article continued, “have placed the office and private warehouse of Mr. Taylor, on Main street, in charge of Messrs. Orlando Brown and Wm. H. Sneed, who in conjunction with Sam C. Sayers (Mr. T’s bookkeeper), are preparing a ‘statement’ to be laid before the creditors next Thursday.” Taylor’s smaller, local debts were listed as follows:

Jas. H. Graham, City Marshal, about $8,000
Adam Keenon, about $10,000
Perry, about $5,000
Ed Burnes (secured), about $1,000
S. Johnston, about $4,000
Hook & Triplett, $800
Mr. Kavanaugh, $400
Mrs. Governor Letcher, $1,300
Herincourt (minister), $3,000
Mr. Long of Bagdad, about $15,000
Oscar Farmer, of Shelby county, about $12,000
Thomas Farmer, of Shelby county, about $8,000
A. Sayres’ Bank, Lexington, about $8,000
Mr. Mitchell, cashier of the First National Bank of Lexington, $11,500

The city of Frankfort is interested to the extent of $2,500.

Later, in June 1877, at what can only be described as the ultimate insult to a man of Colonel Taylor’s once-vaunted standing in the community, the paper ran a lengthy, damning essay on his business history. After “winning the esteem and confidence of all to a degree seldom achieved by one so young” in his first position at the Bank of Kentucky (which was run by his uncle, E. H. Taylor, Sr.), E. H. Jr. was “universally regarded as the foremost young business man and manager in all this region.” Owing to this wunderkind-esque reputation, he became cashier of the Farmer’s Bank Branch at Versailles. The article opined that this was the high point, albeit brief, of Taylor’s success as a financier. The Panic of 1857 and its wake wiped out the fledgling firms of Taylor, Turner & Co. and Taylor, Shelby & Co. Next Taylor had an ephemeral but noteworthy stint at the distilling firm of W. A. Gaines & Co., which ultimately ended when “his extreme boldness in his new position alarmed some of his partners to such an extent that … he was induced, upon a ‘give or take’ offer, to sell his interest to the other partners.”

According to men who had allegedly done business with Taylor in the past, the Colonel was “an affable, princely, high-toned gentleman among his friends, on the streets, everywhere.” However, “there were nevertheless times, even when he appeared to be most prosperous, that he seemed to be the very reverse of all this—times when he seemed to be possessed by the very demon of gloom and distrust.” Furthermore, these former, anonymous associates believed he [Taylor] was “undoubtedly too daring, too venturesome, and probably too extravagant as a business man … He was an unerring judge of character and knew exactly how to approach men so as to win their confidence and high esteem as a first-class man of business. We always thought these things of him, and while, on the other hand, regarding him as carrying rather more sail than ballast, we never dreamed that he would make such a failure as this last has proved to be.” With his financial failings now a matter of public record, Taylor’s humiliation appeared to be complete. But it wasn’t…

Due to Taylor’s mysterious absence from Frankfort, a swarm of panicked creditors collectively filed a petition for involuntary bankruptcy on his behalf and the petition was initially granted. Before the proceedings were completed, however, the Colonel reappeared and agreed to explain his side of the story. In a move that must have stunned those closest to him, the serious, private, aristocratic Taylor agreed to sit down for a one-on-one interview with a reporter from the Courier-Journal—the same paper that had reveled in his plight for weeks.

The interview took place in November 1877. When asked how he would deal with his debts, Taylor replied: “What I propose is this: to examine fully my debts first; then to pay in money or its equivalent at once in full, or as nearly as possible, all that I owe, adding with this money or its equivalent any interest which may belong to my wife.” This was the response a man in Taylor’s position had to give—but the interviewer wanted details, and didn’t seem to mind jabbing at Taylor’s sore spots to draw them out.

Reporter: “One more question, sir … How did you become embarrassed? That is to say, what causes operated to bring about your troubles?”

Taylor: “Those which affected most everybody. I invested much in fine improvements. My ‘O.F.C.’ distillery was considered the finest in the world. I tried to make it better than any in the land, and its reputation, all know, has never been equaled for pure, copper whisky. Sales stopped, money became tight, and, before I knew it, interest exceeded earnings.”

Reporter: “Why did you leave Frankfort?”

Taylor: “My presence would have done no good. Absence afforded an opportunity for thought and consultation.”

To his credit, Taylor refused to take the bait. His answers remained “proper” and “official” throughout. On the business front, he also explained to his interviewer that “a settlement without further procedure in bankruptcy will be of more benefit to his creditors than the course they have agreed upon. They will be enabled to have all that the courts can give them, and the expense attending bankruptcy will be avoided.” Taylor, the report continued, “proposes to surrender everything—distillery, house, his wife’s interest by law, and, indeed, everything he has.”

Though the bankruptcy proceedings were surely a sore subject for the Colonel, he certainly didn’t bring them up by accident. This read more like a message to his creditors: he was ready to sit down and bargain, but the public spectacle being carried on at his expense must stop. Immediately. Taylor knew his whiskey was still regarded as one of the finest alcoholic spirits in the country and that when the depression eased, discerning drinkers would again line up to buy it. He didn’t even have to stay fully afloat until the storm passed—he just needed to avoid drowning.

Perhaps it was the gesture of talking to “the people,” but after all of the column inches devoted to Taylor’s mismanagement and failure, but in a striking change of direction, the Courier-Journal actually shared in his optimism. “Certain parties,” the article concluded, “one firm at home, and another a foreign investment, are anxious to have him continue in business. They offer to buy everything at its highest value, the prices paid to aggregate a fund for distribution among the creditors. These firms desire then, in the event of success, to again start Mr. Taylor in business, giving him a half interest in the establishment for his services, his name, and the brands of liquor which have made his distillery so celebrated.” Furthermore, as far as the reporter could detect, “the people of Frankfort”—many of whom had personally loaned Taylor money only to see it spent with no hope of return—“are sincerely desirous of seeing Mr. Taylor effect an agreeable settlement with his creditors and to again engage in business.”

Well wishes from the public—and even a de facto endorsement from the biggest newspaper in the state—were one thing; the ability to raise a massive amount of capital to pay down debts was quite another. At this latter task, Taylor never really had a chance. But very shortly, he would have a new adversary.

Colonel Taylor’s newest foe was a man named George Thomas Stagg.

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George T. Stagg, part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.

Stagg, best-known today for the Buffalo Trace Antique label that carries his name, was a partner in the firm of Gregory, Stagg & Company—which also made him Taylor’s biggest creditor. Taylor had frequently gotten the better of the men brave, or gullible, enough to do business with him, but Stagg wasn’t another Lewis Castleman. Though himself born in Garrard County, Kentucky, in 1835, Stagg was of northern, Dutch Reformed stock; his family hailed from Bergen County, Pennsylvania, where his great-grandfather, Captain James Stagg, had commanded the Bergen County Regiment of the New Jersey Militia during the American Revolution. By 1807, James’s son, Daniel Stagg, moved to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and took up farming. George Stagg grew up on his father’s farm and married Elizabeth “Bettie” Doolin in 1858. The couple had four children live to adulthood, three of which were sons. Interestingly, only one—Frank Stagg (1873-1942)—would go on to work in the distillery business, and not until decades after his father’s death. None of Stagg’s grandchildren appear to have entered the business, either.

According to the 1860 census, George Stagg worked as the clerk of a shoe store in Richmond, Kentucky, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War—but enlisted in the Union Army in November 1861 at Camp Hobson. His unit, the 21st Kentucky Infantry Regiment, wasn’t afraid to mix things up: after working in a reserve capacity at the Battle of Perryville, the 21st saw action at the Battle of Stone’s River, at the Battle of Resaca, at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, during the Siege of Atlanta, and also took part in the fierce fighting for Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee. Over the course the war, the regiment lost three officers and 57 enlisted men in combat, while another 158 succumbed to disease. For his part, Stagg was a model soldier and rose through the ranks quickly. He was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in January 1862 and then promoted to Captain in January 1863. Additionally, Stagg served as the Regiment’s only Assistant Adjutant following the Battle of Stone’s River (the other was killed) and, in July and August 1863, he worked temporarily as an aide to General Ambrose Burnside.

E. H. Taylor, Jr. and George Thomas Stagg were both corporate alphas. But that was where the similarities stopped. Taylor was born into affluence and high social standing; he was a smooth-talking aristocrat and something of a political institution in Frankfort. Though his family had remained nominally loyal to the Union cause, the Taylor clan and their extended kinship network—stretching from Kentucky to Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas—had owned much wealth in slaves. Generally speaking, they were what historians like Patrick Lewis and Anne Marshall have dubbed “Conservative Unionists”—and later in the war, many were undoubtedly southern sympathizers. (As proof of this latter charge, not only did Taylor help fund the Jefferson Davis statue still in residence at the state capitol, but his middle son, Kenner, was named after a Louisiana sugar magnate named Duncan F. Kenner. A real-life “Calvin Candy,” D. F. Kenner owned more than 400 slaves on his Ascension Parrish plantation, called “Ashland,” alone.)

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Captain George Thomas Stagg (1835-1893)

Stagg, on the other hand, was an outsider to the Frankfort set; he’d lived for a decade after the war in St. Louis, Missouri, where he’d partnered with a wealthy merchant named James Gregory and risen from shoe salesman to commercial merchant. Perhaps more importantly, Stagg wasn’t a silver-tongued businessman, nor was his commission of the honorific variety. He was a Union veteran and an experienced commander of men, made so by real life combat. Stagg’s personal ambition combined with his Civil War experience made him highly organized, a meticulous record keeper, and entirely unafraid of conflict—even with the likes of Colonel Taylor. Stagg held the financial high ground from the moment they locked horns for control of O. F. C., and Taylor knew it.

In 1877, when Gregory and Stagg agreed to consolidate and purchase Taylor’s debt, it was a shrewd corporate maneuver. Taylor was already hopelessly indebted to the firm and this deal pushed the amount upwards of $200,000. Worse still for the Colonel, he owed nearly a quarter of that sum in unsecured whiskey. Unable to deliver a product, Taylor was forced to hand over his beloved O. F. C. Distillery as payment. In 1878, Stagg also took control of the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery (which had been in Taylor’s possession) and sold it to James Graham and Leopold Labrot. Those two men would go on to make their own mark in the distilling world, but that’s another story for another time. (James E. Pepper would also start a new distillery in Lexington—his exploits will be the subject of a future editorial.)

Stagg was a sharp businessman. Sharp enough, at least, to know that Taylor was a valuable commodity as a distiller. So the Colonel was kept on at O. F. C. to oversee production, but how much sway he actually carried in the board room is unknown. While Stagg held 3,448 shares (out of 5,000 total) of the company in 1877, Taylor himself was only given a single share.

The company was reorganized under the banner of the “E. H. Taylor, Jr. Company” in 1879 and construction began that same year on the Carlisle Distillery—a new plant built on land immediately adjacent to O. F. C. In 1882, Stagg took yet another distillery out of the Taylor family. This time, however, it was J. Swigert Taylor, the Colonel’s eldest son, that lost his operation. Since 1879, J. Swigert had been running a small plant on the McCracken Pike in Frankfort, called the J. Swigert Taylor Distillery. Nestled on the banks of the Kentucky River, it was an ideal spot for making whiskey. Like his father, J. Swigert stayed on as overseer and manager after Stagg’s company took ultimate ownership. Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, Stagg’s purchase of the McCracken location set the events in motion that would eventually allow E. H. Taylor, Jr. to rise from the ashes of his financial failure and reclaim his place as one of Kentucky’s greatest bourbon men.

Throughout the early 1880s, Stagg gradually divested himself of personal interest in the distilleries, but remained in charge of the company that bore his predecessor’s name. By 1884, Stagg’s holdings had dropped to 2,478 shares—which still greatly outnumbered Taylor’s one, but marked a steep drop from 1877. In 1885, Taylor was listed as a Vice President of the company, but given how poorly Taylor and Stagg got along, the promotion appears to have been in title only.

By late 1886, E. H. Taylor, Jr. was desperate to escape from the distillery he’d founded and the company that owned his name. According to witnesses, most prominent among them J. Swigert Taylor, a deal was struck at the corporate level in January 1887 that would allow E. H. Jr. and J. Swigert to take back the McCracken Pike distillery if Taylor gave back his share of stock in the E. H. Taylor, Jr. Company. Additionally, Stagg and Clay Gregory (James Gregory’s son, who became an executive in the company shortly after his father’s form acquired it, claiming 1,100 shares in 1877) agreed to remove Taylor’s name from the company title and would loan the Taylors the money they needed to re-establish themselves as independent whiskey makers.

***

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The grounds of the Old Taylor Distillery.

All terms of the deal to facilitate Taylor’s exit from O. F. C. were met and, in 1887, the plant on McCracken Pike officially became the Old Taylor Distillery. (After reorganizing the company with a new moniker, Stagg changed his mind about removing Taylor’s surname from the corporate letterhead. The reversal prompted a series of contentious and important lawsuits that will be the subject of Part III, Taylor vs. Taylor: What’s in a Name?) At the Old Taylor Distillery, with the help of sons J. Swigert and Kenner, the Colonel got back to doing what had made him famous in the first place: making bourbon in high style. The distillery’s sole label, Old Taylor, rose to prominence and, its grounds, dotted with ornate fountains, finely-manicured gardens, and a German-style castle, signaled to the world that the Colonel’s financial troubles were well in rear view.

Before the Panic of 1873 and what the tabloids called his “embarrassment” in 1877, E. H. Taylor, Jr. had been known as a major figure in the whiskey industry—and, it’s fair to say, as a bourbon aristocrat. But without said embarrassment, the odds are exceedingly good that Taylor never would have willingly left O. F. C. In turn, he never would have established the label, “Old Taylor,” that vaulted his reputation as a whiskey craftsman into the rarest of rarified airs—and gave him the national clout to help shepherd the Bottled-in-Bond Act into law years later. And, finally, minus the operation with his sons, the grounds of the Old Taylor Distillery would never have been renovated into the ultimate bourbon-maker’s palace—and a veritable landmark of Kentucky’s signature industry.

In a strange way, then, E. H. Taylor, Jr.’s financial failings in the 1870s were potentially the best thing that ever could’ve happened to his long-term legacy. The business model at O. F. C. in the lead-up to Stagg’s takeover was clearly untenable: the operation had simply become too big, and the economy too gnarly, for Taylor to navigate on his own. (Let alone to navigate while still focusing on the quality of his bourbon.) The necessity of Stagg’s intervention, though undoubtedly a low point in the Colonel’s life and career, actually allowed him to stay knee deep in the whiskey industry while not assuming any of the risk (that is, debt) himself.

Put another way, his time at O. F. C. post-1877 gave Taylor a chance to rebuild his reputation as a distiller, first and foremost, before eventually providing the groundwork for his return to independent-operator status. Thus, to be “reborn” as a true bourbon aristocrat, Taylor first had to fall from grace. In this light, the Colonel’s story takes on an unavoidably biblical hue. But unlike the proverbs and lessons of the Good Book, Taylor’s saga lacked a moral rooted in principle or righteousness, though it did have very much to do with saving spirits: the public would always forgive E. H. Taylor, Jr. for being greedy, reckless, or dishonest in corporate matters, for living beyond his means, and even for swindling his friends—so long as he never, ever, compromised on the quality of what went into each and every bottle.

SOURCES: From History of the Coinage Act of 1873, Being a Complete Record of all Documents Issued and the Legislative Proceedings Concerning the Act (Washington, D.C.: House of Representatives, Government Printing Office, 1900), 310-311, 313-314, 314; Milton Friedman, “The Crime of 1873,” The Journal of Political Economy 98, No. 6 (December 1990): 1159-1194; Dan G. Churchill, Ancient Age Through the Ages (1993, unpublished book manuscript held by the Kentucky Historical Society), 46-47, 54-55, 56, 57, 58, 61, 64-65, 66-67; Lewis Castleman, 1850 United States Federal Census; Duncan Kenner, 1850 United States Federal Census; Oscar Pepper, 1860 United States Federal Census; James Gregory, 1860 United States Federal Census; George Stagg, 1860 United States Federal Census; Duncan Kenner, 1860 United States Federal Census; James Gregory, 1870 United States Federal Census; Lewis Castleman, 1870 United States Federal Census; Stanley Stagg, 1870 United States Federal Census; Duncan Kenner, 1870 United States Federal Census; Lewis Castleman, 1880 United States Federal Census; George Stagg, 1880 United States Federal Census; Stanley Stagg, 1910 United States Federal Census; Frank Stagg, 1930 United States Federal Census; Thomas Stagg, 1930 United States Federal Census; Lewis Castleman, 1890 Veteran Schedule Census; “W. S. Gregory,” United States Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Self-Made Men, Missouri, Vol. 2, 1901; James Gregory, U. S. IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918; George T. Stagg, U. S. IRS Tax Assessment Lists, 1862-1918; George T. Stagg, U. S., Union Soldiers Compiled Service Records, 1861-1865; George T. Stagg, U. S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865; Frank Stagg, Kentucky Death Records, 1852-1963; Stanley Stagg, Kentucky Death Records, 1852-1963; Bettie Doolin, Kentucky Marriage Records, 1852-1914; Jacob Swigert, 1860 U. S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules; Duncan Kenner, 1860 U. S. Federal Census – Slave Schedules; Duncan F. Kenner, U. S., Pardons Under Amnesty Proclamations, 1865-1869; Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Kentucky, Vol. II, Schedule D, Alphabetical List of Officers, Frankfort, KY: 1866; T. H. Stagg, Sons of the American Revolution Membership Application, 1931; “Independent Order of Odd Fellows,” Encyclopedia of Missouri History, Vol. I, 1901; MeasuringWorth.com, Relative Values – U.S. $, 1774-Present (the estimate given above is based on the real price of the commodity and the historical standard of living); On Crow’s distilling at Glenn’s Creek, also see: http://www.theruinbnb.com/history/