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.
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.
The 2015 Bowtied & Bourboned Holiday Shopping Guide
Have someone on your Christmas list that you know would love some whiskey, but not sure what to buy? You aren’t alone. Not everyone can win—or afford to win—local raffles for Pappy 15, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, or a Four Roses Limited Edition. Or maybe you’d like a bottle for yourself, but need to give St. Nick some options? It’s easy to get overwhelmed: new labels seem to appear on liquor store shelves daily; bottle art gets fancier and fancier (while providing less and less information about age and distillation); and prices seem to be rising steadily. So let Bowtied & Bourboned help make sure you get the most bang for your buck! Below are our recommendations for thoughtful holiday shopping on a range of budgets. We guarantee these spirits will keep everyone jolly enough to ward off a visit from the Krampus!
MCH – Picks
Henry McKenna Single Barrel ($25-30) – Henry McKenna isn’t as sought after as its cousins, the older and rarer incarnations of Elijah Craig, but that’s not necessarily to say it shouldn’t be. It’s aged 10 years and smooth enough to constitute a perfectly respectable offering for both friends and family. (Or to keep for yourself!) Moreover, McKenna has the added cache of being a single barrel selection, which is admittedly rare in this price range. At the end of the day, it’s a great workhorse bourbon. Drink it neat, on the rocks, or, at around $28 in most markets, mix it without an ounce of guilt. This is a widely available label and a very thoughtful choice for smaller budgets.
Basil Hayden’s($40) – Though priced in the mid-range, this small batch bourbon punches above its weight class. Don’t let 80 proof fool you, this is a smooth sipper but its rye content gives it a spicy, peppery flavor and makes it anything but bland. This one is on similar footing with the E. H. Taylor Small Batch (see RCP’s comments below) and it also happens to be one of the more attractively packaged bourbons in this price range.
WhistlePig Straight Rye ($75) – If you’re looking for whiskey in the upper echelon but can’t track down something from the Antique Collection or a Special Edition, this is your ticket. (And it might be a better choice than some of the aforementioned even if you can get your hands on them.) An incredibly smooth blend of caramel, vanilla, and rye spice, this is a can’t miss gift—and as WhistlePig isn’t as well-known as its counterparts in Kentucky, you might get the added bonus of introducing the label to its lucky recipient.
RCP – Picks
Bulleit Kentucky Straight Bourbon Frontier Whiskey ($20-$30) – Bulleit checks several boxes on the list of “gift bourbon” criteria. Aside from being an easy but respectable pour, it has that unique ubiquitous-from-the-fringe reputation that will engender an “Oh I’ve heard of this but haven’t tried it yet” upon opening. At $25, you won’t swear at the host who spills a dram of your hospitality into their eggnog. Finally, since ‘tis the season for honesty, the bottle actually is cool, and it matches the moniker “Frontier Whiskey” so well that you can be sure they’ll proudly display it and hope guests ask about the time they arm wrestled John Wayne—and won.
Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Small Batch ($30-$40) – Wild Turkey is a household name in the bourbon industry, and this small batch stands on the shoulders of giants and takes a big leap. Russell’s Reserve isn’t like some of the “craft” offerings from other big family name distilleries that taste like leftover well-pours. It’s original and delicious at a responsible value, the kind of bourbon you give your boss or father in law to prove you don’t have to concede quality to stay on a budget.
Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr – If you’re keeping up with MCH’s serialized biography, “Becoming the Colonel,” you have all the reason you need to be enthusiastic about this nattily attired offering from Buffalo Trace Distillery. A unique bottle and container make the introductory Small Batch ($40) a great gift, but I wouldn’t put it in the stocking of a bourbon novice: It’s chewy and spicy, with more nutmeg than cinnamon, but its complexity and 100 proof bottling can be challenging. If you don’t have someone to wrap this for, hope a bottle finds its way under your tree. If your name’s squarely on the “Nice” list, you might just earn the Single Barrel ($70) or Rye ($70), with Happy New Year included.
As a distillery, Buffalo Trace has an established reputation and long list of products that anyone who drinks bourbon—and many who don’t—know with second-hand familiarity. Popular tours and tastings draw thousands to their beautiful grounds on the banks of the Kentucky River, said to be the site of the centuries old ford for migrating herds from which the distillery draws its name. While tapping into the natural history of the area and trumpeting “the individuality and pioneering spirit of those early Americans” who first populated Kentucky, their physical plant also boasts historic ground as the original O. F. C. Distillery, and Buffalo Trace claims that of all their awards, they are most proud of their designation in 2013 as a National Historic Landmark.
This is obviously a brand that appreciates history (even its parent company, Sazerac, is a historic name), and one that can be rightfully proud of their distilling lineage: the names of previous O. F. C. owners E. H. Taylor, Jr. and George T. Stagg grace some of their finest—and scarcest—bottles. Indeed,it is probably for another rarity—the elusive Van Winkle series, the younger iterations of which are produced entirely by Buffalo Trace under the auspices of the Van Winkle family—that the distillery is best known.
But consumers who pay attention to Buffalo Trace Distillery purely for the hunt of a trophy Stagg or to share a glass with Pappy are missing an opportunity to enjoy a very fine pour from the brand’s namesake bottle, Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Buffalo Trace was first recommended to me years ago by a man who offered as his credentials the fact that he had visited every distillery in Scotland; while I was more interested in his Kentucky travels, I purchased a bottle as a Father’s Day gift before a long drive to spend a week visiting my family. I arrived around midnight to find them sitting around a bonfire, awaiting my arrival with hot dogs and skewers. I proffered the gift, which was immediately opened, shared, and sampled by several participants. It survived the night, but not the week.
Buffalo Trace is an excellent introductory bourbon, sporting a simple, clean nose of anise and Australian licorice and bottled at a very manageable 90 proof. The light bouquet beckons the drinker by promising a mellow palate, which is smoothly delivered with far more sweetness than spice, conjuring fresh apples baked in brown sugar and very little rye. The finish brings a touch of heat, but overall, the mellow freshness and sweetness are present from sniff to swallow. This is not a challenging bourbon, but an eminently drinkable one. Poured over a single ice cube, you could be forgiven for thinking it belonged to a higher price range.
Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon Whiskey isn’t a substitute for the distillery’s rarer, more complex brands, but a sweet, inviting, forgiving drink in its own right. It’s the bourbon you pour someone you’re trying to convert, the bourbon you pour on a weeknight for yourself, the bourbon you pour for the unsuspecting critic. No matter which, it’s a bourbon you’ll want to pour. -RCP
Value: High—At around $25, it satisfies for mixing, rocks, or neat drinking.
Drinkability: Highest—This is not a challenging bourbon, but one that will appeal to a wide audience.
Overall Rating: 8.2
*Special thanks to Kristie Wooldridge and the people at Buffalo Trace Distillery for generously providing a review sample.
Becoming the Colonel:
E. H. Taylor and the Making of a Bourbon Aristocrat
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 I: The Double Meaning of “Bourbon Aristocrat” in Gilded Age Kentucky
On July 27, 1863, Governor James F. Robinson of Kentucky released an official statement concerning the death of John J. Crittenden. The governor didn’t typically recognize the passing of constituents, especially in time of war (when many more were passing than the governor had time to commemorate), but Crittenden was no ordinary citizen; he’d twice served as Attorney General of the United States and had represented Kentucky in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Better still, Crittenden was Kentucky’s seventeenth governor, in office from September 1848 to July 1850. Of the deceased’s robust political career, Robinson had this to say:
When a great man dies, a nation mourns. Such an event has occurred in our midst, in the death of the Hon. John J. Crittenden, Kentucky’s longest tried statesman in her public service, a man faithful to every trust, one who has added, by his talents and character, to the fame of the nation, and has pre-eminently advanced the glory and honor of his native Kentucky.
Not surprisingly, the mourning festivities swelled to match Crittenden’s larger-than-life resume. A public service at the Presbyterian Church on Second Street in Frankfort would be followed by an immense procession of military escorts, political officials, business magnates, family members, close personal friends, and throngs of curious onlookers. As the governor had already hinted, it wasn’t every day that such a famous man died. So, one way or another, everyone wanted to witness, if not play a role in, Crittenden’s grand sendoff.
Given the scope of the ceremonies—which no less than three high-ranking army officers were appointed to organize and oversee—serving as one of Crittenden’s pallbearers constituted an extraordinary honor. These men would march near the front of the procession with the collective gaze of thousands glued to their every step. Only ten were selected for duty.
It was in this capacity that E. H. Taylor, a wealthy Lexington banker and land trader, and Jacob Swigert, a lawyer, county judge, and clerk of the Court of Appeals, together found themselves on the morning of July 29. The two men weren’t strangers; far from it, in fact. The Taylor and Swigert families had become closely intertwined over the years through ventures in business and at the altar. (Years earlier in 1825, the duo had even helped host a reception held in the Kentucky state capitol for the Marquis de Lafayette.) But as they shuffled alongside Crittenden’s hearse, neither likely could have imagined the critical, combined role their bloodline would play in the development of America’s national spirit—the distilled variety, that is—and the rise to power of its most influential, controversial, innovative, litigious, and ruthless “bourbon aristocrat.”
Almost anyone who knows even a little bit about bourbon has seen or heard the name E. H. Taylor, Jr.—and no doubt many have sampled the label’s Small Batch and Single Barrel offerings. (A much luckier few have laid hands on the scarcer E. H. Taylor Jr. Double Oaked or the ultra-rare Warehouse C Tornado Surviving.) The figure for who these spirits are eponymously named, Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, was born in 1830 in Hickman County, Kentucky. His father, John Eastin Taylor, died in 1835 and, after living for a time with his “great-uncle” Zachary Taylor (yes, that Zachary Taylor — but he was actually a second cousin, twice removed), Edmund was eventually “adopted” by his own namesake and uncle, the aforementioned E. H. Taylor of Crittenden’s funeral procession. E. H., Jr. received an education at the Sayre School in Lexington and followed E. H., Sr. into the banking industry. (Though not technically father and son, the younger Edmund took to calling himself “Jr.” to avoid confusion with his uncle as their business dealings comingled in the late-1850s; however, his name wouldn’t appear that way on a Federal Census until 1910.) The late-1850s weren’t a particularly easy time for financiers and E. H. Jr.’s first two private firms, Taylor, Turner, & Co. and Taylor, Shelby, & Co. both struggled to stay afloat.
Born in 1833 in Franklin County, Kentucky, Daniel Swigert was the son of Jacob and Emaline Swigert (nee Miller). Though less has been written about Daniel’s early years, we do know that he didn’t inherit his father’s knack for the law; or, if he did, he chose not to make a profession of it. Instead, he turned to distilling. Luckily for Daniel, the family already had significant holdings in the industry. In 1838, Jacob Swigert and his brother, Philip, had purchased a parcel of riverine property known as the “Buffalo Trace” for $600—it came with a pre-existing operation, the Leestown Distillery, once managed decades earlier by the likes of Harrison Blanton. In the late-1850s, while E. H. Taylor, Jr. was taking his lumps in the financial sector, Daniel threw himself into work at Leestown.
If the late-1850s constituted a hard time for E. H. Taylor, Jr.’s business enterprises, the Civil War gave them an unexpected boost and helped make him the Colonel–though not in the way you might expect. (Spoiler: his “colonelcy” was entirely honorific and bestowed after the war.) Taylor managed to avoid military service (not a surprise given the influence of his uncle and friends); instead, despite his pro-slavery leanings, he profited by loaning money to the state (Union) government and served as a special cotton envoy in Tennessee, where he inevitably had a chance to conduct his own business on the side. In other words, Taylor didn’t just survive the war, he came out of it financially stronger and ready to break into the bourbon business.
E. H. Taylor, Jr. got his start with the distilling firms of Gaines, Berry, & Co. and W. A. Gaines & Co. In 1866, Taylor made a grand observation of European distilleries; in 1868, while employed by the latter, Taylor oversaw construction of two Frankfort distilleries, Old Crow and the Hermitage (now lost to urban sprawl in Frankfort), before finally purchasing the Lee’s Town Distillery from the Swigert family around 1870. He later renamed it O. F. C or “Old Fire Copper” and constructed the Carlisle Distillery on adjoining property. (Daniel Swigert quit the distilling business, founded the famed Elmendorf Stock Farm, and died very rich.) Taylor gradually consolidated control over distilling in the area, even acquiring the Oscar Pepper Distillery—today the home of Woodford Reserve.
Economic troubles stemming from the Panic of 1873 put Taylor’s over-leveraged distilling empire in harm’s way; it changed the trajectory of both his career and Kentucky’s bourbon industry as a whole—but we’ll take a much closer look at this period of Taylor’s business timeline in Part II, Casualty of Credit: The Fall and Rebirth of the Colonel. For now, we simply need to know that the bust allowed George T. Stagg, then of St. Louis, Missouri, to buy the distillery in 1878-9. Stagg kept E. H. Taylor, Jr. on to oversee operations. As it turned out, though, Taylor and Stagg didn’t get along so well (read: at all). In 1886, the former left O. F. C. entirely (it was later renamed the George T. Stagg Distillery in 1904) and partnered with his sons Jacob Swigert Taylor (named for Jacob Swigert) and Kenner Taylor to form E. H. Taylor, Jr. & Sons. E. H. Taylor, Jr. managed the firm—known nationally for its Old Taylor label—until his death in 1923 at the age of 93. (Secondary literature is conflicted on Taylor’s date of birth. In The Social History of Bourbon, Gerald Carson suggests that Taylor lived to be 90; and, in Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, Michael R. Veach mistakenly offers 83 as Taylor’s age at death but means 93. Government records are also frequently in conflict, but Taylor himself listed February 12, 1830 as his birthday in a 1919 S.A.R. application. It’s possible even he didn’t know, but the majority of available evidence suggests 1830.)
According to biographical literature from Buffalo Trace Distillery (the current owner and producer of the E. H. Taylor and Old Taylor labels), Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr.’s upgrading of the O. F. C. Distillery and his innovative work at Taylor & Sons “sealed his own prestigious legacy as the ‘Father of the Modern Bourbon Industry’.” Moreover, owing to his penchant for blending old techniques with new technologies, Taylor helped usher distillation into the twentieth century and ought to be “remembered as the last of a breed, a true bourbon aristocrat who was responsible for linking the classic and modern eras of bourbon making.” Those doubting whether or not Taylor represented a marriage of Gilded Age panache and modern business sense—apparently the fundamental elements of bourbon aristocracy—may look no further than the ruins of the Old Taylor facility, where state of the art equipment once cooked mash and distilled spirits amid ornate fountains, extravagant gardens, Roman columns, and a full-on turret.
So what are we to make of Taylor’s legacy? On its surface, this plot has all the makings of a classic American rags-to-riches story: a young boy loses his father, is adopted by his wealthy uncle, and gradually ascends to fame and fortune. Historically speaking, though, things weren’t nearly that simple.
In reality, the classification of “bourbon aristocrat” had a dual-meaning in the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition to tracing his ancestry back to ex-President Zachary Taylor, E. H. Taylor, Jr.’s wife, Francis (or “Fannie”), was a scion of the influential Johnson family of Henderson County. Fannie was also a relation through marriage of the Swigerts—Jacob Swigert was her step-father, which made Daniel Swigert the (step) brother-in-law of E. H. Taylor, Jr. Col. Taylor’s eldest son, J. Swigert Taylor, married the granddaughter of John J. Crittenden while Kenner, the Colonel’s second oldest son, married back into the Johnson family. These linkages, among many others, situated the Taylor family at the nexus of a kinship matrix that included several of Kentucky’s oldest, most prevailing surnames: Crittenden, Ware, Hay, Johnson, Saffell, Speed, Rankin, and Swigert. Together these relations banked, speculated in land, bred, raced, and traded in horseflesh, leased railroads, and distilled bourbon together.
So on one hand, yes, it’s fair to say Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr., should be considered a bourbon aristocrat for his seminal role in the growth of Kentucky’s bourbon industry at a time when old and new practices collided. As an entrepreneur, an innovator, and as a savvy businessman, E. H., Jr. was among the best of the best. On the other hand, though, a much more literal meaning can (and should) be applied to the title when we consider that the cultivation of fine bourbon didn’t simply transform men into aristocrats—equally important to achieving Taylor’s astounding level of power was hailing from an aristocratic lineage. This pedigree equipped him with an elite education, social connections, political influence, access to capital, and personal confidence; it helped keep him safe during the Civil War and strengthened his business position at a time when most men were simply thankful to be alive; and, it ultimately helped enable the Colonel to reign over Kentucky’s bourbon kingdom from his castle (pictured above) in Millville.
SOURCES: United States Federal Census 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1880, 1900; U. S. Civil War Draft Registration Records, 1863-1865; Maryland Births and Christenings Index, 1692-1911; Directory of Kentucky Marriages, 1802-1850; Kentucky Death Records, 1852-1963; U. S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970 (for E. H. Taylor, Jr.); Kentucky: Special Limited Edition (Chicago: The American Historical Society, 1922), 133-135; Mrs. George Baker, “Old Farm and Church Burying Grounds of Franklin County, Kentucky,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (Sept. 1918); William E. Railey, History of Woodford County (Frankfort, KY: 1938), 348-351; “Death of Mrs. E. H. Taylor, Jr.,” 15 October 1898, Frankfort Roundabout; Z. F. Smith, The History of Kentucky (Louisville: Courier-Journal Job Printing Company, 1892), 912; Mrs. Chapman Coleman, ed., The Life of John J. Crittenden (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1873), 373-375; William E. Connelley & E. Merton Coulter, eds., History of Kentucky Volume V (Chicago: The American Historical Society, 1922), 592-594; Mrs. Jennie C. Morton, “History of the Frankfort Cemetery,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (January 1909), 26-27; “Invitation to Ball in Honor of Gen. LaFayette,” 1825, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Kentucky; “A Sketch of Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr.,” The Wine and Spirit Bulletin Volume XXX, #11 (Nov 1 1916), 796; Veach, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, 52; Carson, The Social History of Bourbon, 88.
Special thanks to the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition for providing Governor James F. Robinson’s comments on the funeral procession of John J. Crittenden (KYR-0003-027-0001). CWG-K is an innovative digital humanities project headquartered at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort; it’s designed to digitize, annotate, and make keyword-searchable all documents related to Kentucky’s five Civil War governors.