REVIEW: US#1 Small Batch Bourbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Bowen’s Whiskey

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

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

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Bowen’s Whiskey (45% ABV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Rating: 8.3

 

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

 

REVIEW: 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: Noah’s Mill Straight Bourbon Whiskey

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

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

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Noah’s Mill, 57.15% ABV

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Rating: 8.6

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

REVIEW: Iowa Legendary Rye

Iowa Legendary Rye (White)
80 Proof, Small Batch – Iowa Legendary Rye of Carroll County, Iowa

Don’t let the cover—or in this case, the bottle—scare you away from Iowa Legendary Rye. Distilled in Carroll County, Iowa, this is a white whiskey (meaning it’s unaged) and produced in small batches from a recipe consisting of 100% rye. According to Rich and Lisa Eggers, the proprietors of ILR, their recipe has Prohibition era roots: “In 1920, Prohibition outlawed the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages. Unhappy with this new mandate, the self-reliant and fiercely independent men and women of Carroll County, Iowa, decided to defy that law and began producing their own rye whiskey … The recipe we follow is from one of those original moonshiners.” (Also of note: per the ILR website, the rye used is locally sourced from Iowa farmers—a nice change of pace after the mess that bubbled up concerning sourcing claims made, and apparently disproved, by Iowa’s best-known rye distiller, Templeton.)

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Iowa Legendary Rye and orange peel cocktail.

Now before pulling the cork on Iowa Legendary Rye, banish any thoughts of the harsh corn liquor your dad and uncles passed around the campfire or of bottom-shelf white whiskeys that might double as lighter fluid; instead, remember that just because it’s clear doesn’t mean it can’t taste good. Unlike other White Dogs, which have gained a small but steadily growing following thanks to popular releases by Buffalo Trace (White Dog Mash #1 and White Dog Rye Mash, both at 125 proof) and Heaven Hill (Trybox Series New Make and Trybox Series Rye New Make, both at 125 proof), ILR is bottled at a much more manageable 80 proof.

The nose on ILR is a mixture of spice, grain (not surprising given the rye content), and slight hints of floral sweetness—the latter almost like a fleeting, sugary citrus note. The first mouthful is thick and sweet with a muted alcohol flavor. Very soon after the sweetness dissipates and a spicier, rye flavor settles on the tip of the tongue. Just as the transition happens, the realization will dawn on you that Iowa Legendary Rye is actually a pleasant, and even sip-able White Dog. The finish is what you’d expect from an unaged, 100% rye recipe: long, long, long. But the heat is relatively mild and makes this a nice cold weather, out-on-the-porch drink for folks who aren’t looking to melt their windpipes. (Again, keep in mind that the ABV here is 5% to 22.5% lower than most of the other whites on the market.)

My second sitting with ILR involved some cocktail experimentation. Playing on the whiskey’s natural scents, I decided to mix a hearty pour with a small wedge of fresh navel orange and a single ice cube. After letting the fruit and ice commingle for about five minutes, the sugars of the orange paired well with the natural sweetness of the whiskey while the citrus flavor essentially masked any lingering notes of “raw alcohol.” In the end, the result was like eating a spicy, liquor-infused orange—and would be a great way to introduce more tentative drinkers to ILR. (A tangerine or grapefruit would also make for a solid substitution.)

Priced around $35, Iowa Legendary Rye is well worth your time if you can track down a bottle. Currently available online from Binny’s Beverage Depot and Ezra’s (if your state permits delivery), from various liquor stores in Iowa, or directly from the Iowa Legendary Rye store in Carroll County, this is a versatile rye despite its “youth.” And, if you fancy yourself an aficionado of White Dogs, this will be an especially valued addition to the collection. -MCH

Value: High
Drinkability: High (anyone)
Overall Rating: 7.8

*Special thanks to Lisa Eggers and the folks at Iowa Legendary Rye for kindly providing a review sample.