One Night at WhiskeyFest, Many Drinks With Westland

Well, that was fun. WhiskeyFest came to New York, and all I got was drunk. It was my first WhiskeyFest, and everything I had been told about it was true: the cheek-to-jowl crowds, the lovely ladies in short skirts pouring samples, the caligulan spreads of food. And of course, the rows and rows of whiskey. But while all the plebes lined up for a few drops of Pappy — it was the only brand with a tensabarrier — there was some pretty cool stuff going on elsewhere.

I mostly went for the American brands, so I’m going to leave aside all the great Scotch and other whiskeys on offer (Jura Brooklyn was nice, if a bit tame; Kavalan Sherry Cask was good-lord good). And what I noticed, right away, was how much malt whiskey there was sloshing around. Oh, sure, there was George and Jack, and Heaven Hill and Jefferson’s. But the really interesting stuff didn’t have a kernel of corn to its name, and there was a lot more of it than I’d have expected. Among others, there were malts from Defiant, Rough Stock, Stranahan’s, Long Island Spirits and FEW.

The Stranahan’s was a real treat because they brought some of their limited-edition “Snowflake” whiskey, which this year was aged in cherry-wine barrels (I know, right? But it was actually amazing).

Continue reading “One Night at WhiskeyFest, Many Drinks With Westland” »

In Which I Offer Half-Baked Thoughts About Peak Craft After a Visit to Spec’s

This past weekend I was in Austin, Tejas, and despite having die Kinder in tow, I managed to visit a few of the city’s liquor stores, including the downtown Twin and Spec’s. Both were pretty well picked over, as I had been warned they would be. No Blanton’s, no Four Roses, no Weller 12; Spec’s had a few bottles of Jefferson Collaboration (weird, right?) and some E.H. Taylors — but otherwise, not much that jumped out at me.

Except: tons of regional “craft” whiskey, more than a dozen brands altogether, most of them explicitly “Texas,” almost all of them NDPs: Red River, J.R. Ewing, Duke, Cooper’s Mark, 1835, Witherspoon’s, Silver Star, Rebecca Creek, Rio Brazos, Whitmeyer’s, Fitch’s Goat, Troubador, Colorado’s Own, Ranger Creek, Penny Packer, Firestone & Robertson, and Herman Marshall.*

Continue reading “In Which I Offer Half-Baked Thoughts About Peak Craft After a Visit to Spec’s” »

A Rye Reset

A few weeks ago Eric Felten, a reporter for The Daily Beast, interviewed me for a piece he was doing on MGP whiskeys being passed off as “craft” products. It was a good piece, in part because Felten had the wisdom to leave most of my half-baked ramblings on the editing-room floor (N.B.: no longer actually a thing in journalism). But he did quote my speculation that the wide availability of MGP’s 95 percent rye mashbill, under seemingly independent labels, might lead people to think that this is how rye is supposed to taste — to me, that would be a bit like briny pickles.

That was just me shooting my mouth. But in the weeks since, I’ve heard stories along these lines from a disturbingly large number of people. One craft distiller, who makes a fine, young 80 percent rye, told me that visitors to his distillery commonly tell him that his juice doesn’t taste the way rye is supposed to taste,  offering Templeton and Bulleit (who both use MGP) in contrast. And a liquor-store owner said that people have returned bottles of Rittenhouse because it wasn’t enough like “real rye.”

What to make of this? MGP makes a tasty rye, and there’s something to be said for a collective turn toward higher-rye-content ryes. But when people think that one single company’s product, because it is quietly sliced up into different independent brands, represents the standard by which all ryes should be judged, then there is something amiss. Small distillers are only now beginning to rediscover the variety of flavor profiles available in rye, but they may find themselves shut out of the market by a monoculture that passes itself off as diversity. If this continues, they will lose big — but the biggest losers would be consumers.

— Clay Risen



Whiskey and Cheese

I recently came onboard as an instructor at Murray’s, the venerable cheese shop on Bleeker in the West Village. They take cheese very seriously: their employers are called mongers. They also run a slew of classes, including ones on whiskey.

I’ll be teaching my first public class, Trends in American Whiskey, on Monday, Aug. 25, at 6:30. It’ll be a version of a class I ran at Astor Center last month, which focuses on six emerging whiskey styles and substyles, including American single malt, extreme proof and distilled beers. Best of all, each whiskey will be expertly paired with a cheese from Murray’s extensive selection. I co-taught a class last night for a private group, and it was a ton of fun. If you’re interested, you can get tickets here.

If you can’t make it to one of my classes, I highly recommend anything on offer from the other whiskey specialist on Murray’s faculty, Allan Roth. He runs the spirits program at Char No. 4, and aside from being a good friend, is also a whiz at whiskey. — Clay Risen

The Death of Eagle Rare Is Greatly Exaggerated

Mark Brown, the CEO of Buffalo Trace, was in town last week, and I had a chance to sit down with him. Buffalo Trace has gotten a lot of grief recently for dropping age statements on several whiskeys, but Brown has a reputation for being transparent and open to inquiries, whether from the press, bloggers or just random fans — he even puts his personal email on the BT website.

Buffalo Trace helped ignite the current wave of articles about a looming whiskey shortage with a press release, issued on May 8, explaining that demand for many of its flagship brands — including Blanton’s and Elmer T. Lee — was rising faster than expected, making these and other bourbons increasingly hard to find. At the same time, BT has quietly dropped the age statements on several of its lower-priced whiskeys, including Charter 8, Weller Special Reserve 7 and Very Old Barton 6* — so quietly, in fact, that many observers thought the company was trying to pull the wool over drinkers’ eyes. Continue reading “The Death of Eagle Rare Is Greatly Exaggerated” »

Just Sampled … Redemption Barrel Proof Straight Rye


Redemption Barrel Proof Straight Rye Batch 4/Bottle 1438, 121.8 proof, 750 ml, ~$60

One thing I love about the folks at Bardstown Barrel Selections, who make the Redemption line of whiskeys, is that they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are: non-distilling producers, buying MGP-made whiskey and bottling it under their own label. Not for them the weasel words like “produced by,” “handcrafted by,” “made by.” It says right on the label: “Distilled in the Indiana Heartland and bottled by Bardstown Barrel Selections.”

The thing is, most of their stuff is consistently engaging, well-rounded and well-priced. I’m not a big fan of their Riverboat Rye, but the Redemption High-Rye Bourbon and their standard 95 percent rye expressions are quit pleasant, on both the palate and the wallet.

At least the first half of that statement is true of their latest release, a barrel-proof, six-year-old version of their standard rye. Reviews for it have been mixed; SmokyBeast gave it one of the harshest critiques I’ve read involving a spirit not flavored with candy: “This is some of the worst whiskey we’ve ever tasted. It’s like all the worst parts of rye put together into one bottle.”

To each their own, but my reaction could not be more different. Granted, my bottle came from a different, later batch, with a slightly different proof. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The nose was a layered experience of honey, cognac and a bed of grassy rye notes. Undiluted, the palate was a rye powerhouse: all face-smacking spice, from start to end, with a thread of cloves running through it, right up to the very dry finish. With just a tad of water and some time to open up, though, it changed completely: the cloves were still there, but the spice was subdued, replaced by a sharp grapefruit leitmotif, which lingered into the now longer finish. I also found much more wood influence on the palate after adding water, with some nice vanilla and honey coming through.

I have to agree with SB on the price, though: I’m not an expert on the financial side of NGPs, but six-year-old, standard MGP rye cannot possibly justify a $60-plus price point. Barrel-proof whiskeys are hot now, and I don’t blame BBS for taking advantage of that — especially since it’s still a tad cheaper than its obvious target, WhistlePig. But for most rye drinkers, this is too many clams. On the other hand, if you like rye and you’ve got the money to burn, Redemption Barrel Proof Rye is worth picking up.

— Clay Risen

The Tennessee Whiskey Fight and Small Distillers

One of the main arguments offered by Diageo in its fight against a 2013 Tennessee state law codifying Tennessee whiskey is that it hurts small distillers. This argument has never been clear to me: distillers can still do anything they want; the only thing they can’t do under this law is take any old whiskey — be it flavored, unaged, whatever — and call it Tennessee whiskey. They basically have to make bourbon, then mellow it with maple charcoal. They can still make whiskey, or anything else they want.

Witness A in Diageo’s corner has been Phil Pritchard Prichard*, who runs Prichard’s Distillery and whose own “Tennessee” whiskey, which is not charcoal mellowed, was grandfathered into the 2013 law. Still, Prichard would love to see the law fall: “This is all about my rights. And when you take away any of my rights, I’m going to fight you tooth and nail on it,” he told Reid Wilson of the Washington Post.  Continue reading “The Tennessee Whiskey Fight and Small Distillers” »

Just Sampled … Evan Williams Single Barrel 2004

EWSB 2004

Evan Williams Single Barrel 2004 86.6 proof, 750 ml, ~$26

I talk to a lot of craft distillers, and I always ask them: When you’re not drinking your own stuff, what do you drink? And the answer, not invariably but to a surprising degree, is Evan Williams Single Barrel.

Yes, there are better bourbons. And yes, there are cheaper bourbons. But one of the great things about this beautiful country of ours is that you can walk into most any liquor store and buy a 750ml bottle of single-barrel, vintage-dated whiskey for less than the price of two movie tickets, plus popcorn. (For many of us, it would make for a more exciting date night, too.)

Heaven Hill releases EWSB once a year in late winter, though it took an annoyingly long time to arrive here in New York. I finally encountered it a few weeks ago at Noorman’s Kil, a well-stocked, understated whiskey bar in Williamsburg. I had a few glasses and found all the jammy, plummy, caramel roundness that I prize in a whiskey.

But after I picked up a few bottles later that week at Astor Wines and cracked one open, I found a very different whiskey. Now, this is a single barrel release, and obviously things will vary from barrel to barrel (my current bottle came from barrel No. 210; I forgot to write down the other). But I’ve found EWSB to be fairly consistent across barrels within a single release year. Then again, my sample size, in the grand scheme of Heaven Hill, is pretty tiny.

Here, the nose is weaker, but also much oakier, with vanilla, roasted nuts and, to me, some lemon zest and a touch of anise. The entry is light, with tons of bright candy, which quickly morphs into a dry spiciness that peters out into a grainy finish. There’s some leather, black pepper, and Indian spices. Gone are the jam and plum, alas.

It’s still a nice whiskey. And it’s still an amazing deal at $26. And I will still recommend it. But at least for this bottle, I’m not quite feeling it this year.

— Clay Risen

Whiskey and the Civil War, Part 2

More notes home about the scourge of whiskey among Civil War soldiers, this time from George Hovey Cadman of the 39th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, who wrote to his wife from Tennessee in May, 1863 (again, h/t to Jonathan White of Christopher Newport University):

When we arrived in Memphis out trouble began. Women and Whisky are plentiful here, and the men had been so long debarred from both that it did not take them long to raise Hell generally. Never did I see such a scene before in my life, and hope to God I never may again, for some days, in spite of all the Endeavors of the Colonel who did his utmost to preserve discipline, the Camp was one wild scene of Debauchery. One [Company] got all its men in the Block but three. Our men were not quite as bad as that, but the biggest part were drunk, in fact drunkenness was the order of the day, so you may form some idea of what the Camp was like, and with some Hundreds of the most Abandoned women in the world to add their evil influence, I thought the habitués of Wapping and Shadwell were bad enough, but the Harpies of this place beat them all hollow. I shall be glad when we get our orders for Vicksburg which I expect is our ultimate Destination, for here we are nothing but prisoners. We cannot go more than 50 yards from our Camp without a pass, only in consequence of the misconduct of our Regt. in the Guard House, for offenses committed while Drunk. Even now women come to the very Guard line with their bodies strung round with Whisky under their Clothes to sell themselves and a bottle of Liquor for a Dollar. For the first few nights we could get no sleep for the cursing of the men [and] screaming of women and the firing of pistols outside our camp.

[From James B. Jones Jr., ed., “Tennessee in the Civil War: Selected Contemporary Accounts of Military and Other Events, Month by Month”]

— Clay Risen