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

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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

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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

 

Just Sampled … Smooth Ambler Cask Strength Single Barrel Bourbon

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Smooth Ambler Old Scout Single Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon 118 proof, 750 ml, ~$65

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of craft distillers: those that make their own stuff, and those that buy it from someone else. Newbie drinkers are often shocked and offended to learn that their favorite whiskey brand is actually made somewhere other than the distillery listed on the label.

But not all “non-distiller producers” are the same. Some buy in bulk from a place like MGP — actually, it’s almost always MGP — and bottle under their own label. Some are straight-forward about this; others try to hide it behind weasel-words and label mythmaking. Others add a finishing touch, a la Angel’s Envy (finishing in port or rum barrels) or High West and St. George (blending). Continue reading “Just Sampled … Smooth Ambler Cask Strength Single Barrel Bourbon” »

Dave Pickerell Interview

I interviewed Dave Pickerell, the former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, for the new issue of Garden & Gun. If you don’t know Dave, you’ve probably had his hooch — and I don’t mean Maker’s. After he left, he hung out a shingle as a consultant for startup craft distilleries, and in the last few years has played the Johnny Appleseed for American whiskey. WhistlePig, Corsair, Hillrock — it’s almost easier to list the distilleries he hasn’t worked with. Dave’s an amazing man: funny and relaxed but also one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He can talk for hours, and it feels like minutes — that sort of guy. Anyway, enjoy the piece, then keep an eye out for his next move. – Clay Risen

The Bourbon Boom

I’ve got the cover story in next week’s Fortune magazine — a look at the business side of the bourbon boom. You can read the first bit here; if you’re a subscriber, you can read all of it, and if you’re not — well, come on, it’s a great magazine. What are you waiting for?

One thing that I tried to weigh in the piece was whether this was a “bubble” or a sustainable boom. I’m not sure what would constitute a bubble; there’s no reason to think this is a short-term fad, since all signs across the consumer market point to continued interest in things like whiskey, which, even at the Big end of the producer spectrum, have a timeworn, hand-crafted authenticity to them. Also, prices are not going up; secondary markets for Pappy aside, you can still get Blanton’s for the same relatively low price as ever. Continue reading “The Bourbon Boom” »

My Book Is Back in Stores

Well, it’s getting there. It’s on its way to retail outlets this week, but it’s available at BN.com and it should be on Amazon, Powell’s, etc. in a few days. For now, you can buy it on caskers.com; if you’re in New York, you can also swing by Greenlight Bookstore on Fulton in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. See, it’s right there in the shop window! Standing in front of Alice Waters!

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Clay Risen