Drinking Poetic: The Panic Order

I’m terrible at Vodka drinks. 

It sounds elitist, snobbish, and very hipster bartender of me but it’s a fact of life. I think the problem is twofold.  

1) Stylistically, I gravitate towards stirred, booze forward drinks that include some sort of odd characteristic. I go through phases: stirred citrus, clarified everything, fruit infused sherries, etc. I essentially want to turn everything into a stirred cocktail in a Nic and Nora 

2) I’m an elitist, snobbish, pseudo hipster bartender. 

 I’m often inspired by a base flavor and then continually layer, subtract, and accentuate characteristics until an equilibrium, or deliberate imbalance, is reached. Vodka by its very nature is designed to be clean, neutral, and mostly flavorless which doesn’t often provide that spark of flavor inspiration that sends me down the path. 

Alternatively, I’m also good at “concept cocktails.” These are drinks that start as a thought experiment with a definitive theme. Combine all of the above and you have the starting seeds of the Panic Order. 

We had a couple of factors (issues) to consider. We needed a new Vodka drink for the menu. Something that was lighter, refreshing, more spring and summer in style. We also needed something that was quick and efficient to execute. Labor costs are a real issue and when planning the current menu for NoMad LA we had to account for not only the efficiency of making the drink in the moment but also the amount of labor that could go into prep hours.  

We also had a surplus of these beautiful black highball glasses that were sourced when we first opened. They were for a drink that was cut from the opening menu and during a heavy events season my fellow Bar Manager, Dave Purcell, and I started to joke that we could solve our glassware shortage by putting all of our vodka sodas into these highballs and let everyone panic order them as they walked across the floor to alleviate service.

This got the gears turning. What would be vodka soda in style, more culinarily driven, and quintessentially L.A.? The answer was clearly Kombucha. 

I spent some time talking with the fermentation nerds that are our sous chefs and put together a kombucha base made from a blend of Assam black tea and Jasmine Pearl green tea. This base sits with the mother scobe for a week eating all those delicious sugars. After that week the fruit juices are added and it’s allowed to bottle ferment for another week. This is an incredibly versatile base that allows us to build out flavors in a lot of unique ways. 

Because I was thinking of labor costs and efficiency, I wanted to create a kombucha that had a lot of complexity that could ideally be kegged and turn this into a two-step drink: pour vodka and top with kombucha. I started with a base flavor that felt very spring and refreshing, honeydew melon. To add a complimentary complexity to this I added one of my favorite secret ingredients: bitter melon. 

Bitter Melon is actually a gourd that is used in a lot of eastern cooking and because of its intense bitterness is thought to have cancer fighting properties. This intense vegetal, green bitterness also plays incredibly well in cocktails, especially as a bitters for stirred citrusy drinks. In this case it helped balance the natural sweetness of the melon and ties in the tannins from the tea. To round everything out and add just a touch more acidity some fresh lime juice was also added to the mix. 

Kombucha modeling.

In my younger years this would have been where the drink stopped. It was fine, it fit the slot on the menu, wham bam let’s move along. But part of the process that I’ve grown to enjoy over the years is the collaboration and once this drink entered the R&D tasting with Dave, Leo Robitschek, and I it evolved dramatically.

After having worked with Leo for a year and a half what I’ve learned is that our minds work very different stylistically. I’ll often present a drink with an ingredient that he finds tantalizing, he then pulls it out of the drink, and then start building from the ground up again. In this case I was essentially presenting an ingredient masquerading as a full drink. To him the kombucha was fascinating as an ingredient but not as a drink on its own so we began breaking it down and started utilizing it like we would for a beer cocktail or other collins style drink with just a few ounces to finish the drink. 

We knew we had a vodka base so we started there. We then needed a touch of sweet to balance the whole concoction and this is the place that we were hung up on the longest. Basic syrups became too cloying, fruit liqueurs were overpowering the bitter melon, and the floral notes of St. Germain completely overtook the drink at even a half ounce. We eventually settled on Dolin Genepy which complimented the bitter undertones while adding a just a touch of sweet.

We now wanted to bump the vegetal notes so we added a cucumber to the tin for the shake, and lemon juice to compliment a traditional sour base. This made the drink distinctly more green but now the fruit notes were not as strong. We tried out a few drier fruit options and ended up with a quarter ounce of apricot brandy to round out the mouthfeel while also making the fruit shine. 

Throughout all these additions though the nice acidity of the kombucha was lost. To add that back in we turned to a few dashes each of two of the classic NoMad ingredients: yuzu and white balsamic. All it needed now was a garnish. I went back to the kitchen for some technical help and we started slicing honeydew melon in to wonderful ribbons that roll up and act as a melon flower growing out of the black highball. When the new menu went live the drink was at the top of the page on the right hand side so if you’re at the bar and don’t know what to get the Panic Order is ready and waiting for you. 

This, however, isn’t the end of the story. Things are constantly changing and evolving, one of the core tenants of the NoMad is “Constant Reinvention”, and this means constantly retasting drinks. On a recent whirl wind visit Leo was secretly ordering drinks for quality control. He loved the feel of the menu but felt that the Panic Order was too dry. We went though a mini R&D process again trying different basses ultimately ending up simply adding a teaspoon of agave. This makes the drink much rounder and balanced with a negligent increase in sweetness. Though as I sit here typing this I wonder what would have happened if we tried a half ounce of Green Chartreuse instead of the genepy… 

But, for now, our Panic Order is: 

1 cucumber slice
5 dashes of White Balsamic
5 Dashes of Yuzu
Tsp Agave
.25 oz Apricot Brandy 
.5 oz Dolin Genepy
.5 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
1 oz Absolut Elyx 

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Whip Shake and double strain over Kold Draft ice in a black highball. 

Top with Bitter Melon-Honeydew Kombucha, garnish with a Honeydew Melon Ribbon, and Keep Calm.

Bitter Melon-Honeydew Kombucha Recipe 

15g Assam Tea 
15 g Jasmine Pearl Green Tea 
1650ml Hot Water 

Steep each tea individually for 5 minutes each for a total brew time of 10 minutes.
Add another 1500ml water and 300g of sugar.
Mix Until sugar is fully dissolved.
Let this sweet tea cool then add the mother scobe.
Cover the container in cheesecloth and store in a cool, dry place for one week.
After a week gently remove the scobe and store in a clean container with 200ml of the mother vinegar.

To the kombucha base add:

250ml honeydew melon juice
100ml bitter melon juice
50 ml fresh lime juice

Bottle ferment in a cool, dry place for an additional week. 

Hand made and hand presented.


Whiskey Wednesday: Teeling’s 24 Year Old Single Malt Award

Awards are a fickle thing. Being the “best” is an arbitrary construct that essentially says that something followed the rules really well. Without a larger context the sentence “an Irish Whiskey wins best single malt in the world for the first time” doesn’t carry any meaning even if it is 100% factually accurate. Which it is. 

In March of 2019 the World Whiskey Awards, presented by the thedrinksreport.com, announced the Teeling 24 Year Old Irish Single Malt whiskey as the Best Single Malt in the world. Much of the conversation after this announcement was how Ireland had won an upset victory over Scotland, the home of Malt Whisky. Especially since an Irish Whiskey had never won this award before.  

But the World Whiskey Awards have only been handed out since 2012. Meaning there haven’t been many opportunities for an Irish Whiskey to make the list. Also, in 2014 the same awards selected a Taiwanese whiskey as the best single malt so there was already precedent for Scotland not being the top dog. 

It’s easy to see the headlines as mere clickbait but there’s a deeper story. Ireland isn’t traditionally associated with Single Malt whiskey, for a wealth of historical reasons, so they’re not going to traditionally win single malt whiskey awards. And while Irish Single Malt has been made for centuries if anyone was going to win an award it was probably going to be the Teeling’s.

The Spirit of Dublin

The Teeling family first got into the Irish Whiskey game in 1782 when Walter Teeling established a distillery on Dublin’s Marrowbone Lane, an epicenter of distilling at the time. This original distillery was eventually purchased by William Jameson & Co., cousins of the more famous John Jameson. This original distillery was shuttered in 1923 as economic woes began to systematically destroy the Irish Whiskey industry. In fact, by 1976 every single distillery in the city of Dublin had shut its doors. Then in 2015 Teeling reestablished itself in Market Square, not far from the family’s first distillery.  

Now, if you’re paying attention you’re probably asking, “How does a four year old distillery win an award with a 24 year old whiskey?” and the answer reveals another layer.

The new Teeling Distillery was founded by John Teeling and his sons, descendants of good ol’ Walter, and it was not his first time starting new Irish Distillery. In 1985 John purchased an old industrial alcohol production plant in Cooley and began converting it to an actual whiskey distillery. It reopened in 1987 as the Cooley Distillery and was the first “new” distillery in Ireland in at least a decade. 

Over the next several years the Cooley Distillery gained a reputation for quality and excellence in style. One of those being a distinctly Irish style of single malts. The Tyrconnell has always been one of my favorites, winning the International Wine and Spirits (IWSC) Gold Medal in 2004. They also gained a cult following with the Connemara, a peated Irish Single Malt, and the distillery quickly became a go to source for the slowly growing segment of drinkers looking for Irish Single Malt. After winning “Distillery of the Year” from the IWSC in 2008 and then the same award from Malt Advocate Magazine in 2010 the distillery was sold to Beam, now Beam Suntory, in 2011. 

With all of this old Cooley whiskey I assumed that this bottle was old Cooley malt but after talking with people who know more about these things than I do it turns out that this is actually old Bushmill’s Single Malt.

As part of the sale Teeling kept 16,000 barrels worth of whiskey from Cooley and used that stock to establish the new Teeling brand in 2012, quickly followed by the new Dublin distillery three years later.

With all of this old Cooley whiskey I assumed that this bottle was old Cooley malt but after talking with people who know more about these things than I do it turns out that this is actually old Bushmill’s Single Malt. This adds yet another layer to the story as trying to pick apart who distilled, blended, aged, and otherwise had a hand in this whiskey over the years.

Here is a family, accustomed to winning awards winning another award on a whiskey that seems to have a foot in almost every part of the active Irish Whiskey world.

Whatever its providance the whiskey itself is a 24 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey distilled in 1991. It was first aged in ex-Bourbon barrels before being married and further aged in ex-Sauternes casks. How much time it spent in each barrel type is unknown. Only 5000 bottles of 92 proof (46% ABV) non-chill filtered whiskey were produced, meaning that even if it wasn’t the best it’s still one of the rarest and oldest Irish whiskies on the market.

NOSE: Orange Zest, apricot, a slight nuttiness, and a bittersweet chocolate 

PALETTE: Honey and malt, bright stone fruit, leather, caramel and a sprinkle of saltiness 

FINISH: A long mellow finish that leans into the saltiness and the Sauterne finish 

After all that, is this the best Single Malt in the world? I have absolutely no idea. It certainly falls into the rich flavors that I expect from old, indulgent malts yet it also presents a few flavor curve balls and is surprisingly alive which helps it stand out. 

This is a malt that is relying on the past while building a future. It’s caught between multiple worlds and you can almost taste the journey it’s been on. Best may be a matter of opinion meant to generate buzz but the more I’ve learned about where this whiskey comes from the more interesting it’s become.

Whiskey Wednesday: O.F.C. 1985 Vintage Bourbon

Spontaneity is not my strong suit. 

Example A: my girlfriend swears by the deals emailed out daily by Scott’s Cheap Flights. Yet every time a deal lands, I have to ask about time frame, logistics, check on available vacation days, and generally stressed about the fact that booking this trip means that we won’t be able to book some other hypothetical trip that doesn’t yet exist and just like that the deal, and the moment, is gone. 

Example B: We received a bottle of the O.F.C 1985 Vintage Bourbon a year ago and I’ve been planning to write about it ever since. So, what the hell is O.F.C. and why has it been on my mind for literally a year? 

O.F.C. stands for Old Fashioned Copper and is the original name for the distillery founded by Col. E.H Taylor in 1869. Col. Taylor was an expert marketer and helped establish the concept of a Bourbon “brand” as well as being one of the major figures behind the passing of the Bottled In Bond act of 1897. 

The distillery itself was sold to another legend, George T. Stagg, in 1878. There’s an apocryphal story that one of the conditions of the sale was that Stagg could keep the initials O.F.C. but he had to change at least one of the words it stood. This is why the distillery is sometimes called the “Old Fire Copper” distillery. Regardless of the veracity of this claim the distillery’s name was officially changed to the George T. Stagg Distillery in 1904. It was the first distillery to utilize climate-controlled aging warehouses when Stagg installed steam heaters in 1886 and was one of only four Kentucky Distilleries granted a license to continue distilling throughout Prohibition.

The distillery changed hands a few more times in the 20th century before finally being purchased by the Sazerac Corporation in 1992 and its named changed once again. Now known as Buffalo Trace it arguably produces some of the most sought after American Whiskey on the market, including bottles named after both Taylor and Stagg as well as the much desired Pappy Van Winkle line. 

The distillery clearly has experience with special releases but even amongst the plethora of rare bottles the O.F.C. stands out. 

 The O.F.C. is less a special release and more of a time capsule. These are all single barrel, vintage dated Bourbons. Each bottle is sourced from a single barrel and marked with the year of distillation. This makes each vintage completely unique with the mashbill and age varying depending on the bottling. Another intriguing fact is that this line up was originally produced only for charity. 

A literal Time Capsule.

The team at Sazerac and Buffalo Trace are just as savvy marketers as Col. Taylor was back in the day. I have to imagine that when they see bottles of their whiskey selling for thousands of dollars on the secondary market that they looked for a way to capitalize on that market value yet still offer an added bonus. The original three releases were only made available to 200 charities, at no cost, to auction off and help raise money for their cause. It was a great way to turn the image of limited whiskey auctions on its head and raise $1.2 million dollars for charity. It also immediately established the O.F.C. line as a super limited, ultra premium bottle. I was silently jealous of the fact that I would never see one of these bottles yet still applauded the move to raise money for worthy causes. But when the second round of releases was made available for retail purchase I leapt at the opportunity. Especially with the vintage being offered was the 1985. It’s not often you have a shared birth year for your whiskey. 

The 1985 Vintage is one of only 61 bottles to come from a barrel which was stored on the second floor of Warehouse Q. Buffalo Trace says that all of the barrels were tasted over time and removed from the barrel before becoming over oaked and since there is no age statement listed on the bottle it’s hard to tell the precise age of the bottle. This isn’t an uncommon practice, Buffalo Trace has done similar things with Eagle Rare 17 and Sazerac 18 so the whiskey isn’t as much as an oak bomb as you might expect. It is certainly old but there’s no official word on if it was a full 33 years in oak before being bottled. With that in mind let’s dive into the glass: 

NOSE: Rich oak, Dried fruit, and vanilla 

PALATTE: Rich vanilla, dark cherry, prune, oak, and a dark earthiness 

FINISH: Bitter chocolate, a touch of tobacco, and a coating lingering sense of time 

Overall this is an excellent example of old American Bourbon whiskey. It is still alive without being over oaked and has a power of flavor to match up to the power of the years it spent asleep in the barrel. The issue, as always, is the price. The bottle comes in at a staggering suggested retail price of $2,500. When the proceeds were going to charity this number wouldn’t have raised peep from me but now it changes the talking points. 

Is this good whiskey? Yes. Is it for everyone? Absolutely not. It is a special occasion, made so by the fact that it is a living time capsule. You are paying for the time and history as much as the whiskey itself. I will argue that experiences are more important than money but  the value is certainly subjective. I for one am going to savor the fact that I get to experience this bottled moment of time and not take it for granted. 

Drinking Poetic (on a Wednesday): The Los Angeles Sour

The Los Angeles Cocktail is terrible and is a perfect example of a bad drink that survives because it’s old. 

Buried within the pages of the Savoy Cocktail book, one of the quintessential drink tomes of the Golden and Modern cocktail age, is a drink that reads like a New Yorker describing their “totally real” visit to L.A. There are so many things that irritate me about this drink, the very first of which is that it’s not a damn cocktail!

A irreparably irritating recipe

Despite being listed alphabetically in the “cocktail” section there’s nothing about this drink that ties it to the traditional “cocktail” family of drinks. It contains no bitters and has enough citrus to dilute the base spirit beyond recognition. Apart from that the drink is described as serving four people, uses blended whiskey, powdered sugar, a whole egg, and only a “splash” of vermouth. It’s just a worse version of a New York Sour. While L.A. may have once been the subpar New York City that is certainly not the case any more and I think that’s what makes this drink stick in my craw.  

There are so many little things that are off about this drink that it’s stuck in my head for years. I’ve lived in LA for a decade now and I feel like I’ve earned the right to call myself an Angeleno, so if a drink is going to be named after our city it should be damn good drink. 

The first thing that I wanted to do to adapt this drink was scale it down. A drink designed for only four people is not efficient for service, though considering that L.A. often rolls twelve deep I can’t blame them for trying. Scaled down from four hookers (a measure of 2.5 ozs) to the standard 2 oz jigger of booze, a classic proportion of sour to sweet, and using an egg white instead of the whole egg creates a palatable, if completely forgettable, sour.  

This adjusted recipe reads: 

  • 2oz Whiskey 
  • 1 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
  • .75 oz Simple Syrup
  • 1 Egg White
  • 25 oz Vermouth 
  • Combine all ingredients in a mixing tin. Dry Shake. Shake With Ice. Double Strain. 

The next sticking point is that there’s nothing about this drink that actually says “L.A.” And while the same can be said about the New York Sour, which may have actually originated in Chicago, if we’re going to improve a drink why not make it more representative? With this in mind the inoffensively mediocre powdered sugar was swapped out for a 50 brix Piloncillo syrup. Pilconcillo, or panela, is an unrefined, whole cane sugar typical of Latin America. It is made from the boiling and evaporation of sugar cane juice. It is commonly used in Mexico and has more flavor than brown sugar which is often white sugar with a little added molasses. This gives the drink a richer texture while also tying it into the Latino heritage of Los Angeles. 

Elijah Craig and Dubonnet Improved Los Angeles Sour

Next up was the spirit base. The richer piloncillo syrup completely overwhelmed lighter whiskies so I turned to my trusty baseline: Elijah Craig Straight Kentucky Bourbon. This added a delightful tannin and vanilla note but was not playing nice with the vermouth and lemon. So, I traded the vermouth for the recently reconstructed American version of  Dubonnet Rouge. Served over a large rock with a float of the Dubonet the flavors were able to develop over time and the extra bitterness from the quina in the Dubonet helped tie the drink together. I actually used this drink for the regionals of the Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year competition this year and it’s absolutely delightful.

L.A. Sour: 

  • 1.5 oz Elijah Craig Small Batch 
  • .75 oz Piloncillo Syrup (50 Brix) 
  • .75 oz Fresh Lemon Juice 
  • 1 Egg White 
    • Dry Shake. Double Strain over one large ice cube. 
  • Float .75 oz Dubonnet Rouge  

There’s no practical need to go further than this. The drink is delightfully crowd pleasing, recognizable, and recreateable. I highly recommend making this version of the drink yourself.I couldn’t set the drink down though. It kept burrowing through my brain begging for attention. 

I have a natural disregard for “blended” whiskies. I find them light and forgettable but that doesn’t have to be the case. There are some beautiful blended malts  and grain whiskies on the market, and not all of them are Japanese. So, I broke down the components and built up a house whiskey blend to complement the flavors.  

It starts with an ounce of Bushmill’s 10 Year Single Malt. Irish Malt is lighter and fruiter than the more familiar Scotch malts while being more affordable than the Japanese counterparts. The Bushmills 10 also grants a solid barrel note and the vanilla that was coming from the Elijah Craig. Next, I wanted some spice and proof without overwhelming the delicate Irish malt so I added a half ounce of Old Overholt Bottled In Bond Rye. This added an oiliness, viscosity, and tannin that helped dry out the drink. 

Finally, to lengthen out the blend, a half ounce of grain whiskey was added. The Nikka Coffey Grain would have worked wonderfully, but the pricing and recent announcement that it was being discontinued shut that experiment down. Though I have recently heard that it is only discontinued in Japan with plenty of stock in the U.S. remaining so it may be worth revisiting. In the mean time I headed back to the Emerald Isle where the Teeling Single Grain offered a compliment to both the Bushmill’s Malt and the Overholt Rye bite.

This house blend was delightfully robust but the Dubonnet, instead of being a unifying factor, was now coming across as thin, just like the vermouth in the original spec. The drink needed something richer while still maintaining that vermouth bitterness and acid. It needed to be concentrated. With that in mind I turned to my favorite toy, the rotovap. Running Dolin Rouge through the rotovap produced two wonderful products.  

First a clear, concentrated vermouth flavored distillate. Second, a concentrated vermouth syrup that was left behind as the more volatile compounds were syphoned off. Both of these products are lovely, especially the syrup. However, I couldn’t imagine using this process to produce enough to maintain the volume of service that we do at NoMad LA so I went back to the drawing board. 

With this concentrated Vermouth reduction as a benchmark we found that a traditional stove top reduction with 50% sugar by weight produced a vermouth syrup that was, as my father would say, “Good enough for government work.”  

All the elements were now in place. Here was a drink that payed homage to its vintage roots, added in elements of the city it’s named for, and incorporated modern techniques, culinary thoughtfulness, and contemporary palettes and drinking styles. I’m also incredibly proud of the fact that this is the only drink I’ve ever put in front of our Bar Director Leo Robitschek that he had no tweaks for.  

The Los Angeles Sour now reads on the menu at NoMad LA as: 

  • 1 oz Bushmill’s 10 Year Single Malt 
  • .5 oz Old Overholt Bottled In Bond Rye Whiskey 
  • .5 oz Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey 
  • .75 oz 50 Brix Piloncillo Syrup 
  • .75 oz Fresh Lemon Juice 
  • 1 Egg White 
    • Dry Shake. Shake with Kold Draft Ice. Double Strain over one large Ice Cube
  • Float .75 oz Dolin Rouge Vermouth Reduction 

I do have to admit I’m cheating for the sake of a story. Leo did have one critique. I originally pitched the drink with aquafaba, (a vegan egg white substitute made from beans), instead of egg white because lord knows L.A. loves its dietary restrictions. Both versions of the drink past muster but the egg white variation felt more robust. But because of this original thematic pitch, and aa cheeky nod to L.A. drinkers, the Los Angeles Sour will always available “vegan upon request.”

Whiskey Wednesday: The Old Bushmill’s Story

Irish Whiskey is my least favorite category of whiskey.

To be fair that’s only because I think about Canadian Whisky so infrequently that I genuinely forget that it’s a thing. Yet, there are some true gems in the category. Redbreast should be a staple at any bar. Tyrconnell Madeira Cask is one of my favorites bottles of any category, and I can’t count the number of shots of Power’s I’ve had. The problem is that these don’t define the category of Irish Whiskey. Accounting for 82% of sales in the United States Jameson’s Irish Whiskey is essentially the entire category of Irish Whiskey. And Jameson’s just isn’t for me.

            Call me elitist, I’m sure part of my distaste for Jameson is it’s ubiquity, but it isn’t very interesting to me. It’s light, forgettable and honestly a little harsh. And while I might love the aforementioned bottles the first two aren’t affordable mixers and trying to convince a Jameson drinker to have a dram of Power’s instead is a lesson in futility. People aren’t cold calling high end Irish whiskey the way they are Japanese, Scotch, or Bourbon so it becomes an afterthought. Which brings me to Bushmill’s.

            I got a call from friends at Half Full, The Daily Beast’s Food and Drink section, asking me what I thought about Bushmills. And my answer was, “I honestly haven’t thought about it in a while.” They then asked if I’d be interested in coming on a trip to film a documentary and explore Bushmill’s and I said of course because who doesn’t want an excuse to go to Ireland?

            But beyond the boondoggle of a trip there was a genuine curiosity. Irish Whiskey is currently the fastest growing spirit category in the world. The industry went from a measly four distilleries on the whole island in 2013 to 16 distilleries in production today with another 13 on the way. While these numbers pale in comparison to the sales and production numbers of Scotch and Bourbon clearly many people with a lot of money feel that this is not just single brand growth but a reemerging category. I wanted to see what was giving these people such confidence.

Giant’s Causeway

We spent two days at the Old Bushmills Distillery and the surrounding countryside. The distillery takes its name from the River Bush and all the water used on site comes from the rivers tribute Saint Columb’s Rill. Although the date 1608, the year King James I granted a writ to distill whiskey to Sir Thomas Philips, is emblazoned everywhere, the Bushmill’s Old Distilling Company wasn’t establish until 1784. No matter which date you take as the distillery’s origin Old Bushmill’s is the only distillery in all of Ireland that was in operation before 1974 and was one of the three that kept production alive.

Irish Whiskey has always been deeply tied to the American market and American Prohibition tanked the industry. 400 brands made by over 160 distilleries became three distilleries all owned and operated by a single group, Irish Distillers, with their purchase of Bushmill’s in 1972. Irish Distillers was purchased by Pernod Ricard in 1988 with Bushmill’s then purchased by Diageo in 2005. They began a massive ad campaign to gain market share  but even the largest liquor company in the world couldn’t seem to boost the brand and it was sold to Jose Cuervo in 2014 after Bushmill’s sold 1.3 million liter cases in the U.S. compared to Jameson’s 18 million.

Everyone loves a good underdog story and while technically being in second place Bushmill’s was a very clear underdog. A part of me was hoping I’d find some spark that craft spirit authenticity or other such nonsense that would make it worth the uphill battle to recommend Bushmill’s White Label over Jameson’s iconic green bottle. What I found out is that the White label isn’t what you should be drinking.

Old Bushmill’s bottle is old.

Bushmill’s is a single malt distillery. They age grain whiskey on site for blending but every drop of whiskey that’s distilled at the distillery is Irish Single Malt. This is unusual because most non-blended Irish whiskey is Single Pot Still, which is a distillate made up of  both Malted and Unmalted Barley. This style originated as a middle finger to the English who put a tax on malted barley in 1785. Despite the added expense Bushmill’s has only ever made Single Malt.  

Irish Single Malt is also distinct from (most) Scotch Single Malt in that it is triple distilled instead of double distilled. This creates a lighter whiskey as it’s gone through an additional set of cuts and stripping. This malt forms the base of all of the blends and single malt line at Bushmill’s . And every bottle of Bushmill’s is put together by the first female master Blender in all of Irish Whiskey history. She’s sitting comfortable with over 25 years of experience tripping across her palette and when she proclaims the 10 year old single malt to be her personal favorite there’s a weight that goes along with that statement.

The 10 Year Old fills a very interesting place for Irish Whiskey. It’s affordable, mixable, and quaffable on it’s own it could honestly be that missing midpoint for Irish whiskey that bridges the shots and the Super Premium category. Yet from what I tasted it the true gem of the line is the 16 Year old Single Malt.

Pot Stills for days.

Aged for a minimum of 16 years a blend of ex-Bourbon and Olorosso barrel aged single malt is blended together and then further aged for an additional 6 months in used port barrels. It was the first thing I was poured after nearly 18 hours of travel and was one of those moments of surprise and disbelief at how good it was. In conversation with Noah Rothbaum, Senior Editor at Half Full, he expressed how it reminded him of the experience of discovering Hibiki 12 years ago before we drank it all-I had to agree with him. But not trusting my jetlagged senses I proceed drink at least a bottle over the next few days and to bring a bottle home for continued research.

NOSE: Dark Fruit, Raisin, Plum, and a touch of vanilla.

PALETTE: Dried Red Fruit, a slightly nutty undertone with a bright sherry through line to cut through the toffee, vanilla, and richness of the malt.

FINISH: Long and lingering, leaving the dried fruit and a slight amount of tannin and spice.

Ultimately I came away from Bushmill’s, and Ireland, with another story. A spirit is ultimately the distillation of the people who make it. A distillation of their culture, their taste, their landscape, and their time. Getting to know them, getting to experience them, ultimately opens doors to experience a spirit they way they do. In the end, Jameson is still my least favorite Irish Whiskey but, like life, whiskey is really shades of grey. A single dominant force can not define either. 

Whiskey Wednesday: A Tale of Two Elmer’s

            I received a text this week from a friend that without preamble said, “Did Elmer T. Lee get worse?”

            My gut reaction was, “Of course not! How dare you besmirch the name of the dearly departed father of modern Bourbon!?” After calming myself with a hefty dram I remembered that despite centuries of tradition whiskey making is a constantly evolving art and barrel aging is by no means an exact science. To add to that, there were claims of “cork taint” by members of the Reddit whiskey community in 2016.  The popularity of Elmer T. Lee has also exploded in recent years so the odds are that it’s younger stock than previous years. By the end of the glass the question was less of an attack and more of a probability.

Son, we’re not hiring today.”

            This could have remained a simple thought experiment but a recent trip to the Liquor Locker left me with a bottle of 2014 Elmer and the ability to do a little compare and contrast. But first a little context.

What exactly is Elmer T. Lee? Elmer T. Lee is both a Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and the deceased former Master Distiller of the distillery we now know as Buffalo Trace. 

“Son, we’re not hiring today.” Is how Col. Albert B. Blanton first greeted Elmer in 1949, but at the instance of his friend at the distillery he showed up to work the next week anyway.  Over the years Elmer grew from a maintenance engineer to the distilleries first Master Distiller. He officially “retired” in 1985 but not before releasing the world’s first Single Barrel Bourbon, Blanton’s, named after the man who didn’t hire him.

After Blanton’s became a hit the distillery honored its Master Distiller emeritus with his own namesake Single Barrel. Elmer was still heavily involved with the distillery and would come in every Tuesday to taste barrels and make selections for his namesake release.

Before Blanton’s, and Elmer, the concept of a “Single Barrel” Bourbon didn’t exist.  Remember, barrel aging isn’t an exact science. Every barrel ages differently depending on where in the rickhouse it sits, the quality of the barrel, the temperature swings over the years, all of these factors contribute to each barrel being a unique specimen But the whole idea of a bottled whiskey is consistency so generally barrels are blended, or batched, together to recreate a specific flavor profile. For a Single Barrel all of the whiskey in the bottle comes from one single barrel and has to stand on its own individual merits. While there will always be some variation, it is a sign of the skill of the distillery to be able to produce quality single barrels that are still consistent.

Both Blanton’s and Elmer share the same DNA. They’re both Buffalo Trace Mashbill #2 which is slightly higher in rye content (about 15%) and are both technically co-owned and produced with Age International. They’re both single barrels and they’re both non-age statement Bourbon’s so we know they’re at least older than four years. But two things separate them from each other: aging and proof.

Drinking is such an individual experience. It’s can be a social activity but the act of tasting is something intrinsically personal.

Blanton’s is always aged in Warehouse H, which was commissioned by Blanton himself. It  is a fully metal clad warehouse which allows for greater heat transfer and, supposedly, more rapid aging. Elmer has no such restrictions on what warehouse it must be aged in which theoretically allows for a larger variation in flavors.

Elmer is also bottled at 90 proof (45% ABV) where as Blanton’s is bottled at 93 Proof (46.5% ABV). While this difference seems small the alcohol is where the flavor is. A few extra proof points can make a world of difference and a whiskey can open up with just a few more drops of water. That isn’t to say that higher proof is always better, just like older doesn’t always mean better, it just means a different flavor profile. Interestingly, Elmer was said to drink his Bourbon at 60 Proof as he felt that was the point when he could taste all the flavor with out the alcohol getting in the way.

Now that all the intellectual foreplay is out of the way, how do they actually taste?

Four Years can really change a bottle.

2014

  NOSE: Oak and Clove

  PALETTE: Earthy, Dark Chocolate, Coffee, Tobacco

  FINISH: Long, slightly damp and musty

2018

            NOSE: Oak, Stone fruit, Vanilla

            PALETTE: Rye Spice, Stone Fruit, Tobacco, Coffee

            FINISH: Light, Spicy

Surprisingly, the 2014 is livelier in the glass, with a bigger spice on the nose and a more rounded midpalette. However, the 2018 carries a darker earthiness, more of the tobacco I associate with Elmer’s and a longer finish. Yet they are both still Elmer. In fact, pouring the two together creates an almost uber-Elmer that is exactly what I expect Elmer to taste like all the time.

Drinking is such an individual experience. It’s can be a social activity but the act of tasting is something intrinsically personal. Where you are at, what time of the year, and how much effort you put into finding the bottle all effects how the spirit tastes. So, back to my friends original question. Did Elmer T. Lee get worse? I’d say no, but it is different. But then again, so am I.

Whiskey Wednesday: Hitting Johnnie Green’s Stride

Johnnie Walker is a striding behemoth, straddling the world as the number one selling Scotch whisky brand. It’s so popular that “What makes Johnnie Walker Blue the best?” is a Google search autocomplete. It’s so popular that due to knockoffs and literal bootlegs there are more bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label sold in India every year than are actually produced for the entire world.

            With this level of popularity the level of disdain and outright backlash for Johnnie Walker that abounds is almost inevitable. Something so popular could never actually be good. Yet, amongst its vast palette of labels there abides a quality and constancy that’s earned its place on back bars across the globe. It also contains one of my all time favorite colors and bottles: Green.

            Johnnie Walker, the Scotch Whisky, began its long walk in the 1819 when the father of John Walker, the actual Scotsman, died. The family sold their farm and invested in a grocery in Kilmarnock, Scotland in 1820. Grocery stores were a different breed in the 1800’s and many grocers would make their own house blends of whisky. This became much more prominent after the Excise Act of 1823 deregulated many of the laws on the distillation of whisky and more importantly greatly reduced the taxes on distilling and selling. In short order the teetotaling John Walker was selling his own blended malt whisky called Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky. John passed away in 1857 leaving the company to his son Alexander Walker who would usher in the beginnings of the company’s global dominance.

This rise in popularity began with another act completely outside of Alexander’s control, the Spirit Act of 1860. For the first time it was now legal to blend malt and grain whiskies together, thus creating the blended whisky style that is the core of Johnnie Walker, as well as the vast majority of worldwide Scotch sales.

Alexander also took advantage of the newly arrived railroad to make connections with shipping captains to create a larger distribution network. This expanded shipping reach combined with a more approachable, lighter style of Scotch whisky literally made inroads with new drinkers.

            The increase in global shipping also led to the development of the iconic square bottle in 1860. The square shape allowed more bottles to fit in the standard shipping containers as well as greatly reduced breakage during transit. Alexander was also responsible for tilting the label at its jaunty angle across the bottle allowing for larger print as well as making the bottle more recognizable from a distance.

            It was the Third Generation of Walkers that added the final touch with a rebranding in 1909 that first saw the “Striding Man” added to the labels. They also had the companies three blended whiskies officially renamed to White Label, Red Label, and Black Label. The White Label was dropped during World War I but the Red and Black remain the core of Johnnie Walker to this day.

            With demand for Johnnie Walker Scotch spread across 120 countries the company began purchasing single malt distilleries to ensure  consistent supply and blends.  Beginning with Cardhu in 1893, they followed it up with the Coleburn Distillery, The Clynish Distillery and Talisker, before capping it off with the legendary Mortlach Distillery in 1923. Then in 1925 the company joined Distiller’s Company, which was purchased by Guinness in 1986, which then merged with Grand Metropolitan in 1997 to form Diageo, the largest liquor conglomerate in the world. 1997 is also an important year because it marks the reintroduction of Blended Malt Whisky to the Johnnie line up. Originally called Johnnie Walker Pure Malt my favorite bottle received its chromatic designation as Green Label in 2004.

            In a lot of ways the Green Label is a return to that very first John Walker blend. Being a blended malt it is comprised of completely single malt whiskies, which means none of the grain whisky that Alexander introduced and the helped spread the brand across the globe. Diageo is vague on the specific details, listing it as a blend of malts from the Speyside, Highland, Lowland, and Scottish Isle malts which is essentially saying it’s made up of Scotch from Scotland. But digging deeper you can find the names Cragganmore, Linkwood, Caol Ila and Talisker as the primary malts. It also carries a 15 year age statement, meaning the minimum age of every malt in the blend is at least 15 years old, making it one of the oldest constantly available Johnnie Walker blends.

            In a lot of ways this blend is at the root of Johnnie Walker’s history which is why it’s so surprising to me that it’s always felt like the redheaded stepchild of the family. It was “discontinued” in the Western markets around 2012 with plans to focus the brand in Asia. A massive shift in Chinese regulations brought the brand back globally in 2016. Yet it is still often passed over, ironically, because it isn’t as ubiquitous as the Black and Blue.

            Or maybe it’s a victim of Johnnie’s success. The sun never sets on the empire of Johnnie Walker yet it is an empire built on that addition of grain whisky to its single malt base. It’s a lighter style with more mellow flavor and the Green is rich and almost overly opulent in comparison. Someone who enjoys Black label might not find the Green to be their cup of tea. On the flip side the type of drinker that would truly love an aged-stated, blended malt is probably also the kind to turn up their noses at the mere mention of Johnnie’s name.

            Or maybe it’s that people still don’t truly understand what a blended malt is. It’s a misunderstood style just like Green Label is a misunderstood bottle. But the fact that it is so misunderstood and overlooked just makes it all the more endearing to me. I’ll gladly quaff a dram when I can find it.

NOSE: A light touch of seaside smoke, vanilla, dry oak and baking spices

PALETTE: Decadent and rich. Raisins, dried plums with a touch of that seaside air and a whiff of sherry. Slightly nutty, with a bright mid palette.

FINISH: A relatively quick, clean finish that leaves a lighter impression that the rest of the experience. It ends with lingering oaky sweetness mixed with a hint of smoke.

Whiskey Wednesday: Dry(ish) January

On January 16th, 1919 Nebraska became the 36th of the 48 states that composed these United States of America at the time to ratify the 18th Amendment thus beginning the “noble experiment” that was Prohibition. While Congress didn’t ratify the Amendment until January 29th, and the sale of alcohol wasn’t made fully illegal until January 20th, 1920, it was this date and this vote that set us inexorably down the dry path. And every “Dry January” I’m reminded why I so fundamentally disagree with that decision.

This year over 4 million Americans, including myself, are participating in Dry January, a self inflicted month long Prohibition. After the often booze soaked holiday parties, family visits, and New Year’s parties it makes sense that many people would be feeling the hangover and want to start the New Year with a clean slate. Advocates of Dry January point to increased energy and better sleep, as well as claims that a month long absence of drinking can help reverse some of the damage done by long term drinking. Yet despite these benefits I find myself nearly every day saying “Dry January is dumb.”

I grew up Catholic. Once a year, during Lent, everyone I knew would give up one “vice.” It was usually something absurdly innocuous like candy or soda, but there were a fair amount of people in my community that would go sober for the season. However what I noticed about myself and the people around me, was that this was less of a sacrifice or abstinence but more of an obligation. We weren’t giving up these habits because we were looking for change but rather the illusion of self gratification.

It is self reflection, rather than self prohibition that I would argue for.

As the days ticked down the forbidden substance became more alluring until finally on Easter there was an explosion of indulgence. Children who had been starved of sugar for a month were given literal baskets of candy, those on diets were treated with a feast at Easter Brunch, bottles of wine were cracked, beers were popped, and the spirits did flow.

Now don’t misunderstand, I fully support the idea of self improvement and of examining one’s own personal relationship with their vices and habits, especially when it comes to alcohol, but the self reflection needed for true understanding and growth always seemed lacking from these yearly rituals. People were controlled by the absence of their vices nearly as much as they were beholden to those vices.

I’ve noticed this in my own experimentation with Dry January, which if I’m being honest is really just more of a “Drier” January. This isn’t from lack of will power either, it simply because life is complex, which has always been: a much needed long weekend in Palm Springs with the girlfriend called for a few martinis over a steak dinner, a celebratory dinner at a cocktail competition deserves a communal toast, a complimentary upgrade to first class on a flight cross country nearly demands a glass of wine, and that’s just the first two weeks of the year.

I’ve found myself in these situations actively denying myself from participating in moments of community because of a hardline rule about that is ostensibly about improving my life. And I have learned from my time sober. Particularly, I enjoy realizing how much casual drinking I participate in, and noticing how much even a single drink effects my body. It’s also thrown into focus those times where a drink feels warranted and I’ve deliberately made decision to partake in those communal experiences without feeling like I’m betraying the ideals of my time sober. Yet I have remained dry on more days than I’ve been wet, and it’s a choice I want to make every day.

It is this self reflection, rather than self prohibition that I would argue for.

Instead of “Dry January” might I suggest the “Deliberate Year”

The proponents of Prohibition argued that it would reduce violence, organized crime, promote public health, and generally improve the morals of the country. History proved them pretty drastically wrong primarily I believe because people had no choice. People were not choosing to reduce their consumption to increase their “overall moral character” but were being forced into it, in the same way my family and friends felt obligated during Lent, and over 4 million American’s feel locked into a New Year’s resolution.

I’ve always argued that going dry is untenable because there’s this dinner coming up, or this trip happening, or a myriad of other excuses but that paints a picture to starkly in black and white. It’s what happens in the grey spaces between where change can happen, because there is nothing wrong with raising a glass for a thoughtful reason. So, instead of “Dry January” might I suggest the “Deliberate Year” where we take the time to examine why we want something, why we derive pleasure from it, and adjust our relationship with ourselves rather than our vices.

Sounds exhausting doesn’t it? I think I need a drink…

Whiskey Wednesday: A Midwinter’s Night Dram

When it comes to the whiskey world the two most maligned words are  “sourced” and “blended.” Yet, one of the most respected distilleries to come out of the past decade of craft distilling is easily Utah’s own High West, a distillery that  exclusively bottles “sourced” and “blended” whiskey. So how did they rise above? Honesty, quality, and experimentation.

Founded in 2006 in Park City, Utah the High West Distillery is the first legal distillery in Utah since 1870. Founder David Perkins fell in love with the idea of applying his work in biochemistry to distilling after a visit to Maker’s Mark in 2001 and they began distilling on their 250 gallon pot still in 2007. If that doesn’t sound like a very big still for the amount of product High West produces it’s not. You might also ask how their first product, Rendezvous Rye, won Double Gold at the San Francisco  Spirits Competition in 2008.  The answer to both questions is sourcing.

In 1933 it was Utah that provided the 36th vote to the Amendment ending Prohibition saying, “No other state shall take away this glory from Utah.”

It’s an open secret these days that many of the “craft” distilleries are actually just bottlers.  Places buy whiskey on the open market, either directly or through brokers, and then finish and bottle it under their own label. This isn’t anything new. Up until the micro distillery explosion of the past two decades there were only 8 distilleries producing 300 brands of American Whiskey. Sourcing and blending has always been the name of the game. In fact, Perkins claims it was Jim Rutledge, the legendary former Master Distiller of Four Roses, who first suggested he purchase whiskey from other distilleries. The idea was to create a quality product to keep the lights on while Perkin’s own distillate reached maturity.

While it may seem outlandish for the man credited with taking Four Roses from a rotgut brand to quite possibly the finest American Bourbon on the market today to suggest sourcing and blending,  it fits with Rutledge’s own style. Four Roses essentially created a one stop shop for sourcing and blending under their own roof. They use two different mashbills and five different strains of yeast to produce ten bourbons each with their own unique flavor profile. These are all blended together in various proportions to create the various expressions of the Four Roses line up. Which again makes sense as Jim Rutledge learned distilling while Four Roses was part of the Seagrams distilling empire, which was most famous for it’s blends.

When Seagrams collapsed in the late 90’s, Four Roses was purchased by Kirin and began its resurgence while it’s sister plant, now known as MGP, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana set off down a different path: providing whiskey to other distilleries.  It turns out that Seagrams produced excellent distillers and that a lot of the whiskies that they were using as blending agents were damn tasty all on their own. Their most infamous style is a rye whiskey made from 95% Rye and 5% malted barley which if you are paying attention is the mashbill for such famous brands as Bulleit, Templeton, and High West.

The fact that High West was sourcing from the same supply as some less than forthright new “distilleries” caused them to be lumped in with the chaff and disregarded. However, Perkins, and his Master Distiller Brendan Coyle, took Rutledge’s advice and started blending. They spread their nets wide and pulled in a variety of styles, particularly rye, from distilleries across the country.

The problem with sourcing whiskey though is that you don’t control the supply. Take that original release of Rendezvous Rye. It was a 92 Proof, non-chill filtered blend of the MGP 95% Rye 5% Malted Barley as well as a 16 year old 80% Rye from the Barton Distillery in Kentucky. The name actually comes from the meeting, the rendezvous, of these two ryes. However, over the years the proportions and blend has changed until now the Rendezvous Rye is officially listed as “a blend of straight rye whiskeys ranging in age from 4-7 years old.” Certainly more vague but it allows for more wiggle room when stocks fluctuate.

What makes this process unique to High West is that none of this is information that you need to dig for. It’s all available front and center on their official website. This level of transparency, along with the quality of the liquid in the bottles, is what helped separate High West from the pack. But even for a blender the need to control stock is paramount.

A Midwinter Night’s Dram Act 6 Scene 6 was the first release of the Midwinter’s to contain some of High West’s own whiskey in the mix.

In 2015, this distillery made famous by blending opened a second distilling site with a 1,600 gallon copper pot still. The blenders were scaling up. As older stock is being drunk with greater abandon they have slowly been inserting their own distillate into their blends. In fact this year their Double Rye, which was a blend of 2-year old MGP Rye and the last of that 16 Year Old Barton Rye, will now officially be the first blend containing their own whiskey which was completely fermented, distilled, and aged in house. Their own whiskey is finally coming of age but they’re treating it as just another one of the many tools at their disposal, giving them yet another flavor to paint with in their blends.

While this honesty and quality is what helped High West survive I think what has made them truly unique is their desire to experiment. One of my favorite examples of this is the A Midwinter’s Night Dram and not just because I’m a sucker for puns. The Midwinter’s Dram is the basic Rendezvous Rye blend further finished in used Port barrels made from French Oak. This once a year release was the first in a series of barrel experiments that High West has released over the years and in my opinion is their best work. It’s also a fantastic example of how small tweaks can elevate a whiskey. At its best blending is about creating something that is larger than the sum of its parts and when it comes to that High West is certainly on the front lines.

While it may be odd to think about a distillery in Utah breaking new ground in the whiskey world just remember that in 1933 it was Utah that provided the 36th vote to the Amendment ending Prohibition saying, “No other state shall take away this glory from Utah.” So maybe it’s time to have a dram and let your preconceptions about blending, sourcing, and Utah be challenged.

A Midwinter Night’s Dram Act 6 Scene 6 was the first release of the Midwinter’s to contain some of High West’s own whiskey in the mix. So how does it taste?

NOSE: Rich, candied fruit with a touch of that rye baking spice

PALETTE: Dark Fruit, with a decadent mouth feel. The port and French oak add a more nuanced character to the traditional rye bomb. There’s a slight nuttiness and the through line of spice.

FINISH: Spiced clove, ripe fruit and a lingering warmth that is perfect for a roaring fireplace and a leather chair.

Whiskey Wednesday: Heaven Hill 27 Year Old Barrel Strength

Reinvention is the key to longevity.  No matter how often you hear something being touted as “Old Fashioned” chances are it’s actually an update on an old technique or just straight up marketing. We are constant victims of nostalgia, even the term “Old Fashioned” implies a dissatisfaction with the modern. Yet as much as we glorify the past the only way to truly stand the test of time is by constantly changing.

            Take Heaven Hill’s new premium, limited edition release: the eponymous Heaven Hill 27 Year Old Barrel Strength Straight Kentucky Bourbon. Those are a lot of buzz words that add up to a lot of the old being new, just slightly different.

            Let’s start at the top.

Unless you’re from Kentucky, Heaven Hill probably isn’t a brand you’re familiar with. But if you drink Bourbon it’s a distillery that permeates the very fabric of the category. Founded in 1935, Heaven Hill is the 7th largest alcohol supplier in the US, has the second largest inventory of American whiskey in the country, and is the largest, independent, family owned marketer and producer of spirits in the United States.

In an industry that’s built around the cult of personality and legends of the past (Jim Beam, Pappy Van Winkle, Jack Daniel’s, etc.) Heaven Hill built their name on other people’s legends: Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and Henry McKenna. Hell, their master distiller since the founding of the distillery has always been a member of the Beam family.

However, they’ve never had that flagship, namesake bottle. Outside of a few specialty releases named after William Heavehill, the farmer who owned the land the distillery was built on, the only true bottling to carry the Heaven Hill name is a 6 year old, bottled in bond, Kentucky exclusive. And this bottle perfectly encapsulates the company in my mind.

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            Heaven Hill kept the bottled in bond designation alive when no one cared and can be directly credited to it’s resurgence with products like Rittenhouse Bottled In Bond Rye. It’s also a 6 year old, straight Bourbon whiskey that ran for $12 dollars a bottle. It is quality at an incredibly affordable price, which is something that Heaven Hill has done well for so long. It also isn’t what the whiskey world is about anymore. These days it’s all about limited, old and rare so it should be no surprise that this little gem has been discontinued in favor of creating a more premium line up.

            Which brings us to the age statement.

            American whiskies, almost as a rule, don’t get this old. The oldest, most consistent age statement caps out at the yearly release of the Pappy Van Winkle and Elijah Craig 23 Year Olds, the latter also being produced by Heaven Hill. Because of the law requiring Bourbon to be aged in brand new oak barrels Bourbon this old just doesn’t taste that good, because it’s often over oaked or overly tannic. There’s also the catch that the Angel’s Share steals a percentage every year meaning there’s less to sell and that’s not taking into account the unpredictable acts of nature. A lot can happen in 27 years.

            At 27 Years Old this batch of a mere 41 barrels were all aged on the 1st or 2nd floors of the Heaven Hill rickhouses where the Angel’s Share is arguably at its most minimal; but with only 2,820 bottles produced that’s still a loss of 75% of the juice.

            This whiskey can also never be replicated due to an act of god. In 1996, the Old Heaven Hill Springs Distillery burnt to the ground taking hundreds of barrels, and gallons upon gallons of aging whiskey with it. These 41 barrels were not only produced at a destroyed distillery, they survived an inferno that took much of its cousin spirit with it. This isn’t just rare because of its age, it’s both rare in addition to its age.

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Heaven Hill goes up in flame.

The Barrel Strength designation is where things get really weird. There is no legal definition for what “barrel strength” means. In fact the TTB is currently working on a new set of regulations specifically about that designation, but in colloquial use barrel strength is generally expected to mean that the whiskey is bottled at the proof it comes out of the barrel at which is usually well north of 100 proof. It is shocking then to see this barrel proof listed at a measly 94.7.

            This goes back to those 41 barrels on the 1st and 2nd floor. The lower flowers generally allow for more mellow aging that reduces the Angel’s share lost. However, it also creates a naturally lower ABV as the alcohol evaporates faster than the water. This literal loss of alcohol is another reason why you don’t see whiskey this old from Kentucky. One of the perks of not having a template though was that these barrels weren’t selected with the idea of creating consistent flavor profile like most standard bottling. Instead these were the barrels left standing. After everything that was over oaked, overly tannic, too harsh, too soft, etc only 41 barrels were left and when batched together the naturally occurring ABV was 47.35, resulting in a technical Barrel Strength whiskey at an incredibly drinkable 94.7 proof.

            The rest of the words we know. Straight Kentucky Bourbon means that it’s legally 51% corn whiskey, made in the state of Kentucky, aged for a minimum of 2 year in brand new, freshly charred, white oak barrels with no added coloring or flavors.

            That’s a lot to take in for a single bottle. And it’s surprisingly alive. Heaven Hill has released a lot of one-off older whiskies. They’ve got deep, deep store houses yet in my opinion a lot of them have fallen flat. There was always something just off about them whether they were over oaked, or they felt thin because of the proof point. Whatever that missing puzzle piece was they seem to have found it with this bottling.

And in the end this is less about of a single bottle and more a culmination of Heaven hill’s journey over the past three decades. Bourbon has gone from the unwanted step-child of the spirit world to a global commodity and the Heaven Hill brands have evolved to keep pace. They’ve gone from affordable work horse whiskies into some of the most awarded and sought after bottlings in the world. And with this pivot Heaven Hill may have finally found a brand to highlight the gems that are sleeping in those Kentucky hills. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 27 years to see them.

 

NOSE: The Oak leaps out of the glass, there is a seasoned cedar wood quality with only a mild hint of the vanilla often expected.

PALETTE: Tannic, with a dried orange, and deep baking spice note. The caramel takes a major back seat only slipping out towards the end while the mid a palette is all about that earthy, savory oakyness.

FINISH: Incredibly dry, and a lingering mélange of everything that reminds you of your grandfather: tobacco, cigars, and leather that lasts longer that it’s proof would suggest.

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