Whisky Advocate


Top 10 Rated Whiskies from the Winter 2014 Issue

November 14th, 2014

The winter issue of Whisky Advocate will be hitting the newsstands in early December. Until then, here’s a sneak preview of the Buying Guide. It’s our biggest yet; with 157 whiskies reviewed. We start with #10 and conclude with the highest-rated whisky of our winter issue.

#10: Port Ellen 1978 35 year old (Diageo Special Release 2014), 56.5%, $3,300Port Ellen bottle&box LR

Scarcity and the secondary market have driven prices up, so either buddy-up to a rich guy, or club together to try this. Greater levels of cask interaction have added an extra dimension to a whisky that is often skeletal. The smoke’s in the background, as salted cashew, peppermint, tansy, furniture polish, and smoked meats take center stage. The palate is slowly expanding and smoked, with some chocolate and wax. Finally, a Port Ellen that is truly, classically mature. A killer. (2,964 bottles)—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

Makers Cask Strength Hi Res

#9: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, 56.6%, $40/375 ml

This is what I wish the standard Maker’s Mark would be: more mature, spicier, more complex, and with a richer finish. Caramel kissed with honey provides a base for marzipan, cotton candy, cinnamon, clove, and a balancing leather dryness on the finish.–John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93The Joker Hanyu color label

#8: Ichiro’s Malt The Joker (distilled at Hanyu), 57.7%, £220

The final deal of Ichiro Akuto’s Card Series, a vatting of Hanyu from 1985 to 2000. Highly complex, rich, and distinctly resinous. Typical Hanyu boldness, but with balance struck between weightiness, finesse, and intensity. There’s old cobbler’s shop, tack room, light smoke, incense, ink, autumn leaves, and sumac. The palate is sweet to start, then builds in power. Leathery, then praline, damson jam, and fine tannins. Water loosens the tension, allowing yuzu to show. What a way to go out.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#7: Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch, 55.9%, $90

C2014LESmallBatch_Frontrisp clove, cool mint, cinnamon, and cocoa mingle with glazed orange, honeyed vanilla, caramel, and maple syrup. Polished oak and leather on the finish balance the sweet, fruity notes. More oak and dried spice when compared to the 2013 release (our American Whiskey of the Year) and, while not quite reaching that caliber (it’s not quite as seamless, drinkable, or complex), it gets close. Very impressive. –John HansellSpeyside

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#6: The Exclusive Malts Speyside 25 year old 1989 Cask #3,942, 48.8%, $200

Exclusive Malts doesn’t disclose the source distillery, which doesn’t matter when you’ve got a whisky that’s a gem. Apple cider defines the nose and is complemented by ginger and iris. On the palate this whisky is lush but well balanced, with honeyed apple cider, gingerbread cookie, and baked apple. In the center of all this is rancio. Ginger spice and baked apple define the finish, which is long and flavorful. Great balance, integration, and flavor. What more can you ask for? (U.S. only)
Geoffrey Kleinman

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

Park_Avenue-Rare_Release#5: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Hunting Hound on Holiday 4.180 24 year old 1989, 51.3%, $225

From the nose you can tell this is a special whisky, with old, dark, lacquered wood, dusty cigar box, and sea salt combined with dark sweet cherry and a hint of rancio. On the palate it gets even better, with lush, dark cherry perfectly balanced and integrated with oak spice, salt, and peat smoke. There’s clear rancio in the center of it all that’s utterly delicious. This stunner finishes with a long, slightly spicy, and entirely lovely finish. (Park Avenue Liquor only) – Geoffrey KleinmanMidleton Very Rare 2013 Bottle

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

#4: Midleton Very Rare 2014, 40%, $125

Make way. The nose is dense, oily, and mesmeric. There’s vanilla, sure, but it’s the intense aroma of vanilla pods split and scraped at knifepoint. Woven around it, there’s crème caramel and heavier cinnamon flaring at the margins, softening with dilution, but remaining sweet. The first Midleton to carry master distiller Brian Nation’s name is purposeful and assured, lacking some of the sappiness of the 2013 release. This is less about succession, more an emphatic statement of intent.—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

Brora bottle&box#3: Brora 1978 35 year old (Diageo Special Release 2014), 48.6%, $1,250

This is the 13th annual release of Brora, which has been aged in refill American oak and refill European oak casks. Hessian and hemp on the early nose, with a whiff of ozone, discreet peat, and old tar. Fragrant and fruity notes develop, with ripe apples, and a hint of honey. The palate is waxy, sweet, and spicy, with heather and ginger. Mildly medicinal and smoky. Dries steadily in the finish to aniseed, black pepper, dark chocolate, and fruity tannins. (2,964 bottles) —Gavin SmithSazerac Rye 18

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94

#2: Sazerac Rye 18 year old, 45%, $80

A benchmark aged rye whiskey, and it’s similar in profile to recent releases. Vibrant for its age. Complex too, brimming with allspice, clove, mint, and cinnamon. The spice notes are balanced by soft vanilla, soothing caramel, and candied summer fruits. Impeccably balanced, and a pure joy to drink! –John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

Stagg#1: George T. Stagg, 69.05%, $80

No age statement, but distilled in 1998. A beautiful expression of Stagg, and a lot of bourbon for your buck. Easy to drink with the addition of water, showing caramel, nougat, dates, dark chocolate, polished oak, along with a hint of leather and tobacco. Slightly better than last year’s release—richer, thicker, and more balanced. I’m enjoying Stagg’s more rounded, less aggressive demeanor of late. A classic! –John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

Orphan Barrel Whiskey Release #4: Lost Prophet

November 13th, 2014

john hansellI wrote about Diageo’s first three Orphan Barrel (OB) whiskeys here back in January. The whiskeys in these bottlings are from either the old or new Bernheim distilleries. As I noted in that post, they vary in taste, from the easy-drinking, gently sweet, and uncomplicated Barterhouse to the dry, spicy, and oak-driven Old Blowhard. Rhetoric, the third release, is somewhere in between those two flavor profiles, but leaning more towards Old Blowhard.

While all three releases are certainly interesting to taste and diverse in flavor profile, I feel that they never quite lived up to their potential. To me, the optimal whiskey is some blend of these three whiskeys, with Barterhouse being the primary component.

Orphan Barrel_Lost Prophet Bottle Shot_Lo ResProving that they have other arrows in the quiver, Diageo’s newest OB release, Lost Prophet, is not from one of the Bernheim distilleries, but is rather a 22 year old whiskey distilled in 1991 from what was then the George T. Stagg distillery (now Buffalo Trace) in Frankfort, KY. Similar to the previous OB releases, this whiskey spent time maturing in the old Stitzel-Weller warehouses in Louisville, KY (since 2006 for Lost Prophet), and was bottled in Tullahoma, TN, at the George Dickel distillery.

The mashbill for Lost Prophet is 75-78% corn, 7-10% barley, and 15% rye. Serious whiskey enthusiasts will note that this is similar to the “high rye” #2 mashbill formula at Buffalo Trace—the mashbill similar to such brands as Ancient Age, Elmer T. Lee, and Blanton’s. It’s bottled at 90.1 proof (45.05% ABV) and will list for about $120. Similar to Old Blowhard, this will be a one-time release.

Most importantly, how does it taste? I’m happy to report that it’s the best of the four Orphan Barrel whiskeys released to date. It’s complex, balanced, easy to drink, and not over-oaked. Sure, the spice notes (clove, cinnamon), oak grip, and notes of leather are there (it is a 22 year old whiskey, after all), but there’s also a lovely lower layer of sweeter notes (honeyed fruit, soft vanilla, coconut custard) for balance, along with a nice creamy texture. It’s a complete package.

This is a 22 year old whiskey. If you don’t like well-aged whiskeys, you might want to try it before you buy it. But, when compared to other 20+ year old bourbons in this age range (Pappy Van Winkle 23 yr. old, Elijah Craig 23 yr. old, Old Blowhard 26 yr. old, etc.), this whiskey has them beat. And at $120, it’s a better value.

Dewar’s Master Blender on “The Last Great Malts Collection”

November 7th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarOn receiving the press release on the new “Last Great Malts Collection” from Dewar’s, I had as many questions as there are malts in the range. I thought it might be helpful to get some views from Stephanie Macleod, Dewar’s master blender, who chooses the casks and creates the samples which led to this launch.

First, though, it seemed sensible to get examples of some of them to taste before our talk. Don’t panic; I’m not going to belabor you with all my tasting notes. Some small samples of the Craigellachies (all except the 19 year old) and the 12, 21 and 25 year old Aultmores were supplied to give me a feel of what was on offer. Most of the Aberfeldy bottlings I largely know already from previous work done with this company. The Royal Brackla and The Deveron are not yet released.

Craigellachie is described by some as “meaty,” though Dave Broom does tell us it gets fruitier with age. I’m glad I saw that comment after tasting, as fruit was what struck me, most specifically on the 17 year old, which was my favorite from there. Oh, those mango skins!

Aultmore 12The Aultmore was a little harder to pin down, but they were all amazingly fresh tasting, even the older ones. One word I had noted for the 12 year old was ethereal, which also turned out be a word Stephanie had used for the same age. A delightful nose of Muscadet wine also appeared along with the woodland scents which came through on all three ages.

So in talking to Stephanie I wondered, why now? She reminded that they updated the branding of the Dewar’s range so it was a good moment to put these out on the back of that exercise. But why so many at one time? Stephanie laughed and asked if I’d been bugging her office, then went on to explain that they want to showcase as much as possible about each distillery as a range and make a statement of how great they are.

It seemed to me that the Dewar’s business had been quite quiet for years; then we get Highlander Honey and now these. What stirred things up? Seems that when global category director John Burke came on board, not enough was being done with single malts. They decided to be brave and put a number of them out there. One view is that maybe not all of them will ‘stick’ with consumers but clear favorites may emerge.

Marketing had been thinking about this for a while but the exercise to get the final ages chosen was quite an intense and concentrated time. Samples were tasted with the marketing team and out in markets. Stephanie also had to look at the inventory available, as all of these are vitally important to certain blends, most notably Aberfeldy for Dewar’s, and each age has to represent the key characteristics of its birthplace.

Stephanie Macleod - Dewar's Master Blender

Stephanie Macleod – Dewar’s Master Blender

The two youngest samples I had were quite pale; Stephanie confirmed that no natural coloring is being added. She was a little nervous about it, worrying that this might put off consumers or affect their perceptions of nose and taste, but they decided to go for the purity aspect. Both Craigellachie and Aultmore are non-chill filtered and bottled at 46% abv.

What does each distillery bring to the party? Royal Brackla is one of only two distilleries to have “royal” in its name, so it will be saved for very special bottlings. Stephanie describes it as “summer in a glass,” fruity, floral, and perfumed. It’s been finished in sherry wood to add color and spice and live up to its royal connection.

Aultmore epitomizes lightness and elegance, though the 25 year old has a slightly different profile with a lot of sherry influence. Aberfeldy, already known as a single malt, has been included with an extended range and to show off the Dewar’s house style. As it’s such an integral part of the Dewar’s blends it is a touchstone, an elder statesman, to give us all a familiar note (as well as a damn good dram). The 30 year old finished in Marsala casks for six months was tasted frequently during that time to make sure the Marsala did not dominate. I think I’d have wanted to taste it often too!

Similarly with The Deveron: it features strongly in some blends. In France it has been a popular 10 and 15 year old Glen Deveron single malt. It has also been known by the distillery name of Macduff for bottlings by independent companies. Here they want to show off its representation of the place where it hails from, as the River Deveron meets the North Sea. I asked whether there was any maritime influence, but Stephanie thinks not as there’s no salt note in it. She mused as to why, if whisky can get salt notes with no actual sodium, then why would the food industry not be hammering our doors down to find a safer alternative? Good question!

Craigellachie 13In Stephanie’s opinion, Craigellachie could be the “Marmite” brand here. You’ll either love it or not. It’s robust and old-fashioned in that they still use worm tubs in the distillation process. This is where the meaty element comes in. I found one expression quite mushroomy. She tells us it needs a long time in cask where it soaks up the wood goodness to acquire the fruity notes. The barley for this one is dried using oil firing, which is where the sulfury note comes from. So any sherry wood with Craigellachie needs care as that would add too much and become a “sulfur fest” as Stephanie puts it.

Why are we waiting till 2015 for the Royal Brackla and The Deveron? Was it packaging or not trying to do everything at once? Stephanie says there are elements to do with packaging as this is an ambitious program, but it is also a sensible idea to embed the first few and learn some things.

She tells that the packaging of each one embodies a sense of the place and character of the whisky within. One of the important parts of the whisky and pack creation was to talk to the distillery people, collecting stories from them and finding out what they like to see in their own distillery drams. “It’s exciting for us here and the distillery guys. They’re thrilled.”

Ewen Mackintosh — In 140 Or Less

October 31st, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers. Ewen Mackintosh is the new managing director (CEO) of Gordon & MacPhail, the renowned independent whisky bottler based in Elgin on Speyside and owned by the Urquhart family. Ewen will be the first non-Urquhart for four generations to be running the company. 

 

What’s the view from your office window?

Today: beautiful blue skies and Boroughbriggs Football Stadium – home to Elgin City FC.

No need to buy match tickets then. What’s it like living on Speyside?

It’s a great part of Scotland – sandy beaches in one direction, mountains in the other and peppered with golf courses and distilleries.

Paradise for many. You’re going from Chief Operating Officer to Managing Director. Please explain the differences, task-wise.

No, I remain as COO for the business. However I do take on more Executive responsibilities, such as Export Trade.

20614_G&M_001_-_smlSo it’s basically the same but more. You’re the first non-Urquhart family member in charge for 4 generations. Any nervousness?

Nervous, no. Excited, yes. However, it will be business as usual, no point changing a winning formula.

True! Sounds like a nice place to work. You went there straight from university. Was whisky already in the blood and what rôle did you start in?

Niblick Bar in St Andrews must take some credit for introducing me to malts as a student.Actually started with G&M as a student during summer holidays.

But first post-university role?

First permanent role was implementing Quality Management Systems.

And on from there, obviously. G&M sales/turnover/profits all well up this last year. Some of the big guys seeing some brand/country downturns. What’s your secret?

We have products to suit all wallets/purses — from our entry level 8YO malts, up to the 70YO, and of course Benromach continues to grow.

Malts are so popular so is it easier or harder to get casks fillings from other producers these days for your own bottlings? Or just more expensive?

We have good, long standing relationships. Filling our own casks ensures highest quality. Important to us that we complement official bottlings, not compete.

You’ve done that well for a long time. You must be thrilled with the success of Benromach. How was that achieved?

Our desire was to re-create a traditional Speyside style from the 1950s and 1960s — this character has proved very popular.

Indeed it has. 100º Proof is new. Organic, Peat Smoke, Heritage and more. Are you allowed to tell us what’s next?

We’re still catching our breath after introducing all the new packaging, however there are some wood finishes on the horizon.

On the G&M side: Connoisseur’s Choice, Generations etc. — about a dozen ranges. How do you choose what stock goes where?

A very good question and one difficult to explain in Twitter length! For example, some labels are historical…

Maybefor a longer interview another time but please go on…

Certain labels are agreed with particular distillers, others are for styles (cask strength and wood finishes). Generations is right at the top for the oldest.

I hear you like sport. Care to elaborate? Player or spectator?

Much more enjoyment playing than watching. Unfortunately my rugby days are behind me and so golf is the passion.

More of a spectator myself. Told other interests are travel, food & drink and socialising. Does that mean you’re a party animal?

No — definitely quality not quantity. Enjoy visiting new places, trying new things. Inevitably when people find you’re in the whisky business, socialising follows!

Gordon_&_MacPhail_Directors_250413_0162_-_smlA lot of us would agree with that last bit. Do you like to pair whisky with food or is that a step too far?

Certain things work for me, cheese and chocolate pair well with whisky. It’s all about personal tastes, I never see whisky replacing wine at the dinner table.

Nor I, despite my whisky industry background. Still like it though. Travel — most of it for the job? When travelling — books or music?

For holidays, definitely a book. For work travel, mainly music. Unfortunately the emails never stop, so these generally replace the book.

Sounds familiar! Future ambitions for the company?

Benromach – keep telling our story, introduce new people to it. G&M – many “independent bottlers” out there. Want to ensure people understand what makes us different.

Unfulfilled ambitions for yourself — what’s on the bucket list?

Personally, the list is quite long, however right at the top is getting my golf handicap down to single figures.

All sounds achievable. Nothing scary there!
Lastly, what’s your desert island dram? Doesn’t have to be one of your own…

The golf handicap is quite scary! I’ll take my golf clubs and a few bottles of Linkwood with me to the desert island.

Fire Water

October 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonA while back I got a box from Darek Bell, the co-founder of Corsair Distillery. It wasn’t a big box, just about the size of a shoebox, and not that heavy. On opening, there was a lot of smoke-gray bubblewrap, a piece of paper, and ten little sample bottles of whiskey. The paper had a key to the contents of the bottles. Some had a fanciful name, like Smokejumper, Pyro, or Hydra, and each was whiskey, smoked with a different combustible: black walnut, pear, blackberry root, Hickory Amaranth, lemon balm, “5 Smoke blend.” I thought back to our 2012 Craft Whiskey of the Year, Corsair’s Triple Smoke, and sat down and started opening bottles!

Hydra — 5 smoke blend — The “smokiest” of the batch, bonfire, chimney smoke, but with a depth of different characters that keep it perky and bright: citrus, flower.

Now Bell follows up with Fire Water, Experimental Smoked Malts and Whiskeys, a focused companion book to his earlier Alt Whiskey. These two books share what’s constantly bubbling through Bell’s brain: Innovate or Die. He’s been quoted many times as saying that Corsair’s goal is to make whiskeys that have never been made before. Fire Water represents new territory indeed, by approaching smoke in whiskey as something far beyond peat.

Salamander — muira puama bark — Muira Puama is an Amazonian shrub used in herbal medicine. Floral, bosky, like leaves underfoot or old books without the acidity, and only gently smoky.

Fire Water is directly aimed at the people who want to make whiskey, and these days, illegal though it may be (and it is, very illegal), I run into people every week who tell me they’re distilling at home. (I tell them, you know, whether you sell it or not, even if you make just a little, it’s very illegal.) But the point of the book is to provide a guide particularly to the people who want to try something very different, not just a different mashbill, or making their own malt whiskey; this is for people who, like Bell, really want to rock out with their whiskey-making.

Firehawk — oak maple muira puama blend — Vetiver, cologne, a sharp smokiness with bright notes.

FireWaterThe first part of the book is a detailed look at smoking. What do you smoke, how do you smoke, what changes the amount of smoke a grain will absorb, and the various techniques — including direct injection — of getting smoke flavor into the distillate. I was surprised to learn that frozen grain will absorb more smoke flavor. This is nuts and bolts stuff that will excite the distiller and curious drinker both.

Efreet — lemon balm — very lemony, but with a sweet smokiness; gentle, but firm and refreshing.

Then the meat of the book is the tasting notes: what does distillate made with these smoked grains smell and taste like? The notes are done by two experienced ‘noses,’ Nancy Fraley and Julia Nourney. They give notes independently on an array of distillate made with the different ‘smokes,’ from woods, herbs, barks, and roots. One thing you learn is that fruitwood doesn’t always smell like the fruit. “Where’s the pear,” reads one nosing note under pear wood.

Pyro — pearwood — Fresh, delicately smoky, a surprising hit of olive brine.

The last part of the book approaches blending; putting these different flavors together to make a greater whole. This is the Canadian approach crossed with craft-based explosive variety. It reads not unlike a discussion with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head about his herb and fruit-based beers that seem to defy common sense to work beautifully; Calagione planned his beers, he didn’t just throw things together. Plan for greatness, Bell says, don’t stumble on it, and then lays out a philosophy for blending. Blending has gotten a bad name in whisky circles, and anything that gives it respect is a good thing.

NAGA — clove and barberry blend — Big smoke and spice, explosive, tangy, and shocking. Flavored whiskey that is 100% whiskey.

My one complaint with Fire Water is the design and editing. This was a self-published book, and it shows in spots. There are editing oversights that should have been caught, and the design looks rushed and jammed. The illustrations are good, colorful and illustrative, but don’t always lay well on the page. The production quality is good, though, and the cover is particularly striking.

Smokejumper — black walnut — Perhaps the purest smoke; firewood burning, sweet barbecue smoke.

Overall, though? Fire Water is jam-packed with ideas that will open up imaginative doors for innovative distillers of all types. There is brilliance here, with daring and excitement. These whiskeys won’t be for everyone — neither are Islay whiskies — but they may well burn out a whole new category of American spirits. And that’s worth a look.

Balcones Founder Chip Tate Speaks Freely

October 19th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickFor the first time since the August 8 temporary restraining order, Balcones founder Chip Tate can talk about the legal battle with his investors. He’s been under a strict media gag order, while the 170th Texas State District Court sorts out the disagreement between Tate and his investors, who alleged Tate refused to attend board meetings and even threatened to shoot board chairman Greg Allen. Allen’s legal team changed the terms of the temporary restraining order, Tate says, and he spoke with Whisky Advocate writer Fred Minnick.

By now, you’ve likely seen Allen’s side of the story. The Waco Tribune, bloggers and other media outlets published court records. We wrote about it here on the Whisky Advocate blog.

Last year, Balcones announced expansion plans for its Waco, Texas, distillery, making it one of the most-promising craft distilleries with award-winning whiskey. Allen and Tate seemed to be off to a great start and the press release offered incredible optimism with Tate saying he was “proud” to call Allen a partner.

But other things happened in a short span of time, and this is Tate’s side of that story.

Minnick: What is going on?

Tate: They were trying to make my life exceedingly difficult for a long while. Ever since I gave them a sense of what the distillery expansion was going to cost, I got a weird vibe from them. These are the investors who were going to fund the expansion. That was the whole premise. So, when I got that weird vibe, I put the figures together … {showing} cost between now and 2022, which is a lot. They’ve been strategically trying to get me out of the business since that moment. They’ve tried different proposals and board action to take over the company.

What did they do specifically?

{They were} trying to make me do daily reports on daily things and busywork. The board meetings were supposed to be quarterly, and this idea of having board meetings every few days is nonsense in itself and is clearly to make my job {difficult}. They said, ‘we need to get multiple signatures on checks and put new policies on travel.’ I asked: ‘Is there a problem with travel?’ This was draconian control based on no particular complaint. I proposed to diligently come up with a plan to meet their concerns. The {board} said, ‘nah. Voted. Seconded. Boom, boom.’ At this moment, they weren’t even going through the motions anymore.

Chip Tate

Chip Tate

But in July 2013, the investors come in and have majority control. Don’t they have final say in what goes on at Balcones?

No. When you do an LLC, you have an operating agreement on how you’re going to conduct business. Basically, there was some explicit language in there. They can’t do certain things without my consent. They can’t financially reorganize the company, which they were trying to force.

They said you threatened to shoot an investor.

The whole thing was absurd. When it came to August 5, Greg Allen stormed into the distillery very abruptly with two sheriffs. They said they would give me a period of time to buy them out. … When I got the written leave agreement, I was to resign presidential powers during a 60 day period and thereafter. When they couldn’t coerce me… they made up a bunch of allegations. They said I wouldn’t give them the passwords they literally took at gunpoint. They said I kept coming to the distillery. And they said I threatened to shoot Greg Allen. The funny thing is they said they had me on tape, and I said, ‘great!’ because I know what I said. What I actually said was in reference to when Greg busted into the distillery, I was talking to one of the other investors and said ‘I could have shot the guy, but instead I greeted him, was friendly and talked to him even though he had two armed sheriffs standing next to him.’ If you listen to the whole conversation, I told {the investor}: ‘you better do something about Greg here. They keep flying off the handle and going crazy, and I try to keep calming everybody down and react reasonably, and we don’t get anywhere. Rinse and repeat. But this can’t go anywhere good, and it can go somewhere bad.’

Do you have plans to sue them for slander or damage to your reputation?

One of the fun things about the American justice system: as long it’s done in court filings, you can’t get libel or slander. … with a few exceptions. I’ve been waiting for the circus to settle down. They released me from the injunction. They’re more envious to strike a deal than originally. Leading up to all of this was me saying, ‘hey, I don’t think you guys are happy. If that’s the case, one of us needs to leave the business before this gets to a bad place. I’d really like to stay. I founded it. If you are amendable, let’s talk about that.’ They turned down one offer after another.

What’s the end result here? Somebody buys them out? You get bought out?

If there’s a future, any future for Balcones, one of us is leaving. That’s for sure…. We {both} have to accept what we planned to happen isn’t happening. We’re not going to live happily ever after. We need to act like grown ups. And what we need to do is basically not pull each other’s shit out in the front yard, light it on fire and have the cops call—that’s not the productive way to handle this. {Using a divorce analogy…} What we need to figure out if I’m going to keep the house or they’re going to. The relationship is over. Let’s be grownups and focus on how we’re going to move forward. Either they’re going to buy me out and let me have my freedom. Or they get bought out.

How much to buy you out? And how much to buy them out?

I can’t really talk about that because we’re about to go in mediation.

The consensus from many lawyers on social media is for you to not fight this and to start fresh when the non-compete ends. Why have you decided to make this your life’s fight?

This isn’t my life’s fight. It’s been going on for two months. Anybody who thinks this is World War III has never started a craft distillery. This is a major skirmish approaching a war.

You’ve had an overwhelming amount of support from colleagues. Somebody even started a crowdsourcing site to raise money for your legal fees. What has that meant to you?

That’s huge. I can’t say how much I appreciate it! The support has kept me going. But still, even for legal reasons, I can’t really spill the beans, but these guys have a lot stuff they don’t want me to say. They misunderstood how carefully I handled them for the last six months. I am not going to lay down for these guys and let them steal from me.

The charge of contempt of court…

That was partially a reporting error. The judge makes final decision, {saying} I’m going to hold you in contempt, but I have some real questions on the restraining order.

Speaking of the restraining order, the temporary injunction is on hold now. What does that mean?

Basically, I’m not allowed to lie, cheat and steal or knowingly hold property that belongs to them. I can’t call up the employees and can’t go to the distillery. They have changed their tune very notably. They ran a full-court press on me and now that they’re done, I’ve said, ‘Is that the best you got?’ Because when I start talking, I want to make sure everybody is listening.

Are you confident you’re going to win?

Yes. If the law works the way it should, we would come to some sort of resolution. I just want to make whiskey again.

66Gilead: going up to the County

October 17th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxCrimson Rye is the latest whisky from 66Gilead, one of my favorite Canadian micro-distillers. This rural distillery takes its name from its street address in Ontario’s Prince Edward County. The distillery sits on 80 tranquil and beautifully maintained acres in the heart of this popular tourist destination. Year round, visitors smile for photos among a scattering of grey-weathered outbuildings. In summer they amble across the broad green lawns, accompanied by an ever-scurrying flock of multi-colored chickens.

The main attraction at 66Gilead is clearly the frequently packed tasting room on the main floor of a restored 19th century home built by a wealthy hop farmer, Bert Cooper.

The 12 Barrel delivery wagon is being restored.

Today, in order to meet fire code, the distillery itself occupies a new metal structure, though the rest of the outbuildings remain as they were in Bert Cooper’s era. There’s an oast house – a hop drying kiln – complete with slatted floors and brick ovens that provided gentle heat for drying. It’s an education to see how hops were dried over a century ago and how large the scale of brewing operations was, even then.

I first visited 66Gilead a couple of years ago. “The County” was built by hard-working farmers, and recently it has become home to some of Canada’s elite writers and musicians.

My day began when I joined a few dozen well-heeled, back-to-the-earth retirees and aging hippies for breakfast and single-estate coffee at the Tall Poppy Café in Wellington. Some long-time residents are not amused that these newcomers beautify their properties with brightly painted old farm machinery and heritage vegetable stands.

I’m back in The County for the launch of Crimson Rye. It’s a luscious big whisky, mature well beyond it’s 42 months in barrel. “It’s the heat,” Peter Stroz explains as we walk around in the distillery. After filling, the barrels are stacked in the distillery building to mature. Even though the stills are not working today, Peter concedes, “It’s hot in here!”

Michael, son of Peter Stroz, has a theory about why the spirits from 66Gilead distillery are so consistently good. “You really have to want to do this,” he tells me. “There are so many government regulations and obstacles that you really have to be determined to succeed.”

Michael is a recent graduate in software engineering, and minds the distillery during the week while the owners (his parents Peter Stroz and Sophia Pantazi) work at their day jobs. Both are radiologists in Toronto, a commute that takes them about two-and-a-half hours.

Distiller Sophia Pantazi with her still.

This is a genuine small batch distillery and here that means one to three barrels. “Why should I do more?” asks Sophia, “I want quality not volume.”

That attention to quality and detail is reflected in the oil paintings that hang in the distillery guesthouse. Sophia is also an accomplished painter. She may spend weekdays reading x-rays, but in her soul, I think Sophia is an artist.

“Sophia is the creative one,” Peter confirms, “I’m just the property manager.”

In Canada, grain spirit must be aged for at least three years before it can be called whisky. Crimson Rye is the first mature rye to come from 66Gilead. Even so, their rye spirit – what some would call “white rye” – has been available in local liquor stores for several years. Don’t tell martini or whisky snobs, but it makes a heck of a great dirty martini.

Bradford counts to twelve as the barrel chars.

As chickens run clucking around the property, a clanging sound from the Carriage House Cooperage tells me that Pete Bradford is pounding hoops onto a new barrel. I venture back to find some 40 people gathered around his charring furnace, a single barrel late-18th-century working antique. He is about to finish a newly made local-oak cask.

Carefully he places the barrel over the fire and soon it is crackling. “When it starts to ping it’s ready to ignite,” he tells the intrigued onlookers. But this one is a slow starter. It takes almost ten minutes for those distinct pinging sounds to begin then Bradford gets into position. Once the barrel ignites he lets it burn for about 12 seconds then douses it with a pail of water. Even the fire is hand crafted. It’s fueled with 100% white oak scrap.

This is physically challenging work and Bradford tells me he will pass the cooperage on to a new apprentice cooper before year’s end. Canada’s last working cooperage will remain in operation, though he explains that it will likely move elsewhere in The County.

It’s now 2 in the afternoon and a busload of tourists has arrived for a distillery tour and a tasting. Canadian distilleries are notoriously disinterested in tours. 66Gilead is an exception. Visitors are more than welcome here and there’s plenty to keep them occupied.

“Our conversion rate is outstanding,” Sophia grins. I wonder for an instant if our conversation has suddenly turned religious, until she points to the visitors.

“Look at that, over half of them are taking a bottle or two home with them.”

In addition to Crimson Rye and Wild Oak Whisky, 66Gilead also serves vodka, gin, shochu, and barrel-aged rum in the tasting room. “We distil every drop on site,” says Sophia. “It really hurts the craft distillery image that some people use grain neutral spirits.”

Peter nods in agreement. It’s obvious to see how satisfying it is for them to make spirits that are hand crafted in minute batches. I have to remind myself that Peter and Sophia spend most of their week in white coats, tending to patient’s medical needs, and not looking after these barrels.

I ask Peter about their dual focus. “I’m just as passionate about medicine. But here I can chat and joke and share stories with people. At the hospital there is always that element of doctor-patient confidentiality.”

They are genuinely welcoming hosts, Sophia Pantazi and Peter Stroz, and spending a day at 66Gilead in Prince Edward County is certainly worth the drive if Toronto is your base. Experience their hospitable spirit and taste their distilled spirit and you’ll likely end up discovering a bottle worth bringing home with you.

Fall Bourbon and Rye Whiskey Limited Release Overview

October 15th, 2014

john hansellIt’s that time of the year again, when all the major bourbon and rye whiskey producers release their limited edition whiskeys, and consumers scramble to find a bottle before they disappear. Your time and money is valuable, so I thought I’d offer some guidance on which whiskeys you should concentrate on buying.

I’ve tasted my way through the following whiskeys. My formal reviews will appear in the upcoming issue of Whisky Advocate, but here’s a quick overview of them, in no particular order.

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (All $80, in theory)

My favorite of the line is the George T. Stagg (69.05%). The past two years have shown a tamer, more rounded and balanced Stagg. This one is a classic.

2014 BTACSazerac 18 yr. Rye (45%) is similar, but not identical to, previous years. And I really like it. To me, it’s still the best example of a classic ultra-aged rye that’s released on an annual basis. This is the same whiskey that has been tanked in stainless steel and released annually over the past several years. It will continue to be until a new 18 year old rye is released in 2016.

Both Eagle Rare 17 yr. (45%) and William Larue Weller (70.1%), two perennial favorites, are showing more age this year. By this, I mean there’s more wood spice and resin. They are still very nice whiskeys, but to me the extra oak is gratuitous and unnecessary.

The disappointment this year is the Thomas H. Handy Rye (64.6%). This year’s release is thinner and less complex on the palate, with unintegrated spice, botanical, and feint vegetal notes dominating. Yes, there are other flavors thrown in the mix, but it doesn’t help. It’s easily the weakest whiskey in this year’s Antique Collection.2014LESmallBatch_Front

Four Roses 2014 Limited Edition Small Batch, 55.9%, $90

There’s more oak and dried spice when compared to the 2013 release (our American Whiskey of the Year last year) and, while not quite reaching that caliber — it’s not quite as seamless, drinkable, or complex — it gets close. Very impressive.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, 56.6%, $40

This is what I wish the standard Maker’s Mark would be: more mature, spicier, more complex, and with a richer finish. This was initially released in Kentucky only, but rumors are that it will get a wider distribution in the future. The best Maker’s Mark since the now extinct Maker’s Mark Black, which was released for export only. If you can track down a bottle, you won’t be disappointed. (Except for the fact that it’s only in 375 ml bottles.)

2014_OFBB_BottleMockupElijah Craig 23 year old (Barrel No. 26), 45%, $200

Yes, 23 years is a long time to age bourbon. And yes, there’s plenty of oak influence. But there’s an underlying sweetness that balances the oak spice (with this particular barrel; others may vary). I suspect that some of the barrels will be over-oaked, so be careful.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2014 release), 12 year old, 48.5%, $60

This whiskey’s signature over the last several years has been wood-dominant, with plenty of dried spice (the exception being the 2013 release which I really enjoyed—it was chock full of balancing sweetness). The 2014 release is similar to the pre-2013 releases; a dynamic bourbon, but still leaning heavily on the oak spice.

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength (2014 Release), 59.65%, $170

The third cask strength release and, like all Angel’s Envy bourbons, this one is finished in port barrels. When compared to the standard Angel’s Envy bourbon, this Cask Strength release is packed with more of everything: alcohol, port fruit notes, and oak. While very enjoyable, it pushes the envelope of the port finishing. If port finishing isn’t your thing, then you should think twice before buying.Parker's Heritage Collection Original Batch 63.7

I’ll throw in a bonus wheat whiskey too:

Parker’s Heritage Collection Original Batch Wheat Whiskey 13 year old, 63.7%, $90

Heaven Hill’s straight wheat whiskey, Bernheim Original, is a pleasant drink, but I always felt that some extra aging and a higher proof would give it additional richness and complexity to propel it to a higher level. That’s what this new whiskey accomplishes. If you like Bernheim Original, you’ll love this one.

The Templeton Case: let’s talk to a lawyer

October 10th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickIn 2011, I visited Templeton, Iowa, to cover this hot rye whiskey that Al Capone supposedly liked. At the time, I knew they were purchasing bulk whiskey from what was then called LDI, the former Seagram’s facility that gave the world beautiful 95% rye mashbills, but I had never approached the company about this. Going into the interview, I half expected them to be confrontational. Keith Kerkhoff, one of the founders, played college football and tried out for an NFL team; and let’s just say, his lineman shoulder could crush my spine.

When questioned, the founders, Kerkhoff and Scott Bush, were honest about the sourcing process and I later found their sales reps disclosed the whiskey origins. Templeton even disclosed this fact on its Website, producing a video captured at the Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and openly discussed the fact on social media. But for whatever reason, the company never disclosed the state of distillation on the label. Instead, Templeton sold the small town’s infamous Prohibition heritage.

Templeton Rye facility, Templeton, Iowa

Templeton Rye facility, Templeton, Iowa

For years, even before my 2011 visit, hardcore whiskey geeks called foul on Templeton’s marketing efforts and even the locals didn’t care for Kerkhoff’s and Bush’s attempt to bring unwanted attention to the town. (Illicit whiskey makers are still very much in business in Templeton!) All of this would be chalked up as noise or slightly bad publicity for a brand that became a consumer favorite.

But all of that changed in late August when a class-action lawsuit was filed against Templeton in Cook County, Illinois, citing “deceptive marketing practices” and that Templeton violated consumer protection laws. The plaintiff claimed he was led to believe that the whiskey was made in Iowa. This lawsuit was given the green light to proceed and two additional class-action suits have been filed, with the most recent one being filed this week in Iowa. Tito’s Handmade Vodka faces a similar class-action lawsuit.

To understand the depths of the suit and how it might impact the future of the spirits business, I reached out to attorney Joel Ard, an alcohol attorney specialist with Foster Pepper PLLC in Washington.

 

Templeton’s labels were approved by the TTB. How are they vulnerable for a lawsuit?

That’s a surprise often to a lot of people, certainly among smaller craft producers, but even among larger industry participants. This idea that a government agency has approved their label and then they can get called on it for alternative reasons is often a bit of a surprise.

But isn’t the TTB to blame for not catching an improper label?

The reality is that the TTB is the Tax and Trade Bureau. It’s not a Trademark Office. It’s not an advertising office. It’s not a consumer protection office. They collect excise tax on ethanol and their primary concern about labels is the Surgeon General’s Warning is on it, in the right font, in the right size and that the percent alcohol by volume is accurate.

There are a bunch of regs about no obscenity, no nudity. Just start looking at wine labels for what stuff gets through. There’s a lot of stuff that can get through because they’re pushing through an enormous volume of labels; it’s not primarily a place for judging the accuracy of advertising or the consumer protection statute.

On to the Templeton lawsuit; what kind of case is this?

This is the kind of lawsuit where an enterprising lawyer dug up a more or less imaginary plaintiff and sued somebody and he’s going to pocket the proceeds in the lawsuit. Pick a consumer protection statute, find a target and sue them.

Will this become a trend? Will enterprising lawyers start dissecting alcohol labels for violations of regulations?

I’m sure that somebody could come up with a particularly creative claim that somehow a person was harmed because a wine bottle had the American Flag on it and that’s forbidden by regulation. Hard to imagine what the claim would be. What’s the harm to the consumer?

Now, you might say, where is the consumer harm that Tito’s Vodka is actually not made by hand; and Tito’s lawyers and the California consumers will fight over that, maybe there’s no harm, maybe it’s really bad.

It seems like a lot of this could be fixed if the TTB had more authority to police labels for accuracy.

I’m not sure it would be the best thing to try to give them more authority. A few years back, the label approval backlog was huge. If you are a startup distillery, you need to get a label approved pretty quickly. You can’t afford to wait for your label and don’t have the resources to have an army of lawyers push them through TTB. So, my concern would be if you were [adding] authority, it’s going to hurt the little guys. The big guys have plenty of resources to get their labels approved. The way the TTB runs now, there’s very little legal involvement.

The TTB right now is a decent balance of making sure that people aren’t misled about alcohol content, poisoned by strange distilled spirits, or blatantly obviously lied to on labels. For the broad run of the rest of it, most of the time the market’s going to sort it out. If you put bad stuff in a bottle, it doesn’t matter how cool your label is.

Canadian Club releases an all-rye-grain whisky

October 6th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxIt was a secret mission. So secret, in fact, that even the operative did not know what it was about. I could name the operative but that would put them at risk. Let’s just say, for the moment, it’s a whisky-loving writer based in a friendly country not that far away. It was mid-April and he flew from somewhere in that country to Louisville to meet Beam Suntory marketing director, Kelly McGregor. Louisville isn’t the easiest city to fly to and it took a full day of travel to get there, another on the return. All that for a single day in Louisville.

When Kelly met him for breakfast she couldn’t help cracking a smile as she told him that a blindfold would not be required for the journey. She identified the destination: the Jim Beam distillery campus on Happy Hollow Road in Clermont. Happy Hollow has a nice backwoods ring to it, but when they arrived at their destination – the product development lab – they were surrounded by the essence of modern science, right down to omnipresent white lab coats.

Canadian Club Rye in rye field“We’re going to taste some whisky,” she finally told him. “We’d like to get your impressions.” So, they toured the lab before he sat down with five scientists and about a dozen glasses of whisky. Some, he reports, were good, some were great, and one was just so-so. All had the rich spiciness, dried fruitiness, subtle sourness, and refreshing bitterness of rye.

They worked in silence, writing their tasting notes, five whiskies at a time, and then, once they’d committed their thoughts to paper, they discussed them one by one. Not which ones they liked or why, just aromas, flavors, and impressions. After a couple more rounds, someone collected all the notes, and just like that, it was over. He still hadn’t a clue what was really going on and he doubted that his hurriedly dashed-off notes would be decipherable, let alone of any value.

Then late in August this year, Rob Tucker, Beam Suntory’s senior brand manager, sent him an e-mail. “I wanted to let you know about our new product launch in Canadian whisky. I cannot reveal it yet, but will be letting you know sometime in September. We were honored that you were able to join our team in Kentucky, and hopefully you got a taste of what I consider to be our obsession with moving the Canadian whisky category forward. This new product, and in particular because it comes from this brand, will open the eyes of many Canadians about Canadian whisky.”

Great news, Rob, but there’s an important detail that’s missing: WHICH BRAND????

In Louisville, his taste buds had told him it was rye, and he knew that Rob was the mastermind behind Dark Horse, one of his favorites. So, when he received an invitation to attend a product launch for a new whisky from Canadian Club, one sentence jumped out at him: “Join us as CC unveils the newest member of its portfolio, honoring the grain that is exciting bartenders and whisky lovers across the country.”

Let’s join the dots: Beam Suntory owns Canadian Club. Bingo! He had it. A new all-rye Canadian Club.

Rob Tucker, Beam Suntory

Rob Tucker, Beam Suntory

It was an educated guess, though Rob still was evading his questions. Then a week or so before the launch, a messenger arrived from Beam Suntory with a bottle. He ripped the package open and lo and behold: Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% rye whisky.

Rob finally let him in on the secret. The whisky, he explained, is distilled and aged for 7 years at Alberta Distillers, Beam Suntory’s western Canadian distillery in Calgary and then shipped east to Walkerville, Ontario, for bottling at 40% abv.

Wait a minute! Before fans of “more-is-better” begin to snipe that the whisky is bottled at a standard 40%, take a look at the price. This seven-year-old 100%-rye-grain whisky sells for about $1.50 more than regular Canadian Club Premium. “We could have priced it higher,” Rob concedes, “but we wanted to get it into the hands of 25 to 30 year olds and price is sill an important factor for them.”

A note, then, to US residents who love their rye: Get ready for your cross border shopping run. With just 70,000 cases in the pipeline each year, this new whisky, at least for now, is available in Canada only.

Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye was unveiled at a launch held at Toronto’s Spoke Club on October 2 and will be appearing in Canadian liquor stores over then next few months.

And finally, I can reveal the identity of this whisky-loving operative. It’s… Wait! I hear footsteps…

© Copyright 2014. Whisky Advocate. All rights reserved.