We just learned that Beam Suntory is releasing a new bourbon — another one! — and while it’s very affordable at $24 the bottle, it’s also pretty special. Jim Beam Bonded is the first new bottled in bond bourbon (that I know of) that’s been released in years. It’s good to see Beam’s keeping this new bonded in the general price range, too.
If you’re not clear on what makes a bourbon “bottled in bond,” here’s a quick rundown. As well as conforming to all the regular rules for bourbon, all the spirit in the bottle must have been distilled at one distillery, under supervision of the same master distiller, in one season. It must be at least 4 years old. It must be bottled at 100 proof/50% ABV. Most of the remaining bonded bourbons are inexpensive, because they don’t get much promotion or advertising spent on them.
But the most noticeable thing about bottled in bond bourbons is that there aren’t many of them, and most of them are ‘heritage’ brands, ones that were bought up as distilleries failed. Heaven Hill is unusual in that they have two bonded bourbons under their own name, plus the Evan Williams bonded, the Rittenhouse bonded, and a couple others. Beam, of course, has the Old Grand-Dad bonded, which has been a staple at my house since I discovered it two decades ago.
So the very first question I asked Fred Noe today was “Why?!” Why bring out a new bonded bourbon now, when it seems clear that they’d seen their day, despite the efforts of folks like me, and Chuck Cowdery, and Heaven Hill spokesman Bernie Lubbers to revive them.
“It came from bartenders wanting bottled in bond, people digging up old recipes calling for bottled in bond,” Fred said. “Hell, that’s an easy hit for us; just do what we used to do. It’s not that hard to develop: 4 years old, one season, one distillery, 100 proof. We age pretty much everything 4 years already, just a matter of designing the package. It’s been well-received, they’re excited to get hold of it.”
The package design is a bit of a throwback as well. The old Jim Beam Bonded had a gold label as well. Fred said he used to carry a bottle around with him, the strip stamp was dated 1957, the year he was born. “My daddy (Booker Noe) gave it to me because of that,” he said. “I used to use it to show people what an old bottle of bourbon looked like.”
Fred explained why they were putting another bourbon in the same general price category as Jim Beam White, the 7 year old, Jacob’s Ghost, and Red Stag. “We’re always looking for new ideas,” he said. “But instead of coming up with new stuff, we can go back to the old stuff. We made good stuff back then! Like Old Tub, that’s what my daddy drank. We brought that back just to sell at the visitor’s center. And people buy it! People want the full-flavored bourbons.”
Yes, yes we do. I know I’m ready to get a bottle of this stuff and pour it over a big chunk of ice and take it for a ride. I never thought I’d see the day. First rye comes back, now maybe it’s the return of bonded bourbon. We live in interesting times.
I got a box from Michael Reppucci at Sons Of Liberty Spirits in Rhode Island last week. I’d reviewed some of their whiskeys before, noting that their take on craft distilling is to take craft beers and distill and age them. He was reaching out with “an experience that we think is pretty freaking cool.” Turned out that I agreed, because what they’d done was take two of the “beers” they make to distill, and instead, carbonated and bottled them. You know, like beer. The idea was to try the beers with the whiskeys.
In the box were four bottles: two whiskeys, two ‘beers,’ the before and after of Uprising and Battle Cry. I took the box home, chilled the beers, and waited for a quiet moment to do a tasting. When it came, I carefully poured the unfiltered beers, and the whiskeys, and tasted.
Uprising stout: Chocolate, coffee, slightly burn graham crackers, toast. Not any forward hops. Soft carbonation, flavors carry through on aromas. Sweet, no bitter grip on the finish, but no real husk/burnt bitterness, either. Sweetness is balanced by the coffee and roasted barley flavors, but still sweeter than most commercial stouts. I’d drink this in a bar.
Uprising whiskey: Oak and vanilla in the nose, but a hint of that chocolate, too. Tastes young, but the maltiness is there, and the chocolate comes through in the finish. Kinda yummy, actually.
Battle Cry Belgian: Smells tripelish, looks tripelish, though a bit of a sour edge to it. Oh, hey, that’s very refreshing! I was expecting something much thicker from the smell, but this is light, nice citrus cut to it, and yet enough body to cling just a bit.
Battle Cry whiskey: oak and honey on the nose, and quite a light whiskey on the tongue. The orange is there, but muted.
So does this work? I can’t taste the beers hugely in the whiskeys, but when you’re aging in small barrels (10 and 30 gallon new charred oak), you’re going to get a lot of oak; is it hidden? The chocolate came through in Uprising, the citrus not so much in Battle Cry…but I really like that light body. I also think it was wise to pick non-hop forward beers.
A unique opportunity, an interesting idea. Thanks, Sons of Liberty!
Single malt producers do it routinely and so do America’s bourbon makers. Until now, however, no major Canadian whisky distillery has ever released a single barrel whisky. Finally, as 2014 drew to a close, Crown Royal became Canada’s first major brand to do so. To top that, each hand-selected barrel is bottled at a healthy 51.5% ABV. A whisky year already brimming with encouraging developments in the Great White North concludes with the Canadian whisky story of the year.
Crown Royal Single Barrel Whisky is more than simply a high-strength rendition of the standard bottling we are all familiar with. About 50 different mature whiskies are used to create that blend. One of these is the ultra-flavorful “Coffey Rye,” and it is this Coffey Rye that the brand has chosen to bottle for its single barrel program.
The liquid itself is everything you’d expect from hand-selected barrels, though at first sip you’ll not recognize it as Crown Royal. Still, if you have tried Crown Royal Monarch you already have an inkling of what Coffey Rye tastes like. It is the heart of that 75th anniversary blend.
Since it was first created in 1939, the secret of Crown Royal’s success has been the meticulous mingling of several dozen individual whiskies produced at the distillery. Each makes its own contribution to what many consider the most complex, balanced, and smoothest of Canadian whiskies. If Crown Royal De Luxe displays the elegance of a prima ballerina, Coffey Rye is its muscular NHL-enforcer cousin.
Unlike most Canadian whisky, Coffey Rye begins with a high-rye mash bill rather than a single grain. It is distilled to low ABV in an ancient copper Coffey still that was brought in from the defunct Waterloo distillery. Winters are long and cold in Gimli, Manitoba, where Crown Royal is made, so master blender Andrew MacKay leaves the Coffey Rye spirit in virgin oak bourbon barrels for seven years where it slowly absorbs their lusty flavors. On a recent visit to the distillery I tasted whisky from three of these barrels, and the differences among them were remarkable, varying from succulent butterscotch, through spices, to hard, brittle rye.
Rollout began in late November, in Texas, where liquor stores snapped up the first 519 barrels. Each barrel is exclusive to a single retailer. While there are no barrel numbers on the labels, if you are looking for a particular batch, a medallion around the neck of each bottle notes the retail outlet it was bottled for. Distribution will expand to include fourteen states beginning in February. But Canada’s reputation for keeping its best whisky at home has been dashed: it’s still fingers crossed that Crown Royal Single Barrel will be released in Canada at all.
There’s more. Interest in Crown Royal and Canadian whisky in general has grown to the point where something else that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible is about to become reality. Work is well underway on a visitor’s center, which will open later this winter at the Gimli distillery. Along with production overviews and a history of the brand itself, the center illustrates the story of the Coffey still and its inventor, Aeneas Coffey, and ends in the still house. Visits must be booked in advance and are restricted to groups. Details of minimum group size and how to arrange a tour will be announced once the center opens.
Rye whisky lovers have something very special to look forward to on that tour. Manager Dwayne Koslowski tells you that chocolate bananas are the signature aromas of Coffey Rye, then takes you inside where the first thing you notice is those very smells. Then, as you walk past the large column stills toward the glistening Coffey still at the far end, the scents of cloves and typical rye spices waft in. “We try to keep as much of these aromas as possible in the spirit,” says Koslowski, clearly enjoying the fragrance as much as his visitors.
Suggested retail price for Crown Royal Single Barrel Whisky (the label says “Hand Selected Barrel”) is $55.00.
Disclosure: Davin de Kergommeaux was invited to Gimli to select a barrel of Coffey Rye. He did not receive any compensation for this opinion.
If you know A. Smith Bowman, you know about Mary. Mary is the pot still with the big reflux ball and tiara of pipes that the distillery has used for secondary distillation of column-stilled spirit for years. Bowman is a rare—if not unique—character in small distilleries in that they do no mashing; they take distilled spirit, made elsewhere, then run it through Mary and age it on their premises. When the late Truman Cox took over as master distiller, he told me with no little excitement that there were plans in the works for changing that; there was going to be mashing at Bowman. Truman never got to see it, sadly, but the plans continued; there is going to be mashing and primary distillation at Bowman.
When I was at Bowman last month, I saw the evidence. Master distiller Brian Prewitt walked me through the facility, pointing to where the mash cooker and fermenters would be installed, where they’d be putting the new hybrid pot/column still—to be named “George”—and a new warehousing space, twice the size of the current space (which is almost packed full of aging whiskey). It was quite impressive.
I talked to Brian recently about details. He’d been out to Vendome in Louisville, taking a look at George. It’s a 500 gallon hybrid still, with a 4-plate column on top of the pot, and a 20-plate bubble cap vodka column off to the side, and an optional gin basket. “I can pull a draw off any plate, pull at a lower proof, it gives me the option to do all kind of different things,” Brian said.
On the fermentation side, there’s going to be a 500 gallon mash cooker, with rakes and a false bottom so they can run wash or the whole mash. “We want to be able do anything and everything,” said Brian; he said it several times, actually. “The fermenters are jacketed [cooled], so we can do all kinds of fermentation profiles, or we can do it all natural if we want. We’re getting a hammer mill and a roller mill; I’ll run corn through the hammer, malt through roller. Whatever combination of grains we want, we’ll be able to run.”
It should be delivered and set up in January (after a few tweaks at Vendome), then up and running in February. All timelines are dependent on TTB approval, of course, and he’d heard nothing yet on the warehouse expansion.
I asked Brian if this is the new Bowman. Yes and no. “It will yield about 65-66 proof gallons [per batch], which, lo and behold, is just about a barrel,” he said. “The core products will be from Buffalo Trace and Mary, but we want to have an experiment going, well, every week if we can. One week a rye, then a wheat, and maybe a local rum, who knows?
“It’s exciting, it’s turning over a new leaf for the distillery,” he said. “We’re getting back to making some good whiskey, with the flexibility to experiment one barrel at a time. We can try all sorts of stuff, pulling out the stops and trying the old favorites too. It’s twice the size of the Taylor [microdistillery at Buffalo Trace]; it’s a similar design. But they have a packed column, they can only really run vodka through it. We’ll be making gins, different eau de vies; Virginia has a lot of grapes, and we don’t even have a brandy in our portfolio. Why not do it?
“We originally thought, hey, let’s get a whiskey still,” he said, and laughed. “Well, what if we want to do a gin or a rum? We wanted something we could easily clean to get the other flavors out of, and do anything!”
It’s a major step for Bowman, and it brings the question of “what is a ‘craft’ distiller” into sharper focus. Is Bowman craft? They’re small, they innovate. Is it important that they’re wholly owned by the Sazerac Company, when they operate with such a wide degree of independence? Which parts of the identity of a “craft distillery are important? Tough questions.
Who knows whether Shinjiro Torii, when he opened his Torii Shoten store in 1899 in Osaka, envisaged his family firm becoming the world’s third-largest drinks group? Or that, in pioneering whisky distilling in Japan and creating a style that was recognizably Japanese and not a scotch copy, he would excite the world’s palates; that the values he laid out would have lasted for over a century.
A few years ago I met with his grandson, Shingo Torii, Suntory’s vice-president and master blender. Then, among other things, we discussed the philosophy which, he felt, helped define Suntory. “It has been about creating and developing a positive tradition, and it is this tradition, or what you could even call ‘inheritance,’ which should be understood by everyone within the company. It is important that it is handed down.”
As other drinks firms increasingly seem attracted to short-term fixes, these embedded values have given a consistency to the firm’s long-term vision for whisky. Neither does “consistency” mean “conservative.” You don’t spend $16 billion buying a competitor if you are that. After all, one of Shinjiro Torii’s first principles was “Yatte Minahare!” [Go For It!]
Suntory has always been based around innovation. This is the firm that transformed the stagnant domestic Japanese whisky through the HiBall revolution, while its research into whisky production at Yamazaki leaves other distillers scratching their heads in disbelief.
I remember asking Torii-san whether a family company was in a better position to take this approach. “I see family management as simply a form of style, he replied. “However, it is also true that this style has enabled Suntory to pursue its dream for a significant period of time and makes the moral values which lie at the heart of the business a top priority in the firm’s values.”
Seen in that light, the acquisition of Beam is the most visible manifestation of a very long-term strategy. What has resulted is the creation of the only firm that plays in every one of the world’s key whisk(e)y styles. Beam’s stake in bourbon, yes, but also blended scotch and single malt whisky, particularly peated. Beam Suntory is the biggest single player in Japanese whisky, but also owns Canadian Club and the world’s rye whisky specialist, Alberta Distillers; and then there’s Cooley, from Ireland. It is an astounding—and deep—portfolio.
It will be interesting to see how these Suntory principles are absorbed within American business culture and how the new management handles this range. “We have a deep conviction for making product,” said Torii-san. “In addition, [it is about] having a long-term plan, in terms of half a century or even a century, and being able to maintain a sense of humility.”
Humility is not a word you hear in whisky often—it is one which should be heard more often in business—but if these Suntory values are maintained, then a measured, long-term approach to building these brands can only benefit the category and consumers. Beam Suntory should not merely be a bourbon firm with some interesting stuff in its second tier.
It took $16 billion to break the duopoly of Diageo and Pernod-Ricard, but there’s a new kid in town, a new seat at the table. Who else could be our Distiller of the Year? Whisky’s pieces have been fundamentally rearranged. Things will never be the same. —Dave Broom
That’s our final Whisky Advocate Award announcement for 2014. We’ll see you in the comments section!
We have two Lifetime Achievement Awards this year, for two men who have made their careers in the Scotch whisky industry. Colin Scott has served as the master blender for the prestigious Chivas Regal and Royal Salute lines of blended whisky; Duncan McGillivray has wrestled with the Victorian-era machinery of Bruichladdich and brought it to heel. We salute their achievements and dedication.
Colin Scott, Chivas Brothers
Chivas Brothers’ master blender Colin Scott has spent 41 years working in the Scotch whisky industry, having been brought up next to Highland Park distillery on Orkney. Both his father and grandfather worked for Robertson & Baxter Ltd. (the historical core of today’s Edrington Group), so it was perhaps inevitable that he followed them into the trade, starting out as a trainee manager for The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. in 1973.
Early experience was gained in the firm’s Leith bottling plant, before a move to its Newbridge bottling site after Leith’s closure. Having embraced package quality and spirit quality operations, he joined the blending team at Paisley, near Glasgow, learning the art of blending from the legendary Jimmy Lang.
In 1989 he took on the role of master blender, initially focusing on Chivas Regal 12 year old and Royal Salute 21 year old, but also growing the two brand ‘families’ over time. In 1997 he introduced Chivas Regal 18 year old, now global leader in its category, then the 25 year old expression in 2007. Meanwhile, the Royal Salute portfolio was expanded to include 38 year old Stone of Destiny, Tribute to Honour, 62 Gun Salute, 100 Casks Selection, and Diamond Tribute.
During his career Colin has worked for just three companies. Glenlivet Distillers was acquired by Seagram Ltd. in 1978, and Seagram in turn was bought out by Pernod Ricard and Diageo in 2001, at which point Pernod Ricard took control of the Chivas Brothers portfolio.
In addition to his practical blending role, Colin has also emerged as a highly engaging and effective ambassador for the Chivas blends, traveling the world to demonstrate and discuss their virtues.
In recognition of his contribution to the Scotch whisky industry, Colin was appointed a Master of the Quaich in 2008, a decade after being inducted as a Keeper of the Quaich, Scotland’s most prestigious whisky society. —Gavin D Smith
Duncan McGillivray, Bruichladdich
If there’s anything Duncan McGillivray is known for, it’s his commitment to the Scotch whisky industry. Since he started in 1974 until his retirement in 2014, Duncan has served in a variety of roles at Bruichladdich distillery, from lorry driver to brewer to—most recently—general manager. His tenure, in fact, surpasses that of any of the distillery’s various owners.
McGillivray, a prolific Gaelic speaker who grew up on a farm five miles from the distillery, is also known for his innate ability to put even the most antiquated machinery back into working order. An engineer by training, he was originally hired to be a stillman at Bruichladdich, but his technical wizardry proved useful beyond the stillroom and he became the resident engineer, repairman, and all-around Mr. Fix-It.
The distillery was shuttered in 1994, but in 2000, an English wine merchant planning to rejuvenate the place recruited then-Bowmore distiller Jim McEwan to reawaken the distillery. McEwan hand-selected Duncan to return and get the facility up and running. Duncan did that and then some. Many at the company are quick to credit his resourcefulness and skills as fundamental to Bruichladdich’s renaissance. He improvised solutions to repair and upgrade the facility’s original Victorian-era equipment, and he did it all on a shoestring budget. If a boiler broke down, everyone knew to call Duncan. If a new piece of equipment arrived and needed to be integrated into the system, call on Duncan. You could say he spearheaded the effort that turned the quaint plant with creaky machinery into a distillery with popular and cult appeal that turns out 2.5 million liters of spirit annually.
Duncan has been as critical to setting the friendly, informal mood at Bruichladdich as he was in overseeing spirit production, famously stopping to chat with tourists. Ask any Islay citizen about him and people are quick to praise him as a convivial, industrious, clever, modest friend, neighbor, and citizen who regularly throws down what he’s doing if you need his help. —Liza Weisstuch
Join us tomorrow for the final award announcement: Distiller of the Year.
Rosebank 1992 21 year old (Diageo Special Releases 2014), 55.3%, $500
The late Michael Jackson described the demise of Rosebank as “…a grievous loss,” and it remains one of the most mourned of silent distilleries, almost in the same league as Brora and Port Ellen.
There have been some very good independent bottlings of the triple-distilled Rosebank in recent times, but arguably the best expressions have been Diageo’s 2011 and 2014 Special Releases ‘house’ bottling of Rosebank, both offered at 21 years of age. The 2014 Special Release was distilled during 1992, just a few months before the distillery closed, never to resume production.
It has been matured exclusively in refill American oak casks, while some of the component whiskies in the 2011 release were matured in a combination of refill American oak and European oak casks. The result is a slightly sweeter and more textured 2014 expression, with orchard fruits gaining greater prominence, while both enjoy a pleasing degree of complexity.
Pricing will inevitably be seen as an issue with this expression, but Diageo appears to have decided that with such an active ‘secondary’ market for the Special Releases they will attempt to cut out the middleman, as it were, and the proof of the pricing will be in the selling. However, the speed at which the 4,530 bottles move off the shelves may not be Diageo’s foremost priority with this series, which serves more as a cask strength single malt showcase for its distillery portfolio.
As the Lowland single malt category is seeing a welcome revival with the development of Kingsbarns and Eden Mill in Fife and Annandale in Dumfries-shire, while several other Lowland distillery projects are under consideration or awaiting planning approval, it is to be hoped that in the not too distant future we will see new pretenders fighting the likes of Rosebank for the Lowland crown. —Gavin Smith
Whisky Advocate’s 21st Annual Lifetime Achievement Award will be announced tomorrow.
Arran The Devil’s Punchbowl III The Fiendish Finale, 53.4%, $130
John Grant of Glenfarclas distillery once told me that in his opinion no really top-quality single malt whisky had been produced in any Scottish distillery built since the Victorian era. Scanning the list of 20th century distilleries, he may have a point, but if one gives the lie to Grant’s premise, then it is surely Isle of Arran.
Established in 1993, Arran has matured as a whisky-making operation as the years have passed, from the slightly panicky, scattergun approach of many cask finishes to the calm, assured, and beautifully made 16 and 17 year old single malts, with an 18 year old not too far from release.
The availability of stocks of maturing spirit in a diverse range of cask types and with a relatively wide age spectrum has allowed master distiller James MacTaggart to offer a number of well-received limited editions, marketed at affordable prices, without age statements.
‘NAS’ whisky at its best can be very good, just as it can sometimes be decidedly mediocre, particularly when the principal purpose is to eke out diminishing aged stocks. However, given a free rein in the Arran warehouses, MacTaggart has proved with his trilogy of Devil’s Punchbowl releases that he has a real mastery over their assemblage.
The third and final expression in Arran’s Devil’s Punchbowl series has been matured in eight oloroso sherry butts, five bourbon barrels, and eight French oak barriques, all of undisclosed vintages. The sherry wood-matured component has gifted this ultimate dram backbone and resonance, with dried fruits and chocolate notes, while bourbon barrels have added a soft vanilla sweetness, and the French barriques provided spicy oak.
Whisky from each cask type at just the right age and in just the right proportion has resulted in a complex and harmonious yet individualistic whole, showcasing Arran at its very best. —Gavin Smith
The Lowlands and Campbeltown Single Malt Whisky of the Year will be revealed tomorrow.
Signatory (distilled at Laphroaig) 1998, 60.8%, £100
Another toughie. The best have been small batches this year: Lagavulin’s Feis Ile bottling, Bruichladdich’s Bere Barley, and the coming of age of Port Charlotte. The winner however was that rarity, Laphroaig in sherry.
I know that the official line is that Laphroaig is best suited to American oak casks; they give the whisky a sweet element to balance its tarry, seaweedy depths. They work, no doubt about it, but you know there’s just something about this big bruiser of a single malt that works when given longer-term maturation in sherry wood.
Here you had the dark fruits of the cask melding with the distillery’s creosoted depths, while the medicinal iodine-like element, which was very much to the fore, found an ideal partner in the resinous richness of the wood. The smoke was fully integrated, running alongside all of this complexity, adding aromatic and textural layers to the whole package. And, perhaps most surprising of all a sweet fruitiness ran in the middle. It was also one of those whiskies with a character I’m getting obsessive about; the effect of long, controlled oxidation. Air is the forgotten element in whisky aging. Complex and compelling.
It is also evidence, if it were needed, of the continuing consistent excellence of the casks being bottled by Signatory. Independent bottlers are, for some reason, being slightly overlooked. Seek them out and snap up the best bottlings. Yes, this was limited and has undoubtedly gone by the time you read this (you were given fair warning!), but seek out great whisky bars and see if they have one squirrelled away. And yes, let it be said that this is the standard that the new official 15 year old should be aiming at. —Dave Broom
Be sure to join us tomorrow; we’ll announce our Highlands and Islands Single Malt Whisky of the Year.