Archive for the ‘American whiskey’ Category

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Spirit Hound Distillers

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

stephen beaumont

Here’s a feel-good Friday story for you; how a Colorado craft distillery bounced back from a potentially business-ending flood and stayed on track to release their first aged whiskey. For all our friends on the East Coast today, batten down the hatches and stay dry!

Craig Engelhorn will readily admit that it takes a special kind of crazy to open a whisky distillery, given that the act is committed with the certain knowledge that it will be years before your product is ready to sell. Even so, Engelhorn and his four partners had no idea what kind of chaos awaited Spirit Hound Distillers a mere nine months after they finally got their whisky distillery up and running. Like, over two feet of water sort of chaos.

Lyons, Colorado’s first distillery, Spirit Hound was first conceived by Engelhorn back in 1999, when he was working at the local Oskar Blues Brewery and imagining what might result were the company’s Old Chub Scotch Ale to be run through a still. Over a decade later, having left the brewery, he and his former co-worker Wayne Anderson hatched a plan to open a business of their own together. Anderson favored a brewery; Engelhorn wanted to make whisky.

Whisky won and over the next two years the duo assembled their partners, secured a location and began building their still. It was ready at the end of 2012, and even though they then had to have their wash produced under contract at a Colorado craft brewery, by the start of 2013 the distillery was up and running.

Head distiller Engelhorn was able to get six barrels of whisky made in those early months of 2013, along with a coffee liqueur and a variety of clear spirits that allowed the company to stay afloat while the whisky matured. Then September arrived and with it the rains that wreaked destruction on much of northern and eastern Colorado.

Faced with a dead battery in his truck, Engelhorn had elected to spend the night on the second floor of distillery on September 11, aware of the rain but oblivious to the fact that its overnight intensity would cause the close-by St. Vrain River to swell to banks-bursting volume.

“The next morning I woke up to some gurgling sounds,” he says, “It put me right in a bad mood because I thought we had plumbing problems.”

The problems were decidedly larger than mere plumbing. The main floor of the distillery had been submerged in flood water, ruining inventory and supplies and causing major damage to the walls of the building. The bright spot? “The tanks were fine, just had to be cleaned out and made functional again,” Engelhorn says.

Another bright spot: By a quirk of fate, the company had recently invested in flood insurance after their mortgage holder had happened to notice that the property overlapped a flood plain. As a result, Spirit Hound was able to decline all offers of assistance and direct those funds towards other, harder hit members of the community. Their own reparations they financed themselves.

When the town was functionally restored two months later and water and sewage services returned, Spirit Hound Distillers was, in Engelhorn’s words, “ready to press the button and get started again.”

Spirit Hound’s Craig Engelhorn bottles the pre-flood whiskey

The next chapter of the distillery’s rebirth took place just a few weeks ago, when Spirit Hound threw a party to celebrate the release of their Straight Malt whisky, the bottling of five of those initial six pre-flood barrels. The other barrel, the very first, remains in the warehouse for an as yet undetermined time because, as Engelhorn says, “you’re only ever going to have one barrel no. 1.”

The whisky release was seen by the Spirit Hound partners as less a simple product launch and more an elaborate block party for the town, since to a great extent all of Lyons has been through the recovery together. As Engelhorn says, “We’re happy to just be here. The fact that the community is here and we are here and the whiskey is here – that’s cause for celebration!”

Michter’s ‘Barrel-a-Day’ Distillery Comes Home, Sort Of

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Author - Chuck CowderyTwo weeks ago, the name ‘Michter’s’ was reunited with a tangible piece of that storied distillery’s past, the barrel-a-day distillery made in 1976, which since 2011 has been on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio making bourbon, rye, and apple brandy at the Tom’s Foolery Distillery.

“It’s more distilling capacity than I need,” says Tom Herbruck about selling the equipment to Michter’s. “This will allow us to get back to our original plan of staying very small.” Tom’s Foolery is moving soon, to a farm where they already grow grain. They will keep making whiskey and other spirits, but on a smaller scale.

The still and small fermenters, loaded up

The once and future Michter’s still and small fermenters, loaded up

The Michter’s equipment “is going to a place where a lot of people will get to see it and enjoy it,” says Herbruck.

He’s talking about the Michter’s visitors center that is being built in the Fort Nelson Building on Louisville’s ‘Whiskey Row.’ Restoration work on the beautiful, circa 1890 building has been slow because of structural problems discovered only after Michter’s bought it. Now completion is almost in sight, according to Michter’s President Joe Magliocco. The plan is to install and run the still, what Michter’s is calling ‘M1,’ at the Fort Nelson attraction.

M1 will be stored at Michter’s Shively distillery until downtown is ready. Fort Nelson is a few blocks from the Evan Williams Experience, which has had a similar small distillery in operation for about two years. Others are in the works for Jim Beam and Old Forester. Two larger distilleries, Peerless and Copper & Kings, are just outside the downtown area.

On hand in Ohio to oversee the transfer were members of the Sherman family, whose Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Louisville designed and built the system for Michter’s 39 years ago. They refurbished it for Tom’s Foolery in 2011.

According to the Shermans, M1 was the first all-pot-still distillery built in the United States after Prohibition. Essentially, it was the original American micro-distillery. It consists of two alembic pot stills, three fermenters, a mash cooker, condenser, and all associated tanks and other accessories. The beer still has a capacity of 550 gallons. It is called ‘barrel-a-day’ because it can produce about 50 gallons of distillate per run.

In 1976, the distillery in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania was struggling. The entire American whiskey industry was in the doldrums, with sales down across the board. Companies were consolidating and distilleries were closing. All of the other whiskey distilleries in Pennsylvania were gone or would be soon. The industry was dying.

Established in 1753, Schaefferstown had a good claim as America’s oldest continuously operating whiskey maker. The distillery had many different names over the years but was always at the same location. It officially became Michter’s in 1973. American history was hot in 1976 with the American bicentennial celebrations and Michter’s, located in tourist-rich ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ country, was by then hanging on more as a tourist attraction than a whiskey maker.

Because business was so bad, the stills at Michter’s ran for only a few months every year. Tourists who came to the distillery expecting to see whiskey being made were frequently disappointed. Thus the idea for the barrel-a-day distillery was born. As a pot still system, it was more like the pre-Prohibition distilleries that had been at the site than the wholly modern Michter’s plant that was there then. It would be human scale and easier to understand, and as a batch system it could easily be run every day during tourism hours at minimal expense.

Naturally, the demonstration distillery was opened with great hoopla and did create a significant though short-lived increase in visitors. Uniquely in Pennsylvania, Michter’s had special permission from the state’s Liquor Control Board to sell its whiskey in the distillery gift shop. More tourism meant more whiskey sales too.

Willie Pratt (Michter's) and Tom Herbruck (Tom's Foolery)

Willie Pratt (Michter’s) and Tom Herbruck (Tom’s Foolery)

Michter’s shut down in February of 1990. So catastrophic was the final collapse that the owners simply vanished, abandoning the property, equipment, and aging whiskey. They also abandoned the intellectual property, including the Michter’s name, which was claimed a few years later by Chatham Imports. Since then, the new Michter’s has built a fine reputation as a non-distiller producer (NDP) with a well-regarded portfolio of mostly high-end bourbons and ryes sourced from unidentified distilleries.

Unlike most NDPs, Michter’s is making the transition to distiller. The brand new Michter’s distillery in the Louisville suburb of Shively is now producing. Its first barrels were filled during the last week of August. The Shively distillery is large by micro standards, but small compared to Wild Turkey or Jim Beam. It will, of course, be years before anything distilled there is sold.

Tom’s Foolery put away about 450 full-size barrels of bourbon and rye during the four years they ran M1. For proprietors Tom and Lianne Herbruck, that’s a lot. They believe it is the largest inventory of aging whiskey in Ohio. All of it was made in open fermenters using the sour mash process, exactly as the system was designed to do in 1976. (Most modern micro-distillers don’t use sour mash.) The Herbrucks hope to sell that whiskey in a few years as bottled-in-bond bourbon and rye.

Back to the history of M1 itself. It sat unused like everything else at Schaefferstown while the county government sorted things out. In 1996, the just-retired master distiller at Jim Beam, David Beam, bought it and moved it to Bardstown, Kentucky. He put it on display next to a motel he owned. He and his sons talked about hooking it up and starting a micro-distillery, but it never happened. Beam sold the motel and in 2011 sold the distillery equipment to the Herbrucks. He and other family members made several trips to Ohio to get it going. He was honored at the first release of Tom’s Foolery Ohio Straight Bourbon Whiskey in Cleveland in November of 2014. He died on June 29 this year.

“It worked out nicely for the time that I had it,” says Herbruck. “I’ve grown attached to the equipment. There’s that sentimental value, a little bit of sadness. It’s like sending a child off to college.” Herbruck’s oldest, Emily, is a freshman at Miami University in Oxford this fall. “I know it’s the right thing to do.”

Firenado! The New Viral Video (from 2003…)

Monday, September 14th, 2015

Author - Fred MinnickOn September 3, Jim Beam found itself trending in social media circles for something that happened 12 years ago.
The Weather Channel had posted video of the 2003 Jim Beam warehouse fire on its Facebook page that offered apocalyptic-looking, spiraling flames on a pond, with a voiceover deeming it a “firenado.” In its post (to more than 5 million fans), the Weather Channel informed viewers that lightning struck a Beam warehouse and 800,000 gallons of the good stuff spilled into a retention pond. Weather Channel: “You have to have exactly the right conditions for something like this to happen. A body of water with flammable substance on top and other conditions to whip the fire into a funnel.”

In the text of the post, the popular cable channel did mention the date of the fire: August 4, 2003. But as it was shared on social media and other websites posted the video (see the video in this USA Today post) content creators conveniently omitted “2003,” leaving many people to believe that the fire just occurred.

Jim Beam’s parent company, Beam Suntory, said it received “a number” of media and consumer inquires about the fire. “For some reason, many media outlets reported this as if it were ‘new news,’ which certainly caused confusion,” a spokesperson said. “With that said, our distillery and bourbon supply and fully intact, and all of our barrels are aging to be enjoyed around the world in the future.”

So just how did a 12 year old video enter our newsfeeds?

The Weather Channel spokesperson Melissa Medori says the clip came from the Weather Gone Viral show that “uses video clips and interviews to demonstrate how meteorological moments around the world affect people in their everyday lives. … It doesn’t hurt that our audience loves fire — add a little bit of alcohol and … boom.”

Since the show is a third party production, Medori has been unable to track down who exactly made the decision to use the Beam footage. But it shook things up on the Internet. While it may not have broken the Internet as Kim Kardashian once attempted, it certainly opened a door for crazyville.

It’s rare when whiskey trends mainstream on Facebook and Twitter. But when it does, I love observing how society perceives whiskey.

The #firenado hashtag offers a close study of how a simple video can turn into larger debates on social media. Beam’s fire was used in global warming, taxation, and even presidential debates. People said the usual “this is a sign of the times.” And, of course, who could resist the obvious pun of the firenado actually being “Devil’s Cut,” a bourbon owned by Beam Suntory. Many said, perhaps predictably in a snob-trending fanbase: “oh, it’s only Beam.”

The comments were entertaining, but the fire was an all-too-real situation that occurred only seven years after Heaven Hill’s facilities burned to the ground in 1996. In 2003, Nelson County Assistant Fire Chief Robbie Blanford told The Kentucky Standard what was on his mind during the Beam fire: “Not again,” he said, reminded of the Heaven Hill fire. “I never thought I would have to hear that call again.”

Let’s all hope that’s the case from here on out.

Whiskey Label Transparency: How to Do It

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

author-lew-brysonJust a quickie here. We subscribe to the BottleBlueBook TTB updates, mostly out of curiosity. They send out a daily update on COLAs filed by the TTB. Heh. What’s that mean? As some of you know, the TTB is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. federal government, the descendant of the old ATF, and responsible for approval of spirits labeling, among other things, and a COLA is a Certificate/exemption Of Label/bottle Approval, the form the TTB issues when companies send in a new label and it’s approved. Note that the issuance of a COLA doesn’t mean the product ever will be bottled, it’s just an early step and the company may never even make the product.

High West COLAGot all that? Okay, so here’s what we saw this morning from High West. Appropriately western, right? Notice the print at the bottom:


Is High West making rye, is it 2 years old, and therefore straight? Well, let’s have a look at the back label! I’ve typed out the pertinent bits for you to save you reading the small print (it’s all small on the back, because there’s a lot). The added emphasis is mine.

“We confess…we didn’t coin the term “Yippee Ki-Yay.” Moreover, we didn’t paint the picture on the front label. It’s an historic poster (Gift of The Coe Foundation and Henry B. Balink) now at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming (, you really oughta visit). Furthermore, we didn’t distill the whiskeys in this bottle (it’s our Double Rye! –sourced whiskey – see for details). However, we did come up with a combination that we think will make you say… Yippee Ki-Yay drinkers of horrible tasting cheap flavored uisge beatha!” (I didn’t add that last emphasis, that was all theirs!)

There’s more, but it’s about the finishing, and we’re talking about the sourcing part. So if you click through to, and check on the Double Rye page, you’ll see that they clearly state that the whiskey is a blend of two rye whiskeys — mashbills are given –that High West did not make, one from LDI/MGP, and one from Barton. Plain and simple.

Why’d I put this up? To show some whiskey companies how easy it is to tell the truth, the facts about where their whiskey really comes from, and to still have some fun with it. After all, High West is selecting the barrels, they’re making the blend, they’re finishing in a rather bold mix of vermouth and syrah barrels. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. And you can do that too. Just be honest. Give us the details. Or you can be transparent, and not give all the details: as long as you note what state the whiskey’s distilled in (and if it’s the same state as where you are, honestly admit that you didn’t actually distill it).

It’s just that simple. And it’s the right thing to do. We’ll have more on this in our Winter issue; we set Chuck Cowdery loose on it.


Note: I had the direction of the COLA screwed up originally. My thanks to Jay Erisman at New Riff Distilling who emailed me and pointed out the error. All fixed now. 


Record-breaking Karuizawa at Auction

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Jonny McCormickKaruizawa has earned the title of the most expensive 700 ml bottle of whisky ever auctioned. Bonhams, Hong Kong set the record with a hammer price of HK$750,000 ($96,774) for the Karuizawa 1960 52 year old ‘The Cockerel’ 51.8%, on August 28th 2015. The record hammer price represents an appreciation of greater than 500% over the original retail price of £12,500.

Japan took the honor from a single malt Scotch whisky. Bowmore held the 700 ml record for 680 days following the charity sale of the Bowmore 1964 48 Years Old. Christie’s sold that one-off Bowmore for £61,000 in October 2013 at the Distiller’s Charity Auction in London, organized by the Worshipful Company of Distillers. Importantly, Macallan is recognized as holding the Guinness World Record for the most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold: the HK$4 million six liter “Imperiale” of Macallan M in a Lalique decanter.

The stunningly high-priced bottling.

The stunningly high-priced bottling.

Only 41 bottles of the Karuizawa 1960 were released when it was bottled in 2013. The packaging of this edition is a masterpiece of quiet understatement: the wasabi paper labels were handmade by Norito Hasegawa and beautifully embellished by master calligrapher Soji Nishimoto. Part of the original sherry hogshead cask #5627 was incorporated into each ensemble, and every bottle is uniquely identified by the netsuke figurine that hangs around its neck.

The Bonhams auction, titled “Japanese Whisky Featuring Hanyu Ichiro’s Full Card Series,” is likely to be recognized as the highest-grossing whisky auction of all time. The total hammer price spend that evening exceeded HK$13 million ($1.68 million), of which 83% ($1.4 million) was spent on Japanese whisky, 16% ($262,000) on Scotch whisky and 1% ($17,000) on American whisky. Several brands commanded a significant share of the total: Karuizawa (48%, $807,000), Hanyu (28%, $478,000), and The Macallan (6%, $95,000), although The Dalmore Eos was the most expensive single malt Scotch whisky sold. Pappy Van Winkle was the major U.S. whiskey presence, taking 1% ($15,000).

The headline sale of 54 bottles of the Hanyu Card Series for HK$3.1 million is the second highest lot price ever paid for whisky in Hong Kong, after The Macallan M. The complete series by Ichiro Akuto was notoriously difficult for individuals to collect, with the probability that there are only a couple of full sets in existence. The chance to purchase these 54 bottles as a readymade collection may never be repeated. Clearly, a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Hammer prices for the top ten lots at this record-breaking sale:

  1. Lot 196 Hanyu Full Card Series (54 bottles)             $400,000
  2. Lot 139 Karuizawa 1960 52 year old                           $96,774
  3. Lot 82 Karuizawa 1960 33 year old                            $41,290
  4. Lot 273 The Dalmore Eos 1951 59 year old               $30,967
  5. Lot 80 Karuizawa 45 year old (2 bottles)                  $28,837
  6. Lot 227 The Balvenie Cask 191 50 year old               $25,806
  7. Lot 133 Karuizawa Sumo set (3 bottles)                    $19,354
  8. Lot 145 Springbank Millennium Set (6 bottles)      $18,709
  9. Lot 109 Karuizawa Cocktail Series (4 bottles)         $16,774
  10. Lot 124 The Macallan Select Reserve 1946              $16,774


Jonny McCormick’s article “Whisky Trinity” about the phenomenal rise of Karuizawa, The Macallan, and Pappy Van Winkle at auction is in the September 30th issue of Wine Spectator magazine.

How “Store Exclusive” Barrels Get Selected at a Craft Distillery

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

author-lew-brysonWe see more and more of the “store bottlings” coming up. Liquor stores are taking the time and making the investment to go to distilleries and select a single barrel to be bottled and labeled for sale at their store only; bars are starting to do it as well. We thought you might be interested in just how that happens, and when I was contacted about such a selection, it seemed like a good time to do that.

I got an email from Nick Taylor, who runs the scotch and whiskey department for Gordon’s Fine Wines & Liquors in Massachusetts (they have several stores in the Boston area). He was coming down to Mountain Laurel Spirits in Bristol, Pa. to pick a store barrel of Dad’s Hat Rye, and noticed that they weren’t far from where I live. He said he was a fan of my writing about whiskey, and wondered if I’d like to join him and his boss, Dave Gordon, at the tasting. I was up for that; I’d been interested in just how the barrels got picked. We arranged to meet last Thursday, August 27, and as luck would have it, we were also joined by Whisky Advocate copy editor Sam Komlenic, who happened to be in town that day.

John Cooper pours seasonal samples (Dave and Nick on right)

John Cooper pours seasonal samples (Dave and Nick on right)

I got there a little early, and started talking to distillery owners Herman Mihalich and John Cooper. When Nick and Dave arrived, we invited them to join us in an educational tasting Cooper had suggested. He poured three samples of the standard bottling of their rye whiskey: 7 to 9 months old, 90 proof, and blended from various casks. The samples were bottled in February, June, and the third had been bottled that morning. Coop wanted us to taste them to see the seasonal variation, the difference in what came out of the casks — all from the same Missouri cooperage, all filled with the same spirit made in the same way — because of the temperature and humidity differences as the casks aged in different parts of the year. The February bottling was spicier; June was oily, and sweeter; August’s was grainy and had a lot of rye bitterness. Quite interesting. After that, Cooper took Nick and Dave on a tour of the distillery, while Herman and I, and now Sam, continued talking about the seasonal variations.

Nick Taylor, David Gordon, and John Cooper, tasting

Nick Taylor, David Gordon, and John Cooper, tasting ryes

Then it was time to taste. Cooper does the cask selection for the mingling at Mountain Laurel, and what he had done is fairly standard practice at these kinds of selections. As he’d been tasting for the general bottling, he’d flagged some barrels as possibles for single barrel bottlings, “Exceptional ones,” he said, “which means, ‘ones that I like!'” He let us know that he also picks one or two that aren’t so good to put in the mix. Why would he do that? It’s for contrast. “If you’re not used to tasting from six barrels of 117 proof whiskey all at once, it all starts to taste the same,” he said. The other barrel will stand out, and re-set your palate.

So we went at it. The barrels had been dumped into food-grade plastic barrels to take the look of the cask out of the equation, to put them all on equal footing. Keep in mind they were all Dad’s Hat, all roughly the same age…there were clear differences. More pepper in one, more sweetness in another, and then there was one with a clear hit of jalapeno. Then there was number 5, which made us all go “Wow!” Nice barrel. (And yes, we got the off barrel…which some of us liked! “It’s still Dad’s Hat,” Cooper said, “It’s just one that I’ll be blending, not putting in a single barrel bottling.”)

While Cooper was setting up another round, with fresh samples, from the top three choices, I asked David why Gordon’s was even doing a single barrel store bottling. Gordon’s is an 81 year old business, but up until they brought Nick on about a year ago, it was largely a wine-driven business. Since they got a dedicated whiskey guy, whiskey sales are up 30%, and they’re starting to develop the kind of free-spending connoisseurs in the whiskey area that they’ve always had in their wine business. They’d decided it was time to take the next step. So far they’ve done store bottlings of Glendronach, Russell’s Reserve bourbon, Knob Creek, and WhistlePig.

Sam, Herman, and Nick, looking for WOW

Sam, Herman, and Nick, looking for WOW!

Ask Nick why they wanted a single barrel, and he’ll tell you it’s about the uniqueness factor. “We like Dad’s Hat, but a single bottling is…more so,” he said. “I’m looking for the the signature of the distillery, but looking for that WOW! I’m looking for that reaction.” He also noted that while they’d carried the Russell’s Reserve for a while, when they got the single barrel bottling in — a great bourbon, he said — not only did they sell the store bottling, but the regular Russell’s Reserve 10 year old started selling better. “It gets people to look.”

So now we had three whiskeys to taste; the jalapeno, the ‘Wow!’, and one with much more overt oak. We left this one to Nick and Dave. They tasted, they nosed, they looked at each other — “I think we take two,” said Dave. “We take two,” agreed Nick. They actually decided to blend the first two, working with Cooper. They really liked the Wow one, but Nick didn’t want to lose that jalapeno character. And when it’s your barrels, your bottling, that’s an option.

Store bottlings depend somewhat on the distiller; they’re going to choose the barrels you taste from, and obviously, it’s about their distillery character. But the store bottling is a great opportunity for the buyer to find something of an outlier for the whiskey, something that shines a light on the spirit, on the grain, on the barrels. Something that makes you say “Wow!” Sometimes they’re amazing; almost always they’re interesting.

Whisky Advocate’s Fall 2015 Issue’s 10 Highest-Rated Whiskies

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

WT Master's Keep Bottle x

The Fall 2015 issue of Whisky Advocate magazine will be hitting the newsstand in early September. Here’s a sneak preview of the issue’s Buying Guide reviews; the 10 highest-rated whiskies of the issue.


#10 – Wild Turkey Master’s Keep, 43.4%, $150

A very pricy (for Wild Turkey) 17 year old whiskey honoring master distiller Jimmy Russell. Nose is hot for the proof, with oak, dried barrel drool, warm dried corn, tobacco barn, and teaberry. Entry is not hot; rather, a thread of sweet syrup spreads out into thoroughly integrated corn and oak. Finish slides into drier oak. A fascinating journey through bourbon flavors, this is both lighter and more complex than expected. I still prefer younger Wild Turkey, but…—Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

#Nikka Coffey Grain 750ml_300 x9 – Nikka Coffey Grain, 45%, $65

Sweet, with subtle, crisp, nutty oak, then comes fudge, ripe banana, and peach. The overall effect is like eating vanilla ice cream with toffee fudge and hazelnut sprinkles. The structure is thick and physical, the palate sweet and quite fat, with light hints of raspberry, fruit salad. A jag of acidity freshens the delivery on the finish. With water there’s more toffee, and it becomes slightly more yielding, with less oak. For me the gold standard of grain.—Dave BroomCompass Box Hedonism Quindecimus x

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#8 – Compass Box Hedonism Quindecimus, 46%, $200

How time flies! This eloquent blended grain marks CBWC’s 15th anniversary and the combination of these aged grains is idiosyncratic of whisky auteur John Glaser’s distinctive taste. Rich honey, apricot stone, crisp spices, vanilla custard, gentle oak char, and tropical fruits promise a real reward. Succulently juicy, with melon, apple, and caramel, subtly paced, with chocolate and dark fruit infiltrating. Slowly the sweetness depletes to black pepper and spiced roast meats. Defer swallowing for as long as possible. (5,689 bottles)—Jonny McCormick

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Canadian-Rockies-21yr-46percent x#7 – Canadian Rockies 21 year old (batch 2), 46%, C$69

When Thomas Chen introduced Canadian Rockies in Taiwan, he chose Highwood Distillers in High River, Alberta, to supply a delicate yet fragrant, fruit-laden whisky that would please the Taiwanese palate. Now launching in Canada, Chen upped the bottling strength to 46% to boost the flavor. The complex, exotic fruit salad and faint lilac-like flowers that characterized the original remain, along with blistering white pepper, sweet oak caramels, and crisp, clean barrel notes on a luxurious, creamy palate. (Canada only) —Davin de KergommeauxBT French Oak Barrel Head Aged only x

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#6 – Buffalo Trace French Oak Barrel Head Aged, 45%, $47/375 ml

Nicely round flavor profile, with complex notes of creamy vanilla, subtle tropical fruit, mocha, fennel seed, and light tobacco. Lingering cinnamon spice and cocoa on the finish. An extremely drinkable whiskey that entertains throughout. —John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Bernheim-Original-7-year-old-Straight-Wheat x#5 – Bernheim Original 7 year old Straight Wheat, 45%, $35

This select bottling of Bernheim Original comes from Warehouse Y on the 4th floor, and is non-chill filtered. Without the filtering, the nose is notably more expressive and becomes a real showcase for wheat grain, oak spice, caramel, and citrus. On the palate, this whiskey maintains a firm balance between soft and strong, with supple wheat grain entwined with caramel, oak, and cinnamon spice. A long, flavorful finish caps off a well-curated selection of an excellent whiskey. (Julio’s Liquors only)Geoffrey KleinmanBARRELL Whiskey Batch 0001 x

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#4 – Barrell Whiskey Batch 001, 61.25%, $59

7 year old whiskey (an unspecified “corn, rye, and malted barley” mashbill “distilled in Indiana”) aged in used barrels. Maple syrup, well-browned popovers, and Canada mint lozenges in a boozy-hot nose. Richly sweet on the palate: pastry dough, hints of anise, buttery and slightly-burnt cornbread, syrupy dark fruits: complex, rich, delicious. Water brings out more of the dough and tames the heat. Delicious, unique, intriguing. Sourced whiskey.—Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

Pigs-in-Plaster x#3 – The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Pigs in Plaster 14 year old (#4.1980, 59.1%, $140

This single cask, distilled at Highland Park, is an excellent example of why distilleries sell off certain casks. On the nose it’s Highland Park’s signature sherry and peat, but on the palate it’s a beast. Monster peat smoke surfs on a lush layer of berry and malt. This builds to a peak with smoke, salt, and oak spice, bolstered by the high proof. A smoky, dry finish rounds off a monster whisky, different from Highland Park’s style, but very interesting. (Julio’s Liquors only)Geoffrey KleinmanEWSB 2005

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#2 – Evan Williams Single Barrel 2005 Vintage (barrel #292), 43.3%, $29

Complex fruit (clementine, pineapple, golden raisin) balanced nicely with honey, vanilla custard, and dusty corn, along with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. An extremely versatile whiskey with its medium weight, easy to embrace personality, and subtle charms. Perennially one of the best values in whiskey.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#1 – The Exclusive Malts 13 year old 2002 (cask #20021), 52.2%, $ 135

The Exclusive Malts 13 year old 2002 Irish Whiskey xThis 13 year old malt from central Ireland is an uncommon foray into the Irish whiskey space for the Exclusive Malts Collection. Pure malt is the focus of the nose which supports that malt with tart green apple. On the palate this whiskey is a stunning mix of lush, sweet honey, salt, malt, green apple, and ginger spice. The balance and integration are nothing short of perfect. A long malty finish caps off one of the best Irish whiskeys I’ve had. (U.S. only)Geoffrey Kleinman

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

More About Portland Distilleries — Part 2

Friday, August 7th, 2015

Author_Geoff KleinmanWe ran a piece by Geoff Kleinman on Portland, Oregon’s “Distillery Row” in the current issue (“Beer and Whiskey”, Summer 2015). It’s a good piece, but Geoff had a lot more material, so we decided to run it here. This is the second part, about New Deal Distillery. Enjoy!

There’s a bumper sticker commonly seen in Portland, Oregon that reads “Keep Portland Weird”. Although weird is a relative term, as one tours the many craft distilleries in Portland, it’s clear that each marches to the beat of its own drum. Portlanders aren’t concerned with what the rest of the country is doing, they’re intensely curious about exploring the boundaries of their own world and work, and they’re willing to work together in a way you just don’t see in other parts of the country.

Portland ND TomTom Burkleaux is kind of weird (in a good way) by any standard. A former Marine sniper, Burkleaux does computer programming during the day and then runs his distillery at night. New Deal Distillery has grown considerably over the past few years, moving locations and increasing its staff from three to fifteen. New Deal has also put their hat in the whiskey ring with their first whiskey release, New Deal Bourbon Whiskey.

To understand New Deal’s whiskey, it’s important to understand their history with vodka. New Deal really got their start making vodka, and not as a placeholder or cash crop to help fund their whiskey, but as a primary product. Producing vodka came out of Burkleaux’s love for vodka, something that genuinely shows in their products.

The distillery produced two main vodkas, New Deal Vodka and Portland 88. The former showed off the signature craft of the distillery, while the latter provided a lower cost, well polished, and filtered offering for the large population in Portland who are budget-minded and manage to live by piecing together several jobs with DIY interests. Burkleaux got a fair amount of heat from other craft distillers for using commercial neutral grain spirits in the base his Portland 88 Vodka, even though he re-distilled, cut, and polished the spirit. Several years ago in the Pacific Northwest there was a major argument over requiring a craft distiller to ferment what they made, and this set the standard in Washington, but not in Oregon. Tom stuck to his guns and showed that, no matter what the source, he could make a good vodka that people liked.

In many ways Tom Burkleaux wears the label “mad scientist,” in the most complimentary of ways. His stacks of experiments line the back wall of the distillery. During our visit there he pulled out bottle after bottle of different experimental spirits: “Here’s one where we used just the German smoked malt. Oh, here’s what happens when you add sugar to the corn mash (something he sells as Wildcat). This one is just strange, don’t drink it! Just smell.” It’s through these experiments that he developed New Deal’s Gin 33. Gin 33 is a complex mix of pine, honey, lemon-lime, and mint, but it’s all just an elaborate Burkleaux magic trick, as the gin contains one lone botanical: juniper.

When you are at New Deal , you never know what Burkleaux will pull out. “Want to see something really cool?” he asks me with a sly smile and a slight twinkle in his eye. The answer is, of course, YES! and after a little fiddling, Tom produces a bottle of Red Terra Agave Vodka. Part of New Deal’s success comes out of contract distilling for smaller producers. For Red Terra, Burkleaux was approached by a prominent tequila-producing family from Mexico who wanted to transform some traditionally distilled tequila into… vodka.

The idea is unique, but the experience of the actual liquid is even more far-fetched. Red Terra has all the classic tequila notes with soft, sweet roasted agave, vanilla, and black pepper on the nose, and even on the entry, but in the mid-palate everything turns into a clear and true vodka, with a crisp, clean finish. “Wow, that’s #%$*ing strange!” I exclaim, knowing how bad the words sound even as they leave my mouth. “So strange, but so good,” I correct. Red Terra is a total head fake, and simply unique. It shows how a distiller like Burkleaux can apply his sensibilities to almost any spirit category.

Portland ND BourbonThat leads us to New Deal Bourbon . Like everything that Tom Burkleaux does, it’s a bit of an experiment, and like most things that Tom does, it’s a success. Instead of adding rye to the mix as most craft distillers seem to be doing, Tom went with 1/4 wheat (50% corn, 25% barley and 25% wheat), which gives the bourbon a soft and round quality, which counter-balances the fact that it’s been aged in 25 gallon casks. Burkleaux’s sensibilities also shine through in the mix, as the base has been distilled to focus on the soft and clean elements of the mash bill. It’s young, just over a year, but it just works and the result is an affable, light whiskey – the kind of crossover whiskey that’ll win over vodka drinkers, not only to whiskey but to the craft world.

The biggest lesson you can learn from Tom Burkleaux at New Deal is that a craft distiller who has a style and knows how to apply it across their products has more to offer than a distillery trying to chase the market. “My sniper instructor used to say to me, ‘simplicity baffles the modern man,’ and I think that just about sums it up,” remarks Burkleaux.

The New Deal Distillery is located at 900 Southeast Salmon Street in Portland, Oregon. Currently their New Deal Bourbon, Wild Cat (a corn and sugar mash spirit), and Old Tom Gin (which is amazing) are only available for sale at the distillery.

More About Portland Distilleries — Part 1

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Author_Geoff KleinmanWe ran a piece by Geoff Kleinman on Portland, Oregon’s “Distillery Row” in the current issue (“Beer and Whiskey”, Summer 2015). It’s a good piece, but Geoff had a lot more material, so we decided to run it here. This is the first part, about House Spirits. Enjoy!

In many ways House Spirits Distillery been one of the more precocious of Portland’s craft distillers. As one of the early tenants of Portland’s Craft Distillery Row, House Spirits helped craft and shape the community and culture of Portland’s craft distilling scene. This was a natural outcropping of the deep roots founders Christian Krogstad and Lee Medoff had in Portland’s craft beer and wine scene.

Portland House EXHouse Spirits was also one of the early distilleries to collaborate with a bartender to help formulate one of their products. The bartender in question was Ryan Magarian, who has now grown into a successful restauranteur, and the collaboration was Aviation American Gin.

Aviation Gin was a home run for House Spirits, and that success powered forward the distillery in a very specific direction. The velocity of Aviation was enough to tear a rift between the distillery’s co-founders, and in late 2010, the pair decided to split.

Lee Medoff broke off from House Spirits to start his own distillery, Bull Run Distillery, and Christian Krogstad brought in outside investment, including former senior execs from Fiji water, the co-founder of Milagro tequila and famed San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana.

This kind of turmoil surrounding success would be an early example of how success can be as difficult and complicated in the craft distilling space as failure, a lesson that many craft distilleries would eventually learn.

With the turmoil of the past behind them, House Spirits began to really focus. With Aviation Gin fueling their growth, the attention could finally shift towards whiskey. The result of that shift was House’s Westward Single Malt Oregon Whiskey.

Portland House WestwardIn Portland, many craft distillers work closely with craft breweries to have their barley malted, grains milled and mash cooked. This enables them to have a smaller footprint in the distillery and eliminates the expense of gear required to mash. In line with Portland’s locavore culture, House selected a Northwest barley, which they fermented with ale yeast, which was then distilled to make Westward.

With Aviation Gin paying the bills, and an investment group committed to growth, House Spirits had a luxury that most craft distillers simply don’t have: time. Instead of releasing their whiskey at the one year mark, House Spirits decided to hold on for a full three years of aging.

To keep their growing fan base engaged, House Spirits created a special line of spirits that could only be purchased at the distillery. House Spirits Apothecary Collection. Through this collection, House could let spill, small amounts of their whiskey, along with other unique and experimental projects, including aged aquavit, Ozu, and a coffee liquor.

The program was so successful, and the small distillery had so many people visiting, that House Spirits decided to make good on the concept of an Apothecary and created an entire spirits store, The House Spirits Apothecary, complete with cocktail mixers, bartending tools, cocktail books, and of course House’s own spirit products.

Finally, in 2013, Westward Oregon Straight Whiskey was ready to go. The big problem House Spirits had was that although the whiskey was ready, they didn’t have a lot of it. House made the decision to release Westward in 375 ml bottles with a hefty price tag of $55. “We didn’t want a collector to sweep up all our whiskey in one fell swoop,” explains Christian Krogstad. “We priced it a little high so that we knew we could have enough to sell to individuals who were interested in it.”

The strategy worked, and Westward remains one of the best small craft whiskies that you can actually buy. No lotteries, not long lines: it’s there, in small quantities, for sale.

Does It Really Have To Be Oak?

Friday, July 24th, 2015

author-lew-brysonFirst thing you need to know: this is not a story about whiskey. At least, not on the surface. It’s about gin. But it’s very much about the kind of innovative thinking small distillers are bringing to the shelf, and that encompasses whiskey. Read on, you’ll see.

I took a vacation with my family (my wife, and our two adult children) recently. We traveled to Iceland (where we visited the Eimverk distillery), then Scotland (where we dropped in at Talisker), then wound up in Ireland. While we were relaxing in Lismore after some long driving days, I took the opportunity to pop over to Cappoquin, on the Blackwater river in County Waterford, and drop in on Peter Mulryan at his new venture, the Blackwater distillery. Peter’s written a few pieces for Whisky Advocate, and made the jump to the production side of the business only recently. Blackwater is producing a rather tasty gin, and has plans for whiskey and poitin (though Peter told me that recent regulatory changes have made innovation in those areas much more difficult; might have to investigate that).

Peter and the juniper barrels

Peter and the juniper barrels

But we were just two friends, having a cup of tea and talking spirits (and beer; later we spontaneously decided to go see the nearby Dungarvin brewery, where he’s been doing some interesting barrel-aged collaborations). I wasn’t taking any notes or pictures; in fact, I’d left my notebook and camera in the car outside. Then he told me about his new barrel-aged gin…and I had to go get my notebook.

Take a look at those four barrels in the picture to the left. They’re about 50 liters each, and they’re full of gin. Barrel-aged gin is not a big deal; small barrels aren’t anything new (and 50 liters isn’t even particularly small). What’s very different is the wood. These barrels are made of juniper wood. If you’re like me, you’ve pictured juniper as a shrub. Turns out that juniper can also be a tree. Peter found the wood in Serbia (which is apparently the hottest place to find oak these days, too), but couldn’t find a cooper who was willing to try making barrels from it; he finally got a guy in Finland who was willing to take a shot at it.

They’re beautiful barrels, too, with a smooth, rounded finish on the stave ends. But it’s the smell that’s most impressive. The little storage room was full of a fresh, richly piney scent. Peter said he had to change the formulation of the gin a bit to get it to work with the juniper wood; “It’s the same twelve botanicals, but in different proportions. The juniper wood is a bully, a steamroller; too long in there, and the gin’s undrinkable.” But with only 60 days in the juniper, the gin was marvelously different from the unaged product; more juniper, but not as bright, a softer juniper, and a creamy finish. Delicious stuff. Peter’s pretty confident he can get multiple uses from each barrel, given the overpowering strength of the effect.

So…not whiskey, as I said, but it got me thinking. Not all barrels used for whiskey were oak; I was just reading old records that described American rye whiskey aged in hickory barrels. Certainly not all barrels for American whiskey were new, charred oak; we know that. Brown-Forman has done some experiments with different woods, there’s an English distiller aging “whisky” in chestnut wood (“whisky” because anything aged in wood other than oak can’t be labeled as “whisky” in the UK).

More to the point, as I’m watching small distillers try new recipes and fiddle with process, I’m seeing something that I suspected would be true. Namely, that most whiskey drinkers, especially the new ones, really don’t care — or understand — about the label terminology required and regulated by the federal standards of identity. “Whiskey” is the key word, and if the small type says “WHISKEY DISTILLED FROM A BOURBON MASH” or “CORN WHISKEY — A BLEND”, well, that’s just not that important to them, probably because there are so many varieties in the standards that are so close. I’d agree with them. I like the idea of small distillers doing straight whiskeys, but I’m very curious to try whiskeys aged in different woods, distilled from significantly different grains and proportions of grains…and I don’t really care what they’re tagged by the standards.

What I do want to see is good descriptions of just what I’m getting either on the label, or easily accessible on a distillery page on the Web. It’s a good story, it’s a good hook, it’s good information. And it’s the kind of thing that makes me go get my notebook.