Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

Some new bourbons and my thoughts on them

Friday, January 20th, 2012

The holidays are over, but the whiskey companies are still pumping out new releases. Here’s an overview of some bourbons (and one wheat whiskey) that have come my way in the past few weeks. Formal reviews will follow in due time, but here are my informal thoughts.

First up is the first new permanent line extension from Woodford Reserve. They’re calling it Woodford Reserve Double Oaked (pictured). I just received this sample yesterday and tasted it last night. I really enjoy it. It’s richer and creamier than the standard Woodford Reserve. Smooth too, with a kiss of sweetness to it. But it will cost more than the standard Woodford too: $50.

Here’s some details on the whiskey which I pulled from the press release:

“Maturation in a new, charred oak barrel provides Woodford Reserve with all of its natural color and a great deal of its award-winning flavor. This Double Oaked expression has been uniquely matured in  two separate, custom crafted barrels,” said Chris Morris, master distiller for Woodford Reserve. “The second was deeply toasted before its light charring.  The double barreling of mature Woodford Reserve in this unique barrel allows the spirit to extract an additional amount of soft, sweet oak character.”

Some more good news on a line extension. I’m working my way through a bottle of the newest release of Colonel E.H. Taylor bourbon (“Warehouse C Tornado Surviving”), and it is my favorite of the three releases to date. (Picture below.) It’s more rounded and even-keeled than the previous two.

Some details from this press release:

It was a Sunday evening, April 2, 2006, when a severe storm tore through Central Kentucky, damaging two Buffalo Trace Distillery aging warehouses.  Fortunately, no one was injured and Warehouse “B” was empty at the time. However, Warehouse “C” sustained significant damage to its roof and north brick wall.  Warehouse “C” is one of the most treasured warehouses on property, built by Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. in 1881.  This historic aging warehouse stores more than 24,000 prized bourbon barrels in its ricks.

All of the 93 Tornado Surviving Bourbon barrels were located on the top two floors of Warehouse C, and were at least 9 years, 8 months old when dumped; many of them were as old as 11 years, 11 months old. Like the previous two E. H. Taylor, Jr. releases, the Tornado Surviving Bourbon is “Bottled in Bond” at 100 proof.  ($70)

Many of you will remember my glowing review (96 rating) of the single barrel of Elijah Craig 20 year old that was produced for the 20th Anniversary of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival and sold only at Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center. Well, that bottling (Barrel #3735) sold out very quickly. But, they replaced it with another single barrel offering (#3742) which still is available at the time of this post.

That’s the good news. The bad news? The replacement barrel is not as balanced or as smooth. It’s showing its age more, with more aggressive oak on the finish. I will eventually rate this formally in the mid to high 80s, but not in the 90s. (Sorry about that for those of you who missed out on the original release. That’s how it goes with single barrel releases–especially older ones.)

Finally, I have two new offerings from Julio’s Liquors up in Westborough, MA. The first one is a Bernheim Wheat Single Barrel that wasn’t chill-filtered ($35). (It’s a straight wheat whiskey, not a bourbon.) My main issue with Bernheim Wheat is that it’s almost too easy-going, thanks to all that wheat. Not chill-filtering it, as it is with this bottling, really does help give it some extra character, which is nice to see. If only we could increase the proof from 90 to 100, I think we just might have Bernheim Wheat where it shows itself best.

The other offering from Julio’s is a Henry McKenna 10 year old 100 proof that’s also not chill-filtered. It’s not the most elegant bourbon I’ve ever tasted, but it’s nice and robust–and suiting me just fine on this cold winter’s day in Pennsylvania. ($32)


Another whisky, and another story.

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Some of you might remember my post here back in 2011. Well, I took my own advice and opened another bottle of whisky last week. It wasn’t for Christmas or New Years Eve, but rather somewhere in the middle of the week. I’m really glad I did, because it tastes great! And, as it is with many of my whiskies, there’s a story to this one too.

It was back in the early 1990s. I don’t remember which year, because I was traveling to Scotland quite a bit. I was in Edinburgh and paid my usual visit to the Cadenhead’s shop on the Royal Mile to see what Springbank whiskies they had for sale.

When I asked about Springbank 15 year old, Neil Clapperton, the gentleman who ran the shop, said that they were out of stock. But, by this time, he knew me because I had been in the shop several times before. That’s when he told me that he did have one bottle of Springbank 15 year old, but the proof is wrong on it. Instead of the usual 46% for Springbank, he said that this one was 50%. He then took out a marker and blacked out the 46% on the label and hand-wrote 50% next to it. (If you look closely at the over-exposed label, you might be able to see it on the lower right.) He said that if I was okay with it and wanted to buy it, he would sell it to me for the usual price.

100 proof Springbank 15 year old? Was I okay with it? Does a bear shit in the woods??

I happily purchased the bottle, along with some other cool Springbanks and Cadenhead’s whiskies, and held onto it for quite some time. It was worth the wait. It’s outstanding–a stunningly complex Springbank in a ex-bourbon casks. Nothing fancy. If you ever get a chance to taste Springbank that was distilled prior to their 1980s silent period, do it! If you think the current bottlings of Springbank are splendid (and many of the are), you just might be blown away with one of these earlier bottlings.

The only thing that frustrates me right now: Neil told me why this one was bottled at 50% ABV when I bought it from him and, after all these years, I forgot what he said!

Oh well. The whisky is great. That’s what matters most. And I’m drinking and sharing it with like-minded friends.

I’m not sure if you are a “New Year’s resolution” kind of person or not. But if you are, make a resolution to open up a bottle or two (or more) of your special whiskies that you’ve been saving for a special occasion. The whisky itself is reason enough to celebrate.

The whisky I plan to open, and the story that goes with it.

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Every Christmas Eve, before I got to bed, I open up a special bottle of whisky and enjoy a dram of it. Regardless of which whisky I chose to open, there’s a story that goes with it. That’s one of the reasons why it’s special. I make sure that I drink the bottle before the next Christmas Eve, when I open another special bottle.

I have an emotional attachment to whisky, and I make no apology for it. Whisky isn’t just about the flavor or rarity. There’s more to it than this. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t always open a whisky that I buy right away. Instead, I’ll wait for a special occasion.

Maybe that’s why I have over 300 unopened bottles of whisky, with a room in my house set aside just for them. With all this discussion lately about whisky collecting and whether it’s a good or bad thing to do, the reality is that it’s just not that simple. Like many things in life, it isn’t black or white, but rather some shade of gray.

I don’t think of myself as a collector. I refer to what I have as an accumulation rather than a collection. And I fully intend to drink, share, and savor every bottle I have before I die.

Take this bottle, for example. It’s the whisky I am currently planning to open this Christmas Eve. It’s a Glenmorangie Distillery Manager’s Choice.  I’ve had it for 13 years. Every time I look at this bottle or hold it, it it brings back a very fond memory.

This whisky was bottled in 1998, but the story actually begins a year or so before this. My wife and I were visiting distilleries in the Scottish Highlands. We made an impromptu stop at the Glenmorangie Distillery on our way back from visiting other distilleries farther to the north. We went to the distillery office and asked if Bill Lumsden, then Distillery Manager (and friend), happened to be in. Well, he must have heard my voice from his office, because he came running out and gave Amy and me a big hug. Then, without skipping a beat, he said: “There’s something you have to taste!”

Bill grabbed some keys and we ran through the pouring rain to one of the Distillery’s warehouses. Inside, in the dark, damp, chilly warehouse filled with with heavenly whisky aromas, he took me to one particular cask. He pulled the bung out, stuck a whisky thief into the barrel, and poured me a sample of what was inside.

I nosed the whisky and then took a sip, nosed it again and took another sip. Bill then asked, “what do you think?”

I told him I thought that it was the best Glenmorangie whisky I ever tasted.

“I agree, John,” he said,  “and it would be a shame for this one barrel to be blended in with some other Glenmorangie casks. I’d like to bottle this on its own, cask-strength and not chill-filtered, but I just have to figure out how to do it.” I said to Bill if he ever does bottle it, save a bottle for me. He said he would.

Shortly thereafter, the Glenmorangie “Distillery Manager’s Choice” was born, and this was the cask: distilled in 1981, aged in an ex-bourbon cask, bottled in 1998 at 54.5%, and sold at the distillery. Bill kept to his promise, saved me a bottle, and I’ve waited for the right moment to open it–this Christmas eve.

Thank you, Bill. And a big thanks to all of you who take time out of your busy schedule to stop by and read whatever happens to be on my mind at the moment. I wish you all the best in the New Year and hope it is filled with many memorable whiskies.

How about you? Are you opening anything special this holiday season?


Whisky in 2011: the year in review

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

I was going to summarize all the new releases and general trends in whisky this past year (and there have been a lot of them). But, Sku over at his Recent Eats blog, did such a great job with this recent post, there’s no use in reinventing the wheel. Well done, Sku!

Read his post. How do you feel about what happened in whisky in 2011? Was it a good year or a bad year? And why?

Beam Inc. buys Cooley Distillery: good or bad?

Friday, December 16th, 2011

The news is out. Beam Inc. has purchased the Cooley Distillery in Ireland (makers of Tyrconnel, Kilbeggan, Connemara, Greenore, and a slew of private label whiskeys). Details here. Now, all the major Irish whiskey distilleries and brands are owned by companies located in foreign countries. (Diageo owns Bushmills, Pernod has Midleton, and William Grant owns Tullamore Dew.)

John Teeling, Cooley’s founder, was quoted saying that it will allow the brands “to reach their potential.”

What do you think? Is this good for Irish whiskey drinkers worldwide or not? And why?

Whisky as an investment: are we in a bubble?

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

The cover story for the new issue of Whisky Advocate (pictured below) is on whisky auctions and whisky collecting. We like to show both sides of a story. Ian Buxton has a feature in this issue that takes a more contrarian approach to auctions and collecting, discussing a whisky’s “soul.” Below, in this guest blog post, he goes into even more detail.

Read what he has to say below. Do you agree with him? Disagree with him? And why?



By Ian Buxton

Can one invest in whisky?  And, if yes, should you?

There’s certainly a lot of excited chatter about this right now, perhaps a measure of the troubled economic times in which we live.  The idea seems to be creeping into the popular imagination that picking the right bottle is a worthwhile, not to say near essential part of your financial planning.

We can argue about the figures.  Elsewhere I’ve taken exception to sloppy journalism and the casual quotation of potential investment gains that ignore transaction costs – and can thus never be achieved in real life.  Call me old-fashioned but I believe readers should be able to trust what they read and citing illusory and unattainable rates of return is misleading at best.

What’s more, simple common sense suggests that returns of over 100% in just two or three years are never going to be sustained in anything but a feverish bubble. When you appreciate that those figures are being most enthusiastically trumpeted by people with a vested interest, such as distillers with a brand to promote, retailers with stock to move or auction houses keen to drum up business you might just want to look twice before committing your 401(k) pot.

But there’s a more fundamental philosophical point that the money men, with their hard, cold souls don’t seem to get: if the whisky you buy is just for investment, then – since it’s never going to be opened – the bottle may as well contain cold tea.  Today whisky; tomorrow pork belly futures.

Whisky is a drink, but it is more than that.  It is a metaphor for the spirit and soul of the people and place that produced it. The distillers of Scotland express part of the austere, Calvinist personality of their land; in Kentucky (as for Rabbie Burns) “freedom and whisky gang  the’gither” and for the brave new distillers in Brittany, France it encapsulates their Breton identity and culture, even their language.

Buying and hoarding bottles like some latter-day Ebenezer Scrooge while poring over spreadsheets to measure RoI and capital growth tears out whisky’s heart and spirit; confounds its generosity and desecrates the memory, skill and craftsmanship of the people who made it. And, call me a romantic, but that’s just wrong.

If you love whisky, set it free.  Mark my words: this ‘investment’ bubble will end badly and people – and whisky – are going to get hurt.

Some new whiskies I’ve been enjoying

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

I was in San Francisco most of last week hosting WhiskyFest (More on that in a bit). We’re gearing up for our New York WhiskyFest which is only a couple weeks away. In the interim, we’ve got to put together the Winter issue of Whisky Advocate. So, if you’re wondering where I’ve been lately, now you know. This is the busiest time of the year for me. The moment I get some free time, I will post something up here.

I’ve been tasting a lot of whiskies lately. Formal reviews will follow for most of them. But, in the interim, so you can get a jump on your autumn whisky-buying, I’ll let you know my informal thoughts now.

I was able to taste the new Bruichladdich 10 year old at WhiskyFest. (It’s not in the U.S. yet, but the importer brought me a sample.) As you may know, this is the first 10 year old whisky being sold that was produced by the current owners. It’s a new dawn for Bruichladdich, and I am happy to say that this whisky is very good. Most of it is from bourbon barrels, but there’s some sherry casks thrown in too. I just hope they can keep this profile consistant going forward. If they do, it could become the go-to entry level non-smoky Island whisky (competing with Highland Park 12 year old and Bunnahabhain 12 year old  for that honor). To me, it tastes like a 12 year old whisky.

Another whisky that surprised me was the Kilkerran WIP (Work In Progress) 3rd release. If memory serves me correctly, it’s 7 years old and tasted surprisingly fresh and also nicely mature for its age.

Dr. Bill Lumsden, after his Ardbeg seminar, let me sample a 1975 Ardbeg from a sample bottle (Cask #4714) from a refill sherry cask which I thought was outstanding! My favorite whisky of the night. He said they’ve been using so much from this cask at whisky shows, they won’t have much left when it is bottled. But let me put it this way: when it’s bottled, I am buying a bottle (if it doesn’t cost me an arm and a leg).

I tried some of the Samaroli releases. This independent bottler is new to the U.S. I tasted a 1967 Tomintoul and a 34 year old Glenlivet which were delicious. (The Glenlivet was not identified as such–it had a false name which I didn’t write down. I’ll try to dig that one up and let you know what it was called.). I’m not sure what the prices and availability of these whiskies will be at this time. Details to follow.

I have a bottle of the Shackleton whisky, which I have really been enjoying over the past couple of weeks. Very distinctive for a blend, and with plenty of character. Dominic Roskrow rated it in the lown 90s for us, and I would probably have given it at least a 90 myself if I formally reviewed it.

Another new blended scotch I really like for its drinkability and versatility is Compass Box’s Great King Street. It’s not going to set your world on fire, but it was never intended to do so. That’s what whiskies like Peat Monster are for. Whiskymaker John Glaser continues to impress me.

For the bourbon enthusiasts out there, I’ve been through the new Buffalo Trace Antique Collection a few times already. It’s just hitting the shelves now. The entire line is stellar–as it was last year, and they taste very similar to last year’s release. So, if you liked last year’s offering, you can be confident that you will like this year’s releases if you have a chance to buy them. (They are always hard to come by.)

Heaven Hill has two really nice whiskeys that just came out. This year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection is a 10 year old, 100 proof bourbon finished in Cognac barrels (similar to the old Beam Distillers’ Masterpiece bottling). The cognac doesn’t dominate, adds intrigue, and this whisky is dangerously drinkable for 100 proof. But, if you are a purist (dare I say stubborn?), and don’t want people meddling with your bourbon, you might think differently about this offering.

The second whiskey from Heaven Hill is a Elijah Craig 20 year old single cask bottling (Cask #3735). The good news: I love this whiskey, and will be rating it in the mid 90s. The bad news: it’s only available at Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, KY, and it will set you back $150.

Finally, for those of you who are budget-minded, I tasted my way through the Pappy Van Winkle line of bourbons (12, 15, 20 and 23 year old). My favorite? The 15 year old. Save your money and get this one!

The next scotch distillery to be sold?

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

I was thinking about this on my plane ride to San Francisco to attend WhiskyFest tomorrow night. It’s a pretty dynamic time in the industry right now, with new distilleries being built, distillery expansions, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if a distillery changed hands sometime in the near future too. It’s pure speculation on my part. I have no insider information or anything like that.

The first one that came to my mind: Bruichladdich. I don’t know if the owners even have an interest in selling (I have never asked), but now that they have ten continuous years of whisky production behind them (which hasn’t happened in a while), it sure makes them more attractive.

What do you think will be the next distillery to change ownership? And why?

Is there a Robert Parker of the whisky world?

Monday, August 8th, 2011

I don’t think so. (Although, there might someone out there who thinks he is.)

I feel that Michael Jackson was the person who came the closest. He was one of the the first to write prolifically about the subject, and he was very good at it. (Perhaps if he devoted more of his time to whisky rather than beer, and if only he stayed with us another decade or two?)

Right now, it seems like there are at least several individuals who are really doing great work covering whisky in their own way. There might be one or two people leading the field, but I don’t think anyone is so far ahead of the pack to have the power and influence of a Robert Parker.

What do you think? Do we have the equivalent of a Robert Parker in the whisky world? If so, who? And if not, why do you think there isn’t one?

Are craft distillers creating a whiskey crisis?

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

An article in The Atlantic last week suggests that a “whiskey crisis is looming” because craft distillers are aging their whiskey in small barrels in a (failed) attempt to accelerate the aging process, and then they are putting the whiskey on the market at a young age and calling it “bourbon.” (The issue here is that these bourbons aren’t as mature and complex as the straight bourbons being put out by the larger distillers and it’s going to drag down the reputation of bourbon.)

The author says they are cutting corners to save time and suggests that it could lead to a decline in the entire industry.

Read it here.

What do you think?

P.S.  I think this article is significant because it shows that the issue is now being picked up by mainstream press, not just bantered about by us geeky whisky bloggers.