Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year Old Lot B

I got lucky. I was checking to see if anything interesting had come in at my local shop, and one of the employees asked what I was looking for. I said something like “Elmer T Lee, or Weller 12”, and she replied that they may have gotten some Pappy in. Well, I realized I stumbled in on that one day of the year when Pappy arrives. I went back later that day, knowing the manager I often talk whiskey with would be there. He told me to give him a couple days & he could get me a bottle of the 12 year. And so it came to past.

I opened it with a friend, and was quite surprised. It was extremely hot. Now, it seems to me that since the 12 year is 90 proof, it shouldn’t be that hot. I’ve opened bottles at 120+ proof that were not this hot. So I put it away.

In my experience, many bourbons need time and oxygen to open up, some taking 6-12 weeks to reach ultimate flavor. I revisited the Pappy about 5 weeks later, and it had really improved.

At this point, the nose had sassafras, slight smoke, bacon, cola, burnt caramel, dust, slight peppermint, and salt. On the tongue, it was rich, sweet, butterscotch, caramel, more bacon and salt, and oak. The finish was medium to long in length, soft and sweet like a wheater should be, a bit of sharpness, black pepper, and mint.

So we all know the hype surrounding any of the Pappys. I have to say that it is a great bourbon, but doesn’t live up to the hype. Frankly, I don’t think a whiskey could live up to the hype that Pappy has reached.

So how should I rate this? Do I rate it high because it does merit it, or do I ding it a bit based on hype? After all, I’m a big fan of Weller 12, and they are similar. Some may say it is the same as Weller 12 because it is the same mashbill etc, but that’s simply not the case because Pappy is the best barrels of that whiskey and always will be.

So I’ll give it an A- because it was so hot when initially opened. It really wasn’t that expensive if you pay suggested retail price or close to that, especially compared to most craft bourbons that are a small fraction of the age. But compared to Weller 12 or something like the old Elijah Craig 12, it is.

We’ll see if I can get lucky next year and get a bottle of the 15.

Grade: A-

”Raise the Macallan 2016″ sets new low for whisky tastings

20160415_220444A couple nights ago I attended one of the Chicago Raise the Macallan tasting events. I must say, I left disappointed.

It wasn’t because of the caliber of the whisky. There is no denying that Macallan makes some very fine Scotch. It wasn’t because of the gentleman who moderated and presented the event. He was cordial, friendly, entertaining, and kept things moving along. And I do appreciate the hors d’oeuvres that were served beforehand. In fact, the bacon-wrapped dates were stupendous.

The problem is that it was a tasting yet they were not really giving you enough scotch to actually taste and evaluate the whisky.

I find there are two kinds of whisk(e)y tastings. The kind where you walk around from table to table sampling many distillers products. The other is when one distiller or company sits you down, make a presentation about their products, then puts the chosen products down for you to taste. This was the latter.

When I taste, I like to first nose the dram, then take that first sip. I roll it around in my mouth, swallow, then wait a couple minutes. This allows my nose and mouth to become somewhat accustomed to this new whisk(e)y. Because of its high alcohol, there is shock to the taste and smell senses at first. But after a couple minutes, my senses are now tuned in and ready to take a more careful nosing, follow by a sip that includes a longer chew. Now I can really note all the characteristics and subtleties of the dram.

But not at Raise the Macallan. The pour was maybe around 2-3 tablespoons. It was really only 1 sip. I found myself taking a very small initial sip, but it was not even enough to coat my tongue. After that, there was not enough left to really nose it anymore, and the second sip was also too small. What a shame.

I’ve been to many of these kind of tastings, and this is the first time they did not pour enough to really get a sense of the whisky. Typically the pours are of an average dram, and you can request a little more if there was a particular expression you wanted a little more time on. You can also go to the next whisky, then come back for comparisons. I’ve even been to a smaller Macallan tasting a few years ago, where the pour was of that average amount. And that night my buddy walked out with a bottle of the 18. So in that case, the marketing worked for Macallan. What happened a few nights ago was more akin to coming to a table in Whole Foods where they are passing out samples of some alcoholic beverage. They give you just a small taste. And that is what I would expect from a grocery store. But not a big event like this.

So am I just upset because I thought I was walking into enjoyment of lots of Macallan? Perhaps. But they spent much money on the hors d’oeuvres, the video presentations during the event, the ipads on the tables so you could record what flavors you tasted (of which they only gave you 8-10 choices they had pre-selected), and cramming 200-300 people in there. If they want to market and sell the product, shouldn’t they allow people to really get a sense of the flavor profile and enjoyment that can be had from the product?

They will be in New York, Boston, LA, & Dallas over the next few weeks. So if you go, just don’t expect much.


Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve – Binny’s Barrel-Strength Selects

20160223_091803For some reason, I’ve delayed writing about this bourbon. Not sure why. I have been working on several bottles since last summer, when I first spotted these at a Binny’s, the Chicago-area liquor chain.


Beam, aka Beam Suntory, puts out Knob Creek, presented as one of their premiere bourbons, along with Booker’s and Baker’s. Regular old Knob Creek is a 9-year, 100 proof small batch, and much less expensive than Booker’s and Baker’s. You can then step up to the Knob Creek Single Barrel, which is again a 9-year, but comes from a single barrel and is bottled at a hefty 120 proof. There is also a Knob Creek Rye & a Knob Creek Maple (in case you want to drink bourbon but don’t like bourbon. Also great for waffles). What Binny’s did, with their huge buying power, was to pick out 8 of their own single barrels, and had them bottled at barrel-proof.


I have two examples here. As you can see from the picture above, each of their 8 barrel picks came from different warehouses, floor, ricks, and tiers, Date barreled and dates bottled differ, tho not by much. Its kinda cool that all that info is on the bottle.


On the nose, there is only a slight difference between these two. Example one is a little less sweet, with a bit of a dryer nose, more sawdust, orange, and a bit of smoke. Example two has more cola, cherry, and maple. On the palate, example 1 is dry, semi-sweet, Example 2 is less dry, a bit creamier, with more caramel, and overall sweeter than #1. The finish on both is medium-length, with black pepper and sawdust. The finish on #1 has a bit of that smokey char coming thru; example #2 has a bit of burnt caramel.


While writing up these tasting notes, I really regret I didn’t write this much sooner. These bourbons had much more going on when they were less oxidized. I do find bourbons often change for the better as they oxidize, altho there are exceptions. I find that most bourbons really open up after 4-8 weeks, with the sweet complexity going up and the burn going down. But, after 9 months, they start to flatten, and the complexity is lost as the flavors start to muddle together. This is the case here. Last summer this was my go-to bourbon, and if I was going camping, going to friend’s, or on the road, this came with me. I loved that it was not too sweet, not too rye-forward, was incredibly strong at 130+ proof, had some age at 9 years and some change, and was only $40 a bottle. A combination you won’t find in a craft bourbon.


20160223_091836This was not a Binny’s exclusive, tho. I was at UFS in Peoria, home of the good-but-not-great-whiskey-selection-at-often-lowest-price. And they had their own barrel selection, tho not eight of them. Chalk it up to volume plus Kentucky proximity. Thought I saw another one somewhere as well, tho I can’t remember where. Clever marketing tactic by Beam.


So what’s the moral of the story? Perhaps don’t let those whiskeys sit around too long. Finish them up and move on. I enjoy having a collection on hand, and I guess I should start experimenting with those inert gas things that can use to take the oxygen out of a bottle. Another moral of the story is don’t poo-poo a brand because it’s produced in massive amounts – it can still be excellent. Beam puts out shitloads of Knob Creek, but if you can get it in a single-barrel, barrel-proof-or-near version, then jump. Beam may be a mega-producer, but you can’t deny they know something about making bourbon.


I’m going to give both of these an A based on my memories of how much I enjoyed them. They didn’t hold up as well over the course of 9 months, but I do remember really enjoying these last summer and telling friends to go get one before they are gone. After all, it’s not just about geeking out on whiskey and its subtleties and industrial politics, it’s also about creating those memories you get from kicking back and enjoying what life can be like with a dram in hand that your really enjoying. Ya, slainte.


I know where I can still get a couple of these. So do I go get a couple more to stash away, or do I gamble on waiting for a new batch of to come out? Well jesus, I think the answer is clear!




Grades: A



Hirsch Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Hirsch2  On a recent visit to a favorite libations shop, I was speaking with the manager, getting the skinny on what was new and what might be on its way. In our conversation, he told me he had been enjoying Hirsch lately, and recommended I try a bottle. Since I respect his opinion, and the price was alright, I jumped.

First of all, this is NOT to be confused with the old A. H. Hirsch bourbon. Yes, they borrowed the name, and the label says “Inspired by the quality of A. H. Hirsch”. But if you happen to find a bottle of the old Hirsch, well, it ain’t gonna be cheap.

So it’s not the old Hirsch. So what is it? The bottle says it’s “bottled by Hirsch Distillers, Silverton, Ohio”. If you look up Hirsch Distillers, it’s a trade name owned by Meier’s Wine Cellars, Inc. Meier’s website says they “generate a tremendous volume of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages for internal and external clients”. When you look at the back of the bottle, it says it was distilled in Indiana. Well we know what that means – it was made my MGP. It also says on the back it was bottled for Anchor Distilling, San Francisco. Wow, that’s complicated. Made by MGP, bottled by Hirch (Meier’s) for Anchor. It’s the usual “craft spirit” smoke and mirrors. At least it says who is involved on the bottle, unlike others.

Now I usually stay clear of MGP juice. Since I had the Bulliet Bourbon, which I did not like, my opinion has been tainted. However, these guys make so much juice, it can’t all be bad, and it can’t all be the same mashbill/yeast/age. I do respect Anchor Distilling because I love their Old Potrero Rye. And I respect the opinion of my friend at the shop, so I tried it. And I was pleasantly surprised.

It’s 92 proof and has no age statement. My guess would be 4-5 years old. With the bottle freshly opened, I found that the palate had a dual personality. Upon entry, I git a spicy rye kick and alcohol taste on the front of my tongue. But that was followed by a creamy sweet butterscotch taste on the back of my tongue. Cool. Complex.

As the bottle went down, it did change, tho, as bourbons usually do when they get oxidized. Now it has a nose of a little grain, lemon-lime, date, dark chocolate, black pepper, and alcohol burn. The palate no longer had that dual personality; it had become integrated. Up front was the butterscotch plus caramel with a good creamy mouthfeel, a little rye spice, and a bit of oak. The finish is brief, dry, again some oak.

I would say if you get a bottle, finish it in the first couple weeks. I personally enjoyed it much more early on. After 2 months, its not as good and a bit flat. The price is in the mid-thirties, so you may want to reach for it if you are looking for something new to try. Of course, if your not looking for something new, you’re always better off spending less money on some Elijah Craig 12, Evan Williams Single Barrel, or Four Roses Small Batch.




FEW Bourbon Whiskey, Cask Strength

20160121_102338 FEW Spirits is a local distiller for me, located just north of Chicago in Evanston, IL. They are generally regarded as one of our better local distilleries, and I haven’t tried any of their products that are in the least bit sucky. They make bourbon, rye, white whiskey, a couple gins, and a single malt. The also have a Malort-type Swedish wormwood liqueur, which I think is a one-off and I can’t remember what they called it. If you haven’t suffered thru the manly Malort before, google it. Then skip it. Tho Letherbee Distillers make an enjoyable version called Besk. Ya, ya, I digress.

I was at a Binny’s location for a scotch tasting event, and FEW was there giving out samples on the other side of the store. I’m sure they knew there would be a great turn-out, so showed up with a table and some bottles. I tried their limited, special-edition, cask-strength, Binny’s-only bourbon and rye. Both were quite good, and a week later I picked up a bottle of the bourbon for my xmas holiday travels (the family & I packed up the pop-up camper and headed for the Keys. This required a bottle of the FEW, Pappy 12, & Trader Joe’s Islay Storm. The latter two will be reviewed forthcoming. Ya, ya, I digress).

This was a bit of a bargain since it was the same price as the regular 93 proof version, but at 118.6 proof. It’s not a single barrel, but a vatting of 3 barrels, so whatever bottles they got from those 3 barrels is it. Three grain – corn, barley malt, northern rye. Aged in barrels from Minnesota.

With water the nose on this baby is sweet, with cola, cinnamon, nougat, root beer, sawdust, vanilla, & new leather. Mouthfeel is medium but chewy, with a palatte of toffee, butterscotch, caramel, tobacco, leather, some oak, mixed with a bit of rye spice and a bit smoke. Finish is fairly long, simultaneously featuring some sweet and some dry, tobacco, smoke, a bit of salt.

It’s good stuff. I assume it’s relatively young for a bourbon, and doesn’t have the taste of a 12 year old, but it is not harsh at all, even when you try it without water. To me that’s the sign of a whiskey that was made well, in smaller batches, with careful attention to the cuts. If you get a chance, try it, tho it may be tough to find it at this proof. They should think about doing more limited editions of this strong stuff.

Again, digress; as far as my holiday camper trip, this was my dram of choice. For some reason it seemed like a better choice than the Pappy. For xmas eve at my in-laws, I brought the Islay Storm, as those guys are scotch drinkers, and it’s a surprisingly solid choice for the price. For New Years Eve, I brought the FEW, but everyone but me stuck to wine or the Not Your Father’s Root Beer (another local product). Oh well. More for me.

Grade: A-


The English Whisky Company Peated Single Malt


When I go on a golf weekend with a group of friends, of course a bottle is required baggage. When a day involves 36 holes, a flask is needed, as well as a relaxing dram afterward. So on one such trip, I picked up a bottle of The English Whisky Company’s Peated Single Malt, a Binny’s Select Cask. It was on sale, no chill-filtering, no coloring, cask strength at 60.9%. Bottled from a vatting of two casks, # 108 & 166, and was # 380 of 426 bottles. Sounded like a good candidate for the job.


I had read about the English Whisky Company, producing out of the St. George Distillery in Roudham, Norfolk. Back in 2009, it was the first English whisky to hit the market in 100 years. Seems kinda funny that England, being next to the prolific Scotland, falls that short. But such is the case. When they started up, they got Ian Henderson, formerly of Lafroaig, to help out. If it’s like Lafroaig, I thought, I’m game.


The nose featured citrus, was somewhat skunky, some ash. Some leather. Nose is not that strong. Lotsa of alcohol. It noses like young stuff, as I imagine it was. There was no age statement. Adding more water brings in more vanilla behind the ash, but still noses young with much alcohol. Not much of a nose, but hey, it’s young.


The palate was ashy upon entrance and all the way thru, and tastes of old paper midway. Crisp at the very start of entrance but that doesn’t last; it gets kinda muddy. Adding more water brings in more sweetness, a little bit of butterscotch. Not a lot of complexity under all the peat, tho. As I said, muddy. Nothing much jumps out under the peat.


Finish featured ashy peat, more like Ardbeg than the sweet peat of Lafroaig, though there is some vanilla. Adding more water brings a little more sweetness. Astringent. The ash makes it a pretty long finish.


I just didn’t care for this. Now I love a good peated Scotch (this obviously is not Scotch), but I don’t like peated for peated sake. I’ve tried plenty of drams where it was all peat but not a lot underneath, and that’s this one. With its very ashy peated flavor, I would compare this to Ardbeg, but it just doesn’t have that complexity that Ardbeg has under the ash. And being young is no excuse; try a bottle of Kilchoman , and you’ll be blown away by how great a young peated whisky can be. I won’t be coming back to this.


Grade: C

Whiskey Del Bac, Dorado & Clear, Hamilton Distillers


Working as an independent contractor in film & video, I sometimes have to go on the road to shoot a project. When I do, I like to check out the local craft distilleries & try something I wouldn’t be able to get at home in Chicago. Such was the case recently when I was working in Tucson, AZ. A whiskey came to my attention called Whiskey Del Bac, produced by Hamilton Distillers in Tucson. They produce three whiskeys – Classic (unsmoked), Clear (smoked, unsaged), and Dorado (smoked & aged).

The story goes that one evening, while sipping scotch & bbq’ing, Stephen & Elaine Paul discussed making a smoky whiskey in a Southwest style, using mesquite instead of peat. But they didn’t just talk about it; they did it.

And they do it right. They get their barley from an organic source in Colorado, and then do their own malting. Excellent. In these days of sourced whiskey, these guys have their own malting floor! And they dry their malt with mesquite harvested from southern Arizona. They keep it real by using Tucson tap water (where else you gonna get water in the desert?). Its local. Its craft. Its good.

I tried the two smoked versions, the Dorado and the Clear.

The Dorado has a nose of caramel, mesquite, cola, and was a bit bourbon-like for being a malted barley whiskey. The entry is sweet, but not like bourbon. You can taste the alcohol, but it doesn’t burn. Some oak. Mouthfeel is relatively thin. Then that great, dry mesquite smoke sets in. Ya. The finish is more dry smoke, cola, and has a good length.

The Clear is a much different animal. From the nose I could have sworn it was mescal. Really. I get lime, grain. Upon entry I get grain, as to be expected from a clear whiskey, as well as frosting, juicy fruit, lime, and smoke. The finish is dry, short, with smoke and a bit of lime.

I really liked the Dorado. I like smoky whiskeys and this is one very unique dram. It reminds me a bit of Balcone’s Brimstone, but in many ways is more refined. Brimstone really hits you over the head with the smoke and proof, where as Whiskey Del Bac is a bit more complex and nuanced. The Dorado is aged only 6 months or so in small, 15-gallon American oak barrels (probably why I was reminded of bourbon on the nose), as is to be expected for a new distillery; if they age some of this stuff longer I would imagine it would lead to incredible, very complex results. I found the Clear to be fascinating. I’m not a regular drinker of clear whiskeys, but this one is so different it has to be tried. Its great to try a local craft whiskey that uses local resources to make a truly local dram. And its great to see that Hamilton is letting the ideas flow and producing something truly unique. I expect we are gonna be hearing a lot more about Hamilton as this new distillery matures and grows.

You just have to try these truly American whiskeys. However, good luck getting some unless you’re in the area. If you’re there, seek them out and thy shall be rewarded. I wanted to get a bottle to take home but the stores said there was none to have. I read they are expanding, so hopefully their distribution will widen. Then everyone can try it, & the craft whiskey community may see what inspiration, hard work, & not taking the easy road can yield.


Dorado – A

Clear – B


Cadenhead Auchentoshan 14 Year Old Scotch

Auchen1  I picked up a bottle of Auchentoshan  14 year old bottled by the indybottler  Cadenhead. It was on clearance, marked downsignificantly. It is not chill-filtered, and has  no coloring. Oh yeah, and best of all seems to be close to cask strength at 55.1%. Since I’ve enjoyed my limited experiences with Auchentoshan in the past, and because it checked all the right boxes, I snatched it up.

Auchentoshan, of course, is one of the few lowland distilleries, in Clydebank just outside Glasgow. Its origins seem kinda murky, and a web search will yield establishing dates of 1800 thru 1834 or so. Word has it that it was started by Irish refugees, and that would make sense, as it is a triple-distilled whisky, just like Irish whiskey. It has soldiered on thru the years, barely escaped the bombs of WWII (some warehouses were lost), has changed many hands many times, and is currently owned by Suntory.

The nose on this is light and fruity. There’s lots of pear, some honey, and some furniture polish from all that alcohol. Cinnamon. Even a touch of maple in there.

The palate upon entry is clean, light, malty. Semi-dry, pear, slightly astringent, slightly soapy (not in a bad way). Less complex here than the nose and finish.

Finish has some burn at first, but that fades quickly into spice, and a little smoke (not peat tho). Medium length and gets grainy and dryer.

I like this. Perhaps because I love a good Irish single malt so much, as it is similar. Now I know some people poo-poo Auchentoshan as being “boring” or “lacking substance”. However, I don’t think that’s really fair. Its triple distilled, so the character is going to be lighter, subtle, more nuanced, and takes more attention. It’s not gonna hit you upside the head. But this doesn’t make it boring. I’ve heard people make the same complaints of Irish whiskey. Someone once said to me, when told about my fondness for Irish whiskey, that he started on Irish whiskey but then graduated to Scotch, insinuating that Irish is for beginners. And I’ve read the same about Auchentoshan. Sure, it’s a good place to start because of its inherent lightness, but to suggest serious whisk(e)y drinkers can’t enjoy it is bs. If it’s not your thing, fine, but don’t go dissin’ it.

Enough ranting .I like this stuff, tho I tend to be a sucker for cask strength stuff. At regular price I might hesitate, but I would hesitate at anything in that price range, so there’s good value in this when marked down.



Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey

For my first posting, I thought it best to start with a write-up of one of my favorite whiskeys – Knappogue Caster 12-Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey. I’ve been enjoying this one for years, and it never disappoints.


Knappogue Castle is an independent bottling of whiskey distilled at Bushmills. It is aged for 12 years in ex-bourbon casks. Bottled at 40%, with some chill filtering, but most likely no coloring. Most Irish whiskeys are blends, so it’s always great to have single malt versions  available to really showcase this style of whiskey, and fortunately there seems to be more Irish single malts coming to market.


Up until around 2007, Knappogue Castle was bottled with a vintage instead of an age statement. 1995 was the last vintage year, so if you see a vintage bottle, grab it! Notably, you could probably find their famous 1951 vintage locked away in the back of some large liquor stores, but that will cost you over $1K.


As I usually go through at least one bottle every summer, I find that there are subtle differences in it from year to year. Not a lot, though. The signature crisp, light taste, the citrus and peach, the dry and bitter woodiness are always there. However, some years seem to be slightly sweeter and some more bitter. Knappogue Castle also has a 14 year, 16 year, and 17 year expression, and are much different because they are finished in sherry barrels. I have tried the 16 one one occasion, but didn’t like it quite as much as the 12. Then again, I am not a big fan of sherry monsters.


Knappogue castle has a very light, straw color. This year’s, 2015, has a nose with citrus, honey, a little astringent, a little mint, some light malty cereal, a touch of vanilla. Upon entry, I get the lots of fruit and citrus, the crisp, and that honey. It develops with peach – not as much peach as I found last year, but it’s there. That’s followed by the bitter, which I love. Many Irish whiskeys get sweet here, but this one develops a great dry bitterness, most likely from the extra time in the barrel. The taste overall is very crisp and light. The finish is short to medium, with mint and citrus. The dry and bitter lasts a bit longer. The oakyness really comes out in both the development and the finish.


I highly recommend this one. The light, crisp, dry taste makes it great f or warmer weather, but really is great anytime. Its usually around $40, which isn’t bad for a 12 year single malt. I’m lucky enough to find it at a place that sells it for $30, which makes it a helluva deal. And for those that stick mostly to scotch, it’s a welcome break from the usual. I’d love to see a cask strength version of this. Try it out, and don’t wait for St Patty’s Day.

Grade: A20150816_201318