Bourbon Country’s Dynamite Dozen
January 31, 2007
Doug Philips likes bourbon. He has 999 bottles in his collection and more on the way. Doug also likes malt whisky – more than 800 bottles sit on his shelves. And he knows a good single malt when he tastes one.
Marty Kari is no slouch in the single malt appreciation field either. It was Marty who started the PLOWED annual Ardbeggeddon event (invitation only) in Las Vegas – a tasting weekend at which Marty arrives with a truckload of top drams. Yeah, he knows his whisky. And he knows his whiskey too, and this year he brought more old bourbons to Vegas than we could ever taste. Yup, there’s got to be something more to this bourbon stuff than Jack Daniels and Knob Creek are letting on.
So what do Doug and Marty know that most malt aficionados don’t? That’s what I set out to discover on ‘B-Day’ at Ardbeggeddon VIII, January 14, 2007. Over the course of a morning Doug and Marty walked several of us through a dozen of the best and not-so-best whiskeys from Bourbon country, showing us along the way that these sweet and kind of woody wonders (that’s rich, flavourful wood, not the bitter old stuff we’re used to in over-aged malt whisky) can be just as complex and singular as anything coming out of Scotland.
Reading my notes, Doug was quick to point out something; “I think most people who have tried today’s bourbons and ryes would probably not understand your tasting notes, for the simple fact that bourbons like you write about are not found for them to taste.” No, whiskeys like these haven’t been on the shelves for years, as production has out-stripped craft.
“Today’s versions are generally sweet, vanilla caramel, with hints of light oak and barrel char in the background, says Doug. “Some spices might emerge if it has a high rye content mash bill, and then when you get into the wheated bourbons; they are totally sweet and as smooth as a baby’s butt…stripped and watered of course.” If this article inspires you, Doug recommends current versions of George T Stagg, William Larue Weller, Thomas Handy Rye, Booker’s, Rittenhouse Bond, Sazerac Rye, Sazerac Rye 18yo, and Wild Turkey 101 as being world class. They may not be the ethereal gems from the 1960′s ’70′s and ’80′s that Doug and Marty poured us lucky dogs, but for 2007 editions they’re right up there.
Before diving in, my palate needed a little equilibration to really appreciate the whiskey. So, as Doug and Marty got their lineup ready I prepared my mouth with Platte Valley Straight Corn Whiskey 8yo (80.6 proof, McCormick Distilling Co., Btl. late 1960′s). This whiskey came in a cute little ceramic brown jug. Perhaps I have heard too may moonshine stories, but I could instantly visualize some wizened old Appalachian American, gnarly finger twisted into the handle, chuggin’ straight from the jug. I must admit I was expecting something a little more fiery, even though this whisky had spent 8 years in wood. It was sweet but also slightly sour. Though not my cuppa I can understand why some folks are hooked on it.
The first nose had an acetone/chloroform effect – kind of sweet and kind of chemically – but nice, sweet chemicals. Then came ether and eventually what I had expected to smell first – vanilla. Then a sourness, almost a sour dough smell emerged – something I love in the kitchen but find a bit too mashy in whisky. Overall the nose was pretty simple.
The palate was sweet, bitter and artificial. Quickly the acetone returned contributing to a nice warming mouth feel. The whiskey was very sweet and warming and I could see how people could just sit there drawing all day on a jug or two. Then the rubbing alcohol kicked in; I didn’t like that too much at all, especially when it ended with an alcohol burn.
As a corn whisky, Platte Valley was made from a mash with at least 80% corn and was aged in used or uncharred new barrels. Given the lack of woodiness and vanilla in this whisky, I’d guess it was from a used cask. See, we’ve already learned something. They do re-cycle some whiskey barrels in the US. I’m no bourbon expert, but I’ll try rating these whiskies, and on my malt scale this one comes in at 60 points, with some generosity for my lack of experience.
Next up was Michter’s 16yo 1974 Sour Mash Whiskey (125.0 proof Pennsylvania Whiskey). Doug told us this was a rare and almost extinct nugget from the 1970′s. Pennsylvania is the home of rye whiskey and this one gave me my first taste of that signature zesty spice rye is so famous for. While the nose of the Plattes had been simple, this one was tightly integrated so again revealed few distinct notes, but you could smell the age. Almost like a fine dark rum, it began with molasses, caramel, hints of vanilla, but then tertiary smells like leather, well-aged firewood (oak, not maple) and hints of cigar box.
The palate was rich and complex with lots of molasses, quite spicy with rich sweet spices that just hinted of cloves and cinnamon. Again it was quite a bit like a dark, very old, Guyanan rum all backed up by that zesty rye spiciness. A fine whiskey by any count and one well worth any malt freak’s efforts to taste and honestly appreciate. This is one of several that would likely score quite high in a blind malt tasting. I came away with a rating of 86 points.
For another slant on Michter’s distillery, Marty poured A. H. Hirsch 20yo 1974 (45.8%, Hirsch Distillers, Pot stilled sour mash). This apparently is from exactly the same batch as the Michter’s we had just tried but spent an extra 4 years in the barrel and then was chill filtered, or “stripped” as Doug calls it, and diluted before bottling. American whiskey is like that. The name on the label doesn’t necessarily tell you where it was distilled as they are sold by brand rather than by distillery.
The nose of the Hirsch was quite different from the Michter’s we had just tasted. To begin with, it was slightly closed then got hints of menthol, hints of dry grain, hints of tobacco, some citrus notes, like sweet lemons, vanilla, then opened up into furniture polish and bee’s wax. The big surprise for me was how subdued the vanilla was in these whiskeys. So far I had not found even one with as much vanilla as a lot of malts have.
There goes the theory that the bourbon draws the vanilla out of the cask leaving just traces behind for the Scotch that will follow. The palate of the Hirsch was a bit restrained, beginning on molasses, followed by a delightful zesty rye spiciness. A hint of wood tannins soon developed into a slight astringency as the whiskey displayed an array of woody notes. Overall, the stripping and diluting did not serve it well and neither did the extra years in wood. It was nice whiskey, though a bit watery, but not what it’s 16yo sister had been - 80 points.
Old Heaven Hill NAS Kentucky Straight Bourbon (86 proof, Heaven Hill Distiller’s Inc. bottled c1982-84) was Marty’s next offering. Frankly, it just stunk. An old bottle from the mid-1980′s, it was instructive however, for it had exactly the same kind of “old bottle effect” that some Scotch malts from the same era have – proof, in my nose and on my tongue, that bottle aging is a reality. I found this even more clearly, later on in some of the other older bottlings. It may have been more clear in the others because the nose of this whiskey was overpowered by a sulphury rubber smell that just never went away. I have found this same rubberiness in some really fine Ardbegs and Glenfarclases, but in those cases it always developed into gunpowder or something really desirable. Here, it just drowned out everything else.
However, the palate compensated somewhat with lots of sweetness and loads and loads of vanilla. It was very simple, though a lovely maple syrup note emerged along with the old bottle notes. Hints of wood tannins restrained a bucket load of sweet spices just before the whiskey became quite astringent. The palate rescued it somewhat, but I could give this whiskey only 66 points, and that may again have been a bit generous.
We bounced right back with the next one: Yellowstone 6yo Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (86 proof, Yellowstone Distillery Co, bottled c 1972) – a delightful old master that Marty opened for the occasion. The nose was loaded with sweet caramel along with hints of molasses and subdued vanilla notes. It was kind of simple, but very pleasing.
The palate was sweet and spicy, a bit watery, and again there were hints of maple syrup, hints of mint and lots of spice. The tannins were soft and just barely pulled in the mouth, complementing slight hints of spicey woody notes. Not sandalwood, but like sandalwood. A really pleasant experience that I rated at 82 points.
And, to bring us to the halfway point, Old Taylor NAS Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (80 proof, Old Taylor Distillery Company, bottled mid-1980′s). A straight bourbon is made from a mash of at least 51% corn and is aged a minimum of 2 years in new charred barrels. Old Taylor began with a kind of closed nose. This seems a bit typical. These whiskeys need a bit of time to open up so it pays to sample slowly. The nose had hints of Coca Cola, some musty/minty old bottle notes, hints of rubber then some vanilla, caramel and hints of the corn whisky I tasted in Platte Valley. Ahh, I’m beginning to see where the pieces come from.
I’m also beginning to realize that the whacks of vanilla that characterize Jack Daniels are not typical of American sour mash whiskies. This whisky had lots of caramel and vanilla on the palate, but nothing like the vanilla pod of JD. There were hints of tannins, which were nicely balanced by a creamy mouth feel, and some nice spicy notes. Overall this was a pleasant and drinkable whisky, but a bit overly simple with no real striking character. Comfortable, but in my scoring system, now practiced on over 5 American whiskeys, it rated just 72 points.
I W Harper NAS Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky (100 proof IW Harper Distilling Company, Bottled in Bond, distilled c1981). “Bottled In Bond” is somewhat of a catch phrase for “Quality” in Bourbon, but as Doug explained, it really just means that the whiskey has spent at least four years in a government warehouse and was bottled at 100 proof. (That’s US proof – the equivalent of 50% abv.) Quality, as Doug said, is quite another matter. Whatever the technicalities, I was now about to taste my first Bottled In Bond Bourbon and this one turned out to be a real stunner.
The first nose was resinous, but new resin rather than the older resin found in some old malts. “Pine sap” Doug said, “pine wood,” I wrote in my notes. And there was something soft and vegetal as well, like cooked vegetables then some hints of vanilla and hints of alcohol. The palate was very sweet with hints of tannins and lots of sweet spices. Licorice notes began to emerge but they soon dissolved in another long-lasting wave of rich, beautiful spices. These were sweet spices, and only vaguely similar to the Christmas spices found in malt whisky. Quite a beauty this IW Harper and well worth 87 points.
Beam’s Black Label ’101 Months’ Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (45%, James B Beam Distilling Company, Clermont, bottled in early 1980′s). Licorice jumped straight out of the Beam’s bottle before we’d even poured a dram. This is not your Costco Jim Beam, but a rich creamy and flavour-packed beauty from the early 1980′s. A sweet licorice dominated the nose, and in that licorice there was all kinds of licorice nuance; first sen sen, then sweet licorice, herbs of Provence, then anise and behind it all a dustiness.
If the nose was creamy, the palate was waxy then creamy and again there was a dustiness. It became very sweet and very spicy with loads of licorice, anise and a soft underlying tannic texture almost like the structure of an old Burgundy. The tannins were just beautiful. This was a whiskey you could almost deconstruct in your mouth, focusing on the spice first, then the licorice then the tannins and again that barely minty/mushroomy old bottle effect that Doug found reminded him of the air in a dunnage warehouse. A very complex little beauty it was and I rated it at 89 points.
Old Forester 1965/1970 Kentucky Straight Bourbon (100 proof, Brown-Forman, Spring 1965/Spring 1970, Bottled in Bond). Some of the old-time distillers were said to be able to tell what season a whiskey was distilled just by smelling it. Tax Stamps on this Old Forester tell us it was distilled one spring and bottled five springs later making it a spring-spring” in anorak talk. Well these must have been mighty fine springs because this bottle managed to sum up all the whiskeys Marty and Doug had poured so far.
The nose was disarmingly simple at first sniff then started with dark, bitter molasses that quickly sweetened up into a robust dark Cuban rum with evolving vanilla notes and hits of sweet spices. On the palate it was very sweet. There were hints of the glycerine-like alcohol sweetness that sometimes accompanies higher, but not too high, abvs (50% in this case). In the background were hints of menthol or eucalyptus and a certain mustiness, that old bottle note so familiar from single malts of another era. These were a lot more obvious than the same notes usually are in malt whisky. Again there was a nice tannic structure overlain with a creaminess, which managed to exist side by side. Sweet spices danced in and out – ahh hard to avoid the Bourbo-porn on this little wonder. This was the cream of the crop and worth every one of its 90 points.
Vintage Rye 23yo (47%, Vintage Rye Company, Handmade in Kentucky, bottled 2006). The Vintage Rye Company is probably just a label. No one really seemed to know much about this current release. The nose was wonderfully woody with lots of vanilla in the background. Simple, but effective. I found the palate to be the hottest of all the whiskeys I had tasted so far and as the nose predicted, richly woody. Now I am getting to like more wood in whiskey, but this one you could have broken a tooth on. Still it was rich and very spicy with nice notes of vanilla pods. Overall a fairly simple whiskey, but enjoyable enough to rate 83 points.
Red Hook Rye NAS Kentucky Straight Rye Whisky (67.6% LeNell’s, Barrel #1).
Another current release, LeNell’s Red Hook Rye is an accessible rye with a lot of wood and vanilla. In fact, the nose was almost entirely vanilla, though little hints of wood and spice did drift through from time to time. The palate was very spicy with a ginger ale zestiness and lots of heat. Though it was quite sweet it also had an odd bitterness. Perhaps I was imagining things but it almost reminded me of a sour German rye bread, and there was lots of wood influence throughout. These straight ryes are made from a mash of at least 51% rye and are not as complex as some of the bourbons but they are just so seducing. I rated the Red Hook Rye at 81 points.
And finally we ended with a very special rye whiskey, Willett Kentucky Rye 22yo (68.35%, 0B, Barrel # 618). Special, because this is Doug’s own bottling, from a cask selected along with his ‘study group’ as the best of the best available on the independent market today. And quite a beauty it was. If malt whisky has peat monsters and sherry monsters then the Willett’s is a vanilla monster, but not the raw, desperate-for-a-coke vanilla of Jack Daniel’s but the rich, luxuriant perfume of jungle-grown orchids.
Yes, hints of wood did shine through, and there was a spice-islands essence in the background, but these just accentuated the vanilla in the nose. On the palate it was hot and the zesty wood was right up front. Again though, the vanilla dominated with a medley of sweet spices inter-playing beneath. The wood was sweet and tasty rather than harsh and drying as it is so often in malt whisky. What a way to end a tasting. Malt Advocate scored this rye at 94 points, and even in my novice, malt-trained mouth it rated at least 84 points.
Quite a journey it was, through Appalachia, touching on corn whisky, bourbon and straight rye and with Marty and Doug to guide me we hit quite a few high points. Most malt whisky drinkers don’t give American whiskey a second thought, and with many of the bottles currently on the shelves it’s no wonder. If you know where to look though, there are some real thrillers out there and tasting them tells you something about malt whisky as well.
So what did I learn? Well, bourbon can be a bit woody, but it’s a delicious, succulent, spicy, flavourful woodiness, rather than the drying, astringent woodiness of over-aged malt whisky. Not all bourbon has the vanilla sweetness of some of today’s most popular bottles and in many it’s a much more complex vanilla. Many malts show more vanilla than some bourbons do. Rye whisky can be just as spicy as the spiciest malts. Though some are just as complex as malt whisky, bourbon’s real attraction is that it is just so approachable. The range of flavours in bourbons is just as broad as it is in malt whisky.
So next time someone offers you a bourbon, don’t automatically turn your nose up. If they know what they’re doing, you could well be in for a surprise to satisfy any malt connoisseur. Who knows, you may even become a convert.