My Favorite Bourbons, 2015 Edition

september-national-bourbon-heritage-monthDid you know that September is National Bourbon Heritage Month?

In celebration of this wonderful month, I thought I’d share my favorite bourbons.

I only started enjoying bourbons within the last few years, so my evolution in enjoying this fine domestic product is still very very young.

I love scotch but we aren’t married. I can love bourbon too. :)

What I enjoy most about bourbon, besides the much lower price (it’s domestic, so none of those pesky import duties and fees), is that you can play around with the mashbill. It’s another factor you can adjust to get the flavors you want. With single malt scotch, it’s 100% malted barley. With bourbon, it’s 51% corn and the rest is up to you. While there are several tried and true ratios, in theory you could do anything.

So which ones are my favorite in 2015?

Here they are and since I’m a novice, most are generally available in your corner store. I haven’t gotten into more boutique, smaller batch stuff.

Basil Hayden’s
basil-hayden-bottleYears ago, my friend Dave gave me a bottle of Basil Hayden as a gift and it really opened my eyes to how good bourbon could be.

Until then, I had the somewhat snobbish impression that bourbons were cheap for a reason (they are, but not for the reason I thought). When I had Basil Hayden, it changed my perception. Gone were the memories of doing shots of Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam back in college. In its place, a sweet peppery flavor that has a depth you can only appreciate if you sip it.

My first ever scotch was Glenlivet, which has a spiciness to it, and so this bourbon was a nice little reminder of Glenlivet (on that score) but still 100% bourbon with the sweetness from the corn. I think it helps that its aged quite a bit so it’s smoother and it’s bottled at 40% abv.

This guy will set you back around $40-$45.

Four Roses Bourbon
four-roses-small-batchWhen I first had it, I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t appreciate it enough. It was the Small Batch, 45% abv, and the slight increase in alcohol gave it a bit of punch I wasn’t ready for.

When I had it a few more times, trying Single Barrel and Small Batch at other points, I really started to appreciate the richness behind the sweetness.

I looked up the mashbill of the small batch and it’s 75% corn and 25% rye. The rye gives it the spiciness and corn gives it the sweetness. It would take several bourbons before I’d learn that I really enjoy a higher rye mashbill because of the spiciness (I enjoy spicy foods, so this is no surprise).

Price tag for this guy is between $35-$40.

Elijah Craig 12
Elijah-Craig12-bottleElijah Craig is named after the Reverend Elijah Craig, who claimed to have invented bourbon whiskey by being the first to age it in charred oak casks. I say claimed because there’s really no proof and Heaven Hill, the manufacturer, uses that claim in all of its marketing to the chagrin of everyone else in the world. :)

No matter what you think of history, the Elijah Craig 12 is 47% alcohol and easy to drink. It won a Double Gold Medal in the 2008 SF Spirits Competition and one of my favorites. It’s also really affordable, you can probably find a bottle of less than $25.

Bulleit Rye
bulleit-rye-whiskey-bottleThis last one is technically not a bourbon because a bourbon must be at least 51% corn.

Bulleit Rye is 95% rye and 5% malted barley. If you want spicy, this baby is spicy because it’s practically all rye.

Price on this baby is around $20.

One Glaring Omission (or four)
One company I want to put on this list but can’t is Buffalo Trace. Arguably one of the most well regarded bourbon distilleries, Buffalo Trace didn’t make my list not because I don’t like them but because I haven’t had enough of it.

I’ve enjoyed Eagle Rare once (it was solid) and a glass of Pappy Van Winkle 10 (it’s not the one that goes for thousands of dollars… and it was delicious) before but that’s about it – not enough to think of them in my list of favorites.

In the coming years, I hope to learn more and expand my experiences… and make this list much better. :)

Posted in Bourbon | 24 Comments

What’s up with all this Scotch in space news?

In the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of news involving scotch and space, the final frontier.

Some of it was fluffy, some of it was legit, but it’s interesting how these stories clustered together.

The two that I found were more on the legit end were Ardbeg’s results from sending new make into space and Ballantine’s Space Glass.

Ardbeg’s Space Experiment

Ardbeg Space Whisky

Courtesy of Ardbeg

We had Ardbeg reporting back on a space experiment they started four years ago. They sent some Ardbeg distillate (new make whisky) along with shards of Ardbeg casks to the International Space Station. Those vials stayed on the ISS for nearly three years and then sent back home. The study was to analyze terpenes, which are organic compounds produced by plants like conifers.

Those vials made the trip back home and were compared with control vials left on Earth. Ardbeg’s Director of Distilling and Whisky Creation, Dr. Bill Lumsden, analyzed the results and discovered that the maturation was different when not subjected to gravity. Different flavors (ratios of wood extractive compounds from the barrel shards) just because it was in space. It means there are more levers to pull in making more distinctive single malts and kind of fun to see it play out.

OK so that’s the level of detail you probably have seen written about in most mainstream press – at this point I would’ve said “ehhh nice marketing move Ardbeg.”

There’s a lot more to it, they performed three tests – gas chromatography (GC), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCMS), and high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC).

GC measures key volatile compounds of alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, and fatty acid esters. For this, they found the same compounds in both the Earth and the Space samples.

The GCMS is a more serious version of GC and they discovered that one phenolic compound was much lower in the space samples.

And HPLC measures phenolic compounds and wood extractives, where they saw the biggest difference. With wood extractives, there are some compounds that come out of the wood easily and some that are harder. They discovered that without gravity, the easier to extract compounds were less prevalent than in the Earth sample. Gravity was a factor. Space whisky just didn’t get as much of the easy to get wood extractives.

Ballantine’s Space Glass

ballantine-whiskey-space-glassBallantine designed a glass that will let you enjoy your whisky in space.

At first glance, it sounds soooooo gimmicky. I mean a space glass? Really?

But as you read about it, it’s kind of cool. No doubt it’s gimmicky in the sense that you’re not going into space so you’re not going to need a space glass.

But… it’s also a really fun story because they didn’t just slap “Space Glass” on a regular glass, like Frozen’s been slapped on everything. (OK a Frozen glass with Elsa would be truly gimmicky).

It’s a James Parr designed 3D printed plastic with a metal base that contains a one-way valve and a 10kg pull magnet. I’d go into all the different parts of the design but I’d rather you take five minutes to watch this video from the designer himself.

Not gonna lie, I’d give it a try. :)

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NEAT Glass Review

NEAT+2pak+USAThe first time I tried whisky, it was in a standard rocks glass.

Straight sides, wide opening, plenty of space for an ice cube or three (though I didn’t put one).

If you had asked me, back then, if I thought the glass made a difference I would’ve probably said no.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the shape of glassware and it’s impact.

Shape matters.

I’ve enjoyed whisky in the well-known Glencairns, I own several Reidel Vinum single malt glasses, and sometimes I like the fun and feel of a rocks glass.

One glass that has gotten a lot of publicity, is used in judging competitions, but hasn’t yet appeared in my hands?

The NEAT glass.

The claim to fame of the NEAT glass is that its shape removes the nose burn from the alcohol in whisky. By dissipating the nose burn, you’re able to better identify and enjoy the subtler flavors.

I was sent a pair of NEAT glasses and in just my first time trying them out, the claim that it allows the alcohol to dissipate is legitimate.

The next step was to do a head to head to head with the glasses I have. I put the NEAT glass up against a Glencairn, a Reidel Single Malt glass, and your standard festive “help you through the holidays” rocks glass.


A shot of the glasses from above, to give you a sense of the relative size of the opening

A shot of the glasses from above, to give you a sense of the relative size of the opening

The whiskey in the glass is a Templeton Rye. A relatively simple dram, from a nosing and palate perspective, not a ton of depth, but you could really tell glassware made a difference.

Rocks Glass: The opening is too large, alcohol could dissipate but so could most of the complex flavors and scents. Now that I know what it’s like head to head, I will not be drinking whisky out of a rocks glass again. This was eye opening to me and surprised me the most.
Reidel Single Malt: This glass has a similar opening, which had the same effect of dissipating some of the alcohol. Not nearly as much as the NEAT glass, but the opening is not as pronounced.
Glencairn: You get everything. Nothing escapes you, alcohol included. I’m used to it and so I’m able to enjoy the complex flavors underneath the alcohol, but when you nosed it side by side, you really can tell the difference.
NEAT: Similar to the Reidel Single Malt, in that alcohol is dissipated, and the complex flavors shined. I think it’s because the glass is shorter, so you’re able to get your nose closer to the spirit… but there’s a marked difference.

OK, Templeton is fine, not all that exciting, but I wanted to start somewhere.

Did things change when I put something with a little more depth? I put in some Laphroaig 10 and that’s when the glass made a difference. The notes about the Glencairn and Rocks glass still hold true, the difference between the Reidel and NEAT was far more pronounced. Perhaps even an order of magnitude.

One thing that takes a little getting used to is how it opens up at the top. Most glassware tapers and it actually focuses the liquid for easy delivery, by having it open out it’s a little when you pour water out of a vase, if that makse sense.

What about this sweet spot? The opening of the glass is much wider than others and so is the potential “sweet spot” for nosing. It’s actually not directly in the middle of the opening, it’s off to the side about halfway between the mid-point and the edge.

Not surprisingly, it’ll be where your nose is if your lips are on the glass. (unless, of course, you have a massive head… mine is 23.25″ in circumference as reference)

Is it worth it? Yes. It does what it says it does and it’s reasonably priced. A pair is available on Wine Enthusiast for $24.95. A pair of Glencairns will run you around $16-18 so it’s comparably priced with what is seen as the gold standard. A pair of Riedel Vinum Single Malt Whiskey Glasses, which offer similar “performance,” is near $50.

I’ve often said that drinking whisky, whether it’s a single malt or not, is like listening to an orchestra. At first, you hear the sounds in harmony and as a song. As you experience more, you are able to pick out different instruments as you go searching for them. If you’ve never heard a violin, it’s very hard to pick it out of the cacophony.

The NEAT glass, and the Reidel single malt glass, simply takes the drum corp out of the band. It’s easier to hear the flutes if you don’t have to fight through the heavy thump of the drums.

The Glencairn is still going to be my favorite glass because you get everything – flute, violin, and the drum corp. You get that alcohol burn and you’re force do fight through it to get the subtler flavors. But sometimes you don’t want to do that, sometimes you want to explore a new dram without the confusion. The NEAT glass softens the drum corp so the other instruments can shine.

Posted in Barware | 5 Comments

Templeton Rye Settlement

 Credit: Ben Husmann

Credit: Ben Husmann

Are you a fan of Templeton Rye?

Did you know it’s not distilled in Templeton, Iowa?

If you’re wondering why this is a big deal, you have to consider the backstory (and marketing) to Templeton Rye.

Back during the Prohibition Era, farmers in Carroll County, Iowa would make rye whiskey to make some extra money. It was very high quality and thus popular in the speakeasies of major nearby cities like Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City.

Templeton Rye made the claim that it is based on a “Prohibition Era Recipe.” Specifically, it’s supposed to follow the family recipe of co-founder Keith Kerkhoff.

One problem… it doesn’t.

In fact, it’s a stock rye recipe and it’s not even distilled in Iowa! (it’s distilled in a factory distillery in Indiana, transported to Templeton, IA where it’s blended – source).

Well, that upset a few folks and they sued. I’d be upset too if I thought I was getting an old family recipe and was actually just getting a fancy (inaccurate) label.

Templeton settled and will remove the words “Small Batch” and “Prohibition Era Recipe” from the label and include “Distilled in Indiana.”

They will also provide a partial refund.

If you purchased any Templeton Rye since 2006, you can get a refund of $3 per bottle up to six bottles if you don’t have proof of purchase. If you do, you can get $6 per bottle, up to six.

A judge granted preliminary approval on July 21st, 2015 and to file your claim online, visit the settlement website.

You must file your claim before November 18th, 2015 to be included.

Posted in Legal | 1 Comment

Hibiki Japanese Harmony Tasting Notes Review

hibiki-japanese-harmonyIt shocked the world when Jim Murray, author of The Whisky Bible, named The Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as the best whisky in the world. It was the first time, in the 12 year run of The Whisky Bible, that the first place spot didn’t go to a whisky from Scotland. In fact, Murray didn’t put any Scotches in the top five!

Yamazaki is a product of Suntory, which also makes The Hakushu and The Hibiki. Yamazaki and Hakushu are both single malts, Hibiki is their blend and means harmony in Japanese (fitting for a blend). Today, I had the pleasure of sampling Hibiki’s latest no-age statement whisky – Hibiki Japanese Harmony.

In Japanese culture, there’s a reverence of craftsmanship. If you have Netflix, watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it’s a documentary that chronicles the life of 85yo Jiro Ono, considered one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs. He runs a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station and was awarded a 3-star Michelin Guide rating. That’s astounding, until you watch the painstaking detail and world class craftsmanship involved.

I bring that up because harmony with nature is another highly regarded belief, one that’s harder to demonstrate (certainly in a documentary), but that harmony is what Suntory Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo was aiming for in the Hibiki Japanese Harmony blend. The best way to give you an idea of what they were trying to achieve actually comes from their manufacturing notes:

Hibiki Japanese Harmony is heralded as the foundation of the Hibiki range, leveraging the same key malt and grain whiskies from the original Hibiki blend, Hibiki 17 Years and Hibiki 21 Years. American White Oak malt whiskies create a solid base. The rare Mizunara (Japanese oak) and sherry cask malt whiskies are the dressing. The smoky malt whiskies enact as subtle accents to create depth and further complexity. Grain whiskies from Suntory’s Chita distillery act as the “dashi,”or broth, to complete the personality of the malt whiskies and enhance their overall harmony.

There’s a lot going on in the blend and the fun part is that they tell you.

Tasting Notes:

  • Nose: Floral sweetness, emphasis on the floral, some pine and sandalwood
  • Palate: Caramelized honey akin to sherry (it’s one of the sweetest I can remember), candied orange, cinnamon (think about the baking area of your spice drawer… that whole smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, etc), rosemary, a little smokiness that surprised me
  • Finish: Medium finish and clean, some dark chocolate sweet bitterness, lingering honey

Overall, it’s a light whisky with a lot of fun flavors, heavier emphasis on the floral which is fun because you see that’s what they were going for with Harmony. The aspect I wish I could recognize is the characteristics imparted by the Mizunara (Japanese oak) casks. It’s like knowing there’s a new type of stringed instrument in the orchestra but not being able to hear it because I don’t know what to look for.

I’ve had some of Suntory’s other creations and I see this one as a good way to get into Japanese whisky if you’ve never had any. It’s bottled at 43% abv and retails for $68 locally – if I can find one, I’m getting one.

Posted in Tasting Notes | Tagged , , | 5 Comments