May 31, 2009

Knob Creek Review

Knob Creek is part of the Jim Beam Small Batch collection, which includes Booker's, Baker's, and Basil Hayden's. Knob Creek is the least expensive and best selling among the four. It's named after an actual creek in Kentucky, along which young Abe Lincoln lived. Knob Creek is orange-copper in color, is 100 proof, and is sold in a flask-like bottle similar in shape to Woodford Reserve.

Knob Creek starts out as the same whiskey as Jim Beam White label (aged 4 years). The only difference is that KC is aged 9 years (one year longer than the Black label expression). It would be fun to spend a day comparing and contrasting the taste profiles of Jim Beam White label, Black label, and Knob Creek seeing as they are all from the same Beam mashbill and differ only by age.

KC's nose is thick; syrupy sweet with citrus undertones. While thick, it's also complex, and there is some corn, licorice, and something dank like the smell of a basement in Vermont. The taste is smoky, almost peaty. Syrupy sweetness is present, but not to the degree the nose promised - instead it's tempered by hot spiciness. There is also a dry woodiness that spreads to the roof of your mouth and back of your tongue while a cornbread tastiness pops up on the front of your tongue. Nice and complex, with each sip having differing characteristics. It finishes pretty quickly with an oaky surge that plows through your mouth, from the back to the front.

All in all, KC is interesting because it is complex. This complexity is what I appreciate most about it, even more that the actual taste. While KC is not my favorite for its taste, it definitely ranks high for its ability to make me ponder its nuances and several dimensions.

May 27, 2009

Bottled In Bond

Bourbons that are "bottled in bond" are those that comply with the Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897. This Act was created to ensure the authenticity and purity of bourbon, and mandates that to be considered bonded and be labeled as such, bottled whiskey must be at least 4 years old, at least 100 proof, be the product of one distillery and one distiller, in one season. Bondeds are thus distinct from straight bourbon because straights commonly are combinations of different bourbons made at different times and places.To make sure these requirements were met, bonded bourbon was aged in Federally bonded and supervised warehouses, the keys to which were held by the goverment supervisors (these "government men" were agents of the Treasury Department, and up until the early 1980's, they physically unlocked the doors each morning and locked them each night).

These requirements are interesting and all, and can be useful in understanding the character of modernly available BIBs, like Old Grand Dad 100 proof. More interesting is the history and historical players behind the Act.

Among his many other significant contributions to the bourbon industry as we know it today, E.H. Taylor was instrumental in the creation of the Bottled-In-Bond Act. By way of brief background, Edmund Haynes Taylor was born in 1890 in Columbus, KY. He made a bunch of money as a banker and eventually became interested in the whiskey business. His first foray into the bourbon industry was in 1860, when Taylor funded Gaines, Berry & Co. Distillers, which apparently made Old Crow. After the Civil War, he acquired the Old Pepper distillery along with its whiskey stocks. Taylor also had a hand in the OFC Distillery, which today is Buffalo Trace. In addition to bourbon, politics became another primary interest to Taylor, and in 1871 he was elected Mayor of Frankfurt, KY - a position he held for almost 20 years. From Mayor, he went on to become a state representative and then Senator. With his substantial interest in bourbon, and his powerful political presence, Taylor was especially well-positioned to influence the government about the importance of protecting the quality and integrity of American whiskey at that time. You see, Taylor did not want the American public to distrust whiskey, and he had good reason to think they might.

When Taylor was born and living, bourbon was not aged, advertised, or sold as it is today. A large percentage of whiskey available in the 1800's was green (unaged) and thus very harsh tasting. While aging bourbon in charred oak barrels was on its way to becoming the standard, there were still an overwhelming amount of distillers, wholesalers, and retailers who did their best to make the young bourbon palatable. Some used innocuous ingredients, like syrups or fruit juices to sweeten the bourbon. Others, however, used some pretty disgusting stuff like tobacco, acid, and other harmful toxins to trick drinkers' mouths. All this was compounded by the fact that the U.S. did not have any truth-in-advertising, trademark, or brand name protection laws at this time. Accordingly, with harmful bourbon concoctions being sold under the false pretenses of "pure Kentucky bourbon" (for example), time was ripe for Federal intervention.

So, armed with his political might and his determination to keep bourbon pure, Taylor joined forces with the then-Secretary of the Treasury John G. Calisle. Together, they successfully fought for the Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897. The term bonded bourbon now is antiquated, but is still similar to the several single barrel expressions sold today. So, if you see the random Bond, give it try, and appreciate the distiller's skill in selecting the single-season, single distillery quaff. And, when enjoying any bourbon, tip your glass to Mr. Taylor and thank him for the absence of acid and tobacco in your drink.

May 19, 2009

Woodford Reserve Distillery Tour

I liked these videos, taken from the Woodford Reserve Distillery. The information is useful and interesting, and seeing where and in what manner a bourbon is made always give me a new perspective when I drink, in this case, Woodford.

May 11, 2009

Alembic: The San Francisco Bourbon Bar

I vacationed last week in San Francisco with my wife. I had done a little research into there being any great San Francisco bourbon bars. Alembic was a suggestion. I checked out the website. The bourbon menu speaks for itself. And, the more daring of you should also peruse the food menu (the boar jerky is awesome).

Alembic is unassuming and unpretentious. It's on the gritty/artsy/eccentric/ecletic/freakish Haight Street and draws a diverse clientele. The bourbon and American whiskey selection is outrageous:

I started with a Blantons, then moved on to Four Roses Small Batch, Four Rose Single, Van Winkle 20 year, and then tried a Bernheim seeing as it's so hard to find. As you can see, I took advantage of getting to buy a glass from the pretty expensive bottles out there.

I was served by Janiece, who was knowledable, friendly, and a bourbon enthusiast. It was a truly memorable experience, and the bar was a testament that bourbon is still very much appreicated by the American, or at least San Franciscan, drinking community. You'd be doing yourself a big favor by stopping by next time you're in northern California.

May 1, 2009

A Question of Barreling, Part II: Why Char?

Bourbon barrels are made of oak, by law. I discussed this here. The use of oak is actually a tradition from antiquity, seeing as oak casks were the choice vessel for storing wine and beer through the centuries. So, the Europeans who settled in America brought this tradition with them.

The charring of barrels is also a practice that pre-dates bourbon. Wooden barrels were commonly used as containers, holding pretty much anything that needed containment: pickles and foodstuffs to metal scraps. When it was time to re-use a barrel, it was fired on the inside to sterilize it for the next use. So, it would be common for charred oak barrels to be handy during the early days of American whiskey making, and made a great whiskey transporter.

In those early days, distillers and whiskey merchants would sell most of the liquor unaged, essentially as grain alcohol. However, some whiskey was stored and aged. Since at least some of the barrels used to store this whiskey would have been charred to eliminate the remnants of its previous use, the whiskey would have a chance to age in the charred wood. When finally sold, the resultant bourbon would have been much more palatable and enjoyable to the purchaser. Thus, the benefits of using charred barrels became well known, and new barrels were charred for the sole purpose of holding bourbon during its aging process.

But why char new barrels if all these existing ones are available? Well, charred barrels became less and less available for whiskey distillers. Distillers sold their liquor to customers and retailers in the barrel; the bottling process was yet to occur. So, as barrels went out to customers and stores, they rarely found their way back to the distillery. Accordingly, distilleries were forced to char new, unused barrels to acheive the desired bourbon. Since people preferred whiskey that came from a charred barrel, producers obliged. Business is business.

Presently, the two primary barrel producers are Bluegrass Cooperage in Louisville, KY and the Independent Stave Company located in both Missouri and Kentucky. The barrels that come from these places are charred at the plant to the distillery's specifications. The charring is measured in levels, from 1 to 4, 4 being the deepest char which subjects the barrel to about 1 minute of flame. Only seconds differentiate between the char levels. A char at level 3 is very common in the distilleries.

A worthwhile, short video of the barrel-making process is found on Independent Stave's website, here.