December 30, 2012

McAffee's Benchmark Bourbon Review

Benchmark is one of the many bourbons made at the Buffalo Trace distillery.  It's bottled at the standard 80 proof and is sold in a Jack Daniel's-esqe bottle.  I'm not sure how long it's aged.  By price alone, (which does not always equate to a measure of quality), it's a bottom shelf whiskey.

Benchmark is dull orange in color, indicating a young age.  Its nose is part spicy, with cinnamon and black pepper notes and part sweet, which comes through with caramel and vanilla frosting notes.  Mouthfeel is cool and watery.  The taste doesn't have the sweetness found in the nose, but the peppery spice is there along with crisp, fresh corn tang.  Mingled in there is also a dry sootiness.  Benchmark finishes with the slightest of burn, and some of the sweetness from the nose creeps in.

Benchmark bourbon is an absolutely serviceable knock-around whiskey.  It doesn't have the complexities of other "higher-end" bourbons, but who cares?  Every highball or sour that needs a whiskey can't complain if they're given Benchmark.  Like everything else that comes out of Buffalo Trace, Benchmark bourbon can easily become part of your daily rotation.  It's simply a good whiskey, and an outstanding value to boot.

October 20, 2012

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon Review

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is touted as a "vintage-dated" bourbon, meaning the bourbon is made up of whiskey from production day - not from a blend of differently aged bourbons (like the standard Old Forester).  The bourbon is 12 years old, making it relatively old for a bourbon.  OFBB is bottled at 98 proof and is sold in a squat decanter-type bottle (which is aethstically nice, but its footprint takes up a lot of real estate in the liquor cabinet...)

Old Forester Birthday is a rich, warm shade of mahogany, indicating the long time spent in the barrel.  Its nose is soft, with cinnamon and allspice, candy apple, honey, and some tabacco notes way in the back.  The nose is very surprisingly not too hot considering the high proof.  Mouthfeel is thick and warm, but not syrupy.  OFBB's taste begins with fresh-ground black pepper, which dissolves into a woody dryness with whisps of orange peel, a slight Campari-like bitterness, and just a hint of cocoa.  Old Forester Birthday has a long, complex finish that starts with a quick flash of ethanol burn that evolves into a ripe sweetness on the roof of your mouth and a simultaneous oaky dryness on the tongue.  It then mellows to a lingering sweet nuttiness. 

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is certainly a premium bourbon.  It is complex and surprising and hides its high proof very well, allowing its varied character to present itself.  I am a big fan of the standard 100 proof bottling of Old Forester.  I think I may be becoming a fan of it's older brother, too.

September 2, 2012

Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12 YO Review

Like Old Fitz 1849 reviewed below (and other OF expressions), Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12 Year Old is a wheated bourbon, meaning wheat is used instead of rye in the mash bill.  VSOF is distilled by Heaven Hill at 90 proof.

VSOF is rusty orange in color, deep enough to suggest it spent over a decade in wood.  Despite the wheat, its nose is spicy, softened by a light sweetness, and orange zest. There's also a meatiness; a chewiness, like well-oiled, broken-in leather.  Mouthfeel is not too heavy, slightly thick without being syrupy.  Its taste is peppery with a subtle sweetness - a candied citrus with a bittersweet dark chocolate note.  Very Special Old Fitzgerald finishes hot and spicy with a dull burn as you might expect from a 90 proof bourbon.

This bottle of Old Fitzgerald is nuanced and tasty.  Its "wheatness" doesn't shine through, so if that's what you're looking for, try another wheated bourbon. I don't think it'll find a place in my daily rotation, but that's not because it's not unique and thought-provoking.  After all, not every good bourbon can become your favorite. 

June 19, 2012

Old Fitzgerald's 1849 Review

Old Fitzgerald's 1849 bourbon is one of the handful of "wheaters" on the market, meaning that wheat is used instead of rye as the flavor grain in the mash bill.  I've actually never tasted OF 1849 prior to this review, so let's see if I'll be buying another bottle anytime soon...

Old Fitz 1849 is dull copper in color.  It's not vibrant or brilliant, but is instead has a calming hue.  It's bottled at 90 proof by Heaven Hill.  Its nose is soft, with clover, cinnamon, and toffee chips in front.  Vanilla is there for sure, alongside a nougat note, with the slightest hint of pepper lingering in the back.  Its nose made me think of a stand of trees on a fall evening.  Mouthfeel is a great balance of watery, oily, and syrupy.  Old Fitzgerald tastes of candied orange with a sneaky sour tang.  Some of the cinnamon from the nose is present, as is bittersweet chocolate.  OE finishes with an oaky, peppery burn that isn't fleeting.

Old Fitzgerald's 1849 is a fine bourbon.  Will I run out and buy another bottle immediately?  No.  Not because I didn't enjoy it, but because it isn't outstanding and as such, doesn't warrant cutting in line in front of my next few bourbon purchases.  Like so many bourbons, Old Fitz 1849 is a solid whiskey.  And for a wheated bourbon, perhaps a little more interesting than its cousins. 

May 22, 2012

Bourbon Book Review: "A Social History of Bourbon: An Unhurried Account of our Star-Spangled American Drink" by Gerald Carson

And in the last installment of my short series on bourbon books....

Like Henry Crowgey’s "Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking," Gerald Carson’s "A Social History of Bourbon" is written strictly from a historical standpoint. Carson was born in 1899 in Illinois and became an author of several works on American history. "A Social History of Bourbon" is laden with historical facts and accounts, making the book academic and intellectual.

As is made clear by the book’s title, it recounts early U.S. history from the standpoint of bourbon and American whiskey. Carson cleverly demonstrates the very significant place whiskey occupied in early American government and politics, and how it was the impetus behind several Congressional Acts and many taxes including Prohibition and the Excise Tax. "A Social History of Bourbon" also situates bourbon at the center of American corruption, whether it be socially via moonshiners or politically via the Whiskey Ring. As Carson writes, "The story of bourbon is recorded in many lively pages of our history. American whiskey is intimately associated with valor and splendor and the graces of life; with villainy and folly; with dramatic events such as the Whiskey Rebellion, the scandals of the Whiskey Ring and later with the Whiskey Trust; with the 'whiskey forts' of the fur trade, the fate of American Indian and the toil of civilizing a continent. Whiskey and government, finally, are yoked together in an uneasy relationship derived from the power of Congress to levy taxes."

Carson has obviously spent considerable time researching bourbon’s impact and presence in American history. It ties the social and political history of the U.S. tightly with bourbon, illustrating how whiskey informed to a large degree the early Federal countenance of America. Carson illustrates that bourbon is undeniably part and parcel of early American life, spanning from the colonies to the frontier and influencing the government that oversaw and shaped a growing nation. It should further be noted that the material and information in the book are over 65 years old. However, despite its age it is still relevant and offers a unique read not duplicated by other, more recent authors. To that end, Gerald Carson’s A Social History of Bourbon should not be overlooked – it should be valued.

April 7, 2012

Bourbon Book Review: "Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking" by Henry G. Crowgey

Henry G. Crowgey was a history professor at UNC-Wilmington, and his pedagogical nature certainly shines through in “Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking.” This work “is almost exclusively devoted to the first half-century of Kentucky distilling, with a certain amount of additional emphasis on those first few years of settlement which have been completely ignored by the early historians in their guarded mention of whiskey and distillers.” As a result, “Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking” takes a microscopic view of a very specific period of initial American whiskey making. What’s important, though, is that this initial period informed whiskey production as we know it today.

Crowgey’s work is rich with historical information, and in that regard, the book absolutely smells of the lamp. Crowgey does an admirable job at getting a true story of whiskey and bourbon distilling in the 1700 and 1800’s. Since there is an unfortunate dearth of historical record on the subject, Crowgey takes advantage of the few materials still in existence that may shed an objective light on early American whiskey, and cites from past newspapers, diaries, ads, letters, notes, and wills.

“Kentucky Bourbon” is a scholarly effort, aimed at historical precision. It is a dense read that appeals to bourbon and whiskey enthusiasts as well as American historians. The book places whiskey as a centerpiece of colonial living, naming bourbon and other alcohol as an undeniably essential part of colonial life – whiskey was always a popular guest at weddings, funerals, political events, and in military life. The elegance of Henry G. Crowgey’s research is how it describes both the ubiquity and significance of bourbon in early Kentucky and American life. To acknowledge and appreciate the history of American whiskey is to understand and enjoy it in a modern context. “Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking” provides a huge step in doing so.

March 15, 2012

Bourbon Book Review: "Bourbon At Its Best: The Lore & Allure of America's Finest Spirits," by Ron Givens

Ron Givens is a drinks writer, and contributor to the New York Daily News, Newsweek, Time Out New York, and Drinks magazine. In "Bourbon At Its Best: The Lore & Allure of America’s Finest Spirits," Givens displays both his appreciation of bourbon and his to-the-point manner of writing.

"Bourbon At Its Best" does not take as an in-depth approach to bourbon’s story as other authors have. But that’s okay – Givens’ work serves as an impeccable introduction to bourbon and discusses the major players in the industry, historical facts and lore, and present-day whiskey production. Givens’ effort acts as a survey of bourbon, from how it’s made to how it’s enjoyed, and the reader’s feeling of satisfaction will come not from microscopic views of historical events but rather from an overall sense of why bourbon is America’s finest spirit.

The book is also very aesthetically pleasing, and includes several color photographs of people and places. These visual aspects add substantially to the enjoyment of the work, showing the reader images from modern day rickhouses to illegal distillation equipment from the Prohibition era. Givens also provides tasting notes and product information for over 50 bourbons, offers information about touring Kentucky’s distilleries, and explains numerous bourbon cocktail recipes. And, one of the most appreciated parts of the book talks about the American distilleries that exist today, matching to them the bourbons produced there – considering the handfuls and handfuls of bourbon labels you see on a liquor store shelf, knowing in what distillery each was made greatly helps you make sense of it all.

In "Bourbon At Its Best: The Lore & Allure of America’s Finest Spirit," Ron Givens gives you an extraordinary place to begin your appreciation of bourbon. Of course, the information is still fascinating to bourbon experts, but the book’s purpose is to provide direction in the bourbon world. Perhaps Givens says it best when he explains why his book exists: “to help you sort through a world of difficult, wonderful decisions” that is bourbon whiskey.

March 4, 2012

Bourbon Book Review: "Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey" by Charles K. Cowdery

Chuck Cowdery is an American whiskey enthusiast, an author, a blogger, a drinks writer for the Chicago Examiner, a marketing professional, and an attorney. In addition to "Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey," Cowdery produced a DVD about bourbon, named "Made and Bottled in Kentucky." Cowdery also writes and publishes "The Bourbon County Reader," which is a bi-monthly American whiskey newsletter. He certainly had the advantage of experience when he wrote this book.

"Bourbon, Straight" is an unadorned, no-frills account of this history of bourbon. I very much appreciate that. Cowdery has taken the snobbery and pompousness from his book that is so often found in enthusiast- and connoisseur- related books and articles while simultaneously delivering an authoritative, rich story about a subject he clearly loves.

The book shows how bourbon was and is an integral and integrated part of American history. It is so much more than a dry regurgitation of names, places, dates, and locations. Rather, Cowdery illustrates the extent to which bourbon shaped a surprisingly significant part of American culture, business, and even war. Cowdery subtly but convincingly shows how one of bourbon’s best characteristics is its truly American heritage. However, that is not to say that the piece is not jammed with great whiskey facts, like the real story behind bourbon’s name, the actual differences between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, how barrel charring first occurred, and why E.H. Taylor was so important in bourbon’s early days.

Mr. Cowdery also does an impeccable job combining the elements of his book to appeal to both bourbon amateurs and experts. While no book on bourbon would be complete without a detailed explanation of how it’s made, aged, and bottled, Bourbon, Straight goes on to review over 30 whiskeys and to provide a discussion on tasting methods. More interesting are Cowdery’s opinions about such diverse topics as the taste of Jack Daniel’s to the marketing of Bulleit Bourbon. It is immediately obvious that his opinions are given based on years of experience, and are told with such well-deserved conviction that they may well lead you to change your mind about some things.

What I value most about the book is written in the Introduction. Cowdery writes, "One example of [people’s] ignorance [about bourbon], of relevance to whiskey fans, is the prejudice against 'hard liquor' embodied in that very expression. Conventional wisdom holds that distilled spirits are a uniquely dangerous form of alcohol, more prone to abuse than beer or wine. [W]hiskey drinkers are often unfairly pigeonholed as 'hard drinkers' solely based on what they drink. But if I’m sipping a couple fingers of Kentucky bourbon and you’re pounding glass after glass of white wine, who is taking in more alcohol? It is not 'what,' only 'how much' that matters."

Before reading this, I hadn’t consciously realized how this “hard drinking” stigma had actually affected me and how guarded I would be at times about my admiration and enjoyment of bourbon. So, Mr. Cowdery, a hearty thanks for crafting a truly important American whiskey book, and for doing your part to make us bourbon drinkers feel at ease with such a fulfilling hobby.

February 12, 2012

Old Bardstown Review

Old Bardstown is a product of the Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd.  This fact is somewhat misleading, though.  Kentucky Bourbon Distillers does not actually distill whiskey.  Rather, they bottle bourbon (as a non-distilling producer) made in other distilleries.  KBD isn't necessarily forthcoming about the true origin of the whiskies they bottle, but at least a good portion of what they bottle comes from Heaven Hill.  So, to be honest, I don't know who actually distills Old Bardstown.  I do know who bottles it, however.  Chuck Cowdery, an Amerian whiskey expert, touches on this in his blog, here.

Old Bardstown is sold in a generic-looking square whiskey bottle with red and white lettering and a gold horse front-and-center on the label.  It is 90 proof and has a rusty brown color.  Its nose is sweet corn, syrupy cinnamon, and nougat, with tiny flecks of pepper.  It's thick and sweet smelling.  Mouthfeel is watery, not luscious as the the nose suggested.  Old Bardstown tastes sooty, again departing from the syrupy nose.  Along with the soot is a dry nutty essence, like raw walnuts.  It finishes with a fair amount of astringency, and a grainy wood note.

Old Bardstown is a relatively cheap bourbon buy.  It's interesting how the nose is so inconsistent to the taste, but the interest ends there.  Old Bardstown is a suitable bourbon for quick and dirty mixing, but will not be considered for a sipping whiskey.  And, to be fair, there are better bourbons out there to fill the mixing position in your liquor cabinet rotation.

January 29, 2012

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage

Most people know Evan Williams by its standard black label bottling. Perhaps less are aware of Evan Williams' "Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon." This review discusses the 2001 release. In fact, as the handwritten numbering on the back label tells me, the bourbon was put in the barrel on November 9, 2001 and put in the bottle on September 14, 2011.

EW Single Barrel clocks in at 86.6 proof. It has a honey-amber color, lighter than I would expect for spending 10 years in oak. It coats the glass well. The nose is predominantly spicy and peppery - almost hot. Notes of dark cherry pop up, too. Mixed in there is a bone dry sawdusty presence. Mouthfeel is more heavy than not, but not remarkably so. Evan Williams Single tastes of the woody, peppery spice revealed in its nose. There are sweet notes of burnt caramel, so calling that "sweet" is really a misnomer. Also, there is just a hint of dark, ripe fruit that springs up at just the right time to round out the dry spice. EW finishes with warmth and pepper.

Evan Williams Singel Barrel is defined by its peppery dryness. It calls to mind dried-out juniper branches. It has an old feel to it, like an antique. EW is an exploration is woody spiciness and should be appreciated for that alone. Oh, and I should mention that for this review I drank this bourbon neat, without any water added. I mention this because it's proof is right on the unwritten borderline where some folks like to add a bit. I'm sure EWSB may have a different profile with a few drops of H20, but that is the subject of a separate review.