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Cigar Spirits: Bulleit Barrel Strength Bourbon

4 May 2016

Bulleit-Barrel-Strength

I’ve long held the opinion that the standard Bulleit Bourbon and Bulleit Rye are great everyday spirits for the price, which can be as low as $19. Bulleit’s 10 Year Bourbon offering is a tasty one, too, especially if you can find it for around $35. (In my home state of Virginia it’s closer to $50; in nearby Maryland I can find it for as low as $33 on sale, which makes it a real steal.)

Recently, Bulleit added a barrel-strength offering to its portfolio. The exact strength varies by batch from between 118- and 125-proof. The sample I received from Bulleit weighs in at 119.2-proof (59.6% ABV). Currently, it is being sold in Kentucky only (MSRP is $50 for a 750 ml. bottle and $30 for the 375 ml. bottle). It wouldn’t surprise me if this rolls out nationally, though, especially given its largely favorable response.

While the bourbon is bottled at the famous Stitzel Weller Distillery in Louisville, that isn’t where it was distilled. For many years, Four Roses distilled Bulleit bourbon on contract. That arrangement ceased over a year ago. Bulleit is currently building a new distillery, which is set to open before the end of the year. Still, while it isn’t disclosed (and reports are that Bulleit’s parent company has purchased distillate bourbon from other distilleries), in all likelihood this is from the stocks distilled at Four Roses.

The deep amber bourbon features a robust nose with sweet wood, pie crust, and just a hint of heat generated by the high proof. On the palate, Bulleit Barrel Proof features oak, cedar spice, cherry, butterscotch, and some barrel char. The finish includes caramel and vanilla with more spice and char.

Bulleit Barrel Strength doesn’t carry an age statement (except for being labeled as a straight Kentucky bourbon, which means it is at least four years old). That said, Bulleit is owned by liquor giant Diageo, which means it has the financial backing to patiently age barrels without the pressure to bottle too early. It shows. This is a very nice addition to the line and one that fans of barrel-proof bourbons will want to seek out.

The spirit pairs naturally with a full-bodied cigar. Suggested pairings include Liga Privada Dirty RatLa Flor Dominicana Limitado VArturo Fuente Opus X, and Tatuaje Havana VI Verocu. Hopefully not a Kentucky-only release for too long, Bulleit Barrel Strength delivers a rich blast of sweetness, wood, and spice that you’d expect from a properly-aged barrel-proof bourbon.

Patrick S

photo credit: Bulleit

Cigar Spirits: Old Forester Signature 100

6 Apr 2016

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With bourbon demand high, there are plenty of excellent bourbons to be found if you’re willing to pay a high price. But there are also plenty of fine bourbons available for around $20, if you know where to look.

Today I want to introduce you to one of my favorite hidden gems: Old Forester Signature 100. Before I tell you why I think this is such an underrated bourbon, lets review the history of Old Forester.

Prior to 1870, when George Garvin Brown introduced Old Forester in bottles, bourbon was sold in barrels, and if you wanted whiskey you went to a bar or store that sold it and filled up your own container. Today, the Old Forester brand is owned by Brown-Forman, whose biggest brand is Jack Daniels. It is made at the company’s distillery in Shively, Kentucky. The same distillery supplies barrels for Brown-Forman’s premium brand, Woodford Reserve.

If you are ever near Lexington, I can’t recommend enough visiting the Woodford Reserve distillery in nearby Versailles. Surrounded by scenic Kentucky horse country, the distillery formerly known as the Oscar Pepper Distillery is the platonic ideal of a bourbon distillery. But much of the bourbon that goes into Woodford Reserve is distilled at the more industrial Shively facility alongside barrels that will become Old Forester.

Since both bourbons are made with the same mashbill (72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley) there is a temptation to suggest that Woodford Reserve and Old Forester are the same bourbon, just marketed differently and sold for a different price. While that may be an overstatement, they certainly share a family resemblance, which makes Old Forester ($18 for one-liter bottle) and Old Forester Signature 100 ($22 for a 750 ml. bottle) candidates for good value.

The standard 86-proof version is easy to find on a lower shelf at most liquor stores. It makes for a great mixing bourbon (it’s particularly tasty in a mint julep) and a decent sipping one. It may take a little effort to find (some markets seem to have plenty while others don’t have it at all), but the 100-proof Old Forester Signature is a step above and worth the extra effort and slightly higher price.

The nose of the deep copper-colored bourbon is sweet with cherry and caramel. The palate features rich fruit, brown sugar, baking spices, and butterscotch. The finish shows the first major woodiness, along with more ripe fruit, spice, and caramel. It’s a hearty 100-proof, but still quite smooth.

This easy drinking bourbon pairs nicely with almost any well-made cigar. I’d particularly suggest a well-balanced, medium-bodied smoke like Arturo Fuente King T Rosado Sun Grown, Davidoff Colorado Claro Short Perfecto, Las Cumbres Tabaco Señorial, or Tesa Vintage Especial.

Ultimately, although there are other bourbons more complex and sophisticated than Old Forester Signature 100, that doesn’t diminish the fact that Old Forester Signature is delightful neat and cheap enough you won’t hesitate to use it in a well-constructed cocktail. That makes it a staple in my bar and an under-rated bourbon.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Orphan Barrel Gifted Horse American Whiskey

9 Mar 2016

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For better or worse, Gifted Horse is one of the most interesting new American whiskey releases this year. The least expensive edition of the Orphan Barrel series to date cannot be called a bourbon because it is a mix of 38.5% 17-year-old Kentucky bourbon, 51% four-year-old Indiana bourbon, and 10.5% four-year-old corn whiskey also distilled in Indiana.

The eyebrow-raising story behind that odd blend is that the components were mixed together by mistake, which turned out so good they decided to release it as a one-time limited offering. For what its worth, this is hardly the first time a cigar or whiskey company has turned a supposed error into a marketing opportunity. (Wild Turkey Forgiven started with an accidental blending of rye and bourbon, and cigar makers regularly find long-forgotten, extra-aged tobaccos.)

In any event, the “accident” resulted in at least over 8,000 bottles (my bottle number was 8,328) which were released at a barrel-strength 118-proof. It sells for $50, although prices have been all over the place relative to suggested retail for the Orphan Barrel releases.

The reddish gold whiskey features an astringent nose with red berries, roast corn, and vanilla. On the palate are strong woody flavors, cereal grains, burnt sugar, and tea notes. The finish is relatively short with charred wood.

There’s a tannic sharpness to Gifted Horse that isn’t due to the proof but from the combination of old, quite possibly over-oaked, bourbon with younger whiskey. It’s disappointing because I had high hopes for Gifted Horse. Unlike previous Orphan Barrel releases, which could be fairly criticized for being underproofed, I was hoping this blend would offer fine flavors without being watered down.

Despite Gifted Horse’s shortcomings, the full proof does offer some tasty cigar pairing options. It certainly can stand up to a full-bodied cigar like the PG 25th Anniversary Connoisseur (pictured, review coming soon), Coronado by La Flor, My Father El Hijo, and Arturo Fuente Opus X.

Plenty of people have criticized the Orphan Barrel series as more marketing hype than good bourbon, but I’ve praised the previous offerings (some more than others) as an actual opportunity to buy ultra-aged bourbon at a reasonable price. Gifted Horse, however, is much tougher to recommend despite its friendlier price. Unless you’re more interested in trying an experiment than a fine whiskey, you’re better off spending more to find different Orphan Barrel offerings or any number of less expensive bourbons.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric 21 Bourbon

27 Jan 2016

OB-Rhetoric-21

Formally announced in 2014, the Orphan Barrel Project has been one of the biggest, albeit sometimes divisive, developments in the high-end bourbon market in recent years. The project of industry giant Diageo has brought a number of well-aged bourbons to the marketplace at a time when such releases are becoming very rare and expensive.

The first releases were the 20-year Barterhouse and 26-year Old Blowhard, the latter being one of the oldest bourbons to be sold. Next came Rhetoric 20, a 20-year bourbon distilled at the New Bernheim distillery in Louisville, which is now owned by Heaven Hill, maker of Elijah Craig and Evan Williams.

Next up was the 22-year Lost Prophet and 15-year Forged Oak. The latest release is a 21-year version of Rhetoric, which is part of a planned annual release that will show off the evolution of the bourbon as it ages, perhaps up to 26 years. (Another Orphan Barrel release, Gifted Horse, is due out soon; it will be a combination of 4-year bourbon and corn whiskey blended with 17-year bourbon.)

Rhetoric 21 is 90.2-proof, a smidge higher than the 20-year version (90-proof). It sells for around $100, and I picked up my bottle for $93 online after tasting a sample provided by Diageo.

Rhetoric 21 pours a deep copper color and has a nose that shows off its age with damp wood, vanilla, and green apple taffy. On the palate, the bourbon tastes of oak, baking spices (clove, cinnamon, nutmeg), vanilla, orange peel, and burnt sugar. The finish is long with cornbread, charred wood, and clove.

At times, the flavors feel slightly muted with the exception of the deep woodiness (over-oaked, perhaps) which is why I prefer the Lost Prophet and Forged Oak. Still, fans of oaky, ultra-aged bourbon will find Rhetoric fits the bill in a way that very few bourbons (you can actually find) will.

For cigar pairings, I think the light wood and sweet spice style of Mexican-wrapped cigars matches up nicely. Specifically, try the Illusione *R* Rothchildes, Room 101 San AndrésTatuaje The Face, and Drew Estate’s Undercrown.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition 2015

22 Dec 2015

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While we do publish an annual list of our highest-rated cigars (check back next week for the 2015 edition), we’ve generally not named a top individual cigar. Unsurprisingly, we’ve also never given much thought to naming a whiskey or bourbon of the year.

We’re not going to start doing so now. But if we were, the Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition 2015 would probably be my top contender. When checking out the 2014 version, I wrote: “The 2014 Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition is a delicious bourbon, and it only makes me look forward to the soon-to-be-released 2015 Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition even more.”

Luckily, I was able to grab a bottle of the 2015 ($100 retail, although it frequently sells for more). Not only did it live up to the very good 2014, but it exceeded it by leaps and bounds. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise as this was long-time Four Roses’ Master Distiller Jim Rutledge’s final limited edition selection, as he retired in September after 49 years in the spirits industry.

For this year, the small batch used four bourbons from three of Four Roses’ ten recipes: OBSK (16 years), OESK (15 years), OESK (14 years), and OBSV (11 years). The barrel-proof combination comes in at 108.6-proof (54.3% ABV). The rich, amber-colored bourbon features an inviting nose with vanilla, red apple, candy corn, and a hint of mint.

On the palate, the bourbon boasts creamy notes with cinnamon spice, dried fruit, fresh apples, burnt caramel, and honey-soaked oak. The finish lingers on the tongue with more apple, spearmint, and clove.

You can add a splash of water to this barrel-proof whiskey if you like, but given the mild (for barrel-strength) proof it really isn’t necessary as it drinks better neat. I haven’t tried every new bourbon introduced in 2015, but I’ve tried many of the high-profile ones, and at least so far this is the bottle that impressed me most with a rare combination of intensity and integrated, balanced flavor.

Pair it with a balanced medium- to full-bodied cigar (for example SobremesaTatuaje BlackPadrón Serie 1926, or Cuban Cohiba Siglo) and enjoy.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Blade and Bow Bourbon and Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old Bourbon

10 Dec 2015

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Blade and Bow is a new bourbon brand launched earlier this year that uses extensively-aged bourbon, which is in increasingly short supply. Two offerings, Blade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old Limited Release Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, were introduced this year.

Both feature whiskey aged at the famed Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which stopped distilling activities in 1992 but has been used to age bourbon. The standard Blade and Bow (without an age-statement) even uses a small amount of original Stitzel-Weller bourbon as part of its solera aging system in combination with other whiskies.

Despite its age, the limited release Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old bourbon doesn’t use Stitzel Weller bourbon. Instead, it is a combination of bourbons distilled at what is now the Buffalo Trace Distillery (then called George T. Stagg) and the New Bernheim Distillery (which is now owned by Heaven Hill, maker of Elijah Craig and Evan Williams).

I recently received samples of each and here are my tasting notes:

blade-and-bow-nasBlade and Bow Kentucky Straight Bourbon ($50)

Light gold in color with a nose featuring vanilla, apricot, and light oak. On the palate, it shows butterscotch, apple, pear, buttered cornbread, and pine. The finish features cereal grains and wood spice.

The solera aging simultaneously shows off youth and age and reminds me of a spicier, more intense version of the recently-released I.W. Harper (no age statement).

Suggested cigar pairings: Arturo Fuente King T, Las Cumbres Tabaco Señorial, Paul Garmirian Symphony 20th Connoisseur.

Blade and Bow 22-Year-Old Limited Release Kentucky Straight Bourbon ($150)

blade-and-bowDark copper hue and one of the most fantastic noses I’ve ever encountered, reminiscent of a Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year, with wonderfully intense wood balanced with rich sweetness. The palate doesn’t quite live up to the high standard set by the aromas, but it does show off its age with deep wood, brown spices (clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon), figs, and burnt caramel. The finish is long with wood and more vanilla.

Such a high price is always hard to justify when there are so many excellent bourbons for far less, but the this limited offering does have all the characteristics that make old bourbon sought-after by many bourbon fans.

Suggested cigar pairings: Sobremesa Cervantes Fino, Bolivar Royal Corona (Cuban), Litto Gomez Diez Small Batch.

Patrick S

photo credits: Stogie Guys/Blade and Bow

Cigar Spirits: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Canadian Whisky

1 Dec 2015

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Being named “Whisky of the Year” is a kind of a big deal. But it was an even bigger deal when Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, a Canadian whiskey, was selected for the honor in the just-released version of Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible.

Predictably, this blew the mind of many scotch and bourbon fans who tend to look down at simple low-proof Canadian whiskey. Not to mention the low price ($26-35) and wide availability of Northern Harvest Rye compared to the kinds of collectible, super rare whiskies that many consider to be the best of the best (I’m looking at you, Pappy).

With all that in mind, I decided to try Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye to decide for myself if it is the best whiskey ever, or the most overrated. More likely I’d find it somewhere in between.

The 95-proof spirit features a light straw color and a nose with fresh banana bread, light wood, and spice. The palate is very smooth and balanced (smoother than you’d expect from 90-proof) with wood, baking spices, and a toned-down dill flavor similar to what you might find from Bulleit Rye. The finish is short and sweet.

First, let me be clear about what Northern Harvest isn’t. It isn’t the best whiskey I’ve had in the past year (or even month). It isn’t the best rye, either. It isn’t even the best Canadian Whiskey for my taste preferences (I prefer Lot 40, which features similar flavors but with more intensity.)

That said, not being “the best” doesn’t make it bad. In fact, it has a lot going for it. It’s pleasant, balanced, smooth, approachable, and affordable.

There’s a theory that Murray chose this as his Whiskey of the Year to bring awareness to a well-made, widely distributed Canadian whiskey; a nudge of sorts for drinkers to check out what Canada has to offer, and also to prompt Canadian whiskey makers to unleash their potential. (You could say naming a Japanese whiskey Whisky of the Year last year did similar things for Japanese single malt.) Not to mention, by forgoing a rare single malt or bourbon, this year’s Whisky of the Year is something you’ll actually be able to find on shelves.

Pair it with a mild- to medium-bodied cigar so the balanced flavors don’t get overwhelmed. Try a Mexican San Andrés-wrapped maduro like the Illusione *R* Rothchildes. A good $4 cigar and a fine sub-$30 whiskey… What’s not to like about that?

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys