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Cigar Spirits: I.W. Harper 15 Year Straight Kentucky Bourbon

30 Jun 2015

IW-harper-15

If Americans suddenly doubled their demand for vodka it would take the vodka makers only months, or at most a year or two, to increase their supply to match the new demand. Not so for bourbon. When the public suddenly wants more well-aged bourbon, increasing distilling capacity today won’t do anything to change supply for a decade.

The formula is simple: Want 15-year-old bourbon? It has to rest in barrels for at least 15 years. Which makes the introduction of I.W. Harper 15 Year somewhat remarkable. This particular offering is new, but the brand certainly isn’t, something I covered in my write-up of the non-age statement version of the I.W. Harper:

I.W. Harper has an interesting and complex story. Originally introduced in 1879, the brand was discontinued in the U.S. market around 1990 but continued to thrive in the Japanese market. I.W. Harper is owned by Diageo, the largest spirits company in the world, but a company that has a long, though often puzzling, history in the American bourbon market.  Currently, Diageo’s American whiskey portfolio consists of George Dickel, Bulleit, and the Orphan Barrel series.

This bourbon was distilled at the New Bernheim distillery, which is currently owned by Heaven Hill, owner of Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and many other brands. The mashbill used is 86% corn, 6% rye (a very low rye percentage), and 8% barley and it is bottled at 86-proof. Suggested retail price is $75 a bottle, although you might see it anywhere from $60-90 in a throwback decanter-style bottle that is certainly eye-catching.

Inside is a bronze-colored bourbon with a nose of vanilla, cotton candy, brown sugar, and fresh corn. It starts out light on the palate with lots of sweetness, apples, and a little creaminess, but it also shows a bigger, thick woody edge. The finish is long with more oak and spice.

The low rye content of the I.W. Harper 15, combined with the relatively low 86-proof, creates a soft, complex, finessed bourbon, especially given the age. It pairs well with a mild cigar. Think a creamy Connecticut Shade.

Good, old bourbon is increasingly hard to find at a reasonable price, and the I.W. Harper fits that description. In addition, it would make an excellent gift. The seasoned bourbon drinker will appreciate the juice, but a more novice bourbon fan can still appreciate the fancy bottle and relatively old age (which, rightly or wrongly, is often seen as a indicator of quality).

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Ron Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva Rum

25 Jun 2015

Diplomatica-reserva-exclusiva

Here in Washington, it has been hot lately, with the only exception being intense storms that quickly give way to extra humidity. Some call it summer but I call it rum season, and today I’ll introduce you to one of my go-to rums.

Ron Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva is a Venezuelan rum that is actually a blend of rums aged up to 12 years. The blend mostly consists of rum distilled from a sugar cane honey “with 80% heavy and 20% light rums and aged for up to 12 years.”

The nose of this dark, copper-colored rum wastes no time as it wafts toward your nose as soon as you pull the cork top. Once poured into the glass, the vibrant nose shows brown sugar icing, clove, and banana bread.

On the plate Diplomático reveals nougat, maple wood, oak, nuttiness, orange peel, and chocolate. It has a rich thickness with a restrained sweetness. It’s plenty sweet with lots of vanilla, but it isn’t cloying and is balanced out by spice, wood, and fruit. The finish continues the interplay between the brown sugar sweetness and the oaky woodiness, which leaves the plate a little dry.

I’ll admit I’m far more likely to drop an ice cube in my rum than my bourbon, and I wouldn’t hold it against you if you did that here, but it does deserve to be tried neat first. Diplomático is plenty smooth for the task (aided by the fact it is 80-proof).

Any cigar you enjoy would work as a pairing with Diplomático. To really bring out the best, though, I’d lean towards refined and elegant over big and bold. For example, the photo above shows the Drew Estate Nica Rustica, but my suggested Drew Estate cigar with this rum would be Herrera Estelí.

You won’t find it everywhere but, with a little work, Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva isn’t all that hard to track down. If you enjoy rums that can be sipped neat or on the rocks, consider the Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva a must-try.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel Bourbon

16 Jun 2015

Sunday was National Bourbon Day, not to be confused with National Bourbon Heritage Month, which is September. So I naturally poured myself some. What was a little unusual was that although bourbon is a most American product (it must be produced in the U.S., though not necessarily in Kentucky), the bourbon I enjoyed isn’t sold in the United States.

blantons-sftbBlanton’s is a well-known single barrel bourbon made at the Buffalo Trace distillery. It’s a popular premium bourbon that sells for around $50, is bottled at 93-proof, and comes in a distinctive round bottle with an iconic metal horse perched on the cork top. While Buffalo Trace distills the bourbon, the Blanton’s brand is owned by Age International, a Japanese company.

Outside the United States Blanton’s also sells a Special Reserve version (80-proof), Blanton’s Gold (103-proof), and Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel (SFTB), which is bottled at barrel-proof. Reportedly, “contractual obligations” prevent Age International from selling these other variations within the United States.

Fortunately for me, I picked up a few bottles (700 ml. each, as opposed to the U.S. standard of 750 ml.) in France last year where SFTB sells for 69 euros, or just under $80. Each label gives you information on the particular bottle. For this one, I can see that it was bottled on 7/7/14 from barrel number 225, which is located in Warehouse H on rack number 31. (Mine is bottle 138.)

This barrel comes in a hearty 127.3-proof (though the proof can vary quite a bit from barrel to barrel, generally ranging from 125 to 135). It’s a very dark copper color with a nose that has features strong oak, clove spice, and hints of caramel and wood polish.

On the palate, SFTB features oak, cinnamon, clove, and caramelized sugar. Just a bit of water opens the flavors up nicely revealing fudge, banana bread, and toffee. The finish lingers with sweet wood notes and a dryness on the roof of the mouth.

As for a cigar, it certainly can hold up to a full-bodied, spicy smoke. Flavorful Nicaraguan-forward blends like Aquitaine or Tatuaje Fausto seem ideal; so does the spicy La Flor Dominicana Cameroon Cabinet and Fuente Opus X.

While you can find a few places online that will ship this elusive version of Blanton’s into the U.S. for a hefty premium, a better plan is to wait until you, or a bourbon-drinking friend, are heading to Europe or Japan and then do a little research to locate it so you can pack a bottle or two back with you in your checked luggage. It is an excellent bourbon and if you’re a fan of Blanton’s (or Elmer T. Lee or Rock Hill Farms, which are other single-barrel bourbons that use the same mashbill as Blanton’s) it is well worth the effort needed to acquire a bottle of this tasty, flavorful whiskey.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Willett Family Estate Bottled Single Barrel Bourbon (11 Year)

28 May 2015

Lately the book Bourbon Empire has been cited by more than a few articles I’ve read as debunking some of the bourbon mystique. “By the year 2000 you have 8 companies, 13 plants, and they make about 99 percent of all the whiskey in America,” the author Reid Mitenbuler told an astonished public radio reporter.

willett-febourbonThat may be true (today the number is slightly less at around 95%) but it’s hardly new information to many informed drinkers that the overwhelming amount of bourbon is distilled by a handful of companies. In fact, with full knowledge of that, Willett Family Estate Bourbon is very sought-after by many extremely knowledgeable whiskey drinkers.

Willett doesn’t currently sell any bourbon it distilled itself, but instead picks barrels distilled elsewhere which it then resells. Some are blended together in bourbons like Rowan’s Creek, Noah’s Mill, and Willett Pot Still Bourbon; others are selected for the Willett Family Estate Bottled Single Barrel program. (Willett recently restarted its stills but, as of this writing, only a very young rye is for sale.)

The Family Estate bourbons are all single-barrel and bottled at barrel-proof. Ages vary from 7 to 20+ years (along with price). For this write-up I tasted an 11 year bourbon purchased by a friend at the Willett Gift Shop for $110. (My barrel is number 8308 and is bottled at 119.9-proof.)

The nose features vanilla and caramel, with a hint of clove spice. On the palate this bourbon is rich and complex with oak, dried fruit, toffee, buttery pie crust, banana, and fudge. The finish is surprisingly short with caramel and clove spice, although a tiny splash of water smooths out the dry spice. Willett Estate Bottled Single Barrel Bourbon is a testament to the fact that barrel management and selection are often more important than who distilled the whiskey. It’s an exceptionally rich and complex bourbon, which lets it live up to its expensive price.

Still, the price leads me to recommend getting acquainted with better value bourbons before jumping up to this one.

As for cigars, strangely, I don’t have any specific recommendations. This bourbon has complexity and strength, and also enough subtleties to go well with any good balanced cigar.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Forged Oak Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

14 May 2015

The Orphan Barrel Series is an easy target for some bourbon aficionados to turn their nose up at. First there was the claim, or at least the implication, that these whiskeys were lost and found (Here’s a hint: No company big or small just loses hundreds or even thousands of barrels, especially since they are responsible for taxes on them). Then there are some strange or even goofy names: Lost Prophet, Rhetoric, Old Blowhard.

forged-oakAnd yet, despite those fair criticisms, I think Diageo (who owns the Orphan Barrel line, along with George Dickel, Bulleit, and I.W. Harper) is doing the bourbon world a great service with these old bourbons. In a time when extra-aged bourbon is in very high demand, they’ve released 15- to 26-year-old bourbons that, with a little work, can actually be found at retail prices.

For example, Rhetoric and Barterhouse are 20-year-old straight bourbons selling for under $100, notable at a time when most similarly aged whiskey costs at least twice that (more like $800+ or some drop-everything-and-head-to-Vegas luck for Pappy Van Winkle 20). The newest and youngest of the 5-bourbon line (at least for now) is Forged Oak, a 15-year-old straight bourbon which sells for $65-75 a bottle.

Diageo doesn’t currently own and operate a full-scale Kentucky distillery (though that’s changing), but we know Forged Oak was distilled at the New Bernheim Distillery, which Diageo’s corporate predecessor sold to Heaven Hill (maker of Evan Williams and Elijah Craig) later. At some point, the aging bourbon was then transferred to the aging houses at the famed Stitzel-Weller distillery, where the rickhouses remain the site of lots of aging bourbon, although the facility is no longer running new whiskey off its famed stills.

The 90.5-proof Forged Oak has a deep copper color. The nose is classic with caramel, dry spice, and a hint of orange. On the palate, it’s light clove, wood (not in overwhelming amounts), roast nuts, and light caramel. The finish is long with winter spices.

In many ways Forge Oak is a very classic bourbon. It features the oak you’d expect from an older bourbon but it’s tempered and balanced. I’d particularly recommend it to Elijah Craig 12 fans who want to see what a bit of extra age can do to a bourbon’s flavors (no coincidence as they come from the same distillery).

Pair it with a spicy cigar like the Arturo Fuente Opus X Perfecxion No.2, Litto Gomez Diez Small Batch No. 2, Ramón Allones Specially Selected (Cuban), or My Father El Hijo.

Once you’ve hit the highlights of the sub-$30 bourbons, this is the next step in age (and price). I’ve tasted all the Orphan Barrel bourbons and, despite being the least expensive, Forged Oak is, in my opinion, second only to the limited release 22-year-old Lost Prophet.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

7 May 2015

Like so many old bourbon brands, I.W. Harper has an interesting and complex story. Originally introduced in 1879, the brand was discontinued in the U.S. market around 1990 but continued to thrive in the Japanese market.

IW-HARPERI.W. Harper is owned by Diageo, the largest spirits company in the world, but a company that has a long, though often puzzling, history in the American bourbon market. (It’s a history that is too long and complicated to recount here, but if you want the full story, I highly recommend Chuck Cowdery’s book Bourbon Strange.) Currently, Diageo’s American whiskey portfolio consists of George Dickel, Bulleit, and the Orphan Barrel series.

Now you can add two I.W. Harper bourbons to that list. A 15-year-old limited edition is coming soon, and a non-age statement version that will is arriving on shelves now. Today I look at the regular release, which sells for $35 per bottle.

The bourbon is a blend that, according to some reports, has at least a small amount of the 15-year-old bourbon. It is a light bronze color and made at the New Bernheim distillery, formerly owned by Diageo and now home to Heaven Hill (maker of Elijah Craig and Evan Williams). The nose is delicious and inviting with fresh corn, oak, and black cherry.

On the palate, I.W. Harper features buttered popcorn, caramel, subtle oak, and a bit of creaminess. The finish is very short and clean.

I.W. Harper is surprisingly lively for just 82-proof. At the price ($35) there are plenty of excellent other bourbons, but this one isn’t out of place. It doesn’t taste particularly old or young. Instead, it’s mostly just subtle, sweet, and clean. It may not be the first bourbon I’d recommend, but it will be pleasing for both the bourbon novice and the aficionado.

Pair it with a milder cigar, ideally one with some creaminess. I’d recommend the Illusione Singular 2014, Tesa Vintage Especial Rothchild, or Cuban Cohiba Behike.

Patrick S

photo credit: Diageo

Cigar Spirits: Five Best Buy Bourbons for the Kentucky Derby, or Any Day

28 Apr 2015

best-buy-bourbons

The Kentucky Derby is as close to a bourbon holiday as we have in America. So if you’re thinking of running to the liquor store to pick up some bourbon for the Run for the Roses, here are five best-buy bourbons, plus some honorable mentions worth consideration.

What do I mean by a best buy? I mean bourbons that over-perform their retail price and aren’t overly difficult to find. While you wouldn’t find a $200 bottle of bourbon on this list, Elmer T. Lee ($32), Pappy Van Winkle 15 ($80), or George T. Stagg ($80) would all make this list if you could easily find find them at suggested retail price. (Elmer T. Lee has been missing from most shelves for around six months at least, and Pappy and George T. Stagg have been highly allocated for years and regularly sell for many times their retail price.)

So without further ado, here are five best buy bourbons that provide good bang for the buck.

Old Grand Dad 114 – Costing barely more than $20, this is a connoisseur’s bourbon at nearly bottom-shelf prices. It features intense flavors, high proof, complex wood, and sweetness. (FYI: Old Grand Dad 114 is essentially a less diluted version of the 80-proof Basil Hayden, which sells for double). My only hesitation with putting it on this list is that sooner or later enough people will discover what a gem this OGD114 is and it will become overly difficult to find.

Weller 107 – Two or three years ago, Weller 12 ($30) would take this spot, but now people are buying every bottle they come across at retail price. This 107-proof “Weller Antique” is itself quickly becoming a little harder to find, but at $25-30 it remains a quality example of the slightly sweeter stye of wheated bourbon that makes people drool when it’s in a bottle with the words Van Winkle on it.

Buffalo Trace – It’s not a small batch or single barrel, nor does it carry an age statement guaranteeing a certain number of years in the barrel, but the eponymous bourbon of the famed Buffalo Trace Distillery delivers the goods. Vanilla, toffee, wood, and fruit make it pleasant neat, and the price ($25) makes it easy to pour into a cocktail.

Booker’s – I’ve noted before that Booker’s ($50-60) is a bit underrated, and I stand by it. Brash vanilla and wood mean it isn’t for beginners, but it is dangerously tasty and, best of all, available at almost every decent liquor store or bar with more than a handful of bourbon offerings.

Four Roses Private Barrel Selection – The entire Four Roses line is excellent (even the standard Yellow Label) but the Private Barrel Selections ($50-70) are truly world class. Because each barrel is a store pick, this is a bit tougher to find, but fortunately it isn’t impossible yet. Each of Four Roses’ ten recipes takes on its own character, but none that I’ve come across have disappointed.

Honorable Mentions: Old Forester, Very Old Barton, Jim Beam Black 8 Year, Bulleit, Eagle Rare 10 Year, Blanton’s.

For more excellent bourbons, see my lists of Five Good Bourbons Under $30 and Five Good Value Bourbons Under $20.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys