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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

Cigar Spirits: Glenfarclas 17 Year Old Single Malt Whisky

23 Apr 2015

April marks the end of scotch season for me. (I’m a seasonal drinker: Single malts and the occasional cognac in the colder months, rum and tequila/mezcal when it warms up. Bourbon and rye year-round, of course.) So lets wrap up the season with with this Glenfarclas 17-year-old single malt whisky.

Glenfarclas-17SMGlanfarclas is an independent distillery, owned by the same family for 150 years. It’s a Speyside distillery that makes a range of single malts, with 10-year and 17-year the most readily available, at least here in the States. They also bottle a 105 cask-strength variety, of which I’m a big fan.

The Glenfarclas 17 is bottled at 86-proof and sells for around $100 a bottle. It’s a light golden color. (Note that because single malts can have caramel coloring added, color doesn’t mean as much for scotch as it does for straight bourbon or rye, and a light color may only mean coloring wasn’t used.

The nose with sweet toffee and pear serves as a preview of the subtle, classic style of this whiskey. The Glenfarclas 17 coats the palate with a rich combination of creaminess, sherried fruit, orange peel, toffee, and clove. There’s a bit of smokiness and just a wisp of peat. The finish is light with oak and brown sugar.

I’m just guessing here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a combination of sherry cask and bourbon cask whisky, as the sherry is evident, but subtle. The whisky seems to grow in complexity as you drink it. It’s hard to suggest that Glenfarclas 17 is anything but delicious, subtle, and approachable.

For a cigar pairing, you’ll want a cigar that’s not so overpowering as to overwhelm the delicate aspects of this single malt. Go with a Fuente Chateau, Tatuaje BlackIllusione Epernay, or a well-aged Cuban Trinidad.

I’m not one to recommend turning a bourbon drinker into a scotch drinker, as you’ll always find better value in American whiskey, but for bourbon drinkers branching out into single malt, Glenfarclas is an excellent place to start. That said, before you buy this, try the 10-year, which is also excellent but only half the price. But if you like the 10-year and want to see the complexity that additional age can add, I very much recommend Glenfarclas 17, even if my own preference is slightly for the cask-strength 105 variety.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Make Your Own Barrel-Aged Cocktails

2 Apr 2015

“Cocktail culture” is in full swing (so says any number of newspaper articles). For the most part, though, I don’t get into cocktails in our Cigar Spirits articles. I feel if booze is worth drinking, it’s usually worth drinking unadulterated. That said, one aspect of the recent cocktail boom I’m fully behind is aging cocktails in whiskey barrels.

barrel-aged-manhattan

So when Top Shelf Barrels offered me a barrel to do my own cocktail aging, I figured it was worth checking out. Because I don’t have much space for a large barrel, I went with the one liter barrel (which Top Shelf Barrels engraved for me with a Stogie Guys logo).

The company sells essence flavorings and has a few recipes for exotic cocktails, but I was more interested in the effects of barrel aging on classic cocktails. I quickly narrowed my options down to the old fashioned or the Manhattan.

I decided on a Manhattan for my first barrel-aged cocktail experiment and went with a simple recipe: three parts Knob Creek Rye and one part Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth (my preferred vermouth). I’ll sometimes add the tiniest shake of Angostura bitters to my Manhattans, but I figured it would be easier to add bitters later, especially since all Angostura takes is a quick rinse of the glass.

To judge the impact of barrel aging, I made one liter of Manhattan, poured 800 ml. into the 1 liter barrel, and then poured the rest into an extra bottle so I could taste test it side-by-side. One thing to remember about the process is the barrel may leak a little (this isn’t unusual). My barrel had the tiniest bit of seepage, which didn’t result in any puddles.

After two weeks, my experiment was just right as the bright flavors were mellowed out by the wood. By the third week, the wood had overwhelmed the flavors, so be careful not to age your cocktail too long. At that point, I emptied out the barrel and poured what was left into an empty bottle so I could enjoy it, even though it had peaked a week earlier.

I have to say, I was surprised by how quickly the wood impacted the Manhattan, especially since the barrel-aged cocktails I’ve had in bars were usually aged for 45-60 days. But in retrospect, this shouldn’t have been that surprising. The mini barrel has a lot of surface area for such a small amount of liquid.

Ultimately, I’m deeming my experiment a success. I made a delicious barrel-aged Manhattan, and I’m looking forward to trying more experiments with my barrel. If you want to take your cocktails to the next level consider checking one out.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Lot No. 40 Canadian Rye Whiskey (2012 Release)

24 Mar 2015

Canadian whiskey has never been something I’ve spent much time seeking out. With a reputation for mild flavors, often the result of blending rye whiskey with largely flavorless grain whiskey, I’ve found it’s a bit lacking in the distinctive character I identify with with my favorite scotch and American whiskey.

Lot-40-canadian-ryeFortunately, Canadian whiskey makers have started to see the potential for selling more expressive offerings, many of which are in the same class as good Kentucky or Indiana straight rye. Three stealth Canadian ryes (they don’t play up their Canadian roots) are WhistlePig, Masterson’s, and Jefferson’s, each of which are 10 years old. Each sports a 100% rye mashbill. This is achieved by using the same unmalted rye that goes into all straight American rye, along with a percentage of malted rye, which is necessary for the distillation process.

The 86-proof Lot 40 is similarly a 100% rye (90% unmalted, 10% malted), although it doesn’t obscure the fact that this is Canadian rye. The brand was originally launched in the late 1990s but disappeared for a while until it was reintroduced a few years ago.

For a time it was hard to find in the U.S., but in the past year it has become more widely available. I was able to find a bottle at a Virginia state liquor store for just under $50.

The spirit features a bronze color and a lively nose with fresh bread, banana, anise, and maple. On the palate it has a syrupy intensity with oak, baking spices, fruit cake, and a little floral spice. The finish is subtle with more bread and muted fruit notes. The result is a complex, sophisticated Canadian rye that calls for a similarly complex, yet balanced, cigar. I’d recommend the following: Davidoff Colorado Claro, Illusione Epernay, or Paul Garmirian Gourmet.

I realize, for many bourbon drinkers, a Canadian whiskey is something your grandfather drinks or you mix with cola, not a spirit to be enjoyed neat. But this is a fine whiskey that rye fans should certainly pick up and try.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys