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Cigar Spirits: Compass Box Hedonism Quindecimus

14 Sep 2016

cb-hedonism-quindecimus

If you know anything about scotch grain whiskey, you probably know the lack of grain whiskey is what makes single malts so sought-after.

Put another way: Grain whiskey is the less flavorful filler that is blended with single malt to make blended whiskies like Dewar’s, Bells, Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark, and Chivas Regal, which make up 90 percent of all scotch whiskey sold.

For the most part, that characterization is correct, as most grain whiskey is aged only a few years and then blended with single malt to make blended whiskey. And yet, what if instead grain whiskey was left to age properly, perhaps even for decades? How would it taste?

The answer is found in Compass Box’s Hedonism Quindecimus, which is certainly one of the most unique whiskeys I’ve ever tasted. To celebrate the company’s 15th anniverary, they created a blend of grain whiskies, all of which are at least 20 years old.

The Compass Box website can no longer legally disclose the components of this blend due to some ridiculous rules. But, fortunately, we know what makes up this unique blend:

  • 17.6% North British 20-year-old from first-fill American standard barrels
  • 36.6% Port Dundas 25-year-old from rejuvenated hogsheads
  • 8.4% Dumbarton 28-year-old from American standard barrels
  • 19.4% Port Dundas 20-year-old from first-fill American standard barrels
  • 18% 32-year-old Loch Lomond mystery blended grain from American standard barrels

The resulting whiskey is bottled at 92-proof, with just 5,689 bottles made. Expect to pay $125 to $180, if you can find it.

The nose is quite light with hay, honey, shortbread, and floral notes. On the palate, the immense depth and complexity reveals itself with lemon cake, creaminess, tea, custard, light oak, and citrus. It’s the kind of flavor you want to let linger as long as possible. The finish is clean and elegant with more creaminess, cake batter, and light spice.

Considering the price, this isn’t a whisky for everyone. But I don’t think it was ever meant to be for most people. It’s an extraordinary experiment in what a grain whiskey can be in the right hands. Single malt fans should jump at the opportunity to try a glass if they find it on the menu.

The complex flavors go well with a cigar, but it takes a milder smoke to not overwhelm the Hedonism Quindecimus. Try an Ashton Classic, Davidoff Grand Cru, Illusione Epernay, or Paul Garmirian Gourmet.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Laphroaig Lore

24 Aug 2016

I generally reach for bourbon or rum in the summer months, while reserving single malt for when the weather cools down. Something about the smokey style of Islay Malts especially, like Laphroaig, are perfect for a chilly evening in the fall or winter.

Laphroaig LoreBut I didn’t want to wait to try the new Lore. Introduced earlier this year, Lore fills the vacancy in the Laphroaig lineup left by the 18-year-old expression, which was discontinued last year. A bottle retails for a hefty $125.

Lore doesn’t carry an age statement but mixes older and newer whisky, described on the Laphroaig website as “a marriage of classical Laphroaig styles and many ages of Laphroaig; some as old as vintage 1993. The marriage draws from the peaty power of Laphroaig with the smoothness of double matured stock finished in European oak hogsheads.”

The result is a totally new Laphroaig from what you might be used to, but one I found extremely enjoyable. The classic smoke and peat provide the background of the whisky but there is whole lot more going on here.

The nose features smoke and seaweed along with pear and shortbread. The palate layers sherried notes of fruit and fudge over brine, spice, and maltiness. The finish is both rich and clean with peat, honey, sugar cookies, and oak.

I understand those who are frustrated by the trend towards NAS (non age statement) whiskies on both sides of the Atlantic. That said, Lore is an example of how a whisky not locked into an age statement can provide plenty of depth and complexity by blending old and new whisky.

Somewhat by chance, I smoked a Cameroon-wrapped cigar while sampling Lore, and I can’t recommend the combination enough, as the light spice of the Cameroon wrapper goes perfectly with the rich peat. Specifically, try La Flor Dominicana Cameroon Cabinet, Arturo Fuente Don Carlos, or Drew Estate Nirvana.

Patrick S

photo credit: Laphroaig

Cigar Spirits: Knob Creek 2001 Limited Edition Bourbon

22 Jun 2016

Knob Creek 2001

Best I can recall, Knob Creek was my first good bourbon. Which is to say, the first bourbon that wouldn’t qualify as bottom-shelf or rail. Many years later, Knob Creek is still a favorite of mine, with its combination of full flavor, nine years of age, and a price that, if you shop around, can be below $30.

Part of the Small Batch Bourbon Collection produced by parent company Jim Beam, along with Booker’s, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden, Knob Creek (which also comes in rye and barrel-proof varieties) is the oldest bourbon of the collection at nine years. Lately, though, Beam has been leaning on its stocks of well-aged whiskeys, along with the demand from bourbon drinkers, to produce some limited edition older offerings.

Two years ago, Beam released Booker’s 25th Anniversary, which was a ten year, three month version of the uncut, barrel-proof Booker’s that debuted to rave reviews. More recently, as part of the Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve program (where stores can pick their own barrels), some older barrels have become available. And now the national release of the 14-year-old Knob Creek 2001 ($130) follows.

According to the company, Knob Creek 2001 Limited Edition Bourbon commemorates the year the responsibility of stewarding Knob Creek was passed from Booker Noe to his son Fred Noe, who succeeded Booker as master distiller. Made from barrels that Booker laid down in 2001, it was finished by Fred as a tribute to his father, who passed in 2004.

Three batches of the bourbon were released last year in limited quantities (my home state of Virginia got only 150), each with its own distinctive profile. I was able to pick up a bottle of Batch Two.

Knob Creek 2001 pours a deep copper color and features a lively nose full of roast nuts and caramel (think peanut brittle). On the palate, the time in the barrel begins to show, with concentrated oak, woody spice, burnt brown sugar, and pie crust. The finish shows even more depth with oak and caramel combining with dark fruit and more spice.

Knob Creek 2001 isn’t as exceptional as Booker’s 25, even before you factor in the slightly higher price ($130 vs. $100), which is as much a factor of the demand for high-end, well-aged bourbon as anything. Still, it is a tasty bourbon, and a significant step above the regular Knob Creek offering, even if it lacks the value factor that the everyday offering provides.

All that full flavor calls for a full-bodied cigar. I’d recommend the Bolivar Royal Corona (Cuban), El GüegüensePaul Garmirian 25th Anniversary Connoisseur, or Tatuaje Havana VI Verocu.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Cruzan Estate Diamond Dark Rum

20 Jun 2016

Cruzan Estate

For more than a few years, Cruzan Single Barrel has been a staple in my liquor cabinet for its quality, consistency, and great value. For about $30, it delivers a complex, well-rounded flavor of honey, oak, fruit, caramel, and butterscotch. It’s good enough to sip neat, yet affordable enough to prevent you from feeling guilty for including it in a cocktail.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the St. Croix-based distiller, Cruzan originally began producing rum from pot stills eight generations ago and today uses a continuous column distillation process. The name of company (pronounced kru-shun) comes from the island—inhabitants are called “Crucians”—which has a rich and varied history.

St. Croix has been controlled by seven different nations since Christopher Columbus first landed on its beautiful shores in 1493 (Spain, England, Holland, France, Malta, Denmark, and now America). It thrived due to sugar output, which made it a naturally fitting locale for rum production. (Cane is no longer grown on St. Croix; today, Cruzan’s business is supported by molasses imports.)

Cruzan was the first major rum producer to introduce flavored rums. Now, Cruzan’s portfolio spans a multitude of rum styles, including dark, light, spiced, and even a licorice-forward cocktail spirit called Black Strap. But the company’s three flagship rums make up its Distiller’s Collection: Estate Diamond Light, the aforementioned Single Barrel, and Estate Diamond Dark.

The latter retails for about $20 per 750 ml. bottle and is 40% alcohol by volume (80-proof). It is a blend of rums between the ages of five and twelve years that are aged in oak barrels. Cruzan calls it ideal for “slow sips or as a mixer in one-to-one cocktails,” and describes the flavor as “rich notes of oak and vanilla.”

Estate Diamond Dark Rum pours with a light, golden color and a crisp, gentle nose of honey and tropical fruits. On the palate, I find loads of banana with hints of orange, wood, cinnamon spice, vanilla, coffee, and pecan. The overall effect is approachable and bright, though the finish can be surprisingly long with a fair amount of heat and spice.

As for cigar pairings, I’d recommend staying away from full-bodied flavor-bombs and/or dark maduros. Instead, aim for medium-bodied smokes with natural wrappers to avoid overpowering the rum’s subtle flavors that make it so enjoyable. A cigar like the Señorial Corona Gorda No. 5 fits the bill nicely.

One reason I tend to prefer rum and bourbon to scotch is the simple fact that you don’t need to shell out top dollar to have a great rum or bourbon experience. The Cruzan Estate Diamond Dark Rum is a perfect example. This is a great way to spend $20 and worthy of an easy recommendation. Enjoy.

Patrick A

photo credit: Stogie Guys

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

old-forester-100

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

gifted-horse

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