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Cigar Spirits: Orphan Barrel Project Rhetoric 21 Bourbon

27 Jan 2016

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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

Cigar Spirits: Tariquet Armagnac XO & Millesime 1993

24 Nov 2015

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I’ll admit to being far less familiar with brandy as I am whiskey. And yet, when dabbling in brandy, I find myself drawn to Armagnac, as opposed to its better known sibling, Cognac.

Both are made by distilling wine from each region (Cognac from the area surrounding the French town of Cognac, and Armagnac from the Armagnac region in Gascony, which is in the southwest France) and then aging it in oak barrels, often for extended periods of time. But there are key differences between the two that give each its own character.

Cognac tends to be more corporate with a few big name producers, while Armagnac has smaller, family-controlled producers. Traditionally, cognac is distilled twice in pot stills, while Armagnac is distilled only once in a column still. Armagnac fans will tell you the single distillation leaves the spirit with more complexity and character.

Today, I’m exploring two expressions from Tariquet, a well-known Armagnac producer from the Bas-Armagnac subregion (one of three Armagnac geographical classifications). The company relies mostly on a combination of Ugni-blanc (60%) and Baco (40%) grapes, two of the ten grape varietals permitted for Armagnac production.

Tariquet XO Bas-Armagnac ($60)

Aged for 12-15 years (longer than the required 6+ years for the XO designation), Tariquet’s XO (80-proof) expression is light copper in color with a nose that features oak, almonds, and toasted coconut. There are full flavors on the palate with wood, fruit cake, and chocolate followed by a warm spicy finish.

Tariquet Millesime 1993 Bas-Armagnac ($90)

Distilled in 1993 and bottled in 2010, this vintage offering (90.4-proof) features a golden straw color and a nose that is bright with candied orange, honey, and nougat notes. On the palate there is vanilla, soft oak, pie crust, and citrus. The finish on this refined but powerful Armagnac is long and rich with dates and butterscotch.

Both are enjoyable in their own way. The extra age of the 1993 manifests itself as sophisticated, complex, and elegant. The XO is grittier with more wood and spice, but both are worth the extra cost versus the VSOP Tariquet, which is the only expression I was familiar with before this article.

These spirits also make for natural pairings with a fine cigar. The XO calls for woodier, spicier smokes like the Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey or a Dominican Fuente Opus X. For the Vintage 1993, I’d suggest balanced, nuanced cigars like the Cohiba Behike or Nicaraguan Illusione Epernay.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Angel’s Envy Cask Strength Bourbon (2015)

17 Nov 2015

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First introduced in 2012, Angel’s Envy Cask Strength is a limited annual release bourbon from the Louisville Distilling Company. Like the regular release bourbon from Angel’s Envy, the annual Cask Strength release is a Kentucky bourbon that spends additional time aging in port barrels.

This year has been an exciting one for Angel’s Envy and Louisville Distilling, which saw the company get purchased by Bacardi. (Needless to say, now Angel’s Envy won’t have any trouble finding rum casks to use for the cask-finished Angel’s Envy Rye.)

This year’s Cask Strength release consists of 7,500 bottles (a slight increase from last year) which will be released in about a dozen states this month where it will carry a suggested price of around $170. While the exact age isn’t disclosed, press materials state the bourbon was aged “up to seven years” in new charred white oak bourbon barrels before beginning the port barrel finishing process.

The 2015 edition is the strongest Cask Strength release to date, weighing in at a hearty 127.9-proof (63.95% alcohol by volume). It is deep golden in color and the nose features caramel and plum notes, along with some heat to remind you of the proof.

On the palate, the bourbon shows a delicious combination of red fruits, vanilla, pound cake, and oak. A splash of water reveals even more flavors, including clove, butterscotch, and hints of mint. The finish has more caramel and berries that linger on the roof of your mouth.

While I never got to try the highly-regarded 2012 and 2013 Cask Strength Angel’s Envy expressions, I can say I think the 2015 surpasses last year’s edition. A splash of water opens it up nicely and really allows the subtleties to shine past the considerable alcohol strength.

With or without a splash of water, this is a bold bourbon that needs a full-bodied cigar pairing. Here are a few suggestions that should hit the mark: Liga Privada Dirty RatLa Flor Dominicana Limitado VArturo Fuente Opus X, and Tatuaje Havana VI Verocu.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Bulleit Bourbon

29 Oct 2015

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Can’t find Pappy Van Winkle anywhere? Here’s a bourbon that you’ll find on the shelf of virtually every decent liquor store, as well as some less-than-decent shops, in America.

Bulleit Bourbon is in that nice sweet spot in the market, a step or two up from the bottom shelf. Prices vary from state to state, but you’ll likely pay between $20 to $30 for the 90-proof straight Kentucky bourbon.

Owned by liquor giant Diageo, the high rye bourbon (the mashbill is just under 40% rye grain) was distilled for many years at Four Roses distillery. Because of growing demand for its own whiskeys, Four Roses recently stopped supplying Bulleit. Who exactly is making bourbon for Bulleit now is sort of a mystery.

What’s in the bottles on shelves right now probably is still from Four Roses (at least in part) and probably aged at the famed Stitzel Weller distillery. Soon enough, Bulleit’s $115 million new distillery will be up and running and the mini-mystery of where the bourbon is made will go away.

The nose on Bulleit has lots of sweet corn, light caramel, and oak with just the slightest floral aroma. It pours a light copper color and comes in its distinctive old style apothecary bottle.

On the palate, Bulleit features light char, caramel, buttered corn bread, and honey. The finish shows off the rye spice and wood that lingers on the roof of your mouth.

There’s no question in my mind that Bulleit Bourbon is a steal at $20 and it hangs well with the best bourbons under $30. You wouldn’t hesitate to use it in a cocktail, but its perfectly pleasant neat, which is how I prefer it.

For a cigar pairing, Bulleit calls for a medium-bodied cigar with a little spice. I’d particularly recommend the Tatuaje Black, Aging Room F55, La Flor Dominicana, or My Father.

For all the hype of limited edition bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (which are both outstanding), Bulleit is a reminder of what I like best about bourbon. You can still find excellent bourbons for a reasonable price and Bulleit just another example.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys