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Cigar Spirits: Old Ezra 101 7 Year Straight Kentucky Bourbon

25 Aug 2015

Want evidence of a bourbon boom? Look no further than network television. Both Fox and NBC have recently begun development of two dramas based on the industry.

old-ezra-101-7-year-bourbonIf you wanted to make the case for a bourbon bubble, this would be it. Bourbon is hot, there’s no doubt about it, but there are still some hidden gems. While the premium end of the market gets more expensive there are still some excellent values out there if you know where to look.

Old Ezra 101 7 Year fits that bill nicely. It’s available for $20, or even a few bucks less. It weighs in at a solid 101-proof and, unlike many value-oriented bourbons, it carries an age statement, which means all the bourbon in the bottle is at least seven years old.

The golden-hued bourbon features a straightforward nose with vanilla, bananas, and spice. On the palate is a pleasant combination of vanilla, rich oak, and rye spice. Think banana bread and wood spice. It’s surprisingly smooth for the proof, perhaps due to the charcoal filtering (like the process that Jack Daniels undergoes). The finish is pretty nondescript, but for just a Jackson I’m not going to complain.

The bottle isn’t dissimilar to Jack Daniels and I don’t think that’s an accident (Jack Daniels is, of course, the best-selling American whiskey). But it would be a mistake to write off Old Ezra 101 as a Jack Daniels knockoff, as it offers a richer, woodier flavor.

Pair it with any woody cigar and I don’t think you’ll be too disappointed. Here are some recommendations: Aging Room F55 Quattro, Arturo Fuente King T, Coronado by La Flor, El Cedro, and La Flor Dominicana Cameroon Cabinet.

Unfortunately, Old Ezra 101 7 Year can be a bit difficult to find because the distribution seems to be limited (not because of excess demand). Still, bourbon fans in general, especially those on a budget, should definitely seek out this tasty bourbon value.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: 1792 Sweet Wheat Straight Kentucky Bourbon

13 Aug 2015

1972 Sweet Wheat

1792 Sweet Wheat Bourbon is a new offering from the Barton Distillery, which is better known for Very Old Barton and 1792 Small Batch Ridgemont Reserve. (1792 is the year Kentucky gained statehood.)

My favorite bourbon writer Chuck Cowdery explained the details and differences between the original 1792 expression and the new Sweet Wheat:

The flagship expression of 1792 was launched in 2003. It is a rye-recipe bourbon with a higher-than-normal barley malt content, although the exact percentage has never been disclosed. It also features a yeast strain not used for any other brands. The product was created by Barton Master Distiller Bill Friel not long before he retired….

Now the Barton 1792 Distillery is set to release its first 1792 line extension, called 1792 Sweet Wheat. It was distilled in 2007 so, like the flagship, it is eight years old. ‘Using wheat instead of rye gives the taste profile a softer and more delicate flavor,’ said Ken Pierce, director of distillation and quality assurance. ‘The soft flavor is balanced by rich oak tannins extracted by the bourbon while aging in the charred oak barrels.’

In case you’re wondering, bourbon made with wheat as a secondary grain instead of rye has always been a minority of all bourbon made, but it includes some very popular ones, not the least of which is Pappy Van Winkle. While rye is characterized by spice, wheated bourbons (which also include Maker’s Mark, Old Fitzgerald/Larceny, and the Weller family of bourbons) are known for a softer, sweeter edge.

Sweet Wheat pours a light bronze color. It features a muted nose with honey, wood, and red fruit. On the palate, Sweet Wheat is as advertised. It’s soft and lush, with a little resin, oak, cherries, and apples. The finish is much of the same with apples and caramel.

1792 Sweat Wheat Bourbon is 91.2-proof and retails for $33 a bottle. Though expect to spend bit more (I found one for $38) if you can find them at all (my local store sold out in two days) as the first release is fairly limited.

Pair it with a balanced, mild or medium cigar. A few recommendations: Illusione Epernay, Paul Garmirian Gourmet Vintage 1991, Arturo Fuente King T Rosado Sun Grown, and Ashton Classic.

I wouldn’t necessarily suggest spending a lot of time or money finding the new 1792 Sweet Wheat, but it is a good bourbon for the price. If you like Old Weller Antique, Larceny, or Maker’s Mark, it iscertainly worth trying.

George E

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled in Bond 10 Year Bourbon

6 Aug 2015

McKenna-SB-BiB-10yr

Despite whatever bourbon shortage there may or may not be, there are plenty of good bourbons available these days. Not only that, but there are plenty of excellent bourbons available for $30 or less. (In fact, there are quite a few very good bourbons on the shelf for under $20.)

That approachable price for good quality is what differentiates bourbon from Scotch whisky. To that list of good, affordable bourbon you can add Henry McKenna Bottled in Bond Single Barrel 10 Year Bourbon.

Even before tasting it, this bourbon (made by Heaven Hill, which also makes Evan Williams and Elijah Craig) checks off three of the characteristics many bourbon fans find desirable: single barrel, well-aged (10 Years), and a decent proof (100-proof). In fact, it is the only 10 year Bottled in Bond bourbon on the market.

The Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel has gone through multiple iterations over the years, and the latest version (pictured) puts all the key features up front.  The bourbon is a light copper color. The nose is straight forward although inviting with vanilla, wood, and butterscotch.

On the palate, McKenna 10 is surprisingly soft for its 100-proof. Most prominent is butterscotch, wood, and apple brandy, although clove, cinnamon, and rye spice are also apparent. The finish is smooth and sweet with vanilla and fruit.

Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel is a versatile bourbon for pairing with a cigar, but I think an ideal cigar pairing is mild or medium-bodied. A couple examples would be Illusione Epernay, Davidoff Grand Cru, Paul Garmirian Gourmet, or the Tatuaje Black.

Ultimately, Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel doesn’t quite break into my best bourbons under $30 list, but it is clearly a tasty, widely available bourbon that costs only $25-30. I don’t think any regular bourbon drinker would be disappointed with picking up a bottle.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

Cigar Spirits: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon

28 Jul 2015

elijah-craig-bp

The Elijah Craig brand, made by Heaven Hill distillery, is a perfect example of both the reality and the myth surrounding the bourbon shortage that seems to make national news every few months. That the regular 12-year-old small batch version is consistently on shelves demonstrates that, at least for the largest distilleries (Heaven Hill also makes Evan Williams and a host of other bourbons), their standard release versions don’t seem to be suffering too much from the aforementioned shortage.

However, more limited offerings, especially older ones, is where the shortage is most evident. Only a few years ago I could walk into a Virginia state liquor store and grab an Elijah Craig 18-year single barrel bourbon for around $45. That release has since been discontinued and instead 20- to 23-year-old versions of Elijah Craig were released that can run over $200, if you can find them. (Elijah Craig 18 is supposed to be introduced soon, but with an expected price many times what it was only a few years ago.)

Although only a 12-year bourbon, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is another example of the booming market for high-end limited release bourbon. A few years ago Heaven Hill began releasing barrel proof versions of the 12-year bourbon and now a small offering hits stores about three times a year. The suggested price is $50 but, depending on the store, you may see it selling for twice that much.

Each of the eight (and counting) batches is bottled unfiltered at its natural barrel-proof which varies from 128 (the release I sampled for this article) to over 140. I’ve tried a handful of the releases and while there are some variations, they share the most fundamental characteristics.

Even the 128-proof version is a beast with a strong nose full of wood, spice, and clove with notes of citrus. On the palate the high proof is very apparent, with charred wood, spice, vanilla, more clove, black pepper, and dry chocolate. I highly recommend a few drops of water in this, which eliminates the sharpness but leaves behind all the full flavors of this powerhouse. The finish is long and woody.

The appeal of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is easy to see: Barrel proof bourbons are increasingly in demand, 12 Year barrel proof bourbons are few and far between, and none besides Elijah Craig can be found for $50. Still, I don’t recommend it unless you are certain you like barrel proof bourbons because there isn’t much subtle or gentle about Elijah Craig Barrel Proof.

As for pairings, rich, robust, earthy cigars are needed to stand up to the strong flavors of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. I’d particularly recommend the Tatuaje Havana Verocu, RoMa Craft Cromagnon, or Drew Estate Liga Privada.

Patrick S

photo credit: Stogie Guys

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