Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review

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*Sincere Thanks to LB and the Baddish Group for the sample.

When the Earth was young, full of torrents of fire and inclement weather, behemoth liquor companies sought out their marketing teams, troglodyte and dour, and entreated them with a quest that was at once high-minded and nefarious. The marketing teams’ eyes shone with fearful purpose. They emerged pallid and tottering from their caves, blinking into the conflagrant sun with their purpose-filled shining eyes. FIND US, the behemoth liquor companies bellowed, FIND US A CATCHPHRASE, AN IMPRESSIVE BIT OF TEXT FOR OUR BOTTLES, FULL OF IMPORT, A MARK OF QUALITY AND CRAFTSMANSHIP SO REEKING OF LUXURY OR AT LEAST SUPER-PREMIUM CACHÉ THAT NONE SHALL RESIST ITS SIREN CALL! Their wooly heads bowed, the marketing teams trembled and set out on their terrible quest. Decades past, the Earth was re-shaped, lives waxed and waned, until one day there strode out of the boreal forests of what would one day be Midtown Manhattan, a small band of marketers, now tanned and brawny, their hair coiffed, their eyes steady and perhaps a bit too clever. They had found it. A nubile woman clad in gauzy attire held aloft an adamant tablet which bore a phrase that would sell a million bottles and besot innumerable livers…

SMALL BATCH

Heretical apocrypha aside, the term “small batch” entered into present day booze bottle jargon in either the 70’s, the 80’s, or the 90’s depending on who you ask. It almost certainly picked up a lot of steam in the early 90’s when Beam released their “Small Batch Collection” to the world. In the years between, quite a few bottles have proudly worn the small batch moniker and quite a few people, maybe a couple dozen, have asked, “what exactly is a ‘small batch?'”. It’s a pretty good question, though despite that opening paragraph, not one of vital importance. But still, you pay more for a bottle that says small batch, so the assumption is it’s a more carefully crafted product, therefore harder to make in large quantities, therefore…better. But is it? How big or small is a “small batch”? There are no legal parameters that define what a small batch is or isn’t, and while some brands and bottles have given details on the actual size of their small batch, many do not. The reality is it’s all really relative. A city a quarter of the size of Chicago is a much smaller city than Chicago…but it’s still a very big city. Here’s a handy guide to help with “How large is my small batch” question:

  • If your small batch bottle came from a “craft” distillery that actually distills its own spirit, then it’s probably a pretty small batch whether it says so or not. These distilleries just don’t have the capacity to do large batch, so everything’s pretty much small batch by default.
  • If your small batch bottle came from a distillery (“craft” or otherwise) that isn’t really a distillery at all, just more of a brand pretending to have a distillery, and the booze is coming from a much larger commercial distillery…then who knows. Sure, they may have bottled the relatively small amount they sourced, but the source probably produced a pretty big batch from whence that small batch came, so how small of a batch is it really?
  • If your small batch bottle is a well-known brand and came from a big company and you see the stuff piled high everywhere, often on sale, that’s a pretty big small batch you’re looking at.
  • If your small batch bottle came from a big company and fits into a brand’s line-up neatly between the entry-level expression and higher-priced, more exclusive/elusive ones, then, yes, the batch is smaller, relatively speaking, when compared with the huge batch that makes up its entry-level expression. But if the brand doesn’t offer up much info on how many bottles were in the batch, then it’s a little hard to say just how large or small that small batch is.
  • If your small batch bottle proudly states that this booze was made with this and that and that by the time they got done bottling it all, there was only X number of bottles (with X feeling like a pretty small number in the grand scheme of things), then you’ve got yourself a known-quantity, actually small batched bottle of booze.

This helpful guide, despite its glaring lack of accuracy, probably wasn’t all that helpful. The point is, the term “small batch” is mostly a marketing term. In some cases, yes, it is an accurate and mildly helpful descriptor…but it’s still mostly a marketing term. Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon falls somewhere between the fourth and fifth point on the above list. They make less of the Small Batch than they do of their Yellow Label, so yes, it is a smaller batch. While they don’t mention how many barrels go in to each “small batch” bottling, they do provide info on what kind of barrels make up the batch. This is especially interesting in Four Roses’ case because of their unique technique of using ten different recipes to create their bourbons. The distillery uses two different mashbills (one more heavily ryed than the other), and five different yeast strains which give the spirit five different base flavor profiles. To separate itself even further from its bourbon-making brethren, Four Roses ages its whisky not in multi-storied rickhouses, but in single story warehouses, which means all the barrels, regardless of their final destination are subject to more or less the same external influences over the course of their maturation. Four Roses, at least at the present time, blends bourbons from four of the ten available recipes to create its Small Batch expression. Two of the recipes used are the high-rye (35%) mashbill, the other two, the lower-rye (20%), and two of the yeast strains are used – one each for each mashbill.

The Nose:  A softly vibrant nose packed with a heady array of sweetness. Lots of caramel, orange-tinged caramel, burnt caramel, vanilla caramel and coconut cream caramel if there is such a thing. Nice fruit notes as well – tart apple and juicy tangerine. There’s a bit of crystalized maple syrup and kettle corn around the edges. The rye is present but not as strong as I expected, showing up as warm rye bread and candied ginger.  The spice notes are relatively mild, dried orange peel, cinnamon candies, and resinous wood.

The Palate:  Great, creamy, almost viscous mouthfeel. Lots of sweetness carries over from the nose, with much more rye and spice joining all that caramel. Toasted, cracked rye berries and burnt rye toast join vanilla bean and spiced oranges. More corn on the palate as well, sweet corn ice cream and salted popcorn. Oaky, earthy spice notes of cinnamon stick, clove, ginger, and white pepper pick up steam heading towards the finish.

The Finish:  Lengthy and mouth-watering. A few rye notes linger, but mostly nutty toffee, vanilla extract, burnt popcorn, and barrel spice.

Thoughts:  Great Bourbon. The soft fullness of the nose surprised me as I was remembering and expecting something a bit more muscular, but there’s such an inviting sweetness there, it’s hard to resist. The palate manages all that sweetness well while adding more zing. The transition from the nose to the palate feels a little disjointed in that the rye and spice take such a drastic step forward. It works, though, so that’s a small complaint amongst the cheers. While I obviously like this quite a bit sipped on its own, Four Roses Small Batch is also one of my favorite bourbons over ice. I routinely see this for $25-$30, which makes it a great buy. Definitely recommended.

Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, +/-2013

45% ABV

Score:  86

The Casks v.2.0

Home, sweet home...

Ah, so it appears I haven’t disappeared after all. Sorry for the hiatus. Once again, real life reared its beautiful head and offered up some far more important things to do than write about whisky. This time around, the important thing just happened to be a small, old building that my wife and I purchased to keep our family and all our crap in. Getting our family and all our crap from the old small, old building to this new, slightly less small, old building was also important and surprisingly took up a little bit of time. In many ways, it was a bit of a lost summer. Indeed, there was about a five week period where I’m not sure I drank any alcohol at all, let alone whisky, though why anybody would go through a house-hunt and subsequent house-buying completely sober is beyond me.

In any case, I am now back at it once again, hopefully with a little more gusto than I’ve been able to muster up over the last year or so, but perhaps not. I’ll make no promises. Life is filled with many more important things than whisky, and while I can’t think of any off the top of my head, I’m sure something may come up in the near future to slow things down around here again, but until then, here’s more of the same old stuff jazzed up with a new look…

Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon – Reivew

 

photo1 (11)Back when I knew very little about whisk(e)y, Knob Creek Bourbon held a special place in my heart. Even then, I liked whisky quite a bit, but mostly for all the wrong reasons. I enjoyed whisky’s ability to intoxicate (in moderation, of course) and I embraced whisky’s literary endorsements as some kind hall pass when my enjoyment of whisky’s ability to intoxicate surpassed the aforementioned moderation. If Faulkner, Hemingway, Twain, and the immortal Hunter S. Thompson spoke highly of whisky, well, then, wouldn’t reeking highly of whisky seem somewhat sophisticated? The flaw in my logic (granted, there were many flaws, but for the sake of this post, bear with me) was that I was mostly drinking cheap whisky. Grant’s and Old Crow were staples, along with the intermittent bottles of Heaven Hill which I bought solely because of the Hüsker Dü song, “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill”. I did, however, know that occasionally a special occasion demanded stepping up and buying a better bottle of booze. A visit from an old friend, celebrating the end of a school year, a birthday, every once in a while, I splurged, and in the early to mid 90’s, more often than not, that splurge was on Knob Creek. In 1992, Knob Creek made its debut alongside Booker’s, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden’s, the four making up Jim Beam’s “Small Batch” line. At the time, the bottle shape, graphic label, and black wax top made for, at least to my eyes, a formidably unique looking product, the high proof adding to the allure as well. I remember appreciating the higher quality, but I also remember thinking it was a rather strong ride on its own and usually poured it over several ice cubes.

Beam’s introduction of its Small Batch Collection was an important event in the life of bourbon. After stumbling through the 60’s, 70’s, and most of the 80’s, bourbon began showing faint signs of life in the wider market at the start of the new decade. Maker’s Mark’s initially risky luxury positioning of a booze style few thought luxurious seemed to have staying power, and stalwart brands like Wild Turkey began releasing barrel proof and single barrel bottlings. Beam entered the fray with arguably the first “line” of widely available, top-shelf bourbons and all four brands are today, still very popular whiskies. Sure, you’ll hear serious bourbon geeks roll their eyes about these four, but let’s be honest, one thing whisky geeks are really good at is rolling their eyes and forgetting that the vast majority of whisky drinkers don’t care what they think. Ask a normal, respectable bourbon drinker for a short list of their favorites and chances are one of the Small Batch Collections bottles makes the cut.

According to Beam’s Small Batch website, the idea was to make bourbons that harkened back to the pre-prohibition traditions of bourbon-making. I suppose back when the line was launched, that was a clever (and brief) way of saying, “we’ve spent the last couple of decades dumbing down our product, trying to snare drinkers who don’t want to drink bourbon no matter what we do to it, and it hasn’t worked out, so now, screw that crap, we’re going back to making good bourbon.” Today, all that prohibition marketing stuff fits in nicely with bourbon’s surge of popularity and the accompanying popularity of all that nostalgic prohibition stuff. Speaking of marketing speak…Knob Creek – the bourbon was named after Knob Creek – the creek which is a small stream in LaRue County, Kentucky. Abraham Lincoln lived on a farm along this creek from the age of two until he was seven (thank goodness Abe moved around a lot in his life, quite a boon for several state’s tourist boards.) In creating the brand, Beam and its master distiller at the time, the mighty Booker Noe, chose the Knob Creek name as way for the bourbon to honor and represent the values and character of ol’ Abe. That’s an admirable sentiment, but it does seem a bit of a stretch to pick a cool-sounding name of a creek that Abe Lincoln reportedly nearly drowned in once and somehow tie the ethical character of one of the most complex figures in American history to a bourbon, but what do I know, I’m no marketer.

I do know that Knob Creek is a 100 proof, nine year old, Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey . It’s described on the label as being a “small batch” whiskey, but seeing as it is a fairly ubiquitous bottle these days, either the small batch size is rather large or there are A LOT of small batches being made. The mashbill for Knob Creek is the more or less standard Jim Beam recipe of 76% corn, 13% rye, and 10% malted barley. It’s been a while since I’ve had a bottle of this one, aside from the crumbly, hard wax cap, I have to say I very much enjoyed having it on my shelf again.

The Nose:  Breakfast bourbon…maple syrup, orange slices, a little red fruit jam on slightly over-toasted toast. After the initial sweetness, there are touches of burnt sugar and earthy vanilla bean. Pretty oaky with both the fresh-cut and polished variety, along with lots of cinnamon, some soft clove, and a little dried star anise. A bit of burnt popcorn and barrel char are found in the background. A bit of water calms the oak and bitterness and, surprisingly, brings out nice spiced apple cider notes.

The Palate:  Initially, there’s more of that maple syrup and orange tinged sweetness from the nose, but that’s quickly subsumed by a big, slightly bitter wave of woody spice. There’s lots of tannic oak here in the form of both cut wood and barrel char. Quite a bit of vanilla, cinnamon stick, drying clove, bitter star anise, unsweetened chocolate, and more burnt popcorn towards the end. Water works quite well here, simply smoothing things out and toning down that bitter, oaky spice.

The Finish:  Long, and quite tannic, slightly astringent, and drying. A bit of caramel sweetness hovers, but mostly it’s oak, unsweetened chocolate, clove, and char through to the last.

Thoughts:  Still a very decent bourbon despite its mildly challenging flavor profile. This is definitely a oaky bourbon, and often teeters on the edge of being a little too oaky, but I feel like that’s been Knob Creek’s modus operandi since day one. There’s a consistency throughout a glass as well, with the wood and bitter spice playing a large role from the nose through to the finish. It’s sip-able and enjoyable at strength, but I think it really shines with a bit of water which helps quiet some of those over-eager, sharper-edged notes. At around the usual retail price ($30-$35 …even $40/a bottle), I think there are similar to better bourbons out there for the money, but for a higher proof whiskey with a somewhat unique profile, Knob Creek is still a decent buy. I last picked up a bottle for $21, which is a terrific value. Recommended.

Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon, +/-2013

50% ABV

Score:  85

 

The Exclusive Malts 1999 North Highland 14 Year Old – Review

ExMalts_NHighland1999

*Thanks to SF and the good folks at Impex Beverages for the sample.

Buried somewhat shallowly in the whisky industry, there is a…what shall we call it, a practice? A concept? A technique? Something called “teaspooning”. Basically, teaspooning consists of adding a little bit of another distillery’s whisky to a cask of single malt whisky. Ostensibly this is done so the cask cannot be sold or bottled as single malt whisky because it now contains single malts from two distilleries. So…for example, say a big company, let’s call it Grant Wilma & Daughters, owns two distilleries – Glen Helheim and Inexorable Park. Throughout the warehouses of these two distilleries, there’s bound to be a few casks that just did work out. The whisky is perhaps not bad, but it strays too far from the house style and is too anomalous for the company to use or to want to slap the distillery’s name on it. Then let’s say an independent bottler comes to Glen Helheim looking to buy casks. They’re not necessarily worried about selling a distillery name, they’re more concerned with selling a unique whisky, or possibly creating a special blend. They decide to buy a teaspooned cask, an oddball Glen Helheim which has a bit of Inexorable Park added to it, thereby nullifying it as a Glen Helheim single malt. The independent bottler might pay a lower price for a cask like this than they would for a certified 12 year old Glen Helheim, but they also do not have the built-in distillery name recognition that might help with sales.

That’s a simplified version of teaspooning. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how practical and a little silly the idea is. I’ve both read and personally talked to industry people who have assured me that teaspooning happens quite a bit and is an important practice for the world of independent bottling.  Then again, I’ve both read and personally talked to industry people who are skeptical as to whether or not the practice even exists…a minority opinion, but still. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if teaspooning is actually happening or not. In a sense, teaspooning is roughly a non-disclosure contract, a way for distilleries to sell off oddball casks and keep their name off the label at the same time. With distilleries currently keeping a tighter reign on stocks, teaspooning keeps an avenue open for independent bottlers to buy whisky. But is the practice actually necessary? Couldn’t one just sign a non-disclosure agreement to keep the distillery name hidden? After all, you’d never be able to taste the addition of such a small amount of whisky added, and I’ve not heard of any official oversight in the matter. Would it be possible to just say a cask has been teaspooned without it actually being so? Hell, maybe there’s some secret teaspooning ceremony in which hooded distillery masters take turns pouring small amounts of whisky into casks with quaichs made with feline calvaria, after which the casks are rolled away by nubile women dressed in gauzy attire. That seems unlikely…potentially awesome, but unlikely.

I mention this whole teaspooning thing because the The Exclusive Malts 1999 North Highland 14 Year Old reviewed here did not come from the North Highland Distillery. There is no North Highland Distillery. It is a single malt whisky, but The Creative Whisky Co. has purposely chosen to not disclose the distillery responsible for making the stuff. A small amount of poking around the interwebs turns up several assertions that it is indeed Glenmorangie whisky, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Might this be an example of a teaspooned cask? Maybe, but again, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a single malt whisky from an undisclosed Highland region distillery, aged for 14 years in an ex-bourbon cask, and bottled at cask strength.

The Nose:  If it is Glenmorangie, there’s slightly more rugged nose than I usually associate with the distillery. Along with lots of floral clover honey, there’s vanilla bean ice cream and apricots, both juicy and dried (go figure). Subtle hints of cocoa nibs and much bigger hints of old, dried oak chips, and a wisp of slightly mineral, wet stone give a little earthy balance. There are fairly zippy spice notes of ginger powder, peppercorns, and clove. Adding water adds a bit more ruggedness, toning down the sweetness and bringing out more earthy spice and subtle minerality.

The Palate:  A nice, lively, honey-filled sweetness carries through much of the palate, with additional early notes of juicy orange, vanilla syrup, and tinned fruit cocktail. A building wave of complex oak and increasingly drying, tannic spice rolls in, more old dry oak plus fresh-sawn wood, un-sweetened chocolate, cinnamon, candied ginger, white pepper, and lots clove towards the end. Water very nicely calms that wave of spice and wood.

The Finish:  Medium length with the sweeter honeyed elements vanishing first, leaving dusty cocoa, clove, oak, and pepper to wrap things up.

Thoughts: Very enjoyable. If this is Glenmorangie, I wouldn’t say it has a classic Glenmorangie profile, but it’s not far off. It’s missing some of the fruit, the stone fruit, that I usually associate with the distillery, but it does have that lightly rugged and mineral, yet elegant and honeyed quality you often see in younger expressions. I very much enjoyed this at strength, at least until the end when things got a little too tannic and dry, but even then there was a complexity to keep things interesting. While I preferred the nose neat, water definitely helped the palate – especially towards the end – be more approachable. A nice whisky, certainly an interesting one for Glenmorangie fans…if it is Glenmorangie. Recommended.

The Exclusive Malts 1999 North Highland 14 Year Old, Highland (North, I guess), IB +/-2013

56.7% ABV

Score:  85

 

American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye – Book Review

RisenBookAmerican whiskey, particularly bourbon, is experiencing an explosion in popularity not seen since…well, not ever seen, really. Our little brown spirit was practically left for dead in the 70’s. In the late 80’s/early 90’s it started to claw its way back into favor, and today, it’s selling like mad, and not just domestically. Unfortunately, it’s also teetering on the edge of becoming an over-priced, over-hyped, silly circus like the Scotch category has become, but that’s neither here nor there. Clay Risen, the author of American Whiskey, Bourbon and Ryeperfectly timed his book to fill the need for a concise guide to this rising tide, one that will definitely appeal to new fans as well as satisfying those of us who think we know it all. Coming out in November of 2013, American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye is a beautiful little octavo hardcover that covers, as you might have guessed from the cryptic title, whiskey made in the USA, including but not limited to, bourbon and rye. Risen, currently an editor for the New York Times, is a prolific writer having penned several books as well as articles for the Atlantic and Smithsonian among others. While he’s spent a good deal of time writing about whiskey and other spirits, Risen has also focused on the US Civil Rights movement. His latest book, “The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act,” was just released earlier this month.

American Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye is broken up into more or less two sections: the “introduction,” and “whiskey accounts” which is just fancy talk for “the review section.” The lengthy introduction details what you’ll find and won’t find in the book, and the now ubiquitous (and apparently required by law for any whisky book) section detailing what whiskey is and how it is made. After that, Risen embarks on a taught, well-researched journey through the history of whiskey in this country. In a span of less than 30 pages, he traces its beginnings, its highs and its lows in a factual, warts ‘n’ all manner, instead of going over the top with anecdotal humor and flowery praise. In the 10 or so pages after that, the book focuses on the state of American whiskey today, touching on the positives and negatives of the “craft” distilling movement, white & flavored whiskies, and the industry’s move away from age statements. The final section of the “introduction” gives pointers on how to read a label, how to appreciate whisky, and how to host a tasting.

The “whisky accounts” section  refreshingly reflects a panel of tasters that was hard to impress – Risen does not pull any punches here. The hype of the more popular releases is tossed aside, and “craft” whiskies are not given undue credit just because they’re new and trying hard. For each entry, a quick summary of brand info is given along with compact tasting notes and a general impression. The whiskies are all given an out-of-four-stars rating and slotted into a price range. Collections of reviews like this always contain a few head-scratchers, but by and large this is a thorough and reliable group of American whiskey reviews.

My only qualms with the book are petty. Occasionally, Risen lets his personal bias out a bit much for a book that otherwise comes across as a general guide (the guy really doesn’t like cocktails). But he’s a very knowledgeable host, so that can be forgiven. Also, I’m no Chip Kidd and I hate to disparage an otherwise beautifully designed book, but there’s really no reason that first 70 pages or so needed to have both very small type and lots of empty page space. I’m all for creative book design, but if you’re hoping people will actually read your book, then form should follow function. Other than that, I think this is a great book, one I find myself referencing often when looking at American whiskey. It’s a thorough, appreciative, no-nonsense guide that deftly walks the line between romanticizing its subject and being overly critical of it. Required reading if you’re a whisky fan of any kind.

(Sure, you can buy this book via Amazon, but wouldn’t you rather support your independently owned local bookseller?  Of course you would.)

Ace Spirits, Hopkins, Minnesota

Ace-Logo

Opening in the middle of March this year and taking advantage of the boom in both whisk(e)y and craft beer, Ace Spirits in Hopkins (southwest of Minneapolis by 20 minutes or so) is a small booze haven focusing on…whisk(e)y and craft beer. It’s advertising itself as having “every whisky available in the state” which of course means that everyone on staff here at The Casks was very excited to pay a visit. The store is the brainchild of Louis Dachis, one of the owners of the Merwin’s chain of liquor stores in the area.

The Good:  A small but great looking space, Ace is a veritable canyon of bottles. It’s pleasantly dark (ostensibly to prevent outdoor/indoor light from affecting the bottles’ contents) and, thanks to the rail-mounted ladder to reach the pricey high-shelved stuff, feels a bit like a high-class library. It was nice to be welcomed warmly upon entering, and in due time, even nicer to be offered something to drink while I browsed. Wait, let me re-phrase that, it wasn’t just nice, it was fantastic. Shopping for booze is thirsty work, and while some stores do have occasional bottles open, you usually have to hunt down a sales person or be accosted by a rep at the door pushing their brand to get a small sip of something. I visited in mid-April and drove there in a blizzard…would I like some whisky to drink while I look at whisky? Yes, goddammit, yes I would, thank you. AceSpirits_1To take this one step further, the nice wee nip of William Grant & Sons’ Monkey Shoulder I was poured was not poured into a tiny plastic cup that looks like something you get your pills in during an unfortunate stay at the county mental institution, it was poured into a Glencairn glass. That, people, is doing it right. They also have a keg of beer tapped for tasting purposes…that’s also doing it right. Both the beer and whisky selections are deep. I saw many beers, sixers and bombers, that I’ve not seen elsewhere. Same can be said for the whisk(e)y, though, to be fair, I also didn’t see many things that I have seen elsewhere. It’s a slightly tricky game advertising yourself as carrying every whisky available in the state. Ace may well carry all the whiskies available in the great state of Minnesota, but there’s always the chance that they’ve sold out of something or waiting for their allocation to come. “Carrying” something does not automatically mean it’s in stock and on the shelf. Still, whisky-wise, there’s an excellent selection (at least by Minnesota standards) from around the world, top-shelf to bottom shelf. If anything, the independent bottlings were on the thin side, but I’d expect that selection to grow. Along with their focus of whisky and beer, there’s a small but decently curated selection of wine and other spirits. As for pricing…see below.

AceSpirits2The Bad:  I’ll not blame the weather on Ace. It was crappy out there. For whatever reason, I usually get hit with crappy weather every time I head west past Edina, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t Ace’s fault. What was their fault, however, was the conspicuous lack of pricing throughout the shop. The other spirits and the wine did have tags on the shelves but the beer and whisky did not. I was told there was a problem with their printer and that was holding things up. So while there, I really had no idea what the overall pricing was like at Ace. They do have their inventory online, and the prices seemed cheaper than some, more expensive than others. That’s to be expected, I guess. What’s not to be expected, however, is being open for little over a month and still not having all your price tags up. Wouldn’t you have that done before you even open? Chop, chop, Ace. Lastly, and this isn’t something I like to point out, but they are advertising themselves as a whisky shop, so I suppose it’s worth noting. When I asked about the Monkey Shoulder, I was told that it was a blended malt, and blended malts differ from the usual blended Scotch because they come from one distillery. I made a half-hearted attempt to point out the error, which was half-heartedly listened to, but by then the damage was done. Listening to a conversation with another customer, I heard some other common inaccuracies about bourbon, nothing major, but still. I’m willing to accept that simple mistakes were made, but if you’re going to bill yourself as a specialty shop, then it’s a reasonable expectation that you’re able to accurately educate your customers on your specialty.

So, yeah, I’m glad this shop exists. Ace has done a good job with their website as well, allowing us Minnesota folks to shop online. The store is also hosting several tastings, whisk(e)y and beer, and will be giving away some fairly nice bottles in conjunction with the tastings - just visit the site and join their mailing list for more info.There are lots of positive things about Ace Spirits, and a couple of negative things, which are hopefully just the kinks and pains of a brand new business. The positives will definitely bring me back, probably in July, when there’s only a 75% chance that it won’t snow.

Ace Spirits
4 Shady Oak Road #18
Hopkins, MN 55343
(952) 960-8014
(800) 578-3199
acespirits.com

The Exclusive Malts’ The Exclusive Blend 1991 21 Years Old – Review

ExMalts_Exclusive_Blend21yo

*Thanks to SF and the good folks at Impex Beverages for the sample.

Alas, poor blended scotch! It’s still pretty much the reason the Scotch industry exists in the first place, being responsible for nearly 90% of all Scotch whisky sold, and despite this boom in brown spirits, it still doesn’t quite get the respect it deserves. There are of course many obvious examples of good blended Scotch out there, but many people still make very little distinction between crappy, bottom-shelf brands and the ones that are actually very good. In some people’s eyes it’s still seen as the dismissible, cheap, proletariat end of the Scotch whisky world. Believe it or not, there are still the occasional pompous clowns out there haughtily proclaiming, “I don’t drink blends.”

To be fair, there are a lot of cheap, crappy blends. I’m not sure there are more cheap, crappy Scotch blends than any other spirit type, but admittedly, cheap blended scotch tends to taste worse than cheap vodka, or even cheap bourbon and cheap gin. When it comes to awful, bottom shelf booze, cheap blended Scotch is right up there with cheap tequila and brandy. HOWEVER, one would do well to not judge an entire category on its weakest entries. One would do well to also not judge the category by its most ubiquitous bottles, though I don’t want to mention Messrs. Walker, Sark, J&B, and Chivas by name. There has been a bit of a revival lately in the Blended Scotch category, and interestingly enough its being led by independent bottlers and retailers as much as it is by the big companies’ brands. Compass Box is at the forefront of this movement, playing with the notion that lines of blends need be unchanging and un-adventurous by releasing variations of their King Street whisky, and producing special one-off expressions like the Delilah’s and the General. Likewise, UK retailers Master of Malt have released several interesting blends over the last few years. Ian Macleod’s and AD Rattray are two examples of independent bottlers that have quality entries in the category with the Isle of Skye range and Bank Note blend, respectively. And then, just for hell of it, we might as well mention the animal blends; William Grant & Son’s excellent Monkey Shoulder, and Pig’s Nose and Sheep Dip (ok, that one’s a vatted malt) from the somewhat unheard of Spencerfield Spirit Co. Quietly joining the movement is David Stirk’s Creative Whisky Co. with their excellent 21 Year Old Exclusive Blend. According to the literature, this expression is made up of 80% malt and 20% grain whiskies, all of it aged at least 21 years in refill sherry casks.

The Nose:  Wow, a rich nose with plenty of backbone. Lots of caramel and dark honey, and lots of dark red fruit – cherry pie with a heavily sugared crust, and black currant jam. Just a touch of sherried rancio – nutty chocolate brownies – and weighty malt and grain notes play nicely with the sweeter elements while integrated wood and spice helps balance it all out. There are nice” old library” notes, polished oak and worn leather, along with deep cinnamon, bourbon vanilla bean, dried orange peel.

The Palate:  Great lush mouthfeel, picks up where much of the nose left off. More dark, sugared fruit and warm caramel that nearly carries through the whole of the palate. Mid-palate notes of nutty toffee, bakers chocolate and more of that same weighty malt. A bit more dynamic towards the end, as a bright wave of spice rolls in; Vietnamese cinnamon, clove, black pepper, and quite a bit of complex oak.

The Finish:  Wonderful length, a slowly diminishing swirl of dark fruit, burnt sugar, sweet malt, oak, and cinnamon.

Thoughts:  A beautiful whisky. Bold, expressive, and well-integrated with a wonderful progression from start to finish. The sherry cask influence is strong but tempered by the mature grain notes, which are in turn enhanced by the sherried notes. The nose feels older with its caramel-y sweetness and old library notes, while the palate seems a little younger with its vibrant spice, but they both work very well together. This one is a delight, masterfully well-made and a lavish pleasure to have in the glass. Not necessarily cheap at around $100-$115, but with today’s prices in mind, actually not a bad value at all. Highly, highly recommended.

The Exclusive Malts’ The Exclusive Blend 1991 21 Years Old, Blended, IB +/-2012

46% ABV

Score: 89