If you’re a fan of Scotch whisky or looking to become a fan of Scotch whisky, the traveling road show of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America,The Whisky Extravaganza, is a large-scale show I definitely recommend attending. Held in often elegant venues, with its focused program and pour list, The Extravaganza is a great opportunity to try many of the single malts being bottled today.
To that end, The Casks is happy to offer a discount code that The Whisky Extravaganza has provided for their 2016 Fall Tour which visits Chicago, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, and Fort Lauderdale. When ordering tickets, simply enter “EXTD2016″ in the promotional code box and receive 10% off the ticket price.
What, already? I feel like I just got back from the 2016 edition and here we are already, talking about next years’ Whiskey on Ice show in Minneapolis. The four masterclasses have just been announced for the 2017 show, so it seemed as good a time as any to post a little info about the third edition of a show that’s been a great event in its first two years…
The masterclasses of 2016’s show were, for the most part, entertaining, informative affairs. From the looks of it, the 2017 seminars will be even more so. Here’s a quick rundown…
Age and American Whiskey, hosted by Lew Bryson. The knowledgable and insightful Mr. Bryson will lead an examination of younger and older American whiskeys to see if “older” really does mean “better.” As a bonus, attendees of this masterclass will receive a copy of Bryson’s excellent book, Tasting Whiskey.
A Room With a Few, hosted by Paul Hletko. FEW Spirits is arguably one of the trailblazers of the American craft distilling movement. Here’s a rare chance to taste through a sampling of their whiskeys with founder and master distiller, Paul Hletko.
Minnesota Nice, hosted by Lew Bryson. For his second masterclass of the day, Mr. Bryson will preside over a panel of some of the leading figures in Minnesota’s nascent craft whiskey scene and lead the class through a tasting of their spirits.
If you wanted to be a VIP for this upcoming event, you’re out of luck. All of the VIP tickets are sold out. Word is that all the general admission tickets will be gone before the end of the year, so if you’re hemming and hawing about whether or not to go…hem and haw quickly and make a decision.
The label of Evan Williams Bottled in Bond Kentucky Bourbon proclaims many things. Large and in front, right below the Evan Williams name, it says “since 1783,” and then right below that, “Kentucky’s 1st Distiller.” The label on the side elaborates on those two things a bit, stating that Evan Williams was indeed the first distiller in Kentucky, and that his first act of distillation took place in 1783. Sounds good, right? After all, someone had to be the first distiller in Kentucky, and you’d have to look pretty damn far to find a better year to start distilling than 1783.
It turns out that the whole Evan Williams backstory is actually just that, a made up story loosely based on a bit of truth. In 1892, a book called The Centenary of Kentucky was published by the Filson Club which, at the time was helmed by a historian named Reuben Durrett. The Filson Club went on to become today’s Filson Historical Society. In this book, there’s a small asterisk-ed paragraph that details the activities of one Evan Williams. It tells that he set up a still in 1783, and that while the locals found it good for medicinal purposes, it was thought to be “a very bad whisky.”¹ It also goes on to say that Williams was indicted for distilling without a license in 1788, and that by 1802, his whiskey-making had so polluted the local waters that his neighbors had the distillery shut down.
Much of this info is repeated in another book from 1896, Memorial History of Louisville from Its First Settlement to the Year 1896, and apparently these two sources were all that was needed by the Heaven Hill marketing team in the late 1950’s when creating a myth for their new Evan Williams brand of bourbon. Here’s the thing…actually, here’s a couple of things. First off, it doesn’t sound like Mr. Williams was a very good distiller, certainly not in the quality department, but also not in that proud-legitimate-business-man-beloved-by-his-community kind of way. There are additional stories about Williams being on the Louisville Board of Trustees and bringing a full bottle of his stuff to every meeting, and, because it was so tasty, leaving with an empty bottle. This proves little to me as anyone who’s served on a board of trustees knows you’ll drink pretty much anything just to make it through a meeting.
Much more importantly, research done by Filson Historical Society Bourbon Historian Michael Veach has turned up a couple of reasons why the Evan Williams story told on the bottle is more or less bullshit. In his book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, Veach explains that there is evidence that shows that Evan Williams arrived in Philadelphia via London in 1784, which according pretty much everyone is a year later than the lable-adorning year of 1783. Also, Veach points out that it’s also a little irrelevant when ol’ Evan arrived as there’s also evidence of several other people distilling in Kentucky as early as 1779.
So, just to recap, we have our Evan Williams label proudly proclaiming that ol’ Evan started distilling in Louisville in 1783, a year before he actually arrived, and is “historically recognized as Kentucky’s first distiller of Bourbon,” despite there being others who actually did so before him. On top of all that, a company that had pretty much no relation to Evan Williams developed the brand 174 years after 1783 and claimed lineage to a whiskey that doesn’t sound like it was very good in the first place. Despite the research to the contrary, and many published de-bunkings of their myth, Heaven Hill and Evan Williams still trot out this stuff on the brands’ bottles. And as if that wasn’t enough on its own, another Heaven Hill brand, Elijah Craig, claims that its namesake was also the inventor of bourbon whiskey and the first to mature bourbon in charred oak barrels. There’s also little evidence to support these two claims, and enough in the other direction to raise a very skeptical eyebrow. Ah, well. Marketing isn’t supposed to honest, it’s just supposed to sell stuff, right?
Apparently, in this case, the marketing does a pretty good job. Evan Williams is the second largest-selling brand of Bourbon behind Jim Beam. Along with the brand’s biggest selling, black labeled 86 proof version, there’s the “extra-aged” 1783 small batch, the always good, vintaged, Single Barrel, and a smattering of flavored whiskeys we need not spend too much time with. There’s also this one, the white labeled Evan Williams Bottle-in-Bond. Now that I’ve made fun of the marketing, let’s finally get to what’s in the bottle. Heaven Hill’s relatively low-rye bourbon recipe is used for all of the Evan Williams bourbons, this one included. By definition, a bottled-in-bond bourbon needs to be at least four years old, this one is probably made up of whiskeys in the four to seven year range.
The Nose: Very solid and solidly classic with some expected heat. Maple sugars, caramelized bananas, caramelized cornbread crust, and fuck it, why not…caramel. There’s a little orange zest, brandied cherries, French vanilla ice cream, and fuck it, why not…sweet corn ice cream, too. The rye notes, subtle and toasted, are tucked in the background with hints of coconut creme pie. The oak is sturdy along with cinnamon candies, a little clove, and a little fine ground pepper.
The Palate: Not surprisingly, a little hot at strength. There’s more citrus here, juicy tangerine and orange. Still lots of caramelized sweetness with more vanilla bean, and a little charred sweet corn. As with the nose, the rye just adds a subtle grainy counterpoint. More robust oak and spice than the nose as well, tannic, rough cinnamon, clove, black pepper and barrel char.
The Finish: Vanilla bean, toasted coconut. burnt sugars, clove, barrel char, and a little burnt buttered popcorn.
Thoughts: Another, darn good, more-than-affordable, bottled-in-bond bourbon. A fairly classic, low-rye mashbill flavor profile with lots of sweetness, corn, and balanced spice. The youthful heat is a bit more prevalent throughout than with the Old Grand Dad Bonded, and to me, it doesn’t quite have the same complexity perhaps thanks to the lower rye content. That said, for around $20/liter this one is pretty much a no-brainer. Even though at this point Bottled-in-Bond is the best worst kept secret in the bourbon world, there are still quite a few Bottled-In-Bond bourbons that are great values, this Evan Williams is one of them.
1. Durrett, Reuben T., and Henry T. Stanton. The Centenary of Kentucky: Proceedings at the Celebration by the Filson Club, Wednesday, June 1, 1892, of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Admission of Kentucky as an Independent State into the Federal Union. Louisville, KY: John P. Morton, 1892. pg. 79. Print.
Cowdery, Charles K. Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey. Chicago, IL: Made and Bottled in Kentucky, 2004. Print.
Johnston, J. Stoddard. Memorial History of Louisville: From Its First Settlement to the Year 1896. Tucson, AZ: Americana Unlimited, n.d. pg. 261. Print.
Regan, Gary, and Mardee Haidin Regan. The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys. Shelburne, VT: Chapters Pub., 1995. Print.
Veach, Michael R. Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013. Print.
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon has a long and storied past, and could arguably be considered a pillar of American whiskey, given the names of the people and companies involved in its history. The Old Grand-Dad in question here is actually Basil Hayden. And yes, that’s the same Basil Hayden that Basil Hayden’s Bourbon is named after, how many Basil Haydens do you think there are in the whiskey world? Basil Hayden was farmer-distiller of some renown in the late 1700’s/early 1800’s. His son Lewis carried on this tradition, as did Lewis’ son Raymond. Raymond is reportedly the one who actually went pro with this whole distilling thing and established a commercial distillery in 1882, in Kentucky. The bourbon produced at this R.B. Hayden & Co. Distillery became known as Old Grand-Dad. As an interesting aside, the image of Basil Hayden which adorned these first bottles of Old Grand-Dad joined a then-new industry trend of using the kindly old Southern gentleman from days of yore to sell bottles. It’s a little discomfiting to realize how little things have changed in that department.
Ol’ Raymond passed away shortly after he founded his distillery, which then passed into the hands of his partner, E.L. Ferriel, and a new investor, P.S. Barber. About 14 years after that, in 1899, the distillery was bought by another famous Kentucky whiskey family, the Wathens. Because of the success of bourbon in general at the time, and the proliferation of poor quality, “counterfeit” alcohol, many bourbon makers formed consortiums or syndicates to protect their interests. The Old Grand-Dad distillery was part of one of the larger ones, the Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co., and this played a part in the brand’s growth and success.
Unfortunately, when prohibition reared its ugly head, the Old Grand-Dad Distillery was shuttered and would not re-open. Around 1920, the Wathans created the American Medicinal Spirits Company, bought up brands like Old Crow and Bourbon Deluxe, and consolidated all the stocks into what became the biggest “medicinal” whiskey warehousing business in Kentucky. By 1929, the American Medicinal Spirits Company was absorbed by another larger industrial distiller/warehouser, National Distillers Products Company. The history of these late 1800’s/early 1900’s American whiskey conglomerates is somewhat fascinating, if not somewhat prohibitively complicated. Either way, it’s a subject worthy of its own post…so, moving on!
After the nation was legally allowed to drink again, the Old Grand-Dad brand continued to be produced, although not always in the same location. In 1940, National Distillers purchased what was then known as the K. Taylor Distilling Company just north-east of Frankfort. It was re-named the Old Grand-Dad Distillery and produced Old Grand-Dad bourbon until 1987 when National Distillers was swallowed up by the Jim Beam juggernaut.
Today, still owned by what is now Beam Suntory, Old Grand-Dad is produced at both the Clermont, KY plant and Booker Noe plant in Boston, KY. The brand is available in 80 proof and 114 proof versions, and this 100 proof, Bottled-in-Bond version. The high-rye (allegedly between 27%-30%) recipe for Old Grand-Dad has been more or less the same since National Distillers reintroduced the brand after the demise of Prohibition. Indeed, it’s reportedly the only bourbon from Beam’s 1987 purchase of National Distillers that’s produced from its original recipe, all the other brands involved in that sale were reconfigured to fit Beam’s production process.
The Nose: Much like an intimidating looking but actually kindly grandpa, there’s quite a bit of alcoholic heat fronting this one. But, if you’re brave and wise enough to see past that initial bluster, you’re rewarded with a classic-feeling high-rye bourbon nose. There’s lots of vanilla – both bean and ice cream – and lots of brown sugar and caramel sweetness. Jellied orange slice candies and a little banana that’s been plucked out of a banana split sundae. Peppery rye and sweet corn chowder reflect the mash-bill, while newly varnished oak, cinnamon, black pepper, and a hint of smoked paprika show off the wood.
The Palate: Along with the continued caramelized sweetness, there’s (briefly) a lot more juicy citrus as well. The rye shows up a bit more forcibly compared to the nose. Then things turn towards the wood and spice: young, bright, tannic oak, clove, cinnamon, ground black pepper…and some heat. A little burnt popcorn and barrel char leads to the finish.
The Finish: Along with a little tannic, oak-y barrel char, the spicy, sugared rye lingers on with black pepper, a bit of mint, and a touch of pickled ginger.
Thoughts: A classic, rugged, great bang-for-your buck bourbon. There’s some young, high ABV heat, but this is complex, balanced, and shows off its ingredients nicely. Even though the brand has recently undergone a label “upgrade” and has taken advantage of the bourbon craze by raising its price by four or five dollars, this is still a great bargain. It used to be around $20/liter and relatively easy to find for less, now it’s closer to $25/liter. While I’ve not tried any from a newly labeled bottle I’ve read elsewhere and been told by a Beam rep that the whisky inside hasn’t changed, just the label and price. If that’s truly the case, it’s still a darn good buy, and pretty much required reading for bourbon fans. Recommended.
A very sincere thank you to Rob Dietrich and Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, and Vicki Loo and Exposure PR for the opportunity to visit Denver and the Stranahan’s 2016 Cask Thief event.
At the very end of July, I was lucky enough to be invited, along with several other spirit-y journalist types, to Denver, CO for a weekend with Stranahan’s Distillery and their fine single malt whiskey. It was a chance for the distillery to introduce their head distiller Rob Dietrich to us, show us a little of their home state, and have us attend their first ever Cask Thief event. Of course, it was also a chance for them to give us a chance to write a bunch of stuff about them.
Having never been to Denver, I was excited to make the trip. Well, perhaps that’s not quite accurate, I’ve been to the Denver airport on two prior occasions, but, as anyone would attest, the Denver airport doesn’t count because it is not really in Denver, it’s actually in the middle of nowhere. Our group was put up the Crawford Hotel, which is within downtown Denver’s venerable, absolutely beautiful Union Station. In 2014, after extensive restoration and redevelopment, this grand Beaux-Arts style station was reopened and seems to be a focal point of all the construction and development of the downtown/LODO area. It’s really quite a place. Along with the rail services and the great hotel, there are several restaurants, a book store, a bar, a coffee shop, and an ice cream parlor. It certainly made for a comfortable, lively home base for the weekend.
The first evening of the weekend found us dining on many cooked animals amongst many, many…many stuffed and mounted animals at the Buckhorn Exchange. This restaurant was a trip. There’s certainly a lot of history there, it holds Colorado’s first liquor license and throughout its 123 year history been visited by quite a few Presidents, entertainers, and even the occasional astronaut. The Buckhorn was one of the first on-premise accounts for Stranahan’s, so it was a fitting place to meet Rob Dietrich and learn more about the distillery and whiskey. I recommend the Elk.
The next morning, with Rob as our guide, the group literally headed for the hills. Since we didn’t have a whole lot of time to experience the Rockies, we made a quick trip to the storied concert venue Red Rocks to gaze upon all the people who desperately need to be seen doing crossfit the beautiful scenery, and marvel at the effort it takes us lowlanders to walk up a lot of steps at 6400′ above sea level. After that, We lunched in the quaint gold rush town of Idaho Springs at MTN Prime before wading through traffic back to Denver to rest up for the evening’s big event.
Our group arrived at Stranahan’s early for a tour and first crack at the special barrels the distillery had rolled out for the night’s party. This first Cask Thief event was a fairly simple, fairly awesome idea, though not one I’ve heard of many other distilleries doing. Basically, Stranahan’s rolled out six out-of-the-ordinary casks, called in a rep from their barrelmakers, Independent Stave Co., to talk about cooperage, set up a tin-type photo studio, roasted a pig over some barrel staves, fired up a bluegrass band, and dipped some copper thieves into some bungholes to let a couple hundred revelers sample some Stranahan’s whiskey they would otherwise never get a chance to try.
In the preceding 24 hours, we all had several opportunities to thoroughly “examine” the standard Stranahan’s Single Malt which is currently made up of two, three, four, and five year old whiskies, and the Diamond Peak, which is a four year old whiskey. Both of these expressions are matured in new American oak barrels, and both are quite good; rich and vibrant with a complexity and balance that deftly offsets the youth. Stranahan’s house style is somewhat barrel-forward in that dark sugars, vanilla, and oak tend to drive the flavor profile. Though it’s a single malt, it’s a far cry from single malt Scotch. Thanks to a fermentation process that takes some queues from craft brewing, and that sweet, oaked flavor profile, their whiskey definitely has its own character. So with Stranahan’s two core whiskeys firmly established as a reference point, we plunged into the six esoteric casks set out for the event.
(Man, I hope you like tasting notes…)
Cask #1, The Forgotten Cask. A clever marketing trick used by big brands these days; trot out something overpriced claiming it to be a barrel of some kind that’s been tucked away and overlooked for years and now, magically, has been found and bottled. It’s hard to believe in this day and age of automation and digital record keeping that any business asset would be forgotten about, but what the hell. In this Stranahan’s cask’s case, it truly was labeled differently (and by the look of it, haphazardly), and that probably helped it to be ignored and bypassed, if not exactly forgotten. This was a five year old American white oak cask.
The nose: A little hot with more alcohol present than in the others. Fruitier and tangy-er as well. There was orange, and chocolate, and orange-flavored chocolate. Vanilla extract, sharp young oak and ginger.
The Palate: Like the nose, a little hot and spirit-y. Continued sharp citrus and dark chocolate, scraped vanilla bean, cinnamon, and edgy oak.
The Finish: Peppery and tannic with ginger and oak.
Thoughts: Interesting in that this one varied the most from the strictly American Oak matured whiskeys. The lighter spice notes and brighter citrus helped the spirit come through a bit more, though it came through in a rather sharp, young manner.
Cask #2, The K-Street OG. The “k” standing for Klamath St., which of course is where the distillery is. The OG standing for “original gangster,” which, while I get their meaning, is a funny thing to call a barrel. A gang of barrels would more or less just be a bunch of barrels sitting around, mostly harmless and non-threatening unless improperly racked. This one was one the first barrels filled in 2009 at the new location. An American white oak cask clocking in around 130 proof.
The Nose: Lush, deep sugars; butterscotch, thick honey, cinnamon honey, and warm caramel apples. There was French vanilla ice cream and a little candied orange peel as well. The oak was round and smooth accompanied by vanilla bean, cinnamon stick, and a little unsweetened cocoa powder.
The Palate: Like the nose, lots of rich sweetness; honey, brown sugars with jellied orange slices, vanilla syrup, and some fudge brownie. Strong, pleasantly grippy oak along with cinnamon and a little clove.
The Finish: Mostly notes from the wood, cinnamon, clove, tannic oak and white pepper.
Thoughts: Man, oh, man. This was probably my favorite of the bunch. All those complex sugars without being syrupy or cloying. The oak was prominent but well-integrated and balanced. Not only was this one exciting because it was a treat to try right then and there, it also gave an impressive glimpse into what Stranahan’s future might hold.
Cask #3, The Three Year Old. Another new American White Oak barrel, they weren’t sure on the ABV, but based on the others, they guessed it to be in the area of 115 proof.
The Nose: There was a youthful heat to this one. Caramel, honey, juicy slightly pithy orange…and a bit of orange marmalade as well. Vanilla extract and baker’s chocolate. The oak notes were sharp and a little dusty with cinnamon and nutmeg.
The Palate: Again with youthful heat. More caramel, along with some vanilla syrup, and juicy tangerine. Sharp, bold tannins, light clove, cinnamon and dried orange peel.
The Finish: Lots of vanilla bean, cinnamon, and oak.
Thoughts: Straightforward, but youngish. This one had an appealing, up-front boldness to its flavor profile, but the sharper edges kept me from liking it more than I did. Still, it showed off the Stranahan’s character nicely.
Cask #4, The Busted Barrel. Another three year old, but this time the barrel was a bit of a leaky one, resulting in a more concentrated version of the previous three year old.
The Nose: A lot like the other three year old, but a little thicker seeming. The sugars were deeper, butterscotch and dark honey, the fruit riper, and the wood and spice stronger, but a little less edgy.
The Palate: Similar to what I said about the nose, A more lush, bigger mouthfeel, thicker, richer sugars, more vanilla, both bean and syrup. Bigger oak tannins, but less sharp.
The Finish: Dark honey, vanilla bean, cinnamon and oak.
Thoughts: It was fascinating to try the non-busted barrel three year old next to this one. Very similar flavor profiles with that concentrated lower volume of the busted barrel one gaining a pleasant weightiness and losing some of the sharp youth of the first one.
Cask #5, The Oloroso. This is what I was hoping to see. A big ol’ sherry butt.I like big butts, I would not prevaricate. I’m sure you other whiskey aficionados would not repudiate that.* This ex-Oloroso butt was actually a 40 year old cask and there was no telling if it was American oak or European oak. Stranahan’s took some of their three year old whiskey and finished it for two more years in this stained, weathered, oaken monster.
The Nose: Man, big, lush…very inviting nose. Dark honey, bit of molasses, plump raisins and fig compote. A bit of juicy orange and dark berries as well. Vanilla bean and dark chocolate. Sturdy, but tempered oak notes with baking spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, and a little clove.
The Palate: A little sharper and youthful on the palate but still very good. More dark red fruits, probably in some kind of warm cobbler. More vanilla and fudge-y, slightly nutty chocolate. Stronger grippy oak, cinnamon, clove, and black peppercorns.
The Finish: Lingering with dark sugars, baking spices, and oak.
Thoughts: Really, really good, a veritable treat to sample straight from the barrel. This is the kind of thing I had hoped they’d be rolling out, and the result lived up to all expectation. That 40 year old butt must still have had some life in it…or at least a lot of sherry, because it made its influence known throughout. The worst part about tasting this one was finding out that Stranahan’s has only experimented with a few sherry casks, so it’s not likely that anything like this will see the inside of a liquor store soon. With that in mind, Stranahan’s, in about 7-10 years, I’d happily to buy a sherried expression from you, possibly case thereof…hint, hint.
Cask #6, The Rum Barrel. The last one of the evening. Some of their three year old (I think) finished for a year in an ex-rum barrel. I tend to not be the biggest fan of rum finishes, and I tend to not be the best tasting note taker after six or seven whiskeys. Yo ho ho…
The Nose: A little young and thinnish. Lighter sugars, honey, caramel. Vanilla syrup and juicy tangerine. Cinnamon candies and young tannic oak.
The Palate: Like the nose, thinnish and a little hot. Vanilla syrup, confectioners sugar and orange slice candies. A little bittersweet chocolate lead to more cinnamon and grippy, edgy oak.
The Finish: Shortish with burnt sugars and oak.
Thoughts: To me, the ex-rum cask didn’t do this many flavors…er, favors. Again, having tasted a couple other three year olds gave a good basis for comparison. The rum sugars just seemed to dull this down a bit without taming some of the youth. It was pleasant and quite easy drinking, just not on the same level as most of the others.
Snowflake Batch #17, “Long’s Peak.” I wrapped up my evening with a pour from Stranahan’s bar, a glass of their yearly very limited Snowflake release. Each year, Dietrich blends together a special early Winter release that is made up of older whiskies, many of which are finished in relatively unusual casks. The whiskeys used in Batch #17, which was from 2015, came from two five year old new American Oak casks, a Chancellor wine cask from Colorado vintner Spero Winery, an Oloroso cask from Spain, and lastly, an American Oak cask that first saw Stranahan’s spirit, then was sent to Breckenridge Brewery to age their ESB Doublewood beer, then was sent back to Stranahan’s to be filled with three year old whiskey that matured there for two more years.
The Nose: Lighter than the OG cask and Oloroso cask mentioned above, but no less complex. Dark fruits, thick honey, dried cherries, and a little butterscotch. Fruitcake baking spices, wet oak, thin coffee and damp hay.
The Palate: More dark sugars, baked fruits, vanilla, and chocolate fudge. Grippy polished oak and green-ish spice, peppercorns, coriander, baker’s cocoa,and barrel char.
The Finish: Nice tannic, peppery bitterness with brown sugar, vanilla, and unsweetened chocolate.
Thoughts: My impressions of this one were perhaps a little distorted, but overall I found it very, very good and an impressive departure from the more easily found Stranahan’s. The wine and beer casks’ influence seemed appropriately slight, adding just an earthy shading to the five year old and sherry-matured barrels.
Along with the entire weekend being a lot of fun, this was a fantastic, informative event. It’s not often one gets to sample whiskey straight from the barrel. It’s even less often that one gets to sample straight from the barrel several whiskeys that wouldn’t ever get the chance to see the light of day on their own. In the “craft” distilling world, Stranahan’s has a long record of success, and arguably could be considered one of the early leaders in this recent movement. Getting the chance to check out their spirit matured in a wider variety of settings gave me new respect for this distillery. I’ve always thought they produced good whiskey, and having now tasted some older, differently matured whiskeys, I definitely look forward to what Stranahan’s will do in the coming years.
Denver’s Union Station
A few more of the residents of the Buckhorn Exchange.
*Thanks to SF and the good folks at Impex Beverages for the sample.
The Scottish grain distillery Cambus was (yes, sadly, past tense…we’ll get to that) at one time, one of the largest distilleries in Scotland. It was probably a fairly modest little place when a man named John Moubray founded it in 1806 on the site of an old mill. In 1826, the original pot stills were replaced with patent stills designed by Robert Stein. Stein’s stills were inspired by Sir Anthony Perrier, an Irish distiller who developed one of the first continuous stills to be used commercially. A continuous still, as opposed to a more “traditional” pot still, lets the fermented wash flow…continuously through the heated, partitioned still, thereby efficiently increasing the amount of consumable spirit produced. Subsequently, Stein’s stills served as inspiration for another Irishman, Aeneas Coffey, who refined the continuous still even further, allowing for multiple distillations and higher proof spirits. It was Coffey’s stills that truly ignited not just whisky production but spirit production in general all over the western world.
I’ve digressed. A worthy digression but a digression nonetheless. Back at Cambus, Coffey stills replaced Stein stills in 1850. 27 successful years later, the founder’s son and now owner of Cambus, Robert Moubray, joined forces with five other powerful whisky-makers to form the mighty Distillers Company Ltd., which of course went on to be acquired by Guinness which eventually became United Distillers, and then the gargantuan corporate beast known today as Diageo. Cambus was expanded in 1882, and according to Alfred Barnard, was producing 900,000 gallons by 1885, which was a huge quantity for the time. A devastating fire in 1914 reduced the site to a grain malting and warehousing facility, but by 1937, new construction had Cambus up and running again…just in time for World War II shut it down. After the war, the distillery started up again and ran continuously until 1993 when it was closed down yet again. This time the closure was most likely for good; the distillery equipment has been removed, leaving just maturation warehouse operations on the site. At its recent peak, Cambus was producing approximately 20 million liters of alcohol per year. Presumably, it was closed because the output of Guinness’ other larger grain distilleries, Cameronbridge and Port Dundas, were easily producing enough to meet demand at that time.
These days, when you see a Cambus single grain whisky, you’re most likely seeing an independent bottling from the distillery’s finite dwindling stock. It’s always a treat to try something from a distillery that is no more. This 26 year old single cask bottling from The Exclusive Malts was distilled five years before Cambus closed and was matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead.
The Nose: A lot of rich sweetness and sweet richness. Sugar and fruit dominate with Amaretto, dark honey, and butterscotch along with bruised bananas and passion fruit. After that, some vanilla bean, and both freshly grated and toasted coconut and a hint of whole wheat bread. For 26 years, the wood is rather subdued on the nose, soft worn oak and buttered cinnamon bread. Not that it needs water, but adding a little tames the sweetness some and reveals some earthier, almost floral notes of unripe banana, wet linen, and subtle clove.
The Palate: Great googly-moogly that’s sweet stuff. A slightly airy, slightly syrupy mouthfeel opens with more caramel, honey and Amaretto, but instead of moving towards the less-sweet, more wood-influenced notes as whisky usually does, this actually continues to evolve and grow even more sweet. The fruit is now all sugared and syruped – banana in a banana split sundae and Juicy Fruit gum. Mid palate, there’s a mystifying, huge wave of just-short-of-cloying crème de cacao. As with the nose, the wood and spice are relatively subdued; lightly grippy oak, vanilla bean, a little cinnamon, a little nutmeg…all covered with crème de cacao. A bit of water definitely calms all that sweetness and manages to balance it with the wood and spice a bit more.
The Finish: Medium-ish, and, surprise, surprise…sweet. There’s more crème de cacao, mildly tannic oak, cinnamon, and vanilla bean. Just a hint of dark chocolate lingers as it all fades away.
Thoughts: I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is one of the strangest whiskies I’ve ever tasted. I’m also going to go out on a limb and admit to a deep fondness for sweet liqueurs. So with that in mind, yes, I liked this, at times quite a bit, but man it’s a weird one. The nose is sweet, but compared to the palate, it’s relatively normal. The palate though, that’s a different story. At times, I could’ve been fooled into believing I was drinking a flavored, under 40% ABV something or other. The nearly overwhelming hit of crème de cacao would’ve been overwhelming if I didn’t like crème de cacao. At strength, this is not a balanced whisky, a little water helps in that regard. That said, if you don’t mind your whisky on the sweet side, there is a certain kind of complexity here, and the sheer novelty of the flavor profile makes it worth trying. As for the bang-for-yer-buck, at around $180, it’s hard to say. Stocks of Cambus are not going to last forever and this is an older whisky, but it is an odd one. This one’s a tough call, I’m gonna go pour some crème de cacao over ice in a pint glass and think about it.
*Sincere thanks to NP, LB, and the Anchor Distilling Co. for the sample.
I’m always on the lookout for a good backstory about a whisky or a distillery in an effort to distract my dear readers from my wordy tasting notes. By saucing up a lengthy preamble, I’m hopefully driving the reader to drink, to bed, or to a website with more pictures and fewer words. So it was, that in poking about for some Glenrothes subject matter, I found brief mention of one of the distillery’s water sources, The Lady’s Well (or the Ladies’ Well) which, apparently, was long ago the scene of a murder. This sounded juicy, so with nimbleness rarely seen in men my age, I leapt into action, hunting down more details…only to find that very few details existed. After a thorough search lasting nearly 20 minutes, I found the following paragraph in the Glenrothes section of Charles MacLean’s “Whiskypedia” from 2010:
The Ladies’ Well, from which the distillery draws its process water, was the site of a murder in the thirteenth century. Mary Leslie, daughter of the Earl of Rothes, was killed by the notorious Wolf of Badenoch (Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, and son of the King of the Scots) while trying to protect her lover.
See, juicy, right? Jealous lovers, murder, royalty…process water, it just doesn’t get any better than that. Or so I thought. Diving deeper into history, I found these “facts”:
The thirteenth century covers the years 1201 AD to 1300 AD.
Alexander Stewart was renowned for not really being a very nice guy at all. He was born in 1343 and died in 1405.
The first Earl of Rothes was George Leslie who was born between 1406 and 1417 and died in 1490. The peerage title “Earl of Rothes” was created for him in 1458. George Leslie had five children named, George, Christian Leslie, Andrew, Elizabeth, and John.
While historical records from this time could accurately be described as spotty, and the sources I perused had a few inconsistencies between them, the names and the dates were all similar enough to make MacLean’s story look a little silly. While he might have been an asshole, the Wolf of Badenoch died before the first Earl of Leslie was born, making his murder of a daughter the Earl may or may not have had…really pretty unlikely, especially since this all supposedly went down in the century before the Wolf himself was born. So, yeah, most likely this particular back story of the Ladies’ Well seems just a little far-fetched…unless there’s a more accurate telling someplace else. To be fair, this myth isn’t part of the Glenrothes’ marketing. Maybe they play it up on a tour at the distillery, but there’s no mention of the story on the brand’s website. Really, that quoted paragraph from MacLean’s book was the single largest source of info I found on the subject. And who knows where he got the story from, there are certainly more founts of information in the world than just Wikipedia. In any case, this isn’t a serious indictment of The Glenrothes or the MacLean, I just love all the fact and fiction surrounding the whisky industry, and I love poking fun and poking holes when the opportunity arises.
Now that the opportunity has arisen and hopefully settled back down, we can get on with the whisky. The Glenrothes Sherry Cask Reserveis another non-age statement bearing part of the Glenrothes’ core “Reserve” line, and is a completely made up of first fill ex-sherry casks. The casks used are a combination of American White Oak and European Oak, with, reportedly, the European Oak making up the majority.
The Nose: Yep, that’s a sherry cask whisky, but not an especially expressive one. Lots of dark brown sugar, plump, cooked raisins in rice pudding, spiced prunes, rhubarb crumble, and amber honey. Nutty, youthful rancio notes of salted cashews, cocoa powder, and vanilla bean. Quite a bit of spice, mostly of the baking variety; cinnamon stick, clove, allspice berries, and faint nutmeg along with youngish sawn oak.
The Palate: A bit more complex fruit here, more raisins and plum, a hint of light molasses, grilled pineapple, and hints of red fruits…Bing cherries perhaps. That evolves to include orgeat, chocolate covered almonds, bourbon vanilla bean, and a little Christmas fruitcake. Raw, mildly grippy oak, and more baking spices with the addition of a bit candied ginger and ground pepper. There’s a young edge towards the end that sharpens the spice a bit too much.
The Finish: That young edge carries over with tannic oak, hot cinnamon, pepper, ginger lingering the longest after a last hit of honey and brown sugar.
Thoughts: A decent, if perhaps just a bit uninspired intro to sherried malt whisky. This one hits many of the right notes, and progresses nicely enough, but it does so without a lot of mature depth. There are some youthful touches here and there, but I suppose that’s to be expected. There’s an attractive complexity, but it’s slightly subdued, especially on the nose…it’s just lacking a bit of rich elegance. This definitely has a place with other good “intro to sherry casks” like the Macallan 12, Tamdhu 10, and Aberlour 12. With a price tag ranging from $45 to $60, the call on value varies; on the low end – perhaps worth checking out, on the high end – perhaps not as much.