*Sincere thanks to Usquaebach and Colangelo PR for the sample.
The Usquaebach brand is one of those brands that manages to be both oft-seen and under-the-radar at the same time. Their white and tan stoneware flagon-ed Old Rare Blended Whisky is a rather familiar sight on store shelves, but you just don’t hear much about the whiskies. Oh sure, there’s the occasional print ad, or random review, but really, this is a brand with a relatively low profile. Hell, until late last year when they released the An Ard Ri, Usquaebach apparently hadn’t made a change to their three-expression line-up in over 25 years.
The Gaelic an ard ri means “the high king,” and is a perhaps hyperbolic nod to Usquaebach’s longevity in the marketplace. While the brand is owned by the U.S.-based Cobalt Brands, the whisky is provided by Hunter Laing & Co. For this new, fairly limited release, Hunter Laing’s master blender, Stewart Laing, created an all-malt blend of whiskies reportedly from Auchroisk, Blair Athol, Benrinnes, Craigellachie, Dailuaine, Glengoyne and Inchgower among others. With the exceptions of Craigellachie and Glengoyne, these are not distilleries you hear about all that often. They are workhorses and the majority of their output goes to some of the big blended Scotch brands. For the Usquaebach An Ard Ri Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, Laing chose single malts between 10 and 21 years old and bottled it at a “cask strength” of 57.1%. This release was limited to 2000 bottles…I’m sorry, flagons. Yes, that’s right, the Old Rare will no longer be the only flagon on the block. The An Ard Ri comes in a striking blue one with a similarly striking $200 price tag.
The Nose: A rich yet slightly taut, complex nose that’s almost savory at times. Initially, there’s light, floral honey, overripe pineapple, honeydew melon, and a mineral, almost white wine fruitiness. Close behind, malt syrup, cereal flakes, and leftover cereal milk mingle with almond extract and a hint of toasted pecans. There are some subtle old library notes, smooth and worn oak, and leather, and mild spice notes of vanilla bean, peppercorns, allspice, dried star anise, and clove. Behind all of this, loitering in the shadows, is a faint hint of peat. Adding a little water adds a bit of citrus sweetness, plays up the milky malt a bit more and gives everything a little more room to breath.
The Palate: A quite nice, lush, viscous mouthfeel. There’s darker honey now, along with juicy raisins, prunes, and mixed tropical fruits. While there’s still notes of caramelized grain, there’s additional hints of bittersweet chocolate, and a more pronounced nuttiness – salted almonds and candied walnuts. The oak is sturdier but still of the old library variety. The spices are stronger and lightly herbal with quite a bit of black pepper and raw ginger, Vietnamese cinnamon, clove, and a bit of fennel. As with the nose, water brings out more citrus and a bit more nutty complexity.
The Finish: A slightly wine-y, honey and raisin sweetness fades slowly along with a slightly bitter nuttiness, and a mix of tannic oak and spice.
Thoughts: A very nice whisky that manages to have both a young vibrancy and a nice dose of mature complexity. The nose, while compact and integrated, offers quite a range to explore. The palate is more straightforward, but echoes much of the nose and adds more oak influence to the mix. While this was drinkable at strength, I found just a little water opened the nose up nicely and brought more fruitiness out which balanced the wood and spice even further. The $200 price tag is a bit of an eyebrow raiser. Yes, it’s a very limited release, and yes, the price is more or less in line with where we’re unfortunately at in terms of price these days, but that doesn’t necessarily justify it. It’s easy to recommend the whisky itself, it’s quite good. It’s harder to recommend it at this high of a price.
*Sincere thanks to Rabbit Hole Distilling for the sample.
Rabbit Hole Distilling’s Kentucky Straight Rye, like their Kentucky Straight Bourbon, was contract distilled reportedly by New Riff Distilling. Sure, sure, that in and of itself isn’t super exciting, but what if I told you the mashbill for this rye was 95% rye and 5% malted barley. Nothing too interesting there either, right? There are a great many rye whiskeys on the shelves that use that same mashbill: Bulleit Rye, George Dickel Rye, Redemption Rye…probably three or 15 others. They all use that same 95% rye recipe whiskey produced at MGP Ingredients in Indiana. But wait, you say, I thought you said New Riff in Kentucky made the Rabbit Hole Rye, not MGP Ingredients in Indiana. Well, I can’t slip anything by you, now, can I? Sharp as a tack and it’s not even Friday yet.
MGP’s somewhat ubiquitous 95% rye recipe did serve as Rabbit Hole’s inspiration for this whiskey. To produce the stuff at New Riff, they turned to someone who knew that recipe pretty well, Larry Ebersold, who served as Master Distiller at MGP back when it was called LDI and before that when it was known as the Seagram Lawrenceburg Plant. Ebersold is not the only industry veteran Rabbit Hole has turned to for consulting help. They’ve also enlisted Dave Scheurich, who, up until his retirement in 2011, was the master distiller and leading force behind Woodford Reserve, and Randy Allender, a production veteran who spent over two decades with Jim Beam. Leading the production at the new Rabbit Hole distillery will be Cameron Talley, who previously served in production manager and supervisor roles with Brown-Forman and Gruppo Campari.
So, it looks like this new company has wisely enlisted a lot of experienced help to get their brand off the ground. They’ve also wisely decided, with this rye and their straight bourbon, to start with younger spirits that are bit off the beaten path. When the Rabbit Hole Distillery is up and running towards the end of 2017, it will be far easier to have their own spirit catch up to their young contracted stuff than it would’ve been to try to replicate the success of some older, more familiar, sourced stuff. Like their bourbon, the Rabbit Hole Rye is two years old and has been aged in new American Oak barrels made by the Kelvin Cooperage. It’s worth noting that both this rye and the straight bourbon have been bottled at a generous 47.5% ABV.
The Nose: Raw-ish stuff, with quite a bit of alcoholic heat. There’s some sweetness at first, cinnamon infused honey and crème brûlée, and a bit of fruit in the form of orange peel and slightly underripe bananas, but this is pretty darn grain forward. And that grain would be, not surprisingly, rye. Here, it’s crackling and green, herbal, a little minty, and slightly peppery with hints of dried prairie grass. There’s a bit of that familiar MGP 95% rye dill pickle note, but that’s less present than it is in, say, the Bulleit Rye. While there’s not too much wood, there is ragged cinnamon, clove, and burnt sugar behind all that rye.
The Palate: While still youngish and hot, this is vaguely reminiscent of the Thomas Handy Ryes – robust and grain forward. Initially, there’s a very nice, creamy mouthfeel that has more burnt sugars, fresh orange peel, and red currant jam. After that, raw vanilla bean and dark chocolate. The strongish rye, while still somewhat raw and grassy, now also gains complexity and brings some nice toasted notes. A little tannic oak shows up towards the end with more cinnamon, clove, and Tellicherry peppercorns.
The Finish: Somewhat lengthy with surprising bit of marshmallow early, and more herbal, toasted rye, tannic wood spice and clove towards the end.
Thoughts: Pretty good. The nose was okay here, but didn’t impress me overly much. I really enjoyed the palate, which gained some depth and somehow managed to make it all seem a little older than it is. There was just a bit too much youth to the nose, it did show off the mashbill nicely, but I found it a bit too jarring. The palate follows the adage that very young ryes can be very good – it’s complex, balanced and progresses nicely all the way to the end. While the nose kept me from liking this more, and the ~$50 price tag seems steep, the impressive palate hints at a lot of potential down the road.
*Sincere thanks to Rabbit Hole Distilling for the sample.
One of the hardest things about this craft spirits boom of the last several years has been separating the wheat from the chaff. Distinguishing not just the true distillers from the opportunistic source-and-bottlers, but also between the ones who are generally honest and upfront, and the ones that hide behind carefully crafted marketing. While, yes, we can all agree that selling a product relies on marketing, there is a difference between using a few extra superlatives in a brand’s otherwise honest story and just blatantly making up some crap.
With all that in mind, I tend to approach reviewing new craft spirit brands with a mix of about 65% trepidation, and 35% gleeful bloodlust…or depending on the day, 65% gleeful bloodlust, 35% trepidation. In terms of marketing, will I find a load of horseshit, or will I be pleasantly surprised? In the case of the recently reviewed Clyde May’s Bourbon, I found horseshit…a great big silly pile of it. In the case of Louisville, KY’s Rabbit Hole Distilling, I found a mildly pleasant surprise and, I’m not afraid to admit, a small bit of enlightenment.
Founded in 2012 by Kaveh Zamanian, Rabbit Hole Distilling was apparently brought into being by his falling in love with someone who helped him fall in love with Kentucky and with Bourbon. Pretty straight forward, right? No dubious family recipe or backstory, just plain old inspiration…and presumeably a vast reservoir of financial wherewithal to work with. Like many other new distilleries, Rabbit Hole’s plan was to build a craft distillery and in the meantime, release products made elsewhere that hopefully reflected their vision. It’s here that I was pleasantly surprised. All too often, new brands gloss over the fact that they didn’t have much to do with the actual making of the product their label is on. In contrast, Rabbit Hole has been very upfront about their products. While perhaps not completely transparent, they’ve been pretty darn translucent at least, and that’s a refreshing change of pace.
Inmany of Rabbit Hole’s promotional materials, and in a response to a post on Reddit, Zamanian has been happy to openly discuss his products and has been quick to point out that there’s a difference between contract distilling and sourcing…and that he does a bit of both. This is where the small bit of enlightenment happened for me…or perhaps it was more of a reminder, really. Obviously, there’s a difference between contract distilling and sourcing. A contract distilled spirit is produced to a specification for a brand, whereas a sourced product is more or less a finished one, picked for use by a brand who may or may not treat it further by blending or cask-finishing. I knew all this, but in the muddled haze of all these new brands it’s easy to overlook the difference between the two, and to remember that each has its place and purpose.
For their current line-up, Rabbit Hole has contracted the production of two whiskeys, and sourced product for its other two releases. The sourced products are what Rabbit Hole calls its fingerprint series, meaning that they’ve taken some existing spirit and put a small final stamp on it to make it their own. One is a sourced five year old bourbon that’s been finished in PX sherry casks by Rabbit Hole, and the other will be a sourced London dry gin that’s been aged in their ex-rye barrels. The contract distilled products, the one’s I’ll be taking a look at, include a straight bourbon and a straight rye.
The Rabbit Hole Distilling Kentucky Straight Bourbon was, according to Zamanian’s Reddit post, inspired by craft beer and the non-traditional mashbills of craft distilling championed by folks like Corsair’s Derek Bell. It is made up of 70% corn, 10% malted wheat, 10% malted barley, and 10% honey malt. Obviously, corn and malted barley are no strangers to bourbon, nor is wheat, but malted wheat, that’s a little different. My almost completely uneducated guess would be that using a malted wheat instead of normal wheat would introduce more sugars into the mash, perhaps speeding up fermentation time and sweetening things a little. The honey malt is the real oddball here. Similar to traditional German Brumalt, honey malt is produced by soaking the grain to convert the starch to sugar, drying it, and then roasting to brown the grain and produce a bit of a Maillard Reaction, one of the finest and most loved reactions of all time. This last step renders the sugars mostly unfermentable, therefore, the honey malt is used to more directly flavor and color the water used in the process. In brewing, honey malt and Brumalt are used relatively sparingly, usually in fuller-bodied lagers like Märzens, brown ales, porters and stouts. In distilling…well, I don’t know, this is the first I’ve heard of anyone using honey malt so I guess we’ll see how it affects a whiskey.
While Rabbit Hole does not confirm this in their official literature, it doesn’t seem to be much of a secret that this bourbon has been produced by New Riff Distillery which is located in Newport, KY. This bourbon is two years old and has been matured in the standard new American oak barrels with #3 char. The barrels have been coopered by the Kelvin Cooperage, with whom Zamanian has personal connection owing to the owners being old school friends. The Rabbit Hole Distillery is located in Downtown Louisville and will include not just the distilling plant, but a restaurant, tasting rooms, an event space, and of course, a gift shop. They plan to have construction finished and things up and running by the fall of 2017 at which point they will commence making their own versions of these whiskeys.
The Nose: Young, slightly hot stuff. Up front, there’s pithy orange, floral honey, and soft, julep-ready mint leaves. Behind that, biscuity notes of those almond windmill cookies, along with cracked wheat crackers, sweet corn pudding, and a subtle bit of toasted rye. As you’d expect, there’s not a lot of oak on the nose, but there’s a lot of cinnamon red hots, a bit of earthy vanilla bean, and a little candied ginger.
The Palate: Young, slightly hot stuff with a thinly creamy mouthfeel. The pithy orange is back as is the honey and mint. There’s more brown sugar, but less baked goods, more straight up toasted grain. The rye is more present here as well – greenish, herbal, and sharp. Along with the hot, drying cinnamon, a bit more youthful, slightly grippy oak shows up along with ginger, fine black pepper, and a touch of slightly overcooked popcorn.
The Finish: Young, slightly hot stuff. Orange peel, almond extract, and floral honey trail off leaving hot cinnamon and mint to finish things off.
Thoughts: Young slightly hot stuff…but also fairly enjoyable. If the interesting mashbill made itself known, I suppose it would be in the strong grain notes, but I have to say for such a young whiskey, I was hoping for more of that mashbill to come through. This does have its moments though, and succeeds in progressing nicely from nose to finish and keeping its youth (barely) reigned in. Is there enough uniqueness to justify the $~50 price tag for such a brash youngster? That’s harder to say, my inclination is no, but it’s worth keeping in mind that this seems like a good start, and heralds some good things to come as Rabbit Hole’s whiskeys gain a bit more age.
Towards the end of 2016, a class action lawsuit was filed against Buffalo Trace and parent company Sazerac for misrepresenting an Old Charter bourbon to consumers. Old Charter is a storied brand whose history goes back to the late 1800’s. It’s passed through several ownership changes, the last being the sale to Sazerac in 1999. For quite a while under Sazerac’s umbrella, there was a 10 year old Old Charter and an 8 year old Old Charter. Each proudly proclaimed “10 years old” and “8 years old” on the neck label, and in large print on the front label. Each also went on to elaborate in elaborate script that the 10 year old had been “gently matured for ten seasons” and the 8 year old had been “gently matured for eight seasons.” All that seems simple enough, right? 8 years old = eight seasons, 10 years old = ten seasons, that all makes good sense. And even if distilling seasons and barreling dates don’t align quite so precisely, the implication made on those labels is fairly clear.
Back in 2013, the 10 year old was dropped from the roster. Then, in the beginning of 2014, Sazerac and Buffalo trace dropped the age statement from the 8 year old’s label. Well…let me be a little more exact: they dropped the “years” and the “old” part of the age statement from the label. The “8” still stood there proudly on the neck label, now surrounded by some leafy scrollwork design. The part about being matured gently for eight seasons was still there as well. So the Old Charter no longer says “8 years old,” it now just says “8.” The Old Charter “8” is now a non-age-statement bearing whiskey. It does still mention the eight seasons part, however. The plaintiff in the lawsuit has claimed that the quality of the Old Charter 8 has gone down, and since the whiskey is no longer 8 years old, the large, residual “8” on the label constitutes false advertising and deception by Sazerac and Buffalo Trace. While I’ve personally not tried the old Old Charter 8 year old or the new Old Charter non-8 year old, the general consensus in bourbon circles is that the new Old Charter just ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be. So it seemed that perhaps this suit had merit. Or not. In January of this year, the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed their suit and the case was dropped. Why it was dismissed? Maybe there was an out-of-court settlement or maybe the pursuit became too costly, who knows?
However, the courtroom drama did not end there. On January 27th of this year, a brand new lawsuit was leveled at Buffalo Trace and Sazerac, once again claiming that the companies were labeling their Old Charter product in a misleading way. Not surprisingly, Sazerac and Buffalo Trace didn’t agree. Last week, the defendants filed a motion to have the suit dismissed. In news reports, their reasoning for the motion was summed up in one quote: “No reasonable consumer would transform a naked number ‘8’ into saying that the bourbon ‘has been aged for 8 years,’ or translate ‘seasons’ into ‘years.'” It’s important to note that reports on this case were few and quotes probably rather sparse compared to all the non-quoted discussion that happened in the courtroom. It’s also important to note that the quote is just fucking stupid. Apparently, after years of equating years and seasons on their label, Sazerac and Buffalo Trace decided that years and seasons used to be equal before, but now are indeed two completely different, unrelated things and that numbers don’t really need to mean anything. The companies also think that their customers are being unreasonable in equating two things that the companies used to equate themselves, presumably whilst being reasonable.
You may remember that in 2013, Sazerac took their popular Very Old Barton 6 Year Old, and cleverly removed the “years” and “old” on that label as well, leaving just a big ol’ six to make consumers feel unreasonable. Years before that, Sazerac also pushed the limits of consumer reasonability by releasing an easy to find, not 10 years old Ancient Age Ten Star alongside the harder to find Ancient Age Ten Year Old. To my knowledge these moves did not generate any lawsuits, but they do help in generating a bit of a pattern.
So, Sazerac and Buffalo Trace…what the hell? You keep doing this and it’s just seems kind of slimy. You keep dropping the age statement, but conveniently keep the damn number on the label. Why? What other purpose does that number serve but to relate back to the age the whiskey no longer is? And then, when you’re called out for being sneaky and borderline deceitful, you deride your customers for being unreasonable about falling for the confusion you hoped to generate in the first place. Sure, from a legal standpoint you might end up being ok, but that doesn’t mean you’re not being kind of an asshole to your customers. You’ve done it at least three times now, Buffalo Trace, and the technique doesn’t seem to play all that well in the court of public opinion.. If you’re going to drop an age statement, stop fucking around and drop the number associated with the age statement as well. Or, just come right out and say that you’re trying to subtly and legally trick people. At the very least, maybe we consumers would be reasonable enough to appreciate the honesty.
*Sincere thanks to MH and Common Ground PR for the sample.
Ezra Brooks is one of those days-of-yore sounding bourbon names that could easily make you think he was the inventor of the high rye mashbill or the “Louisville Limp” technique of rolling a barrel from rickhouse to rickhouse.* In fact, the name Ezra Brooks was mostly an invention by a few guys, one of them an opportunistic fellow with the not-so-days-of-yore sounding name of Frank Silverman. In the first half of the 50’s, thanks to a significant investment and clever marketing, Jack Daniels’ sales soared 900%. In 1956, the brand was sold to Brown-Forman who found out that those soaring sales had also put a dent in the Jack Daniels stocks. A year later, the brand faced a shortage and was forced to more strictly allocate its product. Frank Silverman came up with the idea of bottling a bourbon and damn near copying everything about Jack Daniels in order to take advantage of this sudden popularity boom and resulting short supply. From the bottle shape to the label to the advertising slogans, nearly everything about Silverman’s Ezra Brooks was an intentional rip-off…except that it was bourbon made in Kentucky, not Tennessee whiskey made in Tennessee. Jack Daniels took Silverman and Ezra Brooks to court over the apparent counterfeiting, but lost. The court saw the two as distinct, individual products made in different places, and with no evidence that one was being passed off as the other or that consumers were being misled into buying one over the other, it sided with the defendant. If you’re interested in reading a much more detailed, legal-minded recounting of this, I heartily recommend checking out this great piece on the Sipp’n Corn blog. If you want to go read that now, go ahead, I am a patient boy, I’ll wait, I’ll wait, I’ll wait, I’ll wait.
Interestingly, even though Ezra Brooks was a bit of a knock-off, developed to take advantage of Jack’s success, the bourbon in the bottle actually had some pedigree. Silverman contracted the production of Ezra Brooks from what was then called the Hoffman Distillery. The Hoffman Distillery began life in 1880 as a small still set up by one S.O. Hackley. Hackley soon partnered with an Ike Hoffman, and grew two well-known brands, Old Hoffman and Old Spring. The distillery was bought in 1916 by distributors L. & E. Wertheimer but was still known as the Hoffman Distillery. After rebuilding in the mid-30’s, L. & E. Wertheimer hired Robert and Ezra Ripy to run their distillery. These Ripy brothers were two of four sons of Thomas Ripy, one of the more famous Kentucky distillers of the late 1800’s. The Ripy name isn’t quite as embedded as, say, Beam, but it has been influential. The other two Ripy brothers, Ernest and Forest, had founded the Ripy distillery after Prohibition. This distillery made a name for itself by making the whiskey for Austin Nichols’ Wild Turkey brand. When Austin Nichols purchased the distillery, the Ripy brothers stayed on, with Ernest training a young Jimmy Russell who would go on to become Wild Turkey’s master distiller and the popular face of the brand. So yeah, suffice it to say, when it came to bourbon, the Ripy’s knew what they were doing. Back at the Hoffman Distillery, Robert & Ezra Ripy, the Wertheimers and Frank Silverman set about creating the Ezra Brooks brand. The legend goes that everyone liked the name Ezra, but were not so keen on the Ripy part, so they instead decided to substitute the unrelated, fictitious last name of Brooks.
It did not take long for the brand to take off, and by 1968, the Hoffman Distillery was renamed the Ezra Brooks Distillery. The brand then went through the usual ownership changes and production facility closures that brands really seem to like to go through. It was at one point acquired by Medley, which was later acquired by Glenmore, who then, unceremoniously dumped the brand in the 90’s and sold it to the David Sherman Company which went on to become Luxco. Today the brand is represented by the 90 proof Black Label bourbon, a 101 proof 7 year old straight bourbon, a white labeled blended whiskey, a cinnamon flavored something or other, and something called Bourbon Cream which sounds both suspicious and delicious all at the same time.
Earlier this year, a newcomer joined the line, the Ezra Brooks Straight Rye Whiskey. This young whiskey (aged for 24 months reads the label) was distilled by MGP Ingredients in Indiana. To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to another 95% MGP rye, so imagine my surprise when I tasted it and found something much less ubiquitous. This one is definitely not made solely from that 95% recipe. In 2013 MGP introduced two new rye recipes into their repertoire. One was a more conventional mashbill of 51% rye, 45% corn, and 4% barley malt. The other was a more unconventional mashbill of 51% rye and 49% barley malt. Over at the Bourbon Guy blog, their review said that while MGP did not disclose which mashbill was used to make this one, the Luxco PR company did confirm the whiskey contained corn. So, now we know that the Ezra Brooks Rye was made with either the 51/45/4 recipe, or possibly some combination of all three of their rye recipes. In other words, we don’t know much, but we do know that this is not the standard Indiana rye we’ve seen so a lot of over the last several years.
The Nose: A relatively mellow and sweet nose with just a bit of youngish bite. Initially, there’s juicy orange, and those Brach’s caramel swirl taffy candies. Along with that, there’s vanilla extract, bruised apples and hint of Juicy Fruit gum. The rye comes across as lightly herbal, not toasted, with subtle peppery notes. There’s just a touch of dusty oak, but lots of cinnamon hard candy (I swear this one’s not sponsored by a candy company) and a touch of fennel. There’s a bit of heat to the nose, but far less than expected, really.
The Palate: There’s more of a youngish, hot burn once it passes the lips, but again, it’s less than I expected for a 24 month old whiskey. The palate is less sweet, more rugged with spiced apples, honey, and burnt sugar at first. The more prominent rye still has an herbal, greenish quality, but also shows off more roasty toasty grain. There’s slightly bitter vanilla bean and baker’s chocolate leading to rough, slightly grippy oak, cinnamon stick, candied ginger, and white pepper.
The Finish: Brown sugars and vanilla syrup hang around with toasted rye, bitter chocolate, tannic oak, cinnamon and pepper.
Thoughts: You know, for what it is, this is really pretty decent. Rye can be quite good when it’s young, and this one lives up to that. There’s a bit of a jump from the relatively gentle and sweet nose to the more vigorous, rugged palate, but all in all, this manages to seem a little older than it is. I found it sippable enough neat, but preferred it with ice. It works quite well in cocktails; the vibrancy and measured complexity of the palate fitting in nicely to a Manhattan, a Brooklyn, or an Old Fashioned. Weighed against two other sub-$20 ryes, The ~$18 Ezra Brooks fares quite well. It’s a little richer and more complex than both Old Overcoat…sorry Overholt, and Jim Beam Rye. There’s definitely room on the shelves for a decent inexpensive rye like this. Recommended.
*A sincere thank you to MG and Whiskey On Ice for providing me with the media pass.
As Minnesota’s only really big whiskey show, Whiskey on Ice has, over the last three years, established itself as being an informative, festive, bankable good time. Since the first edition in 2015, the well-run event has grown consistently, adding more brands each year and giving the whiskey crowd here an annual highpoint to look forward to. In no particular order, here are some random thoughts and highlights from this year’s event…
The day started with a good quartet of pre-show seminars which featured Paul Hletko leading a tour through his FEW Spirits, Robin Robinson leading a tour through the entire history of whiskey, and Lew Bryson discussing age and American whiskey as well as moderating a discussion with a trio of Minnesota distillers. I’d like to take this moment to point out that Lew Bryson arguably has one of the best laughs in the beer, wine, and spirits world. I was happy to attend both of Bryson’s seminars, feeling rather lucky in the first one because the whiskeys being discussed included the Weller 12 Year Old and, impressively, the Elijah Craig 18 Year Old. Those are not bottles I see on the shelves very often, so it was nice to have a few sips of each.
The second seminar I attended was a presentation of three Minnesota distillers; Far North Spirits,Isanti Spirits, and J. Carver Distillery. This one provided one of the more enjoyable moments of the show for me, at least philosophically speaking. While I already knew that Minnesota grain and Minnesota White Oak was highly sought after by the booze industry, it was inspiring to hear these three talk about the camaraderie Minnesota distillers share and their excitement for the state’s potential as a whiskey producer. There are three cooperages here, farmers working directly with distillers’ grain needs, and a surprising amount of booze making history in the state. With examples like the small art and punk rock husband and wife team at Isanti Spirits, the grain to glass farmstead distillery of Far North Spirits, and the creative range offered by J. Carver Distillery, the wide variety of producers here is hopefully laying a foundation for thriving distilling scene for years to come.
There were also a few more American single malts on hand, which, I suppose is to be expected as American single malt has stealthily become a style to watch in terms of craft whiskey in this country. Thus far what has set the American style apart is the influence and integration of craft brewing techniques and ingredients. Chicago Distilling Company’s many variations on that theme, and Pine Barrens‘ barley wine-influenced single malts being perfect examples.
Of course, the bigger Scotch companies were represented as well, though, for my liver’s sake, I steered clear of most the expected, common entries, There were three pours that stood out: a very nice Balvenie 25 Year Old Single Barrel, a surprisingly complex Octomore 7.3, and the always wonderfully bizarre Bruichladdich Black Art 4.1. In general, with Scotch’s trend towards younger NAS expressions that are overly influenced by American Oak, it was good to see a few older expressions present during the VIP hour.
I also steered clear of many of the big American Whiskey brands. I feel like I’ve been hit over the head with big Kentucky bourbon lately, and while the selection was broad, there just wasn’t much of interest to me from the likes of Beam, Brown-Forman, Buffalo Trace, and Heaven Hill. There were two exceptions. The first was the Four Roses 2016 Elliot’s Select Single Barrel. It seems like Four Roses is often the exception, doesn’t it? The second was the Knob Creek 2001 14 year old poured as part of Lew Bryson’s first seminar. They were both excellent.
Last year, I felt like there was a big increase in the number of Irish Whiskey brands. This year, while many of those were present once again, there were not many new brands. Perhaps we’ve seen a bit of a leveling off in that category. One can only take so much re-branded Cooley single malt, you know? Speaking of Cooley, one of my favorite whiskeys of the evening came from Teeling’s, though oddly the whiskey itself probably came from Bushmills. Their Vintage Reserve Collection 24 Year Old Single Malt was damn near sublime.
And so, another year, another great Whiskey on Ice. As I mentioned, this is a well-run, well-stocked show that’s been very consistent in its three years, and has steadily improved as the local whiskey scene has improved. Off the top of my head, I can think of four new restaurants and bars with large whiskey lists that have opened around here in the last year or so. Obviously Minnesota is not immune to whiskey’s boom in popularity. I think we can count on the 2018 Whiskey on Ice reflecting that popularity with a pour list that will be even more diverse with more true craft distillers, and some of the smaller Scotch and world whisky companies being represented. As with last year’s event, this year’s also featured a silent auction benefitting the Commemorative Air Force Minnesota Wing, beer from Indeed Brewing, a cigar and cocktail lounge, and a retail sponsor in the form of the great Ace Spirits. New additions this year were a small Tullamore Dew hut…sorry, “snug,” and a Beam VIP lounge, which, provided a nice lounge-y place to eat some dinner. The Depot has been a great venue and a unique setting for this event, however, there’s going to be expansion and construction happening on the old railroad barn soon…here’s hoping that won’t get in the way of next year’s show.
*Sincere thanks to Clyde Mays and Conecuh Ridge Distillery, Inc. for the sample.
Well, shit…where to begin.
Clyde May was an actual, real person. This is somewhat important to note because the bourbon world is full of people who actually were not really people. Ol’ Clyde was apparently an Alabama moonshiner and bootlegger of some renown from the 50’s through the 80’s. I think it probably comes as a shock to most of us that there even were renowned moonshiners and bootleggers from Alabama in from the 50’s through the 80’s, but that’s neither here nor there. Reportedly, what set Clyde apart was his attention to quality (that’s what usually sets moonshiners apart) and his “technique” of throwing a few apples in the barrel along with the spirit to mature and flavor things a bit. Mr. May was so renowned as a bootlegger that he was arrested for it in 1973. The brand’s legend goes that he set his still back up the day he got out of prison, but the brand’s legend would say that, wouldn’t it? It’s not nearly as exciting to say that a moonshiner saw the error of their ways and never condensed vapor through a copper worm again. That kind of penitent behavior doesn’t sell whiskey.
Clyde May died in 1990. His son Kenny May wanted to preserve his father’s illicit distilling legacy and in 2002, after creating the Conecuh Ridge brand, contracted out the production of some legal whiskey. How this preserves a moonshiner’s legacy I have no idea. This is where things get just a little nutty. The Wikipedia page for Conecuh Ridge states that the distilling of this whiskey was outsourced to Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, LTD. (KBD) but KBD didn’t actually start distilling their own spirit until 2012, which means that the Conecuh Ridge product was sourced from a source who had to go source it. Of course, the Wikipedia page for Clyde May/Conecuh Ridge also says that Watergater John Mitchell convicted Clyde May and then took over Clyde’s cell when Mitchell himself was convicted of Watergate stuff in 1974…which is just pure silliness, especially since Mitchell wasn’t convicted until 1975. But I suppose accuracy and honesty is in a bit of a tailspin here anyway so we’ll proceed.
So in 2002, some Conecuh Ridge whiskey is produced. Back then, their “Alabama-style” whiskey was a bourbon with apple flavoring added. A far cry from moonshine with actual apples tossed in the barrel, but whatever. That chemically flavored whiskey is still in the brand’s line-up today. In 2004, the Alabama legislature, dazzled by shiny marketing and presumably with nothing better to do, passed a joint resolution declaring Conecuh Ridge to be “Alabama’s Official State Spirit.” Alabama’s congress apparently didn’t see any irony in celebrating the state by honoring of a man it once convicted, with a whiskey made entirely in another state. Did I say entirely? That’s not entirely true. Conecuh Ridge claims to have sent tanked Alabama water to whoever was making the whiskey to use in the mash, so I guess technically a little Alabama got in there. Not all was rosy for Alabama’s Official State Spirit, though, a few months after its anointing, Conecuh Ridge had run into enough supply and distribution problems for the state-run liquor stores to stop carrying it on a regular basis. A few months after that, Clyde May’s son, Kenny, carried on the family tradition of running afoul of various liquor laws and was found guilty of several charges. As a result, Conecuh Ridge lost its distribution license and the Official State Spirit of Alabama could no longer be sold in Alabama. Interestingly, or perhaps predictably, there was some conspiratorial clamour about the now ousted Kenny May being set up and torn down by a former mayor and partner in a rival “Alabama” whiskey attempt called Redneck Riviera. It should surprise no one that this Redneck Riviera blended whiskey, which also was not produced in Alabama, went pretty much nowhere, so it’s a little hard to say what effect orchestrating a bust of Kenny May had on a competitor’s brand. Let’s move on.
Because of this unseemliness, the Alabama legislature, presumably with nothing better to do, tried to revoke Conecuh Ridge’s status as Official State Spirit. For unfathomable reasons this attempt failed, and the title stayed put. With Kenny May no longer involved, the brand and company cycled through several ups and downs and several ownership changes, at one point even being CEO’d by Wes Henderson who went on to found Angel’s Envy with his father, Lincoln Henderson. Conecuh Ridge filed for bankruptcy in 2007 and in 2009, the Alabama brand was purchased by an investor group from Texas. In 2014, it was restructured and refinanced as Conecuh Ridge Distillery Inc. which is now, according to the label on the bottle, based in Florida. So just to re-cap, Clyde May’s products are not made in Alabama and they are owned by a company called Conecuh Ridge Distillery which is not actually a distillery, and, being located in Florida, is nowhere near Conecuh Ridge, AL. There is no Conecuh Ridge distillery. The Official Spirit of Alabama has never been made in Alabama and has pretty much nothing to do with Alabama save for this mildly embarrassing history.
That brings us to Clyde May’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey. To be fair, much of the aforementioned history doesn’t make it on to the label of this one, though perhaps not for a lack of trying. This bourbon has a very busy label, complete with faux stamp embossing, faux filmstrip around the neck, overlapping images, and at least five different fonts. There’s also a lot of misleading text that’s craftily vague in such a way that the brand could claim it’s not trying to be misleading. Right up on top, there’s a date, 1946, and the name Conecuh Ridge Distillery. Maybe that was the year that Ol’ Clyde set up his first still. but since we’ve already established that there’s never been a Conecuh Ridge Distillery, it’s really just a pretty meaningless date. Next up is some printed script, carefully crafted to look casual and fountainpen-esque, proclaiming “carefully crafted – Conecuh Ridge, Alabama.” This is just plain deceptive. It’s a blatant attempt to make it look like this whiskey is made in Alabama. It’s no secret there’s never been a Conecuh Ridge Distillery and the whiskey isn’t made in Alabama, so why include this? Below that there are some official looking spaces that look like there’s been more handwritten info filled in about the batch and recipe number. The thing is, it’s (big surprise) printed, not handwritten, and as far as I can tell, the same numbers are found on all bottles of the Clyde May’s Straight Bourbon. More meaningless info, more deception. Around the side there’s a slogan, “say watcha be & be watcha say” which just pretty much takes the fucking cake. If Clyde Mays Bourbon truly believed in saying what it was and being what it said, it would say in big bold letters “sourced bourbon from an undisclosed distillery that we try to pass off as being from a made up distillery that somehow honors the legacy of someone who is not really involved with the company in any meaningful way.” I suppose I should mention that the label does disclose that the whiskey is distilled in Kentucky and that the company is based in Florida, but it does so in accordance with the law, not in accordance with its fanciful hype.
I hate to make this much fun of a couple of guys and a brand of whiskey…well, “hate” is a strong word. I don’t enjoy making fun of a couple of guys and a brand of whiskey overly much, but the marketing and history of this brand is just ridiculous. The whiskey world is full of a lot of crap when it comes to backstories and labeling, but this one seems to take it to another level. Products like this are fair game because these days, with all the sourced brands and made-up distilleries, it’s pretty hard for a consumer to know what they’re actually buying. Trying to make a buck riding the bourbon boom is one thing, being this deceitful about it is another. Is the bourbon in this bottle good? Well, yeah, I guess it’s ok, no thanks to Conecuh Ridge “Distillery,” but, who cares? For what it is, a reportedly 5 year old bourbon, it’s way too pricey, basically, you’re paying for the brand image. To a certain extent, that’s always the case, but when the brand image is so spurious and contrived…why bother?
The Nose: Bourbon-y but initially, also a little alcohol-y. Spiced oranges, overripe pears, orange blossom honey, caramel and a little butterscotch emerge after that initial hotness blows off. Lots of vanilla bean and vanilla syrup, with a bit of greenish rye grain coming through as well. The oak is strong, tannic and a little rough edged, with nutmeg, cinnamon, a little clove and a faint hint of fennel.
The Palate: A little numbing and hot. At first, the sweetness on the palate is less complex and a little empty seeming; brown sugar and vanilla syrup with a bit of candied orange. The rye is more assertive here, more toasted and less herbal along with toasted pecans, dried vanilla beans, and baker’s chocolate. More strong oak notes, sharp-edged and grippy, with nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, ginger, black pepper, and a little burnt corn oil..
The Finish: This finishes a little hot, too. Brown sugar and vanilla sweetness trails off quick leaving edgy oak and spice, and a little barrel char to hang around.
Thoughts: Like I said, this is ok. It’s a slightly roughish five year old bourbon with a decent nose but a palate that’s a little blown out by the heat and the edginess of the wood. In other words, it would be a good sub-$20 bottle. Unfortunately, this is a $40 bottle of sub-$20 bourbon. A $40 bottle of sourced bourbon with a strange little history and some shady marketing. Skip it.