Rebel Yell 10 Year Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review

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1973 Rebel Yell w/drum box. Photo courtesy of whiskeyid.com

*Special thanks to MH and Common Ground PR for the sample.

I have no idea how to write a review of Rebel Yell without addressing its racially charged name. The Luxco-owned line of whiskey takes its name from this high-pitched, kind of squealing, not-all-that-frightening tactic used by Confederate soldiers as they fought the Civil War in an effort to preserve their Southern way of life, which really just meant fighting for their right to buy, sell, overwork, abuse, and kill other human beings with gross impunity. Certainly it was a complex time, but the South’s secession was firmly rooted in its fervent support of the inhumane practice of slavery. The Confederate flag represents a group of people who thought slavery was a good thing worth fighting for. Likewise, the confederate “rebel yell” was a battle cry used in the Civil War by people who thought slavery was a good thing worth fighting for. While I’m sure there are a few (there’s always a few, aren’t there?) who find this criticism too politically correct and liberally codified, one needs look no further than Rebel Yell’s history to see that the brand itself knows its name is potentially divisive and offensive, and over the years, has tried to distance itself from its origins.

1973 Rebel Yell w/drum box Photo courtesy of whiskeyid.com
1973 Rebel Yell w/drum box. Photo courtesy of whiskeyid.com

According to the brand’s website, Rebel Yell was created in 1936 by a man named Charlie Farnsley who happened to be the mayor of Louisville at the time. He also happened to be the nephew of Alex Farnsley, who was Vice President and Treasurer of the rather newish Stitzel-Weller Distillery.  Mayor Farnsley reportedly wanted to make a bourbon especially for Southerners, and Uncle Alex was only too happy to supply the juice. Yes, you’re reading that correctly, Rebel Yell was initially made at the legendary Stitzel-Weller, right alongside W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, and Cabin Still. For the first half of its life, the brand was purposely only sold in the south, with its label and paraphernalia adorned accordingly. For most of its existence, Rebel Yell’s front label featured a saber-wielding Confederate horseman riding into apparently righteous battle. The whiskey is touted as being something called “Southern Sour Mash,” and no small amount of space is used up declaring it “exclusively for the Deep South.” The verbage on the back of these old labels invokes the Battle of Chickamauga, scene of the Union’s most significant defeat. Even an accompanying box for early 70’s Rebel Yell was decorated to look like a regimental drum. Clearly, this whiskey had a target audience.

Late 60's ad. Courtesy of The Coopered Tot.
Pastoral ad from the late 60’s. Courtesy of The Coopered Tot.

An interesting aspect of all this is that while the bottles glorified the Southern warrior, some of the advertising of the 60’s and 70’s attempted to glorify a bit of peaceful, pastoral Southern hospitality. The ad at right conjures up Magnolia trees and beautiful women, insisting that they, along with hospitality, “belong to the South.” Magnolia trees are found in many places around the globe, and beautiful women make up approximately half the humans on the planet, so Rebel Yell was perhaps overstating their claim here. I’m sure it was a difficult task for the ad men of the time to somehow intertwine this peaceful image with that of the still-bitter, grudge-holding Confederate horseman. Another ad from that time, 1969 to be exact, was less bucolic, and playfully antagonistic towards Northerners. Leading off an ad by telling drinkers to not serve Rebel Yell to Northerners doesn’t sound like Southern hospitality to me, and making a big, somewhat non-sensical deal out of the whiskey being “unreconstructed” (see what they did there?) again sounds a little rancorous.

Late 50's ad. Courtesy of The Coopered Tot
1969, “unreconstructed” ad. Courtesy of The Coopered Tot

In any case, this long-standing marketing approach obviously worked well for Rebel Yell. In 1972, Stitzel-Weller, including Rebel Yell and its other brands, were sold to a huge company called Norton Simon which was famous for, among other things, Canada Dry, McCalls Publishing, and Hunt Foods. In 1984, it was decided to make this exclusively Southern brand less exclusive and allow it to be sold all over the country. According to Reid Mitenbuler’s “Bourbon Empire,” the owners recognized the divisive potential of their brand name, and in an effort to appeal more broadly, toned down the Confederate horseman, and dispensed with all the mentions of the old South and the Civil War. In the mid-80’s, Norton Simon sold it all again to United Distillers (that little Scottish outfit that eventually became Diageo), who quickly decided to export the brand internationally. In some cases the labels for the overseas bottles actually bore a Confederate flag instead of a horseman. The use of the that flag would not have played well domestically, but I suppose foreign ignorance of American history allowed for a more “romantic” view of that tendentious emblem.

In 1993, United Distillers closed Stitzel-Weller Distillery and transferred Rebel Yell’s production to their new Bernheim Distillery. In 1999, the brand was sold to the David Sherman Corporation which eventually became Luxco.  During this time, that discontented Confederate horseman was joined by a less regionalistic, yet still apparently rebellious cowboy who may have liked to raise his voice at times. Currently, there’s nary a mention of the Civil War or the old South on the bottle label, or on the brand’s website. What started as Farnsley’s exclusively Southern, defiant bit of Confederate patriotism, eventually wisely chose a far less contentious path. The rebel of today’s Rebel Yell has more in common with Billy Idol than with Billy Anderson, choosing denim, motorcycles, and open-face helmets over horses, sabers, inhuman subjugation, and Confederate gray. Nonetheless, despite this evolutionary shift away from the brand’s original message, the Rebel Yell name remains, and there will always be controversial aspects to it.

Ok, enough soapboxing. Let us put those controversial aspects of the name aside and check out what’s in the bottle. Luxco has long outsourced the production of Rebel Yell to Heaven Hill. While the recipe, or at the very least, exact production methods have changed from Stitzel-Weller to Bernheim to Heaven Hill, Rebel Yell is still a wheated bourbon (meaning the rye in the mashbill has been swapped for wheat.) For much of its more recent history, the brand has been more of a bottom-shelf dweller, but lately, Luxco has strived to change that. The line has expanded from a single expression to a group of seven whiskeys; two flavored things, the approximately four year old flagship Rebel Yell, the possibly older, higher proof Small Batch Reserve, a small batch rye, the American Whiskey, which is an interesting-sounding blend of bourbon and rye, and this relatively new Rebel Yell 10 Year Old Single Barrel. In general, there’s not much wheated bourbon out there at the moment. Makers Mark and Larceny are the two most visible ones, with Van Winkle, Weller, and Old Fitzgerald holding down the overhyped, impossible to find end of things. With that in mind, it’s good to see Luxco expanding and pushing this brand into more mature, higher-end territory. The 10 Year Old was “limited” to 2000 cases for its 2016 release, with that number doubling for its release in 2017.

img_2856The Nose:  Man…that’s a nice, strong, solid, mature bourbon nose. Lots of sugared sweetness; warm caramel sauce on vanilla ice cream, brown sugar, and little maple syrup as well. Less prominent notes of cherry cola and a little pineapple tangerine juice are tucked behind. The wheat shows up as it usually does for me, as stoneground wheat crackers, crisp and grainy with a little plain popcorn as well. Strong but balanced oak and spice notes, polished wood, bourbon vanilla bean, cinnamon, a little eucalyptus, and a bit of star anise.

The Palate:  Rugged and less sweet than the nose portends. The sugars are now a little burnt with nutty toffee, black cherry, and pithy orange. More notes of toasted wheat along with some blonde vanilla brownies. The oak is even stronger here, full of mouthwatering tannins, but as with the nose, it’s balanced and integrated. Lots of spice as well; vanilla bean, hot cinnamon, clove, menthol-y mint, and black licorice, with a little burnt kettlecorn leading to the finish.

The Finish:  A bit of brown sugar and corn oil, but mostly some lingering, nicely grippy oak notes, with vanilla bean, clove, mint, and a bit of barrel char hanging around as well.

Thoughts:  This is great bourbon, and welcome one at that, there just aren’t enough older, higher proof wheated bourbons out there. The nose initially hints at more sweetness than there actually is, but it also shows off the whiskey’s impressive, balanced complexity. The oak plays a central role, but not an overly dominant one, it’s integrated nicely throughout. This is a smooth, sippable delight at strength and those sturdy oak notes hold up well over ice As good as this is, the $50 price tag seems a little high, but perhaps that just where we’re at these days. Well built, expressive and delicious – definitely recommended.

Rebel Yell 10 Year Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Barrel #4744346, +/- 2016

50% ABV

Score:  87

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Sources:

  • Feldman, Joshua. “Rebel Yell – Past and Future.” The Coopered Tot. N.p., 21 Feb. 2015. Web. Jan. 2017.
  • Feldman, Joshua. “The Tragedy of Old Cabin Still.” The Coopered Tot. N.p., 13 Apr. 2014. Web. Jan. 2017.
  • Lippman, Linda, and John Lippman. “American Whiskey: A Visit to the Ruins of Stitzel-Weller and the Louisville Distilleries.” American Whiskey. N.p., n.d. Web. Jan. 2017.
  • Minnick, Fred. Bourbon curious: a simple tasting guide for the savvy drinker. Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2015. Print.
  • Minnick, Fred. Bourbon: the rise, fall, and rebirth of an American whiskey. Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press, 2016. Print.
  • Mitenbuler, Reid. Bourbon Empire: the Past and Future of America’s Whiskey. New York: Viking, 2015. Print
  • “Rebel Yell.” Whiskey ID – Identify Vintage and Collectible Bourbon and Rye Bottles. N.p., n.d. Web. Jan. 2017.
  • Regan, Gary, and Mardee Haidin Regan. The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys. Shelburne, VT: Chapters Pub., 1995. Print.

Suntory Whisky Toki Japanese Whisky – Review

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*Sincere thanks to MS and Savona Communications for the sample.

Toki (ときis the Japanese word for time.”

Ah, if it were only that simple. It’s not. But if it were, this part of my review would be a little shorter. As I understand it, it’s far more accurate to say that toki  (pronounced toe’-key) is a Japanese word that representstime” and is used “to express the time when some states or actions exist or occur.”¹ So for example, you’d never say, “what toki is it?” but you would say…

私がスコットランドに行くとき、私はウイスキーだけを飲む.
(
Watashi ga Sukottorando ni iku toki, watashi wa uisukī dake o nomu)
Which, when plugged into Google translate, translates as: “When I go to Scotland, I only drink whisky.”

In this case, “toki” more or less refers to the “when” part of the sentence as it relates to the time I only drink whisky. I think. All this is a little linguistically over my head, so if there are any Japanese speakers who would like to correct any of this, please do so. (ed. note, please see Yuichiro’s comment on the word/idea “toki” below, they clarify and elaborate far better than I ever could.) 

Toki is also the name of the latest blended whisky released by the House of Suntory. Clever segue, huh? In a way, this new expression is sort of taking the place originally occupied in many markets by the Hibiki 12 Year Old. Upon its arrival, at least in the US, that one was a relatively affordable, high-quality Japanese blend. But as the years went by, it’s popularity soared, and demand eventually led Suntory to scale back distribution and raise prices. The non-age-statemented Hibiki Harmony followed a similar path. The Toki now seems to be filling Suntory’s need for a lower priced, entry-level Japanese blend. All that said, the Toki and the Hibiki are very different whiskies. Hibiki was known for its high malt content with whisky from the Yamazaki Distillery making up the majority of the single malt used. It also finished some of its malt in ex-Umeshu barrels, Umeshu being a traditional Japanese plum liqueur. The Toki, on the other hand, features whiskey from the Hakushu distillery as its primary malt which is different because Hakushu’s more distinct general style usually means it plays more of a supporting role in Suntory’s blends. The Hakushu malt in this one has been aged only in American oak, while the Yamazaki has been aged in both American oak and European oak.

As you might expect from a relatively lower priced blended whisky, the majority of what’s in the Toki bottle is grain whisky. However, the Japanese approach their grain whiskies differently than Scotch producers do. Both are distilled in column stills but Scottish grain whisky is predominantly distilled to a higher proof to create a cleaner, lighter spirit. In contrast, Japanese producers don’t just produce one type, they make a range of grain whisky to use in their blends. At Suntory’s Chita grain distillery, there are three different styles produced: a light, medium, and heavy. The three styles are defined by the amount of distillation each goes through, with the heavy style undergoing the least amount of distillation and having the richest flavor profile. The Suntory Toki contains just the heavy style of grain whisky produced at Chita. According to the brand’s PR, this heavy style grain is featured more prominently than in most of their blends with the Yamazaki malt balancing the two relatively differing styles of the Chita grain and Hakushu malt. The PR also touts this blend as groundbreaking and creative, while that may be the case, let’s not also forget that the Japanese whisky industry is experiencing something of a shortage of matured single malts at the moment. Perhaps turning to grain whisky in this time of need, is born as much out of financial necessity as it is out of creativity.

The Nose:  Light, fresh, and somewhat simple…at first. There’s a subtly complex sweetness of green apples, tart cherries, floral honey, and a hint of amaro-like herbal liqueur. Sweet, malty grain notes as well as a whiff of those orgeat-syrup-ed, hot milk toddies from the original Cafe Trieste in San Francisco. The oak is very light and dusty with a bit of sandalwood, vanilla, and powdered ginger.

The Palate:  Nicely balanced with much of the sweetness from the nose carrying over. The apple is joined by a bit of juicy citrus and the honey is joined by a little vanilla syrup. Just a little bit of nutty, fudge brownie and a touch of black cherry rounds out the mid-palate. The oak is more prominent here and pleasantly tannic along with vanilla bean, black pepper, allspice, fresh ginger and touch of mint.

The Finish:  Medium-ish, with that floral, slightly herbal honey and sharp apple fading first with vanilla bean, oak, black pepper, ginger and that hint of mint lingering.

Thoughts:  Pretty darn good stuff. This is a lighter whisky, with an initially straightforward seeming flavor profile. However, there’s a subtle complexity throughout that makes it very appealing. It’s balanced and consistent, and while some sharper youthful edges make an appearance, they don’t detract. The Hakushu malt does stand out, but it is tempered and smoothed out by the softer grain notes. It holds its own sipped neat, is crisp and clean over ice, and makes for a refreshing highball (see below). With a retail price of around $45, the Suntory Toki serves as a good, not-to-challenging introduction to Japanese whisky. Recommended.

Suntory Whisky Toki, OB, Japanese Blended Whisky, +/-2016

% ABV

Score:  85

***BONUS TASTING ROUND!***

Suntory Toki in the Mizuwari style

An important aspect to Japanese blended whiskies is their relationship to water and their use in highball cocktails. The mizuwari style continues to be extremely popular and most Japanese blends are constructed to shine when mixed with quite a bit of water and ice. I suppose it’s only right to have a look at Suntory’s Toki in this manner, too. Prepared according to the Neyah White/Alcademics Mizuwari…”procedure,” the Toki holds up fairly well. It does not have the strength or the complexity that the Hibiki 12 year old does in such a drink, but it does make for a light, refreshing glass. There’s a nice floral, almost herbal quality to it, with just a slight honeyed sweetness. There’s a dusty hint of sandalwood throughout and a surprising, pleasant bloom of anise towards the finish.

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References:

1. “Using Toki in Japanese (とき) – Learn Japanese Online.” Learn-Japanese-Adventure.com. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2016.

Sources:

Broom, Dave. “Japanese Grain Innovation and Scotch | Scotch Whisky.” Scotch Whisky. N.p., 2016. Web. Nov. 2016.

“Using Toki in Japanese (とき) – Learn Japanese Online.” Learn-Japanese-Adventure.com. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2016.

Whisky-Related Stocking Stuffers for 2016

old_christmas_riding_a_goat_by_robert_seymour_1836I was going to write something half-heartedly funny about starting up the war on Christmas again just because stores put up all their Christmas crap way too early. And because a certain group of people always tends to get a little hissy around this time of year if you don’t celebrate the holidays exactly like they want you to. I was going to say something clever and literate like, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” but in light of certain election-related events, that just seems a little small and snarky, especially when I actually love the Winter Solstice-related holidays. So yeah, I’ve got the usual grab bag of whisky-related gift ideas for people to mass consume, but before we get to that, I thought I’d toss out a far more important grab bag of organizations that are probably going to require a lot of help over the next four years. Please consider giving them a gift as well, they’re going to need it…

Planned Parenthood
Environmental Working Group
American Civil Liberties Union - ACLU
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - NAACP
Council on American-Islamic Relations - CAIR
Black Lives Matter
Southern Poverty Law Center
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network - RAINN
EarthJustice
Center for Reproductive Rights
Campaign Zero
Anti-Defamation League
National Organization for Women - NOW
Human Rights Campaign
The Sierra Club Foundation
National Immigration Law Center
Harvey Milk Foundation

And…if you really hate this idea or any of these organizations, then kindly keep your mouth shut until you leave this blog. And maybe don’t come back.

Now then, shop it up, you lemmings you…

As per usual, books lead the way. When it comes to gifts, books should always lead the way. One of the benefits of this boom in whisky/cocktails/etc. is the accompanying flurry of great books on the subject. This past year saw quite a few good booze books released, here are a few of the best:

(As always, yes…you can buy these both from Amazon, but wouldn’t you rather support your local booksellers? Of course you would.)

stavewallart

If, while reading your whisky books, you like to come up for air once in a while and look around the room, perhaps you need a few things to put on your walls to stay in the mood? The excellent, graphically satisfying prints from Pop Chart Lab are a perennial favorite of mine. If you’re looking for something a bit more rustic or casual, then these “word maps” of Kentucky and Scotland might fit the bill. If you’re looking for something more unique, tactile, and more spendy, then this vaguely George Morrison-esque assemblage of barrel staves from the Hungarian Workshop would look great and possibly even smell pretty good.

whiskycupsObviously, reading about whisky and other boozes is thirsty work. I suppose you could swig right from the bottle or pour some into a cupped hand, but come on, we’re not animals, buy some appropriate glassware, for crap’s sake. The ubiquitous Glencairn glass is ubiquitous for damn good reason, it’s a great all-around glass for appreciating fine spirits. I use them an awful lot and always cry a little when I break one. The Neat Glass and the Norlan Glass are both a little pricier and a little more out there, in terms of design…if you’re into that kind of thing. If you’re into a more earthenware pottery type thing, (and as I’ve spent my fair share of time behind this particular kind of wheel, I certainly am) these Scottish landscape-inspired, stoneware whisky cups from MYH Ceramics look fantastic.

the-whisky-advent-calendarOf course, you’ll need something to pour into those aforementioned vessels. UK online retailer Master of Malt gets included in my gift-giving list every year because they have some of the best whisky gifts to be given. In fact, out of sheer laziness, I’m cutting and pasting their entry from last year’s Stocking Stuffer list. Along with their now-famous whisky advent calendars, they also have advent calendars featuring gin, bourbon, cognac, armagnac, tequila, mezcal, rum, vodka, and absinthe.They have a wide array of carefully curated (and rather affordable) tasting sets as well as blend-yer-own whisky kits, and personalized bottles.One stop shopping if you want a unique twist on the gift of booze.

dashfireIf the moment requires a cocktail or three, you’ll certainly be needing bitters of some kind. Based right here in St. Paul, Dashfire Bitters has a great line of single flavor bitters as well as Brandy Old Fashioned and orange bitters that pretty much beg you to get creative with your drink mixing. On the other hand, if you’re saddled with a seemingly never-ending head cold and forced to drink hot toddies morning, noon, and night, you could liven up your cup with these smoked honey sticks or just lounge around and indulge in these smoked honey bon-bons, each infused with a bit of Laphroaig. Both are also made right here in St. Paul by Mademoiselle Miel. Truly, St. Paul, Minnesota is a wonderland.

At some point you’ll probably want to start documenting these heady whisky experiences that you’ve been experiencing. You could type it all into a computer or hen-peck it all into your phone and share it all in a very important social media kind of way, but why not pick up a pencil, or pen, or quill and write? It’s a lost art, you know? What better place to do that than in this leather-bound whisky bottle journal from In Blue Handmade. 

whiskey-socksIf you somehow weary of all this lounging around the house, reading, writing, drinking, and looking at stuff on your walls, and you find that getting out of the house has suddenly become rather important, you’ll want to dress. Let’s start with the feet. Chances are if you’ve met me at some kind of whiskey event, I may or may not have been wearing underpants, but I was probably wearing these socks. Pluses: They keep your shins warm, and for the older folks, decent compression. Cons: Don’t really go with the Lamont tartan kilt. If you need to get a bit more fancy then perhaps some pewter whisky barrel cufflinks from Paul Simmons or this rather stunning necklace made with ex-Irish whiskey barrels from Paul Coyne. 

science_v2_583I tried to find some clever t-shirt about whisky, but pretty much all of them were of the frat party-ish “one tequila, two tequila, three tequila floor” variety, and the few decent ones were a little tired (keep calm and blah, blah, blah.) So instead, here’s a shirt that’s even more meaningful…Baphomet reading a book. Keep learning science, kids. We need you.

Happy Holidays!

 

 

William Larue Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 2016 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection – Review

*Thank you very much to AP and Buffalo Trace for the samples!

btac2016_quintetbar

This wheated bourbon is perennially one of my favorites from the Antique Collection. According to the brand literature, this year’s William Larue Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon seems to have a bit in common with the 2014 edition in terms of where the barrels came from in the Buffalo Trace warehouses, but there are a couple of notable differences as well. This years version is 4 months older than the previous two…granted, that seems pretty minor, but still, four months is four months. The most important difference between this year’s and years past is the size of the bottling. The 2016 Weller was bottled from a selection of 145 barrels, which is up 40 barrels from 2015 and a whopping 106 barrels from 2014. And yet it’s still a difficult bottle to find, go figure…

btac2016_wlwThe Nose:  Even at such high proof, this is lush and approachable – Autumn dessert in a glass. Rich, sweet notes of butterscotch, caramel apples, juicy, pulpy orange slices, and cherry cola. There’s an almost vin santo-like caramel-y, raisin-y aspect to this that’s incredibly damn pleasant. Behind that there’s almond cake, and stone-ground wheat crackers. The oak is sturdy, and a little leathery and dusty, filled with vanilla, cinnamon, dried citrus peel, a little bit of clove and a hint of wintergreen. Not that it is necessary, but water integrates everything a little more, calms the sugar and oak and coaxes out more fruit and grain notes.

The Palate:  Again, very manageable despite its high ABV. The sweetness from the nose carries over; Muscovado sugar, flat cola, and more juicy, tangy-sweet orange. It has a wonderfully complex mid-palate with salted almonds, toasted bread, French butter cookies, sticky vanilla bean, and bittersweet chocolate. The wood is quite grippy and tannic, but comes on slowly, giving all the previous elements space. Polished oak, strong cinnamon, clove, vanilla, and a bit of barrel char or burnt sugar towards the end. Just a bit of water takes an already wonderful palate and makes it more languid, giving all the complexity more room.

The Finish:  Long and warming, full of oak and peppery spice with lingering hints of citrus, cinnamon candied almonds, those butter cookies, and a fading whiff of that wintergreen.

Thoughts:  Fairly spectacular. From start to finish, a fantastic bourbon. This was a little different from the last one I tried, the 2014. It relied more on the sweeter notes and the bread-y, dessert notes rather than the slightly more rugged “old library” notes of that earlier one. This is wonderfully complex and balanced throughout. Despite the high proof, this manages to take its time and progress in expertly made fashion. It’s not often that I find myself liking a bourbon’s palate as much if not more than the nose, but this is one of those times. Possibly the best Weller I’ve had yet, and my favorite of this years Antique Collection. Highly, highly recommended.

William Larue Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 2016 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection

67.7% ABV

Score:  93


As a bit of a wrap-up, I’d have to say overall, this year’s Antique Collection was a bit of a letdown…mostly because of that misguided George T. Stagg. The Handy was the Handy, solid, but a bit out of its depth. The Eagle Rare 17 was very, very nice, and the Weller was positively terrific. The wildcard for me this year was the Sazerac 18. I knew it wouldn’t live up to the Sazerac 18 of old, but I was hoping it would still be very good, and it was. It will be interesting to see how that particular expression evolves. Though I thought this year’s was a small step down from past releases, the Antique Collection remains an impressive and iconic group of whiskeys. A true whiskey privilege to have the chance to try.

Sazerac 18 Year Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, 2016 Buffalo trace Antique Collection – Review

*Thank you very much to AP and Buffalo Trace for the samples!

btac2016_quintetbar

Perhaps the most anticipated and interesting of the five Antique Collection bottles this year, the Sazerac 18 Year Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey is for the first time since 2003…a new whiskey. Starting that year through 2014, the whisky used in this expression was distilled in 1985, matured for 18 years, and then married and stored in stainless steel tanks. Up until this year’s model, each bottling of the Sazerac 18 has been more or less the same…but what an incredible sameness. I would say that earlier versions of this one consistently rank up there, perhaps top two or three, as my favorite American whiskeys. So it’s with tinge of sadness that a new era is ushered in. It will be pretty much impossible for the current Sazerac 18 to live up to that legendary vatting, and it would be silly for Buffalo Trace to try to replicate it. But expectations being what they are, there are already a few reviews out there that seem illogically upset that this new, different whiskey isn’t just the same or equally as good as the old stuff.

The number of barrels used for this new expression roughly equals the amount they used in at least the last two versions. The most interesting thing to note about the 2016 (other than its newness of course) is the amount of evaporation that happened compared to the figure they give for the previous two years. 2016’s saw a little more than 72% disappear into the ether, while 2014’s and 2015’s lost only around 58%. That seems significant, what kind of differences will result with this higher degree of concentration?

btac2016_sazerac The Nose:  A mellow, inviting nose, full of sweetness and rye. Pithy orange, caramel, vanilla syrup, maraschino cherry, and a hint of cotton candy. The rye is very fresh, clean and herbal, less baked and peppery than expected, and nicely integrated throughout. There are subtler notes of the burnt tops of banana cream pie, and orange-tinged chocolate in the background. Relaxed but solid “old library” notes of polished oak, with warm cinnamon, vanilla bean, and powdered ginger.

The Palate:  A slightly airy mouthfeel that begins with more juicy citrus, sweet cherry, and caramel. The rye is breadier here, more toasted and peppery, and very much front and center. Toasted almonds and baker’s chocolate loiter in the background. As with the nose, strong but balanced oak and spice notes, polished and shellacked boards, cinnamon, candied ginger, sweetened clove, and fine ground pepper.

The Finish:  Longish and warm with nicely tannic oak, toasty rye grain, vanilla bean baking spice, and an astringent hint of barrel char and cherry cough syrup towards the end.

Thoughts:  First off, if you were expecting the same Sazerac 18…well, why the hell would you expect the same whiskey when this one is supposed to be different? That said, it’s hard to chase the ghost of all that wonderful 1985 vintage out of one’s glass. So, with that in mind, yes, this one is different from the old one, and no, it is not as good as the old one…few whiskeys are. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can try to judge this one on its own merits. This grew on me quite a bit. There was a subtle thinness to it that initially made it seem even less than the stated 45% ABV, but as the glass went on, this held its own. The relatively sweet and fresh nose leads to a more robust, rich palate, that leads to a lingering, spicy, slightly bitter finish. It’s a pleasant progression that shows balance and complexity along the way. Does the nose pour out of the glass the way the old stuff did? No, sadly, it’s a little more gentle that way. The palate is actually very similar, perhaps lighter on the spice, but similar. Overall, this is very, very good whiskey. It’s basically a new start for the brand, if your expectations are unreasonably based on the old stuff, you may be disappointed, if not, you may find this a worthy addition to the collection. Definitely Recommended.

Sazerac 18 Year Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, 2016 Buffalo trace Antique Collection +/-2016

45% ABV

Score:  87

George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 2016 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection – Review

*Thank you very much to AP and Buffalo Trace for the samples!

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I wonder how many liquor stores dread this time of year. When all these highly allocated, even more highly sought after bottles are released, stores must get the full range of desperate assholes asking for all sorts of preferential treatment just for a bottle of booze. And then these stores must get the same desperate assholes howling like their firstborn was turned into a pot roast when they end up not getting the bottle of booze they thought they were entitled to. Yes, usually it’s very good booze, but still, it’s just booze, let’s try to have just a bit of perspective, shall we? Anyway, For those of you who are somewhat forced into selling these kinds of things, and have to endure these times, you have my sympathy. For those of you that turn a little cranky, get that glazed look in your eyes, and set your jaw funny at the prospect of the frantic, expensive, entitled hunt for what is just a bottle of whiskey…well, I don’t really care.

This year’s George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon differs from last year’s model in that 14 more barrels made up the bottling, and perhaps more importantly, less was taken by those greedy, drunk, thoughtless angels. In 2015, nearly 85% was lost to evaporation, but this year’s barrels lost “only” around 76%. It looks as if, the barrels did not come from as high up in the warehouses this year, as they did last year, perhaps that played a part…

btac2016_staggThe Nose:  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now once again, in my book, the Geo. T. Stagg almost has the archetypal bourbon nose. The 2016 is no different, though man, does that high ABV take some caution. Beneath that heat lies complex sweet notes of brown sugar, maple syrup, orgeat syrup, juicy orange, and cherry cola. There’s sticky vanilla bean, oiled oak boards, and notes of Vietnamese cinnamon, sweet peppercorns, and soft clove. Well in the background are hints of caramelized banana, thin coffee, and tobacco leaf. The addition of water balances things a bit, and brings the oak and spice to the forefront more, toning down the sweet, but also losing a bit of subtle complexity.

The Palate:  Oh, it burns. A lush mouthfeel continues the sweetness from the nose with more cola and macerated cherries, brown sugar and lots of juicy, slightly pithy orange. At strength, this too quickly becomes very, very oaky and very, very grippy. I caught a glimpse of some baker’s chocolate, almond paste, and salted peanuts, but they were soon mowed down by the alcohol and wood. The oak is refined but so drying and tannic it’s nearly overwhelming. There are some sharpish spice notes of dried clove, nutmeg, allspice, raw ginger, and black pepper that manage to come through. A bit of barrel char struggles to be heard under all that wood, and tiny hint of burnt popcorn that emerges towards the end. Not even water can slow this oaky, tannic monster of the palate. It does balances things a little more and more importantly, makes it more drinkable, but it still remains unbalanced.

The Finish:  Longish but, again, too tannic. There’s lots of oak, vanilla extract, black pepper, and barrel char, with that same hint of burnt popcorn lingering.

Thoughts:  Oh, how the mighty have fallen. This started out with such familiar promise; a complex, strong, quintessential bourbon nose full of sugars and spice. The palate however, is just far too woody and drying. There’s a quick glimpse of complexity, but it just can’t stand up to the unbalanced surge of tannins and hard-edged spice. Water helps a little bit, but not enough. It takes a lot of water to calm this down, and by that time you’ve lost a lot of the complexity. A very nice nose dragged down by a woody, hot mess of a palate. If you missed out on buying one this year, don’t feel too bad. Not recommended.

George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 2016 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection

72.05% ABV…Holy fuck. That’s about 23.2% more ABV than I like to drink.

Score:  78

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey, Buffalo Trace 2016 Antique Collection – Review

*Thank you very much to AP and Buffalo Trace for the samples!

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The youngster of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Aside from the barrels being plucked from different locations, and a couple of months of aging, the main difference between this years Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey and those of the last couple of years is the increase in the number of barrels used. Prior to 2015, the Thomas Handy used around 40-47 barrels, in 2015, 58 barrels were used, and in 2016, 62 barrels were used. Sure, not a huge jump, but it makes for (very approximately) 2900 bottles more this year compared to the 2014 release. Should be really easy to find now, right?

btac2016_handyThe Nose:  Quite tight and straight-forward seeming. Initially, there are notes of cherry juice, juicy tangerines, a little butterscotch, and a hint of fruit cocktail. The rye is barely toasted, crisp, clean, and slightly herbal, with touches of saltine crackers and corn oil in the background. Notes of vanilla syrup and blanched almonds lead to mild spice notes of sweet clove, cinnamon stick, and subtle spearmint. Adding water boosts the rye a bit and opens up the wood and spice notes a little.

The Palate:  Hot stuff. Sweeter than the nose portends with more juicy citrus, honey, maraschino cherry, and vanilla cream soda. The rye gets knocked back here a bit, it’s grainy and spicy but struggles against the sweetness and high ABV heat. Mid palate there’s salted nuts and bittersweet chocolate leading to young, roughly tannic oak, nutmeg, clove, mint, and ground pepper. Water really helps the palate. The sweetness is toned down, the rye comes forward more, and the edgy wood notes are sanded down.

The Finish:  Medium-ish and somewhat mouth-watering, with more of that rough, grippy oak. Dark brown sugars, hot cinnamon, and a fine-ground pepper.

Thoughts:  I’m just not a huge fan of the Handy. It’s usually…good, but often, in comparison to the other bottles in the Antique Collection, “good” doesn’t really cut it. This year the Handy seemed a little different. In years past, I’ve found it too youthful with a stronger, sharper rye presence. This time around, I thought there was a nice restraint to the grain, especially on the nose, but at strength, it was nearly drowned out on the palate. Adding water (and why wouldn’t you add water?) is a must. It’s too sharp-edged neat, water gives it room to breath and shows off the mashbill much more clearly. So, as with other years, perhaps even more so than other years, I enjoyed this and think it’s a quite decent whiskey, I’m just not sure it’s worth the price or the hype.

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey, Buffalo Trace 2016 Antique Collection

63.1% ABV

Score:  85