Friday, March 22, 2019

New Riff Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon

- $55
- 112.1 Proof
- 4 years
- Barrel No. 15-1960
- Kentucky

I first heard of New Riff Distillery on some whiskey/bourbon podcast a few years back. I honestly don't remember which podcast it was—I wish I could recall. I remember that they interviewed a woman from New Riff and they discussed New Riff's business plan at that time – that being to source bourbon and brand it as O.K.I. Bourbon while they await the maturation of their own distillate. Seems to be a relatively common business plan for craft bourbon startups.

Shortly after hearing that podcast, I took a trip to Kentucky and I made it a point to grab a bottle of O.K.I. off the shelf (it wasn't available in Illinois at the time). It was a 10-year bourbon and I really enjoyed it! At the time, however, I didn't know that New Riff intended to create a line in the sand, discontinuing O.K.I. altogether when their own distillate was ready for bottling and distribution.

Fast forward a couple years, and I started seeing positive review after positive review of New Riff Bourbon and Rye, their own distillate, in Facebook groups, on Twitter and nearly everywhere else I turned. Given how much I appreciated their ability to source good whiskey, I really wanted to get my hands on some of their own make. But it wasn't distributed in Illinois.

A couple weeks ago, however, in making my usual Binny's perusal, I was immediately drawn to the top shelf, where there sat the Bottled-in-Bond and the Single Barrel New Riff Bourbons—no announcements or advertising or hoopla regarding greater distribution, it just one day appeared!

As soon as I got home I cracked the top, and the very first thing I noticed was the heavy corn content, the kind you get from most young, craft whiskeys. I also got a heavy dose of ethanol, and I was immediately preparing myself for disappointment. Aside from some redeeming notes of cinnamon and orange peel, the bitterness and otherwise noxious aromas were difficult to get past.

And yet, the flavor was a far cry from those young, "crafty" flavors that I was expecting to have to choke down. This hit like a caramel-cinnamon bomb. It unquestionably tastes older than it is. The sweet caramel really takes center stage, coating the mouth front to back in rich sweetness, while at the same time providing a decent amount of cinnamon spice to balance.

There were still some signs of this bourbon's "youngness." I did get a hint of that apple flavor that I tend to get in younger bourbons, and it still had some rough edges that would certainly mellow out with more time in the barrel. However, these flaws are slight and are out-shined by an otherwise delicious bourbon.

The last few pours really sweetened up, and all that seemed to remain was that caramel-cinnamon bomb that I got on my initial impression. I never was a fan of the nose, but the flavor was absolutely delicious, and New Riff is definitely doing something right!

Grade: B+

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Cooper's Craft Kentucky Straight Bourbon

- $23
- 82.2 Proof
- Kentucky

This bottle is an interesting one to me, and one that I made it a point to seek out the last time I was in Kentucky. Cooper's Craft is a Brown-Forman release that is available only in Kentucky. That limited distribution itself was enough to make me want it, despite the mixed reviews I had seen online.

Cooper's Craft is a tribute to the coopers that make the barrels for Brown-Forman. Apparently, and I didn't know this until Cooper's Craft was initially released, Brown-Forman is the only major distillery with its own cooperage. So, to honor its coopers and the work they do and did, Brown-Forman released this whiskey, using a "proprietary toasting process" and "Beech and Birch Charcoal-filter finishing" as a nod to their craft.

This bottle was one of a handful of Kentucky-only releases that I muled back from my last trip and was one of the offerings in my "Kentucky only" whiskey tasting for my unofficial whiskey club. There it received middle-of-the-road reviews, but overall it was deemed to be inoffensive and drinkable. For $30, that's a good place to start. I then didn't revisit this whiskey for quite some time, until finally I decided I needed to go back to it for a fresh tasting.

The nose was subtle and light, forcing me to work a bit to pick up flavors. What I was able to get off of it was pretty good, however. Right away I got some spicy cinnamon and char notes (is burnt cinnamon a thing?), with a hint of sweet butterscotch. All of this seemed to be surrounded by a healthy dose of brown sugar to lend a full sweetness to the nose.

The first thing I noticed on my first sip was the watery texture. This does not immediately come across as a premium brand, but rather a mid-shelfer, readily-available-at-any-bar type bourbon. It reminded me a lot of Jim Beam white label in this respect.

Probably due at least in part to the watery texture, and not unlike White Label, there was nothing bold or complex about this bourbon's flavor. The predominant note is an unsweetened vanilla, and at times I would get a pleasant milk chocolate note.

Towards the back end I got some black pepper to spice up the finish, which I appreciated. In between, however, was this lingering flat cola note, like taking a sip out of a can of Coke that you forgot was the one you opened 6 hours earlier. Along with that flat cola note was a weird cardboard flavor that, while not offensive, wasn't necessarily enjoyable either. Aside from that, from time to time I would pick up flavors that I did enjoy, including burnt orange notes that seemed to go well with the char flavors. Those provided a nice amount of bitterness to go with the sweetness of the bourbon.

Overall, this was . . . interesting? But, I don’t consider myself a fan. While it wasn't bad, it didn't do enough for me to label it as "good" either. It was mostly just a forgettable bourbon.

Grade: C

Friday, March 8, 2019

Old Forester Kentucky Straight Rye Whisky

- $23
- 100 Proof
- Kentucky

There seems to have been quite a bit of fanfare over this particular release from Brown-Forman. While Old Forester has had its Distillery Row series providing new bourbon releases, for the first time, Old Forester has put out a rye. Not only did they release a new product, but they released it at an incredibly affordable price, which made it very easy for a lot of people to justify taking a chance on it.

The Old Forester Rye is a higher barley mashbill than most ryes (65% rye, 20% malted barley and 15% corn). This has proven to be successful with other releases, Kentucky Owl, for example. It tends to be a slightly less spice, smoother and sweeter rye than the high rye counterparts. Perhaps that was part of the draw as well. Of course, Fred Minnick's feature in Forbes dubbing this "America's Best Value Whiskey" certainly sent a lot of people to the store to see what the hype was about. I was just excited to have a new product from one of of the big boys at an incredibly affordable price--and a rye at that!

The nose was interesting, and not quite what I was expecting in a rye. Right up front I got this burnt cherry smell (a bit weird, I know), along with a healthy dose of cinnamon and a light woody note. However, I also got a lot of bright orange, like orange blossom.  It reminded me of the Epcot ride that simulates a plane flying over the orange grove and you can smell the oranges in the air. I also got a light tobacco leaf note (likely from the barley), and later I picked up notes of pine and anise. Overall, the nose was bright and rich all at the same time.

As for flavor, the predominant flavors were vanilla and mint. In that way it comes across as very mellow, with light spice, and it certainly has a cooling note to it.  At times I also got a peppery spice at the tip of my tongue as the whiskey hit my mouth.

Mid-way through I started to get orange and brown sugar notes. Those seemed to couple with a dark chocolate bitterness, and it all worked really well together. The brown sugar seemed to temper the bitterness, while the orange added a nice splash of flavor that made this rye a bit unique. It was definitely sweet, but not without its spiciness.

This rye was a bit watery in texture, but it still carried a big punch of flavor. While it didn't last long on the finish, it was nonetheless easy to dive right back in for that next sip. As I finished my bottle, I also started to get some notes of black tea, and the light spiciness from earlier seemed to carry forward a bit more, turning into a sweet cinnamon.

By the time I finished the last sip, I was thinking I needed to grab a back-up. Luckily, though, this rye is supposed to be here for a while, and I hope that's the case. This was an excellent pour at an excellent price. Although it's been hyped, at least it's also very accessible (both in supply and in price).

Grade: B+

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Benromach 30 Year Single Malt Scotch Whisky

- $450.00
- 86 Proof
- 30 Years
- Speyside

It's been a long time since I've done a Scotch review on here. For one reason or another, I've found myself focusing more on rye and bourbon--a matter of personal preference, really. But, thanks to a ridiculously generous gift, this amazing, 30 year old single malt landed in my lap!! I have never had a whisky this old before, so that in and of itself is a first. Plus, I've never (nor do I anticipate ever) spent this much on a single bottle of whiskey. The price is nuts to me, but with Scotch you certainly pay for age.

This was absolutely a special occasion pour. I only went to this bottle when friends were over--fellow whisky drinkers that I haven't seen in a while, or my good drinking buddies who just had to try this. It was also a Christmas and New Year's pour, and last night, it was my early Fat Tuesday (Fat-urday?) pour to finish off the bottle. I didn't want to see it go, but I felt the occasion justified the kill.

The nose was malty and sweet. I got a lot of bread and yeast notes along with some light milk chocolate. It had just a slight amount of baking spices to give it a little bit of kick, which was rounded out by a hint of plum or some other stone fruit, perhaps a mild cherry flavor. All of this seemed to roll over a constant sweet tobacco leaf aroma that was absolutely delicious smelling.

My first impressions of this Scotch were that it was very bready. I don't know what I expected from such a well-aged Scotch, but I thought I was going to get a lot of complexity and perhaps more wood influence. At first all I really got were those sweet bread notes. It also had a distinct tea flavor to it that I thought was interesting--something I haven't really noticed elsewhere. Perhaps this is where the wood influence came in.

After those initial pours, however, this really developed into a complex, delicate, and incredibly delicious whisky.  A nice floral note (yes, I have eaten a flower before) seemed to develop on the front end of each sip before giving way to the other flavors. I also started to get sweeter notes of honey and vanilla. Although it's entirely unrelatable to anyone reading this, it reminded me of my grandma's house, where with every meal we had homemade bread with honey-butter made with homemade honey. It's a simple yet indelible memory, and this whisky brought me back to it.'

It came across as very oily and buttery, and it really coated the mouth well, leaving those bread and honey notes to linger for a long time after each sip. The tea notes eventually faded away, but at times I got a certain earthy note, kind of like a sweeter mushroom flavor. That sounds weird, but that was as best as I could put my finger on the note. It gave it a bit of an "old" taste, and if I'm looking for flaws, I guess this would be it.

That being said, that "old" note was fleeting, and it hardly took away from the honey forward notes that I got, particularly on the last few pours. As mentioned above, this is a complex and delicate whisky, and one I never would have tried but for a very generous gift. While it may not be the best Scotch I've ever head, it certainly was incredible, and I'm sure I'll shed a brief tear as I toss this one into the recycling bin.

Grade: A

Friday, March 1, 2019

Joseph Magnus Triple Cask Finished Straight Bourbon Whiskey

- $100
- 100 Proof
- Batch No. 54
- Indiana

I can't say for sure that I ever would have gotten around to purchasing a bottle of Joseph Magnus myself. I've had pours in the past, and while I liked it then, it just didn't do enough for me to justify the hefty price tag. It just didn't move the needle enough.

However, following a great outcome at work, a happy client sent me a bottle, which I was more than happy to accept and enjoy. After all, the fact that it's MGP bourbon finished in two different sherry casks and cognac casks alone piqued my interest, and I was very excited to give this whiskey full consideration.

The nose was full of aromas, probably more than I was even able to pick out. This really had a lot going on before I even took my first sip. It had bold and rich notes of plum and almond which hit the olfactory senses like a brick. I also got some raspberry notes, which I usually get from any sherry finished whiskeys. These dark fruit and bright berry notes were delicious smelling and were layered over an underlying vanilla note that made this come across as very dessert-like.

The palate was a bit different than expected given the nose, however.  Rather than the raspberry notes that I expected, I got orange peel and dark fruits. The plum came through but also some blackberry or even dark cherry. Those fruit flavors had a bit more tartness to them than I expected.

It also had some savory notes as well. I got some dark chocolate, that worked really well with the orange peel flavors. It also had a certain nutty quality to it. At first I had pinned it as a cashew note. However, the more of this I had, the more that note seemed to turn into an almond flavor, and it really took over the flavor profile. It was almost as though someone had taken a bit of amaretto liqueur and added it directly to my bottle. It was that strong of a note, and, unfortunately, it pushed the other good chocolate, vanilla and dark fruit notes to the background.

Throughout this bottle, with each pour, I got a slight but off-putting flavor that seemed to not belong in this whiskey (or any other whiskey for that matter). It took me some time at first to figure out what I was tasting, because it wasn't strong. As soon as I placed it as a burnt rubber note, however, I found that I just couldn't get past it. I don't want to say that it ruined it for me, but I certainly feel that I would have enjoyed this whiskey much more had I been able to get past that. It was a really bad note, even if it were subtle.

And that was really the only thing subtle about this whiskey. This is a bold, in-your-face-with-flavor whiskey, which I'm guessing is what they were aiming for. However, certain notes, like the strong amaretto flavor, were just too strong, and I think in the end it had too much going on. I'm guessing this is probably what resulted in what I was tasting as an off-note. For the price, it just didn't live up.

Grade: B-

Friday, February 22, 2019

Old Fitzgerald 9 Year Bottled in Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon

- $90
- 100 Proof
- 9 Years
- Kentucky

This was one of those pure-dumb-luck pick-ups for me. I've had the regular Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, and while it was a good pour, it just didn't strike me as something to chase down in the event there's ever a premium offering. However, being the opportunist that I am, I wasn't about to let one get away when I found it in the wild, and at retail, this despite it sitting next to an 11-year version at a significant markup.

While I typically don't comment on packaging or labels, in this case I will, because this is one beautiful bottle. Replace the cork stopper with a glass stopper and this would make an excellent, permanent decanter. As I'm writing this I'm trying to figure out something to do with it to keep from throwing it away. Perhaps now is the time to start an infinity bottle!

 The nose was soft, but very sweet. It was heavy on the caramel and brown sugar, but it also had a certain level of char to it as well. All in all it came across as a delicious creme brulee! It also had some light pepper balanced by a bit of sweet vanilla.  Although it may sound like a balanced and delicious dessert, it did have some rough edges on the aroma, just something sharp to it, perhaps from that pepper spice.

On the first couple pours, I really liked this bourbon. I found it to be soft and subtle, but what flavors were there were very enjoyable. I got an initial dose of caramel and vanilla, with even a bit of chocolate flavor to go with. There was a mild cinnamon undertone that I found to be enjoyable as well, even if I wished it were more prominent.

However, I found myself liking this one less and less as I worked my way through the bottle. It seemed to take on a certain dryness that wasn't there initially, creating a tannic, bitter note on the back of my tongue. I also found that I got a lot more corn up front the more of it that I had. This made it hot without being spicy. 

It did develop a nice amaretto flavor that I really enjoyed, only I wish there were more of it. That flavor seemed to disappear pretty quickly, turning into more of a cardboard note. And yet, it still remained sweet, which just didn't jive.

I really wanted to like this one, and at first I thought I was going to. It drank like an easy sipper with good, albeit subtle notes of caramel and vanilla. However, I eventually started to notice flavors that just either weren't as enjoyable or did not seem to work with the other flavors. I heard good things about these releases, and the 9-year in particular, but this one just didn't do it for me. It was good, but certainly did not live up to expectations.

Grade: B-

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Old Ezra 7 Year Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon

- $35
- 117 Proof
- 7 Years
- Kentucky

Old Ezra has been on the shelves for quite a long time now, without very much fanfare at all. At most, all I had heard was that their 7 year, 101 proof bourbon is a "solid pour," something I've heard said about many otherwise sub-par bourbons. So, I've never given it a whole lot of thought. However, seemingly out of nowhere, Luxco released a barrel strength bourbon, and suddenly there was this Old Ezra product out there that became a must-have.

In this case, I'm sure price had played a significant role. After all, how many other barrel proof bourbons at this age (or younger for that matter) can you find on the shelves for $35-40?  With that price and with reviewers consistently giving it high marks, I had to track it down. Best of all, that didn't prove to be a very difficult task, merely involving walking into my local store and asking for it.

The nose came across as a mix of vanilla, cloves and cinnamon. It had that spicy baking aroma that reminds me of Christmas time. Complementing the vanilla and cinnamon was this unsweetened apple note that really put the exclamation point on it.  It smelled rich and sweet, but also had that balance of oak to temper that sweetness. Most noticeably, however, was how pungent was. These aromas weren't merely "there," but are strong and up front. The alcohol was strong as well, giving a nice burn, but that seemed to fade away pretty quickly.

Right up front I was hit with a heavy dose of cinnamon which sat on the tip of my tongue. Slowly, however, other notes seemed to overcome that cinnamon note. I got a nice, sweet maple syrup note, along with a bright cherry. Those flavors blended into a delicious combination. This bourbon had a nice, oily texture to it, that allowed the flavors to stick around for quite a while and kind of meld together.

On the back end, I got a lot of brown sugar and sweet cinnamon, like red hots candies. That was balanced, however, by a mild vanilla bean flavor. I also still got that cherry note, although on the back end it reminded me more of cooked cherries. That cooked cherry note lingered for a long time on the finish, which is quite frankly what I think made me decide that I love this bourbon.

The only minor quibble was on the finish, though, where I got a slight tannic bitterness that, along with the heat from the high proof, seemed to distract from all the other good flavors that were going on.

I recently had a discussion with a good friend of mine about my reviews, and he was of hte mind that reviews should be done in a vacuum, with no consideration of price. While I understand his viewpoint, this is one of those bottles that reminds me why I take price into consideration when I'm giving my grade. Because, if this were a $55 bottle, like Booker's or Stagg Jr., it would probably be right on par, perhaps even receiving a slightly lower grade. But at the $35-40 range, this is an incredible bourbon for the price, one worth stocking up on.

Grade: B+/A-