Monday, October 27, 2014

FEW Spirits Rye Whiskey

This distillery opened up not too long ago relatively close to my neck of the woods (that being the Chicago area generally—it's still over an hour away). However, when I happened to have an early afternoon meeting for work in Evanston only a couple blocks away, I had to visit the distillery.

At first I thought I might have had the address wrong. All I saw were store fronts, with no indication of a distillery nearby. However, after getting out of my car and wandering around in the rain for a bit, I finally found the place tucked back at the end of an alley. From the outside, it looked like nothing more than an old garage that is now only used for storage.

However, I stepped inside to a nice welcoming area of the distillery and the heavy scent of corn mash (a smell I grew familiar with when I was young and growing up near Pekin, Illinois). I perused the selection of spirits offered by FEW distillery, including a white whiskey, a standard whiskey and multiple gins.

I was there for the whiskey, though, and, quite frankly, I already knew that the bottle I'd be bringing home was the rye. That being said, I couldn't leave without first tasting a couple nips of the whiskey and the bourbon, both fine offerings, though both tasting their age (approximately 2 years).

The owner was nice enough to dismantle a gift set in order to sell me the last bottle of the rye they had in stock, and I went on my merry way. I hope to get back sometime soon for a tour when I might have more time.

On to the whiskey. FEW Rye offers everything you'd expect from a well-established rye. Despite being only 2 years old, it still offers that strong contract of spicy and sweet. The corn is very noticeable, but the rye is by no means overpowered, providing a strong taste of rye bread.

Additionally, notes of vanilla and honey hit the tongue, followed shortly by plum and berry flavors, with a hint of orange at the end. The flavors all converge for one tasty whiskey that I found myself going right back to over and over.

This rye absolutely does not betray its age, providing as robust and complex a flavor as its older counterparts—an excellent rye!

Grade: B+

Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel Bottled in Bond Straight Kentucky Bourbon

I found this whiskey to be a very drinkable, every day type of bourbon. To me it serves very much of what one should expect from your typical, relatively inexpensive bourbon.

The body is a bit heavier than most, however. It has a slightly syrupy feel to it. However, it also has a flavor profile to match, rather than just hitting you with sugary sweetness like some other syrupy whiskies.

The flavor is smoky, and has a mild peppery spice to go along with, almost like smoked meats without the meat flavor, if that makes sense. It also has a light woodiness, and it is all well-complemented by the sweet corn flavor.

The one noticeable feature of this whiskey was a lingering mint flavor, which I did not notice until after I swallowed. It was a spearmint flavor that lingered in the back of my throat. It wasn't overpowering such that I didn't enjoy it, nor did it make me fall in love. It was just something that I noticed, something which may turn people on or off this whiskey.

All in all, this is a bottle I would definitely buy again, and one that I would recommend to anyone who may not be all that familiar with bourbons.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Westward Small Batch Oregon Straight Whiskey

- $50
- 90 Proof

I was lucky enough to receive a bottle of this from my parents for Father's Day. They live just outside Portland and made a trip to House Spirits Distillery just to grab a bottle for me and bring it with when they visited.

The first thing that must be fronted about this whiskey is the cost. A 375 ml bottle of this whiskey will set you back a cool $50. A very steep price for such a young whiskey. I realize that craft distillers such as House Spirits need to earn back their investment as soon as possible and can't wait for their whiskey to age, but this price is nonetheless prohibitive.

That being said, I was still happy to get a chance to try this whiskey that is otherwise unavailable on the shelves by me, particularly when it was gifted to me.

On the first sip, the whiskey tasted its age. It wasn't complex, and nothing particularly stood out, other than the prominent taste of wood.

However, I let the bottle sit for a couple weeks and revisited it, and I could not have been more impressed. What was otherwise a boring whiskey transformed into something excellent. Suddenly the whiskey burst with flavors of toasted almonds and honey. The barley and bread flavors were much more prominent, muting the previously strong wood flavor. It also took on a grassy, almost hoppy flavor.  

This is a single malt whiskey that bears more resemblance to Scotch than to bourbon. While at first I was disappointed, I found that by the end of the bottle this was a very enjoyable whiskey, tasting much more complex than it should at its age. Even though the cost may be a bit prohibitive, it left me wanting more.

Grade: B

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Old Pulteney 21 Year Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Considering this whisky just recently was rated the best whisky in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, it’s no wonder that my wife, not knowing one bottle from the next, saw this honor and figured she couldn’t go wrong in buying a bottle for me. Not only did she not go wrong, she went very, very right!!

I’m not going to bury the lead in this instance. This is one of the best whiskies I’ve ever had, definitely in my top two, and perhaps my number one (I’d have a hard time choosing between this or the Glenlivet Archive 21 Year – a review for a later day).

With my first sip, I knew I had something special. This whisky presented with robust vanilla, brown sugar, apple (raw, not cooked) and caramel flavors. Sounds like a classic American dessert, I know. I could easily make this whisky my go-to dessert for any special occasion.

It is smooth from the start to the finish, coating the mouth only as much as is necessary to deliver the sweet flavors and not leave any stickiness or lingering sugar behind.

As much as I wanted to save this bottle, finding its juice to be too good for just every day enjoyment, I couldn’t help but keep on pouring a drink here and there. It was just that good!! An absolutely outstanding whiskey.

Grade: A+

Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

- $32
- 100 Proof

As my first foray into the Four Roses brand, I went with the Four Roses Single Barrel. This is a higher proof bourbon, coming in at 100 proof. The nose certainly indicates as such, hitting the nostrils with a heavy burn.

However, on the tongue, while that burn is there, it’s not as overbearing as I expected it to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a “sipping” bourbon through and through. But, it is full-bodied and full-flavored, making any lingering alcohol burn hardly noticeable.

The palate is sweet, with strong chocolate, vanilla and toffee and flavors coming through. I also noticed a bit of cinnamon, backed by a present but not strong wood flavor.

The finish is a nice blend of citrus and spice. The spice and wood tones, lingered long after, as did a hint of the chocolate flavor providing just enough sweetness to leave me desiring that next sip as soon as I could get it.

The body (and I don’t talk much about the body) was exactly what I look for in a whiskey. Somewhere right in the middle of watery and syrupy. It’s full-bodied without feeling sticky.

This whiskey taught me two things: (1) I need to try other Four Roses offerings, including some of the private select bottlings, and (2) absolutely great whiskey can be had without breaking the bank. Because I can find it nearly anywhere and at a nice price, this is now my go-to bottle.

Grade: B+

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Elijah Craig 12 Year Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon

- $24
- 94 Proof

As noted previously, I’m relatively new to bourbon. So, I’ve been making it a point to try a number of the “staples,” or the readily available, inexpensive bottles. One thing I’ve found with bourbon is you don’t need to go too deep into your wallet to find quality whiskey.

The Elijah Craig 12 year was promising. It’s a well-aged whiskey from a reputable distillery. I figured I could not go wrong. However, this bottle left those promises unfulfilled (and perhaps my expectations were too high).

It did not provide any stand-out flavors, with everything kind of blending together in one, average bourbon. The only thing that really set it apart from any other bourbon was its spiciness, but even that wasn’t strong enough to really give it character.

The oak flavor does stand out, giving the whiskey a woody and earthy flavor. Unfortunately, it seemed to mask the sweetness of the bourbon. At 94 proof, although it’s not a high alcohol content, the burn still came through and lingered longer than I expected it to.

I deliberately held off on drinking this for about a week after opening, hoping that the oxygen might tame the burn and enhance some of the flavors that were just too subtle for me to notice in my first pour. Unfortunately, this was an instance where the bourbon remained consistent from the first pour to the last.

Grade: C+

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Bernheim Original Small Batch Wheat Whiskey

I’ve never had a wheat whiskey before. I had tried the Four Kings collaborative whiskey, one-eighth of which was Corsair Distillery’s whiskey distilled from smoked wheat.

As someone who seems to find hints of vanilla and/or cinnamon in nearly every whiskey I drink, I noticed neither of these here. The flavor of the grain stands out in this whiskey. Usually, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I like the spicy/sweet of rye, the sweetness of corn and the buttery notes that usually come with barley. Wheat, however, just reminds me of bread, and not the robust flavor of rye bread or yummy banana nut bread. Just plain wheat bread.

If a whiskey isn’t aiming for sweet, I’m okay with that. However, it needs to be bold in the flavors that it is aiming for. If a whiskey is intended to have a woody flavor, I can get on board with that. But I’m not sure what the Bernheim Wheat is going for, other than the flavor of the wheat (perhaps playing that “unique” angle), but the wheat grain just isn’t strong enough to carry the flavor all on its own.

I noticed some saltiness and roasted nuts flavors. As the whiskey lingered, wood flavor came through, particularly at the very end.

As someone who started from Scotch and then began learning about and trying bourbons, I hoped this might give me a nice option for something in between the two. Unfortunately, whether it’s Scotch, Bourbon or otherwise, I like my whiskey’s to be strong and bold in flavor, not subtle. The Bernheim Wheat just comes across as soft. It’ s tasty and inoffensive, but not overly impressive.

Grade: C+

Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

As a relatively new bourbon drinker, I felt that this was a must-try whiskey. While not necessarily hailed as an elite whiskey, still considered by many to be one of the best readily available bourbons out there. So, I grabbed a bottle and gave it a go.

One of the most vocal of the “many” was my brother-in-law, and almost immediately after my first sip, I sent him a text declaring this to be whiskey candy! I don’t mean that it’s super sweet to the point that it’s difficult to drink one glass at a time. I just mean that this is a sweeter bourbon, but with all the earthy, savory aspects of a good bourbon. It all comes together in a blend that really appealed to me.

Perhaps it’s the fact that this bourbon is finished in port barrels. This certainly added the sweet flavors of dark fruits like plum, along with that decadent but subtle wine flavor, which is a nice complement to the cinnamon and vanilla flavors inherent in the whiskey itself. In fact, it’s as though the port finish perfectly balanced the vanilla flavor, so as not to be too strong and overpowering or too sweet.

This whiskey is not too thin and not too syrupy. It does not sit heavy, though its flavor does linger, leaving one to enjoy the last sip yet hanker for the next.

From beginning to end, this bottle delivered consistency, richness and full-bodied flavor. This is the kind of bourbon I would want to have on hand at all times, a sure-fire quality bourbon that does not require any hunting.

Grade: A-

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Basil Hayden's Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

This is part of the Jim Beam family of small batch bourbons.  My wife was wonderful enough to stop by the store on her way home from work one night and grabbed a bottle (based in large part on the look of the bottle and the approval of the clerk). 

Going in, I wasn't at all sure what to expect.  I was unfamiliar with this bottling, and had really not heard anything about it.  So, only way to find out was to pour myself a glass as quickly as I could.

My initial impressions admittedly weren't great.  I felt a burn on the tip of my tongue that I immediately, and incorrectly, attributed to alcohol burn.  However, after giving it a bit more time, I realized that this was simply one of the spicier whiskeys that I had.  It was a very prevalent peppery spice that was providing that bit of bite on my tongue. While this bourbon has a higher rye content than most, the spiciness wasn't of the kind normally attributed to a high-rye bourbon, though the rye flavor is certainly noticeable. 

Once I got past the unexpectedness of it (kind of like when you grab a drink without looking expecting it to be a Coke and it's a 7-up), I quickly realized how much I really like this bourbon.  There is a bit of sweetness, the citrus kind of sweetness as opposed to a brown sugar or vanilla sweetness, to provide balance.  While a subtle orange flavor attempts to push its way through, it is overwhelmingly a spicey whiskey, and it's not ashamed of who it is. 

Aside from the pepper, most noticeable is that it is light in weight.  It does not sit heavy in the mouth, is not syrupy, and is very drinkable.  Behind the spice and sweetness is an earthiness that the Scotch-lover in me found enjoyable, but only if I'm in the mood for a peppery spiced drink, which, quite frankly, is not that often. 

Grade: C+

Cyrus Noble Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey

This Bourbon (not a Kentucky Bourbon as it was distilled in Kentucky but aged in San Francisco) was also recommended to me by the walking bourbon encyclopedia that recommended a bottle of Eagle Rare 10 yr.

Cyrus Noble comes in at 90 proof, though your tongue would never betray it. It is a smooth whiskey, from start to finish with minimal burn, and it offers a brown-sugary sweetness that lingers from the nose to the finish. It's not an overpowering sweet, though, and the cinnamon and nut flavors still come through right at the start and stick with each sip through to the finish.  It also had a subtle spiciness that you almost don't notice upon the first sip, and only really know it's there in the finish.

All in all, I found myself making my way through this bottle relatively quickly. While I did not find myself yearning for the next glass as soon as the first was finished, I certainly found myself eagerly awaiting that time when the kids were in bed and I could sit back on my couch and enjoy a glass.

Overall I was very pleased with Mr. Noble and his bourbon. It did not knock my socks off, but it is a completely inoffensive and tasty bourbon.  I'm sure he and I will meet again one day.

Grade: B-

Friday, October 3, 2014

Dalwhinnie 15 Year Single Malt Scotch

Dalwhinnie 15 year single malt Scotch

I had never had anything from the Dalwhinnie distillery before. Quite frankly, I picked up this bottle somewhat on a whim. I found it at my local liquor store, and it offered good age for the price, so I decided to give it a shot. I have to say, I'm very glad I did.

I'm not one for belaboring the nose or the palate of a whisky. I like what I like. But, I will say, I love the way this whisky hits your nose! It had a very sweet aroma to it, one that makes my mouth water from five feet away. It is on the sweeter side of Scotch whiskies (though not as sweet as its aroma would have one believe), with a blend of vanilla and citrus, a relatively odd mix that I find sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.  Here it does.  It also has a certain amount of smokiness to provide some nice balance and prevent it from being overly sweet.

This whisky was very smooth and drinkable, with minimal burn. For that reason it made for the perfect every-occasion whisky. It also may make the ideal gift for any whisky fan. While it may not wow someone, it's a safe bet that it won't offend.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Four Kings 2014 Craft Bourbon Whiskey Collaboration

Earlier this Summer, in conjunction with Whiskey Fest in Chicago, four local craft distilleries got together (with some coordinating from Binny’s) to create Four Kings. Corsair Distillery, FEW Spirits, Journeyman Distillery and Mississippi River Distilling Company each contributed 30 gallons of their whiskey to create this blend.

Each of the companies contributed their bourbon to the mix, but Corsair only contributed 15 gallons of their bourbon, also contributing 15 gallons of their smoked wheat whiskey.

With only a limited supply that would primarily be available in the Chicago area only, I had to get my hands on a bottle. I was also very intrigued by the inclusion of the smoked wheat whiskey and what kind of flavor that might add.

A couple days after the release, my having not gotten off my butt to go out and grab a bottle, I began seeing tweets from the distilleries about this stuff selling out rapidly, so I called my local Binny’s and reserved the last bottle they had on their shelves.

Upon cracking the bottle, I didn’t notice anything too striking on the nose. In fact, it didn’t have the typical sweet, corn aroma that comes with bourbons. Perhaps that should have been my first sign that I might be disappointed.

Maybe I was expecting too much, but this whiskey, despite having received tons of hype and great reviews, did not immediately impress, lacking the boldness of flavor that comes with older whiskeys (this one had an age statement of “less than 4 years”). The smokiness of the wheat did not come through as much as I would have liked, leaving a primarily nutty flavor, with only slight hints of oak and vanilla.

I will say, however, that after opening the bottle and letting it sit, the flavors changed dramatically, turning this whiskey into something that I am now sad I no longer have. It was still a young whiskey, so it still lacked some of the depth you’d expect from an older whiskey. However, it sweetened significantly, with bolder vanilla flavors and even hints of butterscotch, underscored by a more prevalent oakiness.  A couple weeks after opening it, and it was as though the whiskey had undergone a sort of metamorphosis from something blah to something great! 

This is one of those specialty bottlings where, once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. Had I had the chance, I may have purchased more (or more accurately, had I not been so slow to get off my butt). It was a bit pricey at $50, particularly for only being 80 proof, but I nonetheless enjoyed trying something different, even if there are better bottles to be had for that price.

Grade: B