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BLANTON’S BOURBON REVIEW (ACQUISTAPACE’S BARREL 39)


Earlier this year I was thrilled to have been asked to help with some barrel selections for Aquistapace’s Covington Supermarket.  Adam Acquistapace and I tasted our way through some barrel samples for private bottlings of Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare and Blanton’s.  In the case of Blanton’s, we ended up choosing two barrels.  The first barrel was delivered a couple of months ago and flew off the shelves before I had a chance to review it.

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Is it Possible to Drink and Still be Healthy?

Oftentimes, when I’m at a Nerd Fitness meetup, a rebel will ask me, “Do you mind if I have a beer?”

I usually laugh and say, “Nope! Will you get me one too?”

Yeah, I run a fitness website, but as you’ve hopefully been able to tell up to this point, it’s not normal.  I write about Optimus Prime, Office Space, and the Legend of Zelda.  I generally do my workouts on a playground and run around the world for fun.

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Whiskey Can’t Hide Its Age Either

Anxious distillers are trying to make bourbon old before its time.

Eichelberger_BR

In case you haven’t heard, doomsday is coming—more droughts, floods, famine, class warfare, entitled children, and, brace yourself: a bourbon shortage! Yes, traditional Kentucky distillers didn’t predict or prepare for this Mad Men-inspired mixology epoch. And if it continues on this trajectory, thousands of years from now geologists and archaeologists will be able to identify the bourbon-free era in the absence of fancy rectangular bottles in the remains of fallen civilizations.

That is, unless scientists can build a whiskey time machine, a way to gracefully cheat the slow aging process that offers bourbon its rich oaky tones and sweet and smooth finish.

The popularity of bourbon in the past decade has been a major high and hangover for American distillers. (The name “bourbon” is reserved for barrel-aged whiskeys made primarily of corn in the United States.) In 2002, the U.S. sold 13 million cases of bourbon; in 2014, 19 million cases, generating $2.7 billion in revenue. But the popularity and the time bourbon takes to mature, paired with a shortage of new American oak barrels that traditional whiskeys are aged in, means there simply isn’t enough of the good stuff to go around. Evidence of a shortage is generally delivered in anecdotes, but in an independent opinion survey taken this year by Fred Minnick, booze blogger and author of Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey, 82 percent of 149 high-end bourbon drinkers said they have been unable to find bourbons they once found.

Scientifically savvy distillers have already squeezed the slow aging process into months and weeks.

It is the finest bourbons, those that are produced in limited supply and aged for 12, 18, or more years that have been the hardest to find in the past several years. Drinkers with deep pockets have bought up much of the limited release bourbons from well-established companies—Van Winkle, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Four Roses Limited Editions—explains Lew Bryson, the managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine. “Having cleared them off the market, they’ve now started in on lesser-known bourbons, almost in a panic-buying mode, buying multiple bottles of whiskeys they feel sure will simply disappear.”

It’s a frightening prospect.

Enter entrepreneurs with start-up spirits and a potential solution. Through a variety of unconventional aging methods, drawing on chemistry, they have already squeezed a two- to more-than-20-year process into days, weeks, and months, much to the chagrin of whiskey connoisseurs, who will tell you the secret to a refined bourbon is time. While some companies have taken age labels off their bottles to get products to market sooner (bye-bye 12-year-old premium bourbon; hello ambiguously aged premium bourbon), new distilleries are experimenting with smaller barrels and rapid oxidation.

The magic that turns harsh ethanol, the product of distillation, into a sophisticated sip of smooth bourbon with undertones of vanilla and caramel happens when young alcohol meets oak barrel. Whiskey aging traditionally starts when an oak barrel is charred, breaking down the lignin in the wood into organic compounds called aldehydes, explains Scott Spolverino, an industry consultant with a degree in brewing and distilling science from Heriot-Watt University, in Scotland. “These are the main building blocks of maturation.” When you add alcohol to the barrel, oxidation transforms the aldehydes into acids—syringic acid (from syringaldehyde), ferulic acid (from coniferaldehyde), and vanillic acid (from vanillin). During the aging process, changes in heat and pressure push and pull the alcohol in and out of the wood. There is a constant back-and-forth between aldehyde and acid, until the acids accumulate en masse and turn permanently into esters, adding complex character and deep flavors.

“Time in the barrel is like sandpaper, smoothing out the rough edges,” says Liza Weisstuch, who writes regularly for Whisky Magazine and the Whisky Advocate.

But a host of new distillers don’t want to wait years to start cashing in on their hefty investments. One entrepreneur trying to cheat Father Time is Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, New York, makers of Hudson Baby Bourbon and Hudson Four Grain Bourbon. When it opened in 2003, Tuthilltown started experimenting with accelerating the maturation of single malt, rye, and bourbon whiskeys by letting the alcohol settle in 2- to 5-gallon oak barrels, instead of the industry-standard 53- to 55-gallon oak casks, increasing the alcohol-to-barrel-surface ratio.

“The small barrels sped up aging significantly; we could get to market in months, instead of years,” says Tuthilltown co-owner Ralph Erenzo, a rock climber who originally wanted Tuthilltown to be a climbers’ ranch. Erenzo and his crew were able to get their whiskey to market in about four months, and they discovered they liked the more pronounced vanilla flavor they were getting by using small barrels. Ten years out, and with the luxury of time, they have grown into bigger barrels—using, for the most part, a mix of 10-, 26-, and 53-gallon casks. But they still have a reserve of 3- to 5-gallon whiskey that they blend with bigger batches so they can “get that character profile that people liked all along,” Erenzo says. In 2010 Tuthilltown sold its Hudson line to William Grant & Sons Distillers, makers of Glenfiddich single malt Scotch whiskies and Hendrick’s Gin.

Spirits aged for short amounts have an edgy taste often described as “hot,” “raw” or “aggressive.”

At Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia, makers of Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky and Copper Fox Rye Whisky, head distiller and owner Rick Wasmund adds toasted oak chips to his 53-gallon barrels, agitating them to increase the alcohol-to-surface ratio and exposing them to heat and cold. You can try your hand at similar bourbon aging methods at home with something called Time & Oak—an oak stick with comb-like grooves that activates “accelerated transpiration through capillary action”—the same theory behind smaller barrels and oak chips.

Terressentia, near Charleston, South Carolina, which specializes in bulk bourbon (sold in 6,000-gallon tankers), uses increased oxidation to mimic aging and take impurities out of young whiskeys, explains Terressentia CEO Earl Hewlette. Terressentia starts with undrinkable 4- to 6-month-old whiskey because they want their whiskey to be brown—something you can’t get without time in an oak barrel. They filter it in plastic tanks with a technology that expedites the aldehyde and acid dance, creating drinkable esters—chemical compounds—in just eight hours. According to Hewlette, the process has the added benefit of turning some of the fatty acids from the original fermented grains into glycerides, which act as a smoothing agent, taking the bite out of the final product. “When the bourbon shortage came along, it gave us a whole new market,” says Hewlette, noting that the same bigger companies who used to sell in bulk have been hoarding their own limited supplies.

Tom Lix, owner of the Cleveland Whiskey Company, uses steel tanks with wood segments under pressure. “One of the reasons behind working on the technology we use and starting this business was an anticipation of this shortage well in advance of when other people started talking about it,” he says. Lix also boasts that his Cleveland Black Reserve 100-proof spirit, the company’s bourbon, holds its own in taste tests against established brand Knob Creek.

Bourbon made in less than a year may be financially savvy, but most bourbon experts say it falls short on taste. “I don’t think new methods are producing whiskey that is comparable,” Bryson says. “Some accelerated whiskeys don’t feel right. They feel too thin; they don’t have the proper ‘roundness.’ ”

Spolverino explains: “When you’re aging a spirit for a short amount of time, the aldehydes and acids don’t have time to come together.” Meaning those raw flavors in fast-tracked whiskeys often come from an overabundance of aldehydes. “Adding more wood to the situation just adds more of those beginning aldehydes, it doesn’t actually speed up the process,” he says. Spirits aged for shorter amounts of time (four months instead of the two years minimum for federally approved straight bourbon, for example), have an edgy taste, often described as “hot,” “raw,” or “aggressive,” with a “shorter finish.” Spolverino has done research into an ultrasonic-energy treatment. “It could physically push the spirit deeper into the barrel staves to draw out more aldehydes and provide catalytic energy for reactions,” he says. “But I’m not entirely sure it could speed up the esterification process.”

Many of the big distillers stepped up production of high-end whiskey five years ago, when word of a shortage started to spread. And there has always been a plentiful supply of non-premium brands: Jim Beam White, Evan Williams Black, Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, 1792, explains Bryson. Most of the big companies dismiss accelerated aging. Mark Brown, CEO of Buffalo Trace, one of Kentucky’s larger bourbon distilling operations, says the company has spent $10 million on research and development on how to make quality whiskey, not on how to cheat time.

“The work done by others over the past 50 years aimed at expediting the aging process does not appear to have resulted in the production of a superior whiskey, quite the opposite,” says the company’s Master Distiller, Harlen Wheatley. “We’re glad people are exploring these [new] techniques,” says Brown. “But generally it only reinforces the need for time in the barrel.”

Tasha Eichenseher is a hot-toddy-sipping, freelance science and environment writer (and a senior editor at Yoga Journal) in Boulder, Colorado.

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THE WHISKY EXCHANGE WHISKY SHOW 2016 – BOWMORE: FROM ONE MASTER TO ANOTHER

If you made a list of the all the Scotch whiskies to try before you die, it’s a fair bet that Black Bowmore would be on it. And for those in The Whisky Show’s 2016 Bowmore masterclass, not only did they tick that particular whisky off their list, they also got to try it in the presence of Eddie MacAffer (master distiller) and David Turner (distillery manager), who have a staggering 75 years’ experience of Bowmore between them.
Eddie MacAffer David Turner

Edide MacAffer (left) and David Turner of Bowmore

Eddie has just retired, and has passed the baton to David, so this could have been the final time the duo sat down to talk about the whiskies they have made together. ‘This will go down as a legendary tasting,’ began our host, whisky writer Dave Broom. He wasn’t wrong.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS – EDDIE MACAFFER AND DAVID TURNER

Eddie: ‘They used to give us a bottle of Bowmore Deluxe a month, rather than a few drams a day. But they must have decided it was too good, because they started giving us bottles of Rob Roy instead

David: ‘When Bowmore gets to 17 or 18 years sold, the smoke tends to die out, and you get a lot more stewed fruit’

E: ‘Our No.1 vaults are right by the sea, almost below sea level. The whiskies are at peace in there – there’ll be ghosts in there, drinking drams’

D: ‘Dave Broom did an apprenticeship with us for two nights; he didn’t turn up on the second one!

E: ‘The 1980s were difficult [for Bowmore] because it was push, push, push, and that affected the quality. Our fermentation was short – about 44 hours – the still was running hot and we were getting all those unwanted flavours in there. You could tell from the smell in the distillery’

E: ‘In the 1960s, there’d be a queue about 100 yards long to try the new-make; in the late 1980s, you’d be lucky to have two or three people waiting!’

D: ‘Suntory had a big impact; from 1989, they invested heavily in good wood’

E: ‘You can hear the roar of the ocean when you taste Sea Dragon. It has a lovely flowery fruitiness’

E: ‘The water [source] doesn’t have any effect on the end product

D: ‘Our reputation was really made with [the 1964] bottling of Black Bowmore. It was one of those whiskies that changed people’s mindsets about what single malts could become

Black Bowmore

Black Bowmore 1964 30 Year Old (2nd edition)
Big sherried nose upfront, with raisins, mocha, stewed fruit and Christmas-cake spices. Even richer on the palate – Maya Gold chocolate, tobacco, cardamom, nutmeg and clove. Stunning.

FAVOURITE WHISKY

Bowmore Deluxe

The final two whiskies were sensational and lived up to the hype – not something you can always say when trying something with such a big reputation. But I’m going for the NAS Deluxe bottling from the 1970s, which summed up Bowmore for me: tropical fruit with an undercurrent of smoke.

Having not tried many of these whiskies before, I understand know why Bowmore fans are so passionate about this distillery. The no-holds-barred fruitiness of the whiskies was amazing, as was the way the peat played its part but never took over. Thanks to Eddie and David for a wonderful masterclass.

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WHISKEY REVIEW: 2016 BUFFALO TRACE ANTIQUE COLLECTION

Here’s what to expect from this year’s coveted batch of matured bourbon and rye

btac-2016-1Judging by the late summer signage, most of the American population seems to be gearing up for pumpkin spiced everything. Well, you can have your Pumpkin Spiced Pumpkin Seeds (yes, that is an actual thing), but the for the rest of us, this means the release of the new Antique Collection whiskey from Buffalo Trace! Each year at this time, these super limited edition whiskies hit the shelves. Rather, some shelves. Because of their low yields, which are always blamed on thirsty angels in the warehouse, they are highly allocated to just a couple of bottles each at most locations, and those stores tend to have a wait list with a hefty price markup to match (the recommended selling price is $90 each, but good luck finding any of them anywhere near that mark). However, a good whiskey bar will also stock them for a special pour, and these are much easier to find if you know where to look.

The warehouse conditions, blends and proof of the whiskeys vary each year, which makes it exciting to try the latest batch and compare notes. If you’d like to reference reviews of the past couple of years for comparison, you can find 2015 here and 2014 here.

LET’S START WITH THE RYE

Sazerac 18 Year: Previous releases were put into stainless steel tanks after their initial barrel aging. This is the first of the editions which from now on will be bottled directly from the barrel, rather than from a holding tank. There is a remarkable difference here too. The nose is immediately more woody, with lots of dusty spice cabinet aromas and leather. The palate is all spicy spice – ginger, black pepper, clove and nutmeg, though not so much cinnamon. A hint of red apple adds some fruit. It’s the driest I’ve tasted so far, but also possibly the most elegant. 90 proof

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye: This is the Sazerac rye straight from the barrel with no added water or filtration, named for the 19th century New Orleans bartender credited with changing the base spirit of the Sazerac cocktail from Cognac to rye. This year’s batch was distilled in the spring of 2010 and napped on the 4th, 5th and 7th floors of BT warehouses I, K and M. At 126.2 proof this needs some help to open up, perhaps more so than usual. It’s much more tart than in the past couple of years, getting the sides of the mouth salivating with flavors of apricot and lemon. A tight fistful of spice gets tossed in with some cocoa. It mellows out in the glass, though, especially with a big ice cube.

NOW FOR THE BOURBON

Eagle Rare 17 Year: The chosen barrels for this release were aged on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd floors of Warehouses H and K. This one has some real weight to it, with an unexpected fruit salad of flavors – apple, pear, tart berries, banana and lemon. A dry walnut and sweet spice keeps these in check. To me, this one is often the least interesting of the bunch, but this year seems to have shed much of its shyness to keep coming back to. 90 proof

George T. Stagg: This is not only the coveted, perennial bruiser of the collection, it’s also the one that will be the toughest to find in the wild with a demand triumphing greatly over supply. It was aged in barrels stored across warehouses M, N, H, L and K which were filled in the spring of 2001. The powerful 144.1 proof of this uncut and unfiltered whiskey is so heavy I nearly pitched forward when I first tasted it. The aromas from the glass gives up lots of wood and char with some forest pinecone nuances. On the mouth, tart fruits, white chocolate and old spice (not the cologne, but ones that have sat in the cabinet for a few seasons) manage to swim through its viscous texture. It’s a real hot rod this year – watch out!

W.L. Weller: Weller bourbon with the “W.L” (for William Larue) is the limited release of this brand of bourbons. Writer Chuck Cowdery recently did some digging into the claim that they’re named for the first person to add wheat into his recipe. As he points out, that wording is a bit misleading. Let’s say he was part of a company that released one of the first bourbons on the market to be a wheater, though not as its head distiller. Either way, this is typically my true crush of the lineup, and this year’s edition did not disappoint. While it also wears a super high proof (135.4), it feels the most resolved in depth of flavor and weight. That forest pine that is present in some of the others adds a pretty accent to chewy fudge and caramel, with fresh baking spices and ginger. It’s also the least tart of the bunch, though some citrus does come through like in a well made Southern pie recipe.

Happy whiskey hunting, everyone!

 

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