Tuesday 7 June 2011

Jefferson's and the Amazing Nonexistent Distillery

Jefferson's Small Batch gives me a good excuse to talk about two weird things about bourbon. One, there aren't many distilleries out there, and fewer who aren't part of some distillery empire. Off the top of my head, the companies that own distilleries (and their distilleries in parenthesis, followed some bourbons they each put out):

- Heaven Hill -- Elijah Craig, Heaven Hill, Rittenhouse Rye, lots of weirdly named smaller releases like Rebel Yell
- Fortune (Beam, Makers) - Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, Old Crow, Booker/Baker's, Old Grand-Dad, tons of other stuff
- Four Roses/Kirin - Four Roses
- Brown-Forman (Woodford Reserve, Brown-Forman) - Woodford, Old Forester
- Sazerac (Buffalo Trace, Barton) -- Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Van Winkle, Blanton's, Barton, 1792
- Campari (Wild Turkey) - Wild Turkey

... with Diageo (Bulleit, and they also own Johnny Walker, Smirnov, Guiness, Crown Royal, Seagrams, etc, etc, look at their terrifying wikipedia page I'm tired of listing things) possibly distilling as well (though as far as I can tell they use Four Roses whiskey). There are several smaller companies that bottle whiskey bought from the big guys and from distilleries that have gone out of business (there are a TON of them), and the folks who bottle Jefferson's are likely among them. Heaven Hill and Brown-Forman sell a bunch of stuff to these smaller companies.

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, who put out a ton of stuff including Corner Creek, are the biggest and most ubiquitous of the "bottlers pretending to be distillers" trend of whiskey. There is no Corner Creek Distillery, no matter what the bottle claims. In fact, if a whiskey claims to be made at a distillery with the same name as the brand name of the whiskey, odds are it isn't, unless it's one of the big flagship brands (Beam, Maker's, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, Woodford). That doesn't make the bourbon itself suspect -- to the contrary, I quite enjoy bourbon bottled by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, especially Rowan's Creek and ESPECIALLY Black Maple Hill. I'm not sure on the exact line of who Mcclain and Kyne, "makers" of Jefferson's Reserve, exactly are, but considering how little information they have on their "distillery" (distillery tourism is a big deal these days, so companies make sure to advertise if they can), I'm 100% certain that none of their whiskey is made by them; they might be even affiliated with Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (who are out of Bardstown, not Louisville, so that kind of points to them being an independent entity).

  Over the years, lots of distillers have gone out of business. One of the most famous among bourbon drinkers is Stitzel-Weller, run by the Van Winkle family. They are known for their unparalleled wheated bourbons (remember, bourbon is mostly corn, usually with some barley and either wheat or rye added in the initial grain mix). The Jefferson brand name has got a lot of press recently about releasing a 17-year-old version which contains some of the last of the Stitzel-Weller bourbon (the distillery went out of business around 1991-92). While this hints at a quality product, especially if you like Stitzel-Weller bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle, but it doesn't tell us exactly what the quality of the bourbon in question is -- the truth is in the tasting. I haven't, however, tried the 17-year version; for all I know it could be delicious!

However, the pedigree of the 17-year-old Jefferson's Presidential Select doesn't necessarily carry over to the Jefferson's Small Batch or Jefferson's Reserve. The younger whiskeys, as far as I know, have none of the old Stitzel-Weller juice and come from other sources. So, while I'll try to keep my dear readers up to date on what's going on behind the scenes with newer releases, remember that whiskey makers are liars -- but like all great and loveable liars, they give us something we truly want.

Jefferson's Bourbon Review

So, Jefferson's. I have to lay things out truthfully: Jefferson's Reserve, the big brother of this bourbon, is one of my least favorite bourbons, especially for its level of price and prestige. I think it's too woody (a problem it shares with EC18) with a strange twiggy aftertaste, like sticks coated with aspartame. The first time I tried Jefferson's was on the same night I first tried Pappy Van Winkle (the 23 year, actually, and while I thought it was awesome I wasn't quite bright enough to fully appreciate it yet -- which I've since rectified). For those confused by that sentence, I tried Jefferson's Reserve on the same night I tried one of the fabled big guns of American whiskey, so it might make sense that it pales in my memory, but later tastings confirmed that I don't quite like this particular flavor profile.

A super-quick review before I go into a history lesson:

$49.85,  82 Proof 

Jefferson's is smooth, easy-drinking, oily, and not tremendously tasty. The nose is gloopy and a bit scalding, you really have to suck it out. The taste is very, very light, at times scotch-like; thick honey or sugar surrounded by oil with the slightest burn. The finish is charcoal and burnt honey, with almost a sulfurous taste, like cheap irish whiskey. I actually like this a bit more than Jefferson's Reserve, and it's a reasonable choice for those who like their whiskey "smooth" above all else, because it certainly is that, with a bit more character than Maker's (though, if you're going for smooth and easy, like Maker's, I don't know how much of a benefit unique character is). The big problem is the price -- for $50, you can get a bottle of Maker's or Elijah Craig and have money left over to buy a 6-pack of beer, or pick up some superior Eagle Rare.

Saturday 4 June 2011


So, posts have been sporadic, which, as busy as I have been, makes sense, but isn't quite fair. However, this is basically a beta version of the blog, and I'm working out kinks for a later version. While I'm not doing the actual site redesign (though one should be coming designed by a friend), I am working on how I run my tastings and how I write up the notes, and that will be changing a lot.

First off, my main goal here is to make a bourbon site that is accessible for new drinkers while still putting forth my opinion on whiskey (notably, that character and quality trumps "smoothness" and consistency-above-all), I'm of the belief that my reviews thus far (including the ones I'm still editing) have gone a bit too far into the wine-review-driven style of beverage reviewing. While some tasting notes are useful, trying to point out specific flavors (or I guess "flavours" up here) and aromas won't help someone who is looking for a casual pour or who wants to branch out into more adventurous territory. So, my reviews are going to be a little bit shorter and more frequent. Every once in a while I may write another longer-form review of a particular deserving spirit, which I'll tag with fancypants or snobbery or some such word. My first reviews in this style will be about Jefferson's Bourbon and then the big seven bourbons here in Ontario -- Jim Beam White, Jim Beam Black, Knob Creek, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey 80 Proof, Bulleit, and Woodford Reserve.

I also plan on illuminating a bit more on the history and output of the distilleries in the states. Part of the appeal of whiskey lies in its romance and fables -- distillers are liars, but they are among the finest kinds of liars. Starting this upcoming week, I'll be putting up the first in a series where I focus on offering insight into how bourbon is made, who is making each particular type of bourbon (which is a surprisingly difficult knot to unravel, and I might lean on some prolific bourbon writers for some of that information since I don't have any real contacts in the industry), and the history of various brands.

And while I only have a few readers so far, feel free to comment on what you would like to see discussed and any questions you may have about whiskey you want me to address.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Buffalo Trace Longform Review

Buffalo Trace (owned by Sazerac Co) is probably the most exciting and hyped distillery in Kentucky. They do cool crazy stuff like the Single Oak Project and other experimental releases all the time, and their yearly Buffalo Trace Antique Collection of 3 Bourbons and 2 Ryes are consistently some of the best reviewed whiskies in the world. They also put out the Pappy Van Winkle line (more on this in the future), which is probably the most hyped American whiskey line among people vaguely in the know. Their marketing is pretty clever -- premium bourbon is a niche they (and Maker's) practically invented, since they came up with Blanton's, the "first single barrel bourbon." Their main product is the Ancient Age line of cheap-os, and their flagship bourbon is named after the distillery.

(They have a hooey reason why the distillery and bourbon are called Buffalo Trace - something about Buffalo trails or whatever. I think it's because buffalo pee is funny to drink.)

When I first tried Buffalo Trace years ago, as a person who drank only cheap bourbon, Maker's, and sometimes Knob Creek, I hated it. It's much more of a traditional bourbon than Maker's, with some peppery char throughout. The nose is surpisingly light for a 90 proof whiskey (or maybe just right, 90 proof isn't a lot), with strong floral and citrus notes, along with a little vanilla and, oddly (I might be wrong here) raisins or grappa. There's definitely some grappa in the taste, which flips the switch into ginger and ethanol. The taste definitely has a decent amount of char burnt in, along with the also-expected and tasty oak flavor.

The finish is notable for how I don't really care for it AND how essential it is for a bourbon neophyte to try, since I think experience the BT finish is essential in figuring out what the proper, basic bourbon flavor should be, especially up here in the cold north, absent cheaper old-school bourbons. It's of a medium length (not huge and forever-seeming like Booker's, but not almost-non-existent like Maker's or Jim Beam White Label). The fruit and floral flavors continue, and give way to an alcohol-y, almost aspertame sweetness, all the while buoyed in a lot of wood. Given a little time to rest, the finish becomes delicious -- limes and oak and pine, yum.

Like I mentioned before, Buffalo Trace might not be as appreciated by bourbon beginners, who will be overcome by the spicy and peppery tastes and miss out on the floral and citrus flavors that are carried throughout. I found the balance difficult to rate, since the bourbon's tastes are executed consistently all the way through -- citrus and char from first smell to last dregs of finish -- but I'm not entirely a fan of the tastes that are executed. The presentation is pretty nice, with a cool buffalo on the bottle, and the marketing is lovely, but I traditionally prefer the higher-end Buffalo Trace products. Quality skyrockets right above this product, with the Eagle Rare being quite tasty (and often available here) and higher-end stuff (like Hancock's Reserve and the BTAC, all unfortunately not yet available here) being either my regular pours or some of the best whiskey I've ever tried.

Value-wise, in the States, at $20 it's hard to beat. When base BT is $20 and Eagle Rare is $30, it's tough to decide if the upgrade is worth it. Here in Toronto, at $40 vs. Eagle Rare's $50, I would have to side with the Eagle Rare as the better value.

Booker's Batch # C03-A-29 longform review

It’s been over a week and I promised reviews, so here’s a couple. But first, Elijah Craig 12yr seems to be back in the LCBO, so go and pick up a bottle.


It seems odd to review Booker’s (Jim Beam’s top-end small batch whiskey) before I review normal Jim Beam, but I plan on reviewing all the standard LCBO bourbons in quick succession in June, when I have an excuse to get some cheaper whiskey (I currently am out of Maker’s, Woodford, and cheap Wild Turkey). So, then you’ll see reviews for Jim Beam (white & black), Knob Creek, Bulleit, Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey 80 Proof.

Booker’s is a mighty whiskey, at barrel strength – my bottle weighs in at a hefty 127.9 proof (almost 64% alcohol) -- only the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection bourbons outweigh it in my collection, and nothing else at the LCBO comes close. It also commands a mighty price. That gives it a hefty burn. Be aware when tasting and smelling it – it can easily burn out your tastebuds and sense of smell! I tasted and rated it without the aid of water, but I will mention what I think of it after going back and sampling it a few more times.

The nose is traditional Beam, well within the company’s standard flavor profile, if quite a bit more weighty. There are hints of vanilla and caramel at first sniff, which gives way to a strong vanilla burn. Burn is the operative word here, as I also detect a bit of almond and burning oak chips.

The taste, undiluted, is very harsh and sharp, even compared to its barrel proof  counterparts (largely unavailable up here) like George Stagg, Noah’s Mill, Rare Breed, and Parker’s Heritage Barrel Strength. It has notes of black licorice  and pepper on the tip of the tongue; it’s hot and spicy like black cherry cinnamon  candy, with a bit of that nutty taste Beam often has.

The finish is looooong, the child that is the father of the man that is 60+% ABV, and almost suffocating (please don’t blame this entirely on the nature of the beast – as noted above, there’s some much less obvious high ABV bourbons out there, and I’m not looking for smoothness; the finish really comes down hard and heavy like smoke, rather than a sharp burn). There’s some stone fruit – peach maybe? – hidden in there, next to the walnuts and almonds and vanilla.

As noted before, this stuff is strong, expensive, and, ultimately, pretty good. It’s not a life-changing whiskey and won’t win over folks who aren’t yet fans of bourbon, but it’s worth having on the shelf for novelty’s sake. In fact, I’d call it an experienced bourbon drinker’s bourbon, unlikely to be appreciated by folks who haven’t gotten used to the allure of Kentucky’s finest export – novices will learn more from Knob Creek (and enjoy it more), or, if particularly adventurous, they can try Baker’s for an easier transition into the world of higher-proof bourbons.

I give it a 6.5, which can inch up to a 7 for the novelty, if you are an experienced drinker who lacks access to anything but the LCBO.

However, with a few splashes of water and time, the bourbon opens up a bit. Some mint appears in the taste and finish, and the vanilla slips open and reveals other sweet floral scents.  It’s still a strong hoss of a whiskey, but it’s a lot better than the lower end beam products. Watering it down further still reveals its superiority to base beam, but while adding your own water does make the drink a bit more of a bargain, the price difference up front is pretty significant. Of the whiskeys I own, this is the one I’m mostly likely to add water to – even the 70% ABV George Stagg I’ll often drink neat – and this is the whiskey I find benefits most from a splash or two.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Rules of the Blog, Part 3

So, rules. First off, I probably won't ever be listing exactly how many points in each category a specific bourbon gets -- mostly because my system isn't very granular to begin with, so there shouldn't be much room for speculation. So, a quick run-down on tasting. A future blog will break down tasting some more, but here's a quick idea on how each step works:

First off, I try the bourbons twice -- once when first poured, and once after sitting for around 30 minutes. Bourbon (and other whiskeys) really open up when you let them sit around at room temperature, since the alcohol oxidizes a bit and gives off tasty vapors, letting it stew in its own juice. For my reviews, I decided to use the wacky Glencairn Canadian Whisky glass, in honor of Ontario. Glencairn designed a lovely scotch whisky glass a few years back and it's the tasting standard (though brandy snifters are often used as well). There's a little hype involved in glassware, but a curved glass really does aid in the nosing over the standard rocks/whiskey tumbler. The Canadian Whisky Glass is more short and stout than the standard Glencairn, and lacks a stem -- it's almost a cross between the Glencairn and a rocks tumbler, with some of the benefits of both.

THE NOSE: The initial step in drinking bourbon is -- get this -- smelling it. Sniffing bourbon like a fancy wine guy does actually bring out the taste quite a bit, and preps your taste buds a bit. Use short, sharp sniffs and be careful, especially when smelling higher-proof whiskeys, as you can burn out your sense of smell for a bit if you inhale too deeply. Bourbon has lots of neat smells, but the ones I find most common are charred wood (duh), ethanol (duh, corn), vanilla, honey, citrus (particularly tangerine or orange), various nuts (like roast almond, cashew, and walnut), brown sugar, rye, toffee, cocoa, and other fruit and floral smells. Nosing again later, after its opened up (or after adding water -- but not too much, and not an ice cube; while I don't always hate ice in bourbon, I find it has a deleterious effect on my nosing abilities).

THE TASTE: Sip your bourbon gently, like a gentlefolk is wont to do. Suck some air in around it. Make note as it travels down the tongue slowly, since different tastebuds will taste things, well, differently. If you can handle it, chew it around your mouth. This is the key here; good  bourbon isn't to be slammed back like a shooter. Whisk(e)y is magic: it gains potency from age and its time in the wood. It draws flavor and strength from the barrel over time; this isn't vodka or even rum, there's years of secrets hidden in there. The flavor often carries on from the nose, but there are plenty of whiskeys that can surprise you with some new tastes (good or ill).

THE FINISH: Here's one of my favorite parts of drinking whiskey, what separates the cheap stuff from the good stuff. The finish is that taste that hits the back of your tongue and emanates from your throat as you swallow. New drinkers to bourbon often like whiskeys with short or light tastes, calling it "smooth" (that said, if I wanted smooth, I wouldn't be drinking alcohol -- I don't drink just to get drunk these days, I'm looking for the experience), but there's a real difference between a finish that lingers deliciously and one that burns all pepper and heat. Higher proof can really make a finish linger (I think of it as breathing smoke), but there are some lower-proof bottles that really let you enjoy the taste. One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between wheat-heavy and rye-heavy bourbon is the finish; both are often quite distinctive. Like the taste, there are lots of hidden notes in the finish for a perceptive and patient drinker; learn to look past the alcohol and heat and a good bourbon will offer you a lot.

BALANCE: The follow-through and full experience of drinking bourbon; some bourbons are undermined by elements of the smell, taste, or finish that set the whole experience awry; similarly, other bourbons might make up for some lack in individual notes by providing an overall satisfying experience -- a bourbon that is a bit delicate and thin in the nose or taste might make up for that by emphasizing a satisfying floral note that carries throughout the drink.

INTANGIBLES: I talked about this a bit elsewhere, but I'm giving myself a little wiggle-room in the review for things like price (all my prices are based on the LCBO prices, since this blog is based on reviewing what I think the best buys are at the LCBO -- which, note, I am not affiliated with at all), presentation, and other "value" notions, as well as other small things I enjoy about the bourbon. I'm weighing this score a bit lower than the others.

Next up: More tastings! Any questions?

Thursday 28 April 2011

Elijah Craig 12 (Heaven Hill Distilleries) Longform Review

I'm cheating a little here - posting a review before I tell you exactly what I'm talking about. However, I wanted to get started on the meat of the blog, so expect the full rundown of scores and what nose and finish and all that crap means next time.

Elijah Craig is a good friend of mine. I first heard of the crotchety old minister in the nascent days of my whiskey-drinking, when we chugged Kentucky Tavern* from the handle** or the plastic $2.50 half-pints we kept in our back pocket (or, sometimes, both). Maker’s Mark was for rich people and Jim Beam was a luxury.  A dude named Corey, a skater and, if I remember properly, a good man (lost to me in the sands of time and memory) asked me if I had ever had Elijah Craig 18 year, cuz that was the real fucking shit, the good shit, man. I sure hadn’t but I filed it away (remembering an incorrect year statement and a slightly wrong name). Well, fast forward three or four years and I finally make the acquaintance of the Good Reverend Elijah Craig, in both his 12 and 18 year expressions. Oddly enough, I’m not an enormous fan of the 18 year, but the 12 year was my regular pour up until moving to Toronto. It’s a crying shame that Heaven Hill’s finest son isn’t regularly available up here, but I at least managed to snap up a couple bottles when it came out back in November and relive the memories.

Elijah Craig 12 is a value bourbon (not in the “No-Name Brand” sense but in the ”bang for the buck” sense). In the States, it’s usually a buck or two cheaper than Maker’s. The big thing about EC12 is that it is strongly in the Rye category of bourbons – bourbons are at least half corn, but they draw a lot of flavor from the other grains mixed in, the main two being the spicy rye and the smoother, sweeter wheat. Rye bourbons are the “traditional” bourbon style; spicy and sweet. Wheat bourbons, like Maker’s, tend to be milder and lacking in “bite” (which lets them gain in complexity, which is why some notable long-aged bourbons are wheated). Another interesting phenomena about Elijah Craig is its inconsistency – while Maker’s Mark and Four Roses have entire advertising campaigns based around how consistent their bourbon is and how you’re always guaranteed to have the same drink, Heaven Hill (and a couple of other distilleries, like Buffalo Trace) doesn’t go for that angle. I’ll go into this idea in the future.  Just know that EC12 is sometimes heaven, sometimes good, and sometimes a completely average bourbon. Of the eight or so bottles I’ve drank in the last few years, I’ve only had a bottle I wasn’t impressed with once, so I wouldn’t worry too much about missing out on the “honey” bottles.

As for the review itself:

Elijah Craig will serve as a good benchmark for my bourbon tastings. It doesn’t set the world on fire, but it is one of my favorite regular drinks. It costs around as much as Maker’s (a little less in the States, but a little more here since it’s not a regular release and they can charge a premium), but is a much better example of what makes a bourbon a bourbon, not just because it’s a rye instead of a wheater. It also comes in a simple, iconic bottle with its big cork stopper. It gets a bonus in its intangibles for all of these reasons.

The nose has a lot of sweetness to it – a common characteristic to bourbon, but also a theme carried throughout the bourbon. I get a strong note of brown sugar, vanilla, oak, leather, and a little bit of that good spicy rye at the end.  The downfall to the nose is its harshness – the bourbon itself isn’t very harsh for a 94-proof whiskey, but the alcohol has a quick burn that can cut off the rest of the nose if you’re not careful. The nose is average, if distinctive of the Heaven Hill brand of bourbon.

The sweetness and rye continues into the first taste, with cinnamon and sugar burning the tip of the tongue. The whiskey gets smoother as it slides back along the tongue - the vanilla getting stronger, but is tempered with chili powder at the edges.  I’d rank it slightly above average.

The finish is smooth, sweet, and warm. There is a bit of oak without it being overpowering (a weakness of some older bourbons, including, by my reckoning, the 18-year-old version of this bourbon which hasn’t seen fit to arrive in Ontario yet);  a little bit of char gives It a nice, round taste, and the finish burns out slowly without “coming back” with a heavy nut or oak aftertaste. Quite good. The overall balance is a big advantage – the sweetness found in many Heaven Hill bourbons is present all the way through, while the age of the whiskey tempers and gives it some muscles to flex. It’s not enormously remarkable, but perfectly drinkable.  

While it does make a fine Manhattan, it doesn’t deserve mixing – it’s a perfectly capable sippin’ bourbon; not really complex but still very good, with a strong rye character and lovely finish propping it up over its peers.

*Kentucky Tavern, aka Old Kentucky Nightmare -- a monstrous bottom-shelf bourbon the likes of which I’ll certainly expound upon in the future
**a handle: a big ol’ 2-gallon bottle, usually with a handle on it

Monday 7 March 2011

Rules of the Blog, Part 2

As said in the previous entry, my palate isn’t (yet) the most discerning or trained out there. The number of bourbons I’ve tried is approaching (or has crossed) triple digits, but a lot of those were before I tried taking notes or knowing much about the production of bourbon. I have always known, however, what I like.
I’m not shy of heat: I greatly prefer spicier rye-heavy bourbons to the sweeter, smoother wheat-heavy ones. I like the robust flavor of high-proof bourbons, and I love trying to discern the flavors mingling and dancing around strong alcohol content (I also feel less bad about dropping a cube in here or there when I’m starting out with at least 100 proof). 
I tend to drink my bourbon straight, though there have been a few whiskies I loved adding ice to (like Hancock’s Presidential Reserve, back when I could pick it up for around $25). I rarely add water to my whiskey, and when I review a bourbon the score will be based on a basic room temperature pour. Since my nose is untrained and my tastes particular, I want as little variance as possible so that my reviews will be accurate to one-another. There will be times where I try a whiskey with a little ice or water, but that will appear only in the description rather than the score. Since I often prefer to drink George T. Stagg straight (a 140 proof whiskey), the times when I add water will be when I’m trying to salvage a bourbon I find too harsh or peppery, rather than trying to cut down the alcohol content.

Scoring will be on a ten point scale. Sometimes I might throw in half points, particularly to distinguish amongst highly-rated bourbons. On one hand, I find star and letter systems to be a bit useless – everything clusters around the 3-5 (or B- to A) area and the score seems pointless. On the other hand, I’m no Jim Murray or John Hansell, so a hundred point scale would be difficult, as my palate is still evolving and I am not confident enough to score things with such a precise rating.

The ten points will be roughly broken down as follows:

2 points for NOSE

2 points for TASTE

2 points for FINISH

2 points for OVERALL BALANCE

2 points for intangibles (price, uniqueness, how much I like it, wiggle room)

In my scale, a 5 isn’t an undrinkable bourbon. Quite the contrary, it would be average in everything. A cheap bourbon that is mediocre may rate a 6 (for that extra value), but most bourbons like that aren’t available here in Ontario. I don’t foresee giving a bourbon a 10 anytime soon, so anything 8 or better is highly recommended.

My next blog will break down what I mean by each of the above categories, and then finally on to the tasting!

Sunday 6 March 2011

Rules of the Blog, Part 1

Down to brass tacks: here’s what this blog is for.

When the LCBO brings a new bourbon over, it usually doesn’t get a lot of fanfare. It would be tough for the fine folks at the LCBO to properly do so – there’s only so much room in Vintages magazine, and most of it is taken up by wine and its derivations. When a spirit does get a write-up beyond the new releases, it’s usually Scotch whisky, which has a lot more cache as a collector’s drink (plus I think you British nations all stick together). However, I would love to see people buying more of the good stuff, in the hopes that we can one day have the better bottles on the shelves consistently, and maybe even get some high-end limited-release expressions up here (in other words: get me some BTAC, I need more Stagg). In order to do so, I plan on covering ground in the most obvious way I can think of: when a new bourbon is released, I buy a bottle and drink it and share my thoughts with all of you.

However, the beauty of whiskey is on the tongue of the drinker, so don’t take my word for it. While my palate isn’t yet discerning enough to give all of you a run-down of all the possible flavors and tastes available in a glass of whiskey, I’ll do my best to give a run-down of flavors and an overview on my beginnings with a bottle. I’m not trained to do this, I’m a blundering enthusiast who is, at best, copying off his betters. That said, I likely know a little more than most people checking out this site from this side of the border, and I hope my enthusiasm is enough to put up with a bit of foolishness. And anyone who happens to read this that does know about the fine art of tasting, let me know! I would love to hear from the masters.

This blog will focus on three things:

  1)  Bourbon

-          Specifically, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, as I doubt we’ll see any bourbons made elsewhere on this side of the Great Lakes. Straight Bourbon must be made in the United States, must be aged for at least 2 years, and the grain mix must contain at least 51% corn. It can’t be distilled at more than 160 proof (80% alcohol) or bottled at less than 80 proof (40%). Straight bourbon is aged in charred oak barrels and most are aged at least 4 years (if there is no age statement, it has to be at least 4 years old). If there is an age statement, the age must be the youngest of any aged bourbon mixed together in the bottle.

-          Further subdividing, I plan on at first reviewing the bourbons available currently at the LCBO, and new ones as they pop up. When that is mostly done (since it will be a never-ending job as long as the LCBO keeps introducing new bourbons!) and I have time, I eventually hope to throw up reviews of favorite bottles I have in my collection that are unavailable here, and notes on other bourbons that I’m lucky enough to try when I visit the States.

  2)      American Rye Whiskey

-          American Straight Rye has similar rules to bourbon, but needs to be made of 51% rye rather than corn. Rye is not as popular as bourbon but is slowly making a resurgence. I think several ryes, particularly Sazerac’s, are delicious and hope we get more. I’ll review these as they’re released.

3)      Canadian Whisky

-          I honestly know very little about Canadian Whisky. I always viewed it as bit artificial tasting, with its strong fruit/caramel noses and flavors, and unexciting at it’s almost-universal 80 proof. I, surprisingly, don’t know many Canadians who drink Canadian Rye – most whiskey drinkers I know drink Scotch or Irish whiskey. However, reading up on the subject shows that there are some exciting-sounding distillers out there that I’ve never tried (Forty Creek comes up a lot), so maybe I’ll eventually develop a taste for the spirit of my new home!

Saturday 5 March 2011

Bourbon Blog Introductions!

I grew up in a Commonwealth, but it never was part of the British Empire.

I wasn’t always a resident of the wild, cold North. Nosiree, I came of age in Lexington, Kentucky, and I’ve spent most of my life within a couple hundred miles of the Bluegrass State. As an adopted son of the birthplace of Lincoln and Elvis, a strong patriotic streak has been blended into me – specifically, into my liver. You can’t live in Kentucky without an awareness of bourbon, the United States’ official spirit. Originally made in Kentucky (and the only place where you can make ”Kentucky Straight Bourbon”), bourbon is as much a part of Kentucky culture as the horse industry, the rolling bluegrass fields, or people getting into fistfights over basketball games. The smell and flavor of bourbon is everywhere – bourbon candies, bourbon desserts, and even bourbon steak sauce all serve as a gateway to familiarize young’uns with the sweet, hot flavors of the tasty local spirit.

That said, bourbon hasn’t always been popular outside the Bluegrass. During the 70s and 80s, whisk(e)y in general was on a downswing in the U.S. (Note: The Irish and the U.S. call whiskey “whiskey,” while the Scots, Canadians, and much of the rest of the world spell it “whisky.” In the spirit of being a contrary, Imperial-measurement-using American import, I will call whiskey whiskey unless specifically talking about a Canadian or Scotch.) As the lame stockbrokers from the 80s and new drinkers of the boomers and Gen-X rebelled against their daddies by drinking tasteless vodka or inventing Zima or something, whiskey makers sat on their stocks, waiting for the day when the market would shift. And shift it has, with Scotch again becoming cool a bit over a decade ago, and bourbon makers finally following suit and beginning to release all sorts of premium bottlings. I came of age in a pretty lucky time – the beginning of the 2000s – so I’ve seen the rebirth of Four Roses, the rise of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, and the general explosion of higher-end bourbons. And, right as I started really learning to appreciate the huge, delicious varieties of bourbon available, I left the states alongside my wife for Ontario.

Let me tell you: for as worldly and international you Torontonians claim to be, for as much as you complain that the U.S. shoves its culture and entertainment down your throats, y’all don’t know NOTHIN’ about bourbon, which is a crying shame. At first I had to get over the sticker shock of the cheaper brands available up here, but I eventually was able justify it by saying that it’s an import and that the taxes are hopefully going to a good cause. Once I got over that, it took me a little while to find out that I sometimes can buy more than just the bog-standard brands always stocked at the LCBO (for the record: Beam, Knob Creek, Wild Turkey 80, Maker’s, Woodford, and now Bulleit). Turns out, the LCBO has started offering a “premium” bourbon or two every month or so. Big thanks to the amazing bartenders at the Red Light on Dundas West for hooking me up with that information!

Now, dear readers, please don’t take anything of what I’ve said as confrontational: the point of this blog is actually to be a big ol love-in. My hope is to introduce to all my Canadian friends the joys of Bourbon, the great American whiskey, as it arrives here in Ontario. Along the way, I hope to learn to appreciate the native whisky of my new home!