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.