Tuesday 11 December 2012

Jefferson's Revisited

Jefferson's -- Unknown Distillery
$49.85 - 82 Proof

Yeah, gave it another try. Still not a huge fan, and it's not cheap. Thomas Jefferson HATED whiskey, by the by, and thought it would be the downfall of a nation. He was super into wine and grumpy when he couldn't get his favorite vines to grow in the Americas. Maybe this whiskey was why?

Oily, light, burnt, a little chemical, a little sulfurous.

Taste -- Not undrinkable, just Poor (1 out of 5)

Value -- Nice bottle. Poor.

Saturday 24 November 2012

BBQ # 3 - Where is Bourbon made?

I get a lot of questions about bourbon at work. In the hopes of saving myself some effort, I am putting some answers to common questions up here on the blog. That way, if you have been referred to here from my work, you can get a more in-depth answer than I could likely give you at the bar.


There have been a couple of people, over the last 3 months, who have asked me where to visit during a quick stop in Kentucky. Basically, if you're travelling to Kentucky, you're probably going to Northern Kentucky (near Cincinatti), Louisville, or my old hometown of Lexington. For Northern Kentucky, you're about equidistant from Lexington. Here are some good places to check out.

WOODFORD RESERVE -- only about 20 minutes from Lexington, in scenic Woodford County, is Woodford Reserve. They don't actually make a lot of whiskey here; it's really more a tourist destination. They tour is pretty great and they have lengthier tours in certain months you can reserve. Definitely a great introduction to bourbon, just like the whiskey itself.

LAWRENCEBURG - about 40 minutes west of Lexington, Lawrenceburg is home to both Four Roses and Wild Turkey. I haven't been back to Wild Turkey since they opened their newly renovated distillery, but I hear it is great. Four Roses has a very nice tour during the on-season, but is nothing special during the summer.

BUFFALO TRACE -- The Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort is probably the best distillery overall to visit; they give you a very thorough tour even off-season, and their hard hat tour (which requires calling ahead for reservations) is fantastic. Plus they experiment a lot, which gives you the chance to see some interesting upcoming products, and they let you try both their standard whiskies and their white dog, which is pretty educational. It's halfway between Lexington and Louisville, too.

BARDSTOWN -- Bardstown gives you access to the Bardstown Bourbon Cultural Something or Other (really the Heaven Hill bottling plant and warehouses, which have a great behind the scenes reservation-requiring tour that shows you a lot of the bottling and production end you don't see elsewhere). Bardstown is also the home of Barton distilleries, which only recently has started running tours. Right next to Bardstown is Loretto, home of Maker's Mark and one of the nicest-looking distilleries.

LOUISVILLE -- Go a bit south of Louisville and you can visit Jim Beam's big operation. I haven't been there for years, so I'm not sure what they offer for premium tours.

Thursday 15 November 2012

W.L. Weller 12 Year Review

W.L. Weller 12-Year Old
Buffalo Trace - Sazerac
$44.95 (Website Only) -- 90 Proof

Earlier this summer, the LCBO offered a few interesting Buffalo Trace products as a direct order for customers online -- the E.H. Taylor Bourbon (which I believe was bottles from the 3rd distinct release of that specialty brand in recent years), Buffalo Trace White Dog (unaged whiskey from the still), and the W.L. Weller 12 Year. Old Weller Antique used to be one of my go-to value bourbons in Kentucky (along with Kentucky Tavern and Very Old Barton, depending on how much money I had at the time), and while that bourbon line is gone, the Weller 12yr and the Weller 107 proof are still around (for now).

What makes the Weller notable is that it is the "baby" version of the famed Pappy Van Winkle line. Julian Van Winkle serves as the master distiller for the Weller, Rip Van Winkle, and Pappy Van Winkle lines, and he uses recipes based off the old Stitzel-Weller recipes; most notably, all the aforementioned whiskeys are wheated bourbons (like Maker's Mark). The Van Winkle family were the master distillers at Stitzel-Weller; S-W is a legendary distillery among bourbon nerds, known for its wheated bourbons with rich, cognac-y flavours.

The Weller line tops off at the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection's William Larue Weller, which is released unfiltered at barrel-strength, often well above 120 proof (60%). Previously, the Weller name was used to distinguish between whiskey that contained mostly Buffalo Trace-distilled product (the Wellers) and whiskey that also contained product distilled elsewhere (the Van Winkle line, which contained some aging whiskey from Stitzel-Weller and other defunct distilleries). Nowadays, the stock of old Stitzel Weller has dried up (the last was distilled in the early 90s), so the younger bourbons in the Van Winkle line (the 12yo Lot B and the 15 year old) contain mostly Buffalo Trace product, making the lines extremely similar. To my taste buds, there isn't much appreciable difference between the W.L. Weller 12 year and the much-hyped Rip Van Winkle 10-year and Pappy 12 Year Lot B.

The nose isn't anything remarkable, but it is good. This whiskey sparkles -- when I hold it on my tongue, I can feel the grain interplay tingle my tastebuds. It's mouthfeel is thicker and oilier than Makers, but, as a wheater, it's taste is light and playful enough to drink almost incidentally. It's like a good Collins in whiskey form. Unlike other wheaters, the finish lingers just long enough without vanishing.

This is a GREAT (4 out of 5) whiskey. While I prefer the toughness of the 107 proof version, we don't get it up here, and the extra age adds a bit of complexity to the finish.

It is also a VERY GOOD value. While there are lots of good bourbon at this price range, and while we're paying almost $25 more than Kentucky prices for this bourbon, the uniqueness of the Van Winkle line and the huge markdown compared to the similar Van Winkle products make this an awesome value. Hopefully the LCBO leans on Buffalo Trace to make this bourbon a regular feature north of the border!

Monday 12 November 2012

BBQ -- Basic Bourbon Question #2

I get a lot of questions about bourbon at work. In the hopes of saving myself some effort, I am putting some answers to common questions up here on the blog. That way, if you have been referred to here from my work, you can get a more in-depth answer than I could likely give you at the bar.

Alternatively, why does this bottle say "proof"?

Proof is pretty simple -- figure out how much alcohol, by overall volume, is in the spirit, and double that number. You found its proof! (Basic algebra tells us we can reverse that too -- half of proof is ABV.)

The term proof came from how they used to measure alcohol -- they would mix a gunpowder with a bottle of booze and then set it on fire. If it burst into a bright flame (usually blue!) it would be "Proof" that the alcohol was good -- at least 50% ABV. Nowadays we have much more accurate ways of telling the amount of alcohol in a spirit (proof back then was actually a bit higher than the aimed-for 50%), but that was where the term came from, and it mostly just stuck.

Bourbon, to be bourbon, must be at least 80 proof, or 40% ABV. That means that in addition to containing weird flavoured additives that keep them from being real whiskey, a lot of "flavoured" and "spiced" whiskies are under 80 proof, further disqualifying them from true whiskeyhood. They're not my cup of tea, but if you like 'em, though, more power to you.

Friday 2 November 2012

Maker's Mark Review

Maker's Mark
Maker's Mark Distillery - Beam Global
$42.95 -- 90 Proof (45% ABV)

Maker's Mark is one of the greatest branding success stories in the spirits world -- scratch that, one of the biggest successes period. They apparently sell out of their complete volume every year -- despite that, you can find it pretty much everywhere. The red wax is iconic and the distillery aimed for a premium market from the get-go; one of their first advertising campaigns is brilliant:

 For decades, Maker's entire strategy has been to tout their consistency; they rotate barrels in their warehouse and claimed to put out only a single product. (This is false -- one of my collection's treasures is a bottle of 100 proof extra-aged premium Maker's from the early 90s; the lower dilution and extra time really makes the normally-mild wheat shine compared to the current offering.)

Maker's is, above all, incredibly easy to drink. While most bourbons are made with corn, rye, and barley, Maker's substitutes wheat for rye. Wheat is a more subtle flavouring grain than rye; it takes very well to aging, backing off and allowing complexity from the wood to shine through, but as Maker's is typically 6 years old (according to their official line; it has no age statement, so it could be as young as 4), the mild wheat takes center stage.

For people who want their drinks to be "smooth" above all else, Maker's is probably the way to go. There's not a lot in the nose -- corn and wood chips, really; it's hard to tell if Maker's is so basic because that's what the company taught us normal bourbon should smell like, or if middle-of-the-road was entirely what they were aiming for. The taste is very sweet, a tiny bit of the wheat tingle, a little diluted syrup. It's smooth, smooth, smooth; well balanced but thin. The finish is blink and you'll miss it -- sweet; wheat; spice; gone. It really requires a shot for the taste to linger at all, and that doesn't overwhelm, which is probably why it is so popular for bourbon shots.

Makers is a completely average bourbon (2 out of 5) and a great introduction to whiskey. There's nothing wrong with it, just not a lot that's interesting. That makes it the perfect thing for a lot of folks, and there's nothing wrong with that -- I like a good well-balanced pilsner every now and then.

Value-wise, the whiskey itself isn't a fantastic value. 90 proof for $42 isn't great, and there's a ton of competition from more interesting whiskeys around that price. What a bottle, though! That, and its universal appeal, means it deserves a place on most shelves, bumping it up to an OK value. Just don't hoard it or anything.

Monday 15 October 2012

Bourbon Ratings

As I revise the blog, I'm removing some of the older notes on how I rate bourbon and replacing them with hopefully more succinct and understandable ones. Early blog entries from 2011 break down my own personal system for rating bourbon; if someone manages to steal one of my tasting notebooks, that's what they'll find. For you folks, be you a thirsty LCBO shopper, one of my patrons at 3030, or just a curious internet citizen, I want to make things more simple.

When you break down a ranking into something exact, you are basically calling yourself an extreme expert -- after all, what is the difference between a 93 and a 96, really? Bourbon makers, especially, aims for a specific flavour profile, and thus have fewer "colours" to play with their palette, so quality is often a matter of degrees. Additionally, a large part of enjoying whiskey, like enjoying any sensory experience, comes from the ambiance and situation.

So, my rankings will break bourbon down into general categories -- taste and value. Taste will be a simple score out of 5, with half points if my personal rankings require them. A zero is undrinkable, a two is average, and a five is among the best whiskies I have ever had. As per my previous ratings, I have very little desire to make ratings look great, so expect a lot of stuff around the 2.5 average mark.

The more important ranking will be value, and it will also be on a basic four tier descriptor -- Terrible, Poor, Good, and Great. What do these rankings that mean? Well, it's pretty much an all-inclusive, non-mathematic judge of how grumpy I am to buy this whiskey from the LCBO. Some whiskies, like Old Forester 100 Proof, cost three to four times more at the LCBO than at an equivalent store in the US. Sometimes, this could be due to overall rarity, but too many times it is just due to the LCBO bringing things in at lower volume. I tend to be fine with paying $10-15 more for a bottle of whiskey here in Canada than in higher-cost areas of the US (comparing prices to Kentucky prices would just be cruel). $45-55 more (like the ridiculous initial price for the already-odd-and-mediocre Bernheim Wheat Whiskey) is just outrageous. I also try to take into account things like general availability in the United States -- Sazerac and Rittenhouse Rye have a pretty standard $15 or so mark-up here, but they can be so difficult to find in the US that they are actually a pretty good value here.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Elijah Craig 12 Year Revisited -- Capsule Review

94 Proof (47% ABV) -- $39.95

In the States, Elijah Craig 12 Year Old is pretty broadly available. Here in Toronto, it seems to be a twice-yearly event. I remain baffled by the general lack of Heaven Hill whiskies at the LCBO -- Evan Williams Black is the #2 selling Kentucky Bourbon, globally, and here we get, what, the single barrel every other year?

The nose of this new bottle of Elijah Craig is nothing spectacular; sweet but not very strong for a bourbon. There's all the standard brown sugar and a little medicinal/minty plant-y flavour (consulting a flavor chart says eucalyptus) and a lot of oak. The finish is predictably great; Heaven Hill products can run a bit wood and oak-y, so unless the whiskey is completely overwhelmed by wood, it often has all that caramelized oak that I am after.

Elijah Craig is usually one of the first bourbons I give to new bourbon drinkers (after their cheap bourbon of choice and Maker's) and does a great job of being a slightly complex exemplar of a rye-flavoured bourbon. I dub it GREAT (4 out of 5).

Value-wise, if they bring it back at the same $40 price point, it goes blow-for-blow with the other whiskies at that price point. There's a lot more competition there these days, but I prefer it to Buffalo Trace, and it has enough going for it that it is a worthy alternative to both Bulleit and Four Roses Small Batch. I think it is a GOOD value. (3/4)

Monday 1 October 2012

BBQ – BASIC BOURBON QUESTION #1 -- Where Does Bourbon Come From?

Since I've stumbled my way into the “whiskey guy” role at 3030 (the fantastic new bar at 3030 Dundas West, in the once-dry Junction neighborhood of Toronto), I get a lot of people asking questions about bourbon – as they should! There's a lot of romanticism and myth-making in whisk(e)y marketing. Each country is basically its own brand, and each distillery also aggressively defends its own processes. It makes for some good storytelling, but it can be pretty confusing. I've heard reps for various companies tell me that all American whiskey is 100% corn (false), that all Scotch whiskey is smokey single malt (false), and that all bourbon must be made in Bourbon County, Kentucky (false). It's annoying for a generally laconic dude like me, since I don't want to be "that guy." Y'know who he is-- the one who plays gotcha when he stumps his bartender with a rare drink order; the guy who turns his nose up and bobs his head side to side when he gets to look like a know-it-all. 

So, in the hopes of saving myself some effort, I am putting some answers to common questions up here on the blog. That way, if you have been referred to here from my work, you can get a more in-depth answer than I could likely give you at the bar.

Note that a lot of my information comes from a bunch of old books I have lying around, including some by fanastic bourbon writers like Chuck Cowdery, Mark Waymack and Jim Harris, Gary Regan, and 


Long story short, no. "Bourbon" currently has a very specific meaning, but only for the last fifty years or so. Prior to that, it was a term referring to a style of corn-based whiskey made in the United States. Back before Prohibition gutted the American whiskey industry, there were distilleries all across the United States, but they primarily were located in Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and Indiana. (Basically, the central-east part of the US -- the early "frontier" states with easy access to the Ohio River/Mississippi River transportation system.) Way back in the day, the type of whiskey was based on the common cash crops -- Pennsylvania and Maryland were known for their American rye whiskey (considerably different than the modern Canadian style; I'll talk about it in the future), while the other states had a large amount of corn and were known for a whiskey made with a corn-dominated mixture of grains. 

For a decent amount of time, anyone could call their whiskey bourbon, but a series of laws began to specify the meaning of the term. In 1897, the Secretary of Treasury, John Carslile, teamed up with Col. Edmund H. Taylor to sponsor the Bottled in Bond Act, which defined Bottled in Bond whiskeys as being "at proof" (100 proof, or 50% alcohol), and contained only distilled grains, distilled during one season (there are really only two distilling seasons a year) at a single location. Previously, unscrupulous distillers would add neutral grain spirits, colouring, mix young whiskey with old, and add all sorts of non-whiskey elements (sugar, turpentine, other gross stuff) to give it bite and touch it up. Bottled in Bond was a sign of quality, a measure of safety, and a great marketing tool. 

Then, in 1964, Congress passed a resolution declaring Bourbon to be the official spirit of the United States and a "distinctive product" of the United States, much like how Scotch whisky is made only in Scotland, Irish Whiskey is made only in Ireland, Canadian in Canada, and so on. Most of the international community has recognized this in some way or another, though not all the same rules and regulations are enforced.

Back in December of 1969, the United States Federal Government passed a law defining how spirits are delineated. Basically, bourbon must be made in the United States, must be aged in new wood barrels, must be a grain mix in the initial "mash" with at least 51% of the grains being corn, and it has some restrictions on the proof of the whiskey (distill it to too high a proof initially, and you end up with a flavorless neutral grain spirit, like most vodkas). So, there's nothing saying bourbon must be made in Bourbon County, or even Kentucky specifically. Funnily enough, it also means that Jack Daniels is technically a bourbon, though they prefer to use their own clever sub-definition of Tennessee Whiskey). LDI, a mysterious distillery in Indiana, produces a ton of bourbon which is bottled and sold by various other companies (see my previous post on Jefferson's Bourbon for more provenance discussion). 

In fact, there are no distilleries in Bourbon County; there haven't been any in years -- if you want to visit one, you're much better off going to Nelson, Bullit, Jefferson, Frankfort, Anderson, or Woodford County. And I've had a few bourbons made in various other places -- most notably a young-but-promising prototype from Garrison Brothers in Texas, and the overpriced but interesting Hudson Baby Bourbon from New York.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

New Updates

So a year or so has passed since I began spottily updating this blog, and and a lot of changes have happened since then, both in my life and the Ontario bourbon market. The LCBO has learned quite a bit since I first moved here, when there was really only 7 or 8 bourbons on the shelves, from two major companies. The Vintages program did a great job of introducing various brands to the Ontario market, and several of them have, happily, gained enough traction to remain more-or-less constantly on the shelves (I'm sipping on a glass of the dependable and tasty Four Roses as I type this).

Additionally, I have been working as a bartender, so I have gotten a slightly better feel for what the average drinker knows and wants to know about bourbon. With the start of my public bourbon tastings (another one taking place at 3030 at the end of the year) and sitting in on some rep talks for various spirit brands, I have a pretty reasonable idea of what information and misinformation is out there.

So, what does this mean?

Well, first, my reviews will become simpler. I plan on revising all my old reviews and replacing them with more capsule-style reviews. More and more, I am convinced that rating systems are bunk, so while I plan on tasting, taking notes, and evaluating whiskies in the same way, my ratings will become even less granular and more generally descriptive (I plan on still including a rating, for easy reference, but it will be rounded to be out of five rather than ten), and a seperate value rating for the whiskey. This latter element I believe to be pretty important here in Ontario, as we get a lot of whiskies brought in as “super premium” finds, due to their previous unavailability here, despite the whiskies themselves being niche experimental bourbons or, more often, barely a step above a value brand.

So, here we go!

Friday 17 August 2012

Tasting Post-Mortem

Nah, we're not dead, or tasting dead people (gross). I just wanted to thank everyone who came out to the tasting at 3030, and the high-quality staff (particularly Vince and Jeff). It's rare to see a group of people at a bar so new and cool also so interested in quality products and drink making!

We did a quick run-down on Jim Beam White Label, Maker's Mark, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses Small Batch, and Buffalo Trace, all of which (other than the Four Roses) have been reviewed in big, wordy reviews by me on this blog so far. Expect some easier-to-parse capsule reviews soon!

Monday 13 August 2012

Bourbon Tasting at 3030

The blog is in the midst of an overhaul, but I'm re-posting recent entries here to inform everyone of the bourbon tasting I'm hosting at 3030 Dundas West this Wednesday.

We'll be learning how to taste whiskey, talking about the myths and secret origins of bourbon, and I will be providing plenty of facts for you to slyly mention so you can look smart next time you're drinking with your friends, so come on down.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Wild Turkey 80 Proof

Wild Turkey has always had the reputation of being a harsher bourbon. In a movie, when someone is on the down-and-out or a tough country boy, he's usually hoisting a 750 of Wild Turkey to his lips. For many years, this sorta made sense: Wild Turkey's only whiskey was at 101 proof, higher than the 80-90 proof counterparts by other distilleries, but that doesn't keep it from being a pretty tasty whiskey. I've been lucky enough to sample some WT from the 80s, back when they had one major flagship label, and it was pretty great back then. The 101 was my go-to bar bourbon for years in the states -- it could stand up to a couple ice cubes, just to make it last longer, and went great before or after a beer.

Up here in Ontario, we're stuck with the 80 proof version. Wild Turkey is interesting in that it keeps a pretty similar flavor profile through all of its releases -- the super premium stuff, like American Spirit and Rare Breed, tastes to my tongue like really good and strong Wild Turkey. (Beam, for example, has similar notes across the releases -- namely the yeasty finish -- but not the same sort of flavor profile). Unfortunately, my tasting of Wild Turkey is essentially going to be influenced by my memories of 101, but thus is life.

Wild Turkey has a pretty strong smell --  and it's pretty recognizable. It's less so in the 80 proof version, since it smells a bit thin and watery, but there's a strong ethanol smell, some old orange rind, and some turpentine. I don't mean to characterize it as unpleasant; I kind of like the smell of gasoline, and WT 80 has the same sort of unhealthy goodness to it. The taste is unlike the nose: entirely sweet and simple. It's like sugar water mixed with irish malt. The finish is distinctive but muted, strong sour corn, with hints of grapefruit and bitter root. It lasts a couple seconds.

Overall, Wild Turkey 80 Proof is very sweet and not very sophisticated. It's worth trying to sample the Wild Turkey flavor but nothing like the much more distinctive 101. The LCBO is doing us a disservice by providing the 80 proof rather than the company's flagship. Value-wise, it's cheap, and was worth buying back when the only other cheap option was Jim Beam, but now that it faces some competition at the the bottom-shelf, I would much rather giver or take a dollar and drink Four Roses or Jim Beam Black. I guess if you want to look tough while drinking something pretty mild it's a good choice.

Wednesday 25 January 2012


90.4 proof  -- $47.00

Woodford Reserve is a great example of brilliant marketing, and a pretty decent bourbon. Woodford is owned by Brown-Forman, and is made – sorta – at a beautiful old distillery in the horse farm country outside my old hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. It’s one of the first whiskeys I tasted, and I’m using my old notes on it, since I didn’t know much about it back then and I think it’s interesting to do so. Since then, I’ve been on several tours to the distillery, as it’s a lovely place to take tourists. Brown-Forman is, of course, the owners of Jack Daniels, the best-selling American whiskey. They also make Korbel, el Jimador tequila, Early Times Kentucky whiskey (not bourbon, as it isn’t made in new barrels), Canadian Mist, and that terrifying stuff known as Southern Comfort. They also own some pretty great Scotch distilleries, like Ardbeg.

Woodford Reserve is their premium American whiskey brand. Their big name is obviously ol Jack, but Old Forester is their old-school brand, with its distillery outside Louisville. The Woodford distillery was the first bourbon distillery to really take advantage of the whisk(e)y tourism industry that BF pioneered with their Jack Daniels brand and distillery. They re-opened a closed distillery and installed a fancy new brass set of old-school pot stills (more on those after the review). Now, Woodford Reserve isn’t all made at Woodford – it’s made from whiskey made at the Woodford distillery mixed (either before barreling or vatted after, not sure entirely, but assumedly the post-barreling vatting) with whiskey from the standard Brown-Forman Old Forester distillery. Probably the best of that whiskey that doesn’t go into their Birthday Bourbons. (Now, I polished off a bottle of Old Forester last year, and I’m a bit sad we can’t get it – I drank it before but never owned a bottle, and it grew on me quite a lot for its price.)

Brown-Forman’s huge Jack Daniels-fueled pull is why Woodford, despite being a relatively small brand, gets such broad distribution. After Maker’s, Woodford was the first premium/super-premium whiskey I remember encountering in local bars. Anyway, on to the review…

In general, Woodford has some pretty standard flavor notes for bourbon – oak and vanilla dominate the nose, taste, and finish, and that’s pretty much what I think of, other than the flavoring grains and some spice, when I think of bourbon. The nose itself is pretty pungent, almost like an Irish whiskey. This makes sense, as I would later find out, as my favorite Irish whiskeys are made with a pot still rather than a column still, which apparently gives it a creamier, rounder flavour (or are, as Woodford is, a mix of pot and column stilled whiskeys.) This review is already getting lengthy, but at some point I’ll do some more research on the two types of stills and write up an explanation.

The taste is pretty standard, with some cinnamon at the edges, and a nice viscosity – a bit oily and it coats the mouth. The finish is pretty darn good. Oak and vanilla, again; medium length, 2-4 seconds, with some nice spice at the back end. Overall, Woodford does nothing wrong and a lot of things right, but nothing about it is very exciting or unique (other than that pungent, and not always pleasant, nose). Honestly, it pretty much tastes like a bourbon should – it’s just not bold or interesting.

The only problem is the price. It’s the most expensive of the standard LCBO bourbons, but it’s also typically among the best bourbons available. It’s a premium that doesn’t do anything premium but taste pretty good, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just not sure if I want to regularly spend almost $50 on it when I could be trying interesting and unique new offerings at that price.

Another note about Woodford – like Elijah Craig, it has better and worse batches. It doesn’t swing as much as EC does from sublime to not-great (so its highs aren’t as high and its lows aren’t as low, but it is more expensive). I’ve been pleased with it every time I’ve drank it here in Ontario, barring a couple of less-than-great glasses that probably were from a bottle sitting open on a shelf forever at a bar. The bottle itself is pretty and functional but nothing too mindblowing, either, kind of like the whiskey inside.

Woodford's price hurts it, but I wouldn’t begrudge any high-rollers out there who keep a bottle of it as their go-to. 

Next time: either Wild Turkey 80 or Maker’s Mark. Woooooo.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Knob Creek Small Batch

Beam Global
$45.95 - 100 Proof (50% ABV)

Unlike the other Beam bourbons reviewed so far, I don’t have a wacky story or explanation about Knob Creek. I have drank a lot of Knob Creek in my day, since back when I started drinking, the two premium bourbons you could find everywhere were Maker’s and Knob Creek. One of my first steps on the way to bourbon appreciation was noticing the difference between Knob and Maker’s and (at first) ranking them, and later deciding they were good for different reasons and different moods. (We called getting drunk on it “slobbin’ on the Knob” because we were oh so clever.)

 I don’t drink Knob Creek as often as I used to, so I am excited to approach it afresh. There’s some solid char in the nose, like a barbeque. There’s a little something skunky in there (that Jim Beam yeast, I think), and some vanilla. There’s some nice spice in there, a slippery feel in the mouth, with a touch of spice at the edge of the tongue – not as much as some bourbons, but still enough there. The taste has bitter almond in there alongside the spice and char. It’s pretty smooth for a 9-year-old 100-proof bourbon, and the Beam yeast taste gives the finish a slightly bitter nutty flavor that I have to be in a certain mood to enjoy before crumbling away into a short, tasty burn of charcoal.

Knob Creek is a pretty decent bourbon with a pretty unique finish and a solid taste. At 100 proof, it is pretty solid, and can take a dash of water to open it up and reveal some sweetness and citrus hidden in there. I really like the bottle and the wax, but I’m not a huge fan of the trade dress.

Knob Creek, you are a GOOD bourbon (3 out of 5).

It’s certainly better than Jim Beam Black, but $20 better? I’m not sure if I’ll hurry pick up a bottle again after this one is gone; I probably will get another just for tastings (it makes a great flight with the other Beam products) and occasional nostalgia, but it won’t be until I need it. That said, I wouldn’t turn down a glass or a bottle, either, particularly one from the duty free, where it's among the better choices.

Value wise, it is an OK value (2/4).

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Jim Beam Black Label - No Age Statement

Here’s a fun activity to do with your buddies: organize a quick tasting of Jim Beam White, Black, and Knob Creek. They’re all the same stuff, but aged a different amount of time, and bottled at different proofs – White at 80, Black at 86, and KC at 100. For best results, water down the KC to around 80 so things are standard across the board, and you’ll get a great idea of what aging does to a whiskey. Beam White is 4 years and Knob Creek is 9 years old. Note that the age statement isn’t how old all the bourbon is, just the minimum age of the barrels included (so they could put older bourbon in the mix

There are actually three different versions of Jim Beam Black (henceforth called J.B. Black) I’ve drank since moving to Toronto. The J.B. Black you can get in the states (and, IIRC, the Duty Free) is an 8 year old whiskey. It’s marketed as being twice the required age, which it is – Straight Bourbon must be at least 4 years old. When I first moved here, Beam transitioned their J.B. Black sold in Canada to a no-age-statement bourbon (so we don’t know how old it is, but minimum 4 years). Then, a few months later, they introduced the 6-year-old Jim Beam Black now on the shelves of the LCBO. (You might be able to still find some No Age Statement bottles if you go looking, but I wouldn’t worry about it.) Funnily enough, they advertise the 6-year old as being TRIPLE AGED, since the minimum for regular bourbon is 2 years. We get an an extra age multiplier despite our version of Beam Black being two years younger!

The whiskey I’m tasting tonight is one of the no-age-statement bottles. I don’t have a 6-year on hand, but I’ll try and do a side-by-side if I end up with one anytime soon. The nose is already a bit smoother than the Jim Beam White. The bourbon itself still has the nutty/yeasty Beam taste, but is sweeter, and the finish has more burn and char, but the burn is more the pleasurable, wood-driven kind I like in my bourbon, with a little bit of spice (probably from the rye) peeking through. There’s still a tiny bit of that yeast-driven Beam aftertaste there that I’m not entirely fond of, but it’s pretty drinkable.

As long as you're doing more than just ordering a bourbon and Coke at a bar, it’s definitely worth the three dollars more a bottle than Jim Beam White, and goes toe to toe with Four Roses at the same price point. It doesn’t blow my mind or anything – I’ve had some really decent pours of 8-year J.B. Black, but even then it’s only a 86 proof whiskey with the standard Jim Beam flavor. I’m actually surprised – I thought it was a few dollars more than Four Roses Yellow Label, but at $28.50 it’s a pretty decent deal! It’s also one of the few bourbons where I’m only paying $10 more than what I paid for it in the states, but I guess technically what we’re getting isn’t the same as what they are, and not as valuable.

Jim Beam Black is good option to convert your buddy who drinks only Jack Daniels and thinks he’s a tough guy for it, since it’s got a bit more heat but still has that “smoothness” that people seem so crazy about. Just don’t pay a premium for it if you’re out at a bar (especially since it doesn't cost a premium price).

Jim Beam Black is average or above-average on most of its ratings, but value is a solid 2/2.

It's better tasting than most bottom-shelf bourbons and a few premium ones, and a great value. It lost points on the nose and finish, since I'm not a fan of the yeasty funk, but if you love plain old Jim Beam (and you're not a rich dude who drinks Bakers or Booker's every day) then Black should probably be your everyday pour. If not, but you don't hate Jim Beam completely, check out my next review:  Knob Creek.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Jim Beam White

So, Jim Beam. 

The White Label’s the best selling Kentucky Straight Bourbon in the world. It’s probably the first bourbon most people try, and it’s pretty much the standard bourbon’n’Coke ingredient. Most rail bourbons in the states are usually this, Old Crow (one of Beam’s sub-Beam whiskeys), Kentucky Tavern, or Elijah Craig. 
It’s not technically the best-selling bourbon in the world – that goes to Jack Daniels. Before you go all flippin’ out, saying “hey hey Mr. Bourbon website guy, Jack Daniels isn’t a bourbon!” hold on one second. Bourbons, as I said before, must be whiskeys made of 51% corn, made in the USA, distilled beneath 160 proof, enter the barrel at less than 125 proof, bottled at more than 80 proof, and made in new charred oak barrels. Jack Daniels is all of those things. However, it calls itself Tennessee whiskey, and was given an official designation of that at one point – but it’s still technically a bourbon. The main difference between Tennessee Whiskey and standard bourbon is the Lincoln County process, where they filter the raw whiskey through a big ol column of charcoal before barreling it. (Most bourbons are filtered at least once through charcoal, but after their time in the barrel.)

ANYWAY, back to the review. Jim Beam is perfectly drinkable, and the white version gives you a straight-up example of the flavor profile for much of the distillery. Beam has no age statement, but it’s a straight bourbon, which means at least 4 years old. It’s 80 proof (40%), which is the minimum allowed. It’s a rye bourbon, but not particularly rye-y, if that makes sense. 
The nose has a strong alcohol bite, and a nice milky caramel hidden under it. There’s also a hit of yeast. There’s a lot of yeast in the taste too; this is pretty common amongst the standard Beam bourbons. It has a nutty taste, too, like almonds or pecans, almost tart alongside the sweetness. I’m not an enormous fan. There’s a bite, too, but not like high-alcohol heat – it’s like Diet Heat, burn without the real strength. It leaves an aftertaste, reminiscent of how Coke Zero leaves one – it doesn’t actually taste like aspartame, but gives me the same rounded “ugh” to it.

I give Jim Beam a POOR rating (1.5 out of 5). However, it works extremely well as a cheap mixer, particularly in soda (or pop or whatever you guys call it here, you heathens).

On the bright side, Jim Beam is pretty cheap. In the states, it was my go-to for a while when I was 21 and had $4 to spend on a half-pint (Kentucky Tavern was the super cheap). My bottom shelf later on was Heaven Hill or WL Weller, though I drank plenty of Beam as it was a common gift.

Here in Toronto, it holds the distinction of being the standard cheap  bourbon on the shelf. Wild Turkey is equally cheap, but it has a distinct high-rye flavor. However, with Four Roses only costing a few bucks more, FR is typically a better option.

Jim Beam gets a GREAT value rating, on account of it being the cheapest bourbon available and not tremendously off (~$10) its US price. Keep an eye out for it at the duty free if you aren't already bringing across good stuff; you can sometimes get 3 bottles for $30, which is awesome for mixing.

Tomorrow: Jim Beam Black!

Friday 13 January 2012

The Ontario Bourbons: The Big Seven

In the last six months, the LCBO had brought some amazing bourbons in, and kept many of them in regular stock. I've spent a lot of time drinking these new-to-Ontario whiskeys, which include a lot of my old favorites, like Four Roses (anyone who has actually hung out with me has probably seen me dressed essentially as a walking Four Roses billboard with my FR spring jacket). That's no excuse for not continuing the blog, but there's no reason to cry over drunk whiskey -- let's get back on track!

First I'll be covering the "big 7" bourbons that have been always available in Ontario since I moved here: four (yes, four) whiskeys owned by Jim Beam, one owned by Brown-Forman, and one by spirits giant Diageo. In doing so, I hope to both let folks know my opinions of the individual whiskeys that you can find at most any bar and to illuminate some of the shape of the bourbon industry.

Those whiskeys are:

Distilled at Jim Beam:
Jim Beam White
Jim Beam Black
Knob Creek

Distilled at Maker's Mark (owned by Beam):
Maker's Mark

Distilled by Wild Turkey:
Wild Turkey 80 Proof

Owned by Brown-Forman (and made of whiskey distilled at 2 locations):
Woodford Reserve

Owned by Diageo:

So, tune in tomorrow when I discuss the two bourbons most folks start on: Jim Beam White & Black!