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!