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.