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.