Wednesday, 28 February 2018

If You Build It: Super-Sized Freedom Edition

Why aren't there any knock-knock jokes about America?
Because freedom rings.
Welcome to the third installment of my "how to" series on building a whiskey collection. In this article, I'll focus on the Land of the Free, my homeland's neighbour to the south. 'Merica ! The United States of America is a complicated and diverse country, but I'll try to keep this simple. As always, the TL;DR version is at the end. First, some background information.

Straight Bourbon, Straight Rye or American Whiskey?

All bourbon is American whiskey, not all American whiskey is bourbon. According to Wikipedia (may my university professors have mercy on my soul)

The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits state that bourbon made for U.S. consumption must be:
  • Produced in the United States
  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new, charred oak containers
  • Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume)
  • Bottled (like other whiskeys) at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)
Frank's drink of choice

There is no minimum age requirement for bourbon. Rex and Daniel over at The Whisk(e)y Vault YouTube channel have joked about putting white dog (new make spirit) into a barrel for 1 day and calling it "Technically Bourbon". If something is labeled "Straight Bourbon", it must be aged for at least two years, and it must carry an age statement if it has been aged less than four years. Also, straight bourbon can NOT contain any additives, not even E150a (caramel colouring). Bonus points for bourbon makers ! So what's "Tennessee Whiskey"? Jack Daniel's Old No.7, the best selling American whiskey in the world, meets all the criteria for straight bourbon...BUT, they don't label themselves as a bourbon because of one thing; the Lincoln County Process. The Lincoln County Process is an extra filtration step that proceeds as follows (again from Wikipedia, I'm going straight to academic hell): The charcoal used by Jack Daniel's is created on site, from stacks (ricks) of two by two inch sugar maple timbers. They are primed with 140 proof Jack Daniel's, and then ignited under large hoods to prevent sparks. Once they have reached the char state, the ricks are sprayed with water to prevent complete combustion. The resulting charcoal is then fed through a grinder to produce bean-size pellets. These are packed into 10-foot (3.0 m) vats, where they are used to filter impurities from the 140 proof whiskey. The whiskey is then reduced with water to 125 proof for aging.

What's a mash bill?

"Mash bill" simply refers to the mixture of grains that are milled, cooked and fermented to begin the bourbon-making process. In Canada, most producers  make corn, rye, barley and wheat whisky separately and blend them before bottling to achieve the desired flavour profile. Bourbon and American whiskey makers usually establish their mash bills ahead of time. Neither is better than the other, but the result is different. There are usually three grains used in a bourbon mash bill: corn, barley (often malted), and either rye or wheat. The last two are largely responsible for the flavour of a bourbon; rye-containing bourbons are usually spicier, with pepper, caraway, dill and nutmeg often showing up in the final product. Wheated bourbons are usually softer, with more vanilla, honey and (to my palate) toasted marshmallow.

American Rye Whiskey is different from Canadian Rye Whisky. Don't compare the two, as they are totally different animals, related in name only. In the United States, "rye whiskey" must be made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye. It must be distilled to no more than 160 U.S. proof (80% ABV), aged in charred, new oak barrels. American Rye whiskey must go into barrels at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV). So water might be added to some ryes before aging. American Rye whiskey that has been so aged for at least two years and has not been blended with other spirits may be further designated as "straight rye whiskey."

Enough with the technical stuff, let's get to building your American whiskey collection.

Level 1: Setting the stage

The base of any American Whiskey collection should be simple, iconic, classic. Before going over the top with fireworks and pyrotechnics, something simple is required. So which American whiskies should be the unsung heroes of your cabinet? Some may find my recommendation predictable, but I suggest keeping a bottle of Jack Daniel's Old No.7 on hand at all times. It was Frank Sinatra's favorite whiskey, Lemmy Kilmister drank it daily (with Coke) and I can't think of a better endorsement. Other iconic choices you might consider are Maker's Mark (wheated bourbon), Old Overholt Straight RyeGeorge Dickel Number 12, or Jim Beam. If you opt for Jim Beam, I would suggest you spend the extra two bucks for the Jim Beam 6 Year Old Black Label; it's a much more rounded whiskey. 

Level 2: When you need a strong arm

I'm a baseball fan and there's nothing more American than baseball. I'm amazed at the skill of outfielders, who make catching those fly balls look, well, routine. Great outfielders need excellent spatial awareness (which I lack completely), serious speed and a strong arm to make big throws. Whiskies in this category pack a slightly higher ABV punch, and are capable of some theatrics from time to time. These whiskies are not all superstars like Ken Griffey Jr, Carl Yastrzemski or Aaron Judge. Some are more "routine" like Yoenis Cespedes or J.D. Martinez. I'd recommend Wild Turkey 101, Knob Creek RyeOld Weller Antique 107Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, Rittenhouse Straight Rye or Old Grand Dad 114. 

Level 3: Speed, Agility and Accuracy

Second base and short-stop are tricky positions. They require a great deal of agility and athletic ability. Whiskies in this category are like Roberto Alomar; excellent at all aspects of the game. While Alomar could turn a double-play, produce clutch hits and steal bases, whiskies in this category work on their own, on ice or in a cocktail. Once you get to this level, you may also consider some unique whiskies that bring something special to the table. Whiskies like Balcones Texas Single Malt, Four Roses Single Barrel, High West Rendezvous Rye, Angel's Envy Port Barrel Finish and Stanahan's Colorado Whiskey fit the bill here.

Level 4: American Muscle

Serious muscle
Enough with the baseball analogies. How about muscle cars? While Europeans have produced sleek sports cars like the Porsche 911 GT2 RS, American muscle cars are big, loud and unapologetic. The 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle LS6 with its 450 Horsepower engine was at the top of the food chain. Whiskies in this category are big, bold and take no prisoners. Ye be warned ! I recommend Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Maker's Mark Cask Strength, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Stagg Jr.

Level 5: Franchise Players

Don't ask AI about practice
We're getting near the top. The whiskeys at this level may be hard to come by, but they're worth it. They're the Aaron Rodgers, the Mike Trout, the Allen Iverson of American whiskeys. Just make sure that you've got enough practice before you take these whiskeys on. (Practice? We talkin' bout practice?) I'm talking about Michter's US*1 American Whiskey, WhistlePig 10 Year Old Rye, Old Forester Prohibition 1920, Pikesville 6 Year Old Straight Rye, or Jefferson's Ocean. That last one is aged at sea, allowing the different lattitudes, temperature variations and ocean air to affect the spirit. It may seem like a stunt at first glance, but the concept is pretty cool. You can check it out here.

Threat Level Midnight: The Ultimate Level

This is where few dare to tread. These whiskeys may be difficult to find. But they are generational talents like LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Joe DiMaggio,  and Michael Scarn. Don't know who Michael Scarn is? Shame on you. Michael Scarn is THE best top-secret agent in the business. Scarn saved the NFL Pro Bowl game, the MLB All Star game and the NBA All Star game from the world's most dastardly villain; Goldenface. Later, he took one day off to run a 20K with Robin Williams, which happened to be one year after the day his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones Scarn, was killed by Goldenface at the WNBA All Star game. Michael Scarn believes he is part Bruce Wayne, part Bruce Willis and part Bruce Vilanch. OK, if you aren't a fan of The Office, that probably makes no sense. Sorry. The Unicorn, once-in-a-lifetime whiskeys I recommend are WhistlePig Boss Hog, William Larue Weller, Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old, George T. Stagg, and Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old,

A sample line-up, aka the TL;DR version

  • Jack Daniel's Old No. 7
  • Wild Turkey 101
  • Old Grand Dad 114
  • Rittenhouse Straight Rye
  • Four Roses Single Barrel
  • Angel's Envy Port Barrel
  • Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
  • Pikesville 6 Year Old Straight Rye
  • Old Forester Prohibition 1920
  • Michter's US*1 American Whiskey
  • Jefferson's Ocean
  • William Larue Weller
  • WhistlePig Boss Hog


Building a whiskey collection is a slow process. There's no need to rush. But there is something to be said for having a panoply of choices for all moods. Hopefully your American Whiskey collection is as diverse and expansive as the land of its origin. Happy collection-building !

To the United States, where everyone is protected by the Constitution regardless of whether they have ever taken the time to read it.

Slainte !

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Just desserts: A review of Four Roses Small Batch

The language used in alcohol marketing is a bit odd. Beer companies use "cold" as a taste descriptor, as though a temperature has a taste. Even supposedly "small" companies employ terms that are nebulous at best. What exactly is "craft" brewing? It used to imply, if somewhat vaguely, a small, non-Molson/Labatt/Budweiser producer, but then many "craft" brewers got bought up by those big players. Words like "micro-breweries" then became all the rage for the bearded, manbun-sporting hipster er, enthusiast. What's next? Nano-breweries? Femto-breweries? The bourbon and whiskey world is just as strange a place. Some terms are strictly defined, like "Kentucky Straight Bourbon", or "Single Malt Scotch". Others are meaningless, legally speaking. Terms like "old" (without an actual age statement), "rare", "special", "craft" and "small batch" have no regulated, defined meaning.

What I think when I hear ill-defined jargon
That doesn't mean that companies using these terms are intentionally misleading their customers. I'm sure producers have their own definitions as to what "small batch" or "hand-crafted" represents. They simply choose not to share that information with their customers. However, terminology is not a reason in and of itself to avoid what could be a good whiskey. I was enamoured with Four Roses Single Barrel, so when their Small Batch offering was on sale at the LCBO, I snagged a bottle for casual sipping.

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): caramel, brown sugar, honeycrisp apples, light baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg), subtle rye bread notes, a hint of granny smith apples and oak
Palate (undiluted): more apples, sweet cherries, rye spices become more prominent (nutmeg, cloves, black pepper) and oak coming forward near the end
Finish: medium length, the rye and oak give way to sweet vanilla, rich caramel and coconut. Very pleasing.

This whiskey is like a three-course dessert. The nose reminds me of this pannekoeken recipe. If you don't know, pannekoeken is a giant Dutch pancake that's more of a dessert than a proper breakfast. (But hey, if you're reading a whiskey blog, I'm going to assume you're a grown-up. If you want dessert for breakfast, be it a bourbon or a brown sugar, caramel-apple pannekoeken, you do what you want.) The taste (palate) is very much like an apple pie. It's clearly a high-rye bourbon and it works fantastically. The finish becomes richer and much sweeter, like coconut caramel clusters. The longer this bourbon sits in the glass, the more the caramel and coconut come forward. Instead of appearing on the finish, they start to take over the taste (palate) as well. Pretty complex for not a whole lot of money, even if it feels a bit disjointed. All the flavours are good, but the whole thing feels a bit out of balance. There is little to no alcohol burn, which is not surprising, since it's bottled at 90 Proof (45% ABV). I would love to see this a tad higher, maybe around 100 Proof. I've only added water to this bourbon once, and I don't recommend it. Other than an initial rye hit 5-30 seconds after dilution, all you get is a watery dram. Sip it neat.


It's tough to know exactly how to evaluate this whiskey. I'm not a fan of murky naming conventions or lower ABV % when it comes to bourbon whiskey. Bourbon's flavours seem better-suited to higher strength bottlings (over 50% ABV). I liked this bourbon, but it didn't seem as well-integrated or balanced as the Single Barrel version. Nevertheless, it is a good product, and I will likely buy it again. If you've never had it, I recommend you try it before you buy it.

Rating: 3/5 moustaches

May the winds of fortune sail you,
May you sail a gentle sea.
May it always be the other guy
Who says, “this drink’s on me.”

Slainte !

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Friday, 16 February 2018

Singles: A review of Knob Creek Single Barrel Bourbon

Is there a Citizen Dick reunion in the works?
Some things are better as an idea. Or as a memory. Being born at the tail-end of Generation X, I love grunge music, but I was never really a member of the grunge scene. I was 14 years old when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I always liked Nirvana, but I was (and still am) more of a Pearl Jam fan. I remember seeing the movie Singles, and I'm pretty sure I liked it a lot, but I was probably late to the party. The angsty, somewhat aloof Cameron Crowe rom-com was released in 1992, and I'm sure I didn't see it as a twelve year old. I was probably sixteen when I finally saw it, and the fact that Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell and Alice In Chains all appeared on screen was probably enough for me to love it. But I re-visited it recently and, well, it was a bit underwhelming. It's not a bad movie, but it's not as thrilling as it was twenty-plus years ago. Some things sound great in theory, but don't always pan out in practice. (Insert communism/capitalism/marriage joke here) Knob Creek Single Barrel may suffer from the same trappings.

What is Knob Creek?

Knob Creek is produced by Beam Suntory at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. It is one of the four Jim Beam small batch bourbon brands targeted for the high-end liquor market. There are many references to Knob Creek as a "pre-prohibition" style of bourbon. What does that mean? According to their website:
What is Pre-Prohibition Style whiskey?

In short: It’s whiskey that refuses to cut corners. But since you’re still here, we’ll give you the longer version.

When the Prohibition was lifted in 1933, bourbon makers had to start from scratch. Whiskey takes years and years to make, but the drinking ban was overturned overnight. To meet their sudden demand, distillers rushed the process, selling barrels that had hardly been aged. Softer, mild-flavored whiskey became standard from then on. Full flavor was the casualty.

But we brought real bourbon back. Over 25 years ago, master distiller Booker Noe set out to create a whiskey that adhered to the original, time-tested way of doing things. He named it Knob Creek. We age every batch in maximum-char barrels to pull every bit of natural sweetness from the oak. Then we bottle it at an uncommonly balanced 100 proof.

Knob Creek is whiskey the way its supposed to be: full flavored. We make every drop count so that you can make every minute count.

Without ever having to cut any corners.

Clear as mud, right?

So 100 proof (50% ABV) is the standard for Knob Creek and the Single Barrel offering is a big, bold 120 proof (60% ABV). And while the standard Knob Creek 100 Proof Small Batch has recently dropped the age statement, the Single Barrel expression still guarantees the whisky is at least nine years old. I was a fan of the 9 Year Old Small Batch. I still enjoy the NAS, 100 Proof version. So how does the Single Barrel taste?
Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): Toffee, vanilla, maple syrup and oak
  • Palate (undiluted): toffee, vanilla, sour cherry chewing gum, coconut and oak
  • Finish:  surprisingly short, nutty, more vanilla, coconut and oak 

Sipped neat, I would NOT have guessed this bourbon to be 120 proof. There is very little tongue burn or "prickliness" to Knob Creek Single Barrel. Adding some water brought out more oakiness, and made the whiskey surprisingly "hotter" and sharper. Drunk neat, the sweetness isn't overbearing or cloying, and it's pushed a bit further back when diluted. But the balance of this whiskey is just a bit "off". It tastes like a generic bourbon, with the toffee, vanilla and oak out of balance. The vanilla isn't gentle or floral, either. It tastes more like an artificial vanilla flavouring.

 Despite the 120 Proof, I prefered this one neat. But with the alcohol content being that high, Knob Creek Single Barrel is definitely a whiskey more suited to a single serving. It is NOT a session whisky. It works surprisingly well in an Old Fashioned, as the simple syrup, water and ice don't drown out the flavours present in this bourbon.

It's difficult to make any kind of definitive pronouncement on a single barrel whiskey. Each barrel is different, so the next batch could have completely different tasting notes. "Single barrel" is a bit of a catch-phrase that appeals to enthusiasts and purists. But as is often the case, it is not without its possible pit-falls. This bourbon was good. Not great, not surprising or incredibly unique. My first impression of it was "This tastes like bourbon". Obvious perhaps, but I was expecting more. Nevertheless, this is a quality product, and you probably won't be disappointed in it if you like bourbon. If at all possible, try before you buy.

Rating: 3/5 moustaches

Here's to cheating, stealing, fighting, and drinking.
If you cheat, may you cheat death,
If you steal, may you steal a lover's heart,
If you fight, may you fight for a friend, 
And if you drink, may you drink with me.

Slainte !

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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

It Goes To Eleven: Talisker 57 Degrees North

If you're a musician or you know one, you've undoubtedly heard (or made) references to the greatest mockumentary of all time: This Is Spinal Tap. If you don't know the film, it features film-maker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) documenting the U.S. tour of "England's loudest band" and the subsequent release of their record "Smell the Glove" (later re-titled "None More Black"). There are so many great, quotable moments in the film, but perhaps none as memorable as Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), guitarist extraordinaire, showcasing his collection of guitars and amplifiers to DiBergi. The collection features some incredible guitars and amps, but none is as impressive as the Marshall amplifier that "goes to eleven".
As Tufnel explains "You see, most blokes will be playing at 10. You’re on 10, all the way up, all the way up...Where can you go from there? Nowhere. What we do, is if we need that extra push over the cliff...Eleven. One louder." Of course, DiBergi is incredulous, asking "Why don’t you just make 10 louder and make 10 be the top number, and make that a little louder?" After pausing for a moment, Nigel delivers, in his "Squatney" deadpan: "These go to eleven." Sometimes, the most obvious explanation is the right one. Which brings me to this week's whisky review: Talisker 57 Degrees North.

The North Remembers

According to their website: Talisker 57° North takes its name from this remote, rugged and windswept distillery’s latitude. And rightly so, because this is an untamed, natural expression of the Talisker’s full power: a volcanic, intensely appealing flavour that most drinkers will have only experienced in a cask strength bottling.

Cask Strength? Yes, this is bottled at 57.8% ABV, so it packs a wallop. Why would anyone want a whisky that strong? A cask strength whisky gives you the full spectrum of flavour and allows you to control how diluted your whisky is. If you want an easy sipper, add water until it's dialed down to your liking. But if you need that extra push over the cliff, drinking undiluted cask strength whisky will do the trick.

Talisker is a whisky I could identify blindfolded. Its distinct aroma and flavours are unlike anything I’ve encountered so far in my whisky journey. There’s no age information I can find on this whisky, but after tasting it, my best guess is that 57 North is a vatting of 8-14 year old whiskies. But that's just a guess. I won't go full potato on an anti-NAS rant here, but the information on the age of this whisky isn't available. Why take a chance on a non-age-stated whisky, then? Well, I love Talisker, and this one "goes to eleven". I should note that this review is based on a sample provided by a friend. Talisker 57 North sells for $175 in Ontario and that's more than I'm willing to spend on a malt that doesn't disclose any age information, especially before trying it. To be fair, other jurisdictions have far more reasonable prices on this malt. Proceed with caution.

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): friendly for something bottled at 57% ABV. Classic Talisker minerality, vegetal iodine (more seaweed than medicinal), slight chalkiness, brine, black pepper, moderately smoky. There are some notes reminiscent of grapefruit (the "meat" not the pith). As this sits in the glass, there are some cinnamon, oak and wood varnish notes popping through. Very complex nose.

Palate (undiluted): hot, peppery arrival, prickly, almost hoppy on the tongue, the slight chalkiness returns, developing some citrus, with the cinnamon, black Pepper/chili pepper and oak tannins popping back up.

Finish: Medium length and somewhat drying. This was a bit shorter and more drying than I expected. A bit of brine remains with some smoke and fruitiness lingering.

With water, the wood varnish (cask?) notes come forward on the nose, as does the brine and seaweed. the smoke retreats to the back, as a kind of echo.

As the whisky sits, a kind of industrial machinery aroma lingers (if that makes any sense). On the palate, with water, the smoke becomes more evident as does the cinnamon and spice. The finish is not quite as drying with water, but shorter than I expected. Very pleasant nonetheless.

I nursed this pour for about 2 hours while doing laundry and with time, it got more interesting. At the very end of the finish, I was detecting a bit of unripe banana. I really enjoyed this whisky, but I’m a Talisker fan so make of that what you will. I’ve been fortunate; I’ve never hit a bad bottle of Talisker. This sample was no exception. I highly recommend this whisky IF you can get it for a more reasonable price. As much as I liked it, I would NOT pay $175 for it.

Rating: 4/5 moustaches

Here's to cheating, stealing, fighting, and drinking.
If you cheat, may you cheat death,
If you steal, may you steal a lover's heart,
If you fight, may you fight for a friend, 
And if you drink, may you drink with me.

Slainte !

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