Jefferson’s Very Small Batch Bourbon

I intended for this story to be about America, Manifest Destiny, the agrarian ideal and Deism.  I intended it for the Fourth of July, with rockets’ red glare and screaming eagles and shit.  I’m a little late for all that nationalism stuff though, and not one for blind patriotism, so sorry, it’s the Fourteenth of July and I’ve finally gotten enough motivation and encouragement to write.  You’ll live, unlike the man for whom I write this, Thomas Jefferson. T. Jeffs. Tommy J. Teej.  He died on the Fourth, 1826, which you probably would have learned in history class if you were awake and not stoned.  You probably would have also learned that a document called the Declaration of Independency was signed that day, 1776.  They made a musical about it.  Anyways, Mr. J happens to be the namesake of the bourbon I bought for the holiday weekend, coincidentally.  It was on sale, ‘Murica.  I could go on and on about Mr. Thomas Jefferson because of the whole “I used to get made fun of for being a history geek” thing (just kidding I still do.)  I could talk about how Jefferson was a true Renaissance man:  Statesman, educator, gentleman farmer, distiller, author, architect, inventor, musician.  You probably know him for his affair with his slave / wife’s half-sister Sally Hemings.   I rather like Jefferson.  He hated banks and loved rebellion.  He made whiskey and played music.  You see where this is going?  It’s going to the bottle…

jeffersons ghost

 

Right, the whiskey.  This isn’t exactly old teej’s whiskey for quite a few reasons, but one stands above the rest—they don’t distill it.  “What the hell do you mean?!” you ask, “it doesn’t just condense in nature!”  No, it doesn’t, if it did I would be a religious man and Jefferson owner Trey Zoeller would be my prophet.  Instead what Zoeller does is buy whiskey, pre-made and partially aged, and blend it.  This bourbon can be sourced from multiple distilleries, blended, and sometimes adventurously aged, like their recent “Ocean” outing that was aged onboard a research vessel at sea to give it a strong briny character.  Regardless, this is an interesting business model, particularly for a company vying in around the premium spirits market.  What I drink tonight is Jefferson’s base-line—the small batch.  Ridiculously small batch they claim.  At $25 on sale this is competitively priced bourbon, competing with a lot of big hitters in the $20-30 game.  How does Mr. Jefferson fare in this marketplace? Well, like the man himself the bourbon has a unique and distinct character. The entry on this is one of soft sweet corn, light vanilla, heavy oak with a twinge of must and an airy middle note that I could almost discern until I whiffed a little too much and burned the hair from my nostrils.  That’s surprising from something that’s only 82.3 proof.  Let me also say, that .3 is probably bullshit.  Anyways, the first sip hits quite smoothly, rolling across the tongue with a light sweetness that has a distinct caramel apple character, and leaves with slick, oily coating.  Near the back it seems the sweet has run off and there’s a healthy bit of spice that adds a bit of complexity this whiskey deserves, with such a enigmatic namesake.  So, is this the best bourbon in that $20-30 slug-fest?  That’s a matter of choice, and while this may not be the first one I reach for at that price point myself, I appreciate what it does, how it tastes and a good sale price.  As every history geek has their favorite founding father (mine likely the namesake), every whiskey geek will likely have their favorite reasonably priced bourbon—and those two groups have quite a bit of overlap.  

Jim Beam Single Barrel

I’ve been sitting on this article for a while–or laying off the last of this whiskey, at the least.  I’ve had a mental block, a loss of flow.  Shit, I haven’t got an angle on it.  I like to come at these pieces with a direction, a back story, something that brings me to a point on the whiskey.  It gives me the illusion of creativity.  Anyways, I haven’t really got an angle for this article, that’s my goddamn angle.  Pretty lame.  But you see, I’ve been working my ass off, draining myself, ever since I got back from Mississippi (which probably should be the source of some future angle).  Working 7 days a week does not seem to be the ideal creative fodder, for me at least.  Anyways, enough rambling to elongate your suffering.  To the point, whiskey. The good thing about working non-stop is that I can afford a decent bottle every once in a while to take the sting out of life.  This long delayed bottle?  Jim Beam Single Barrel. 

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Bottled at 95 proof, in this case from barrel 9/139 on February 18, 2014.  I think this bottle ran me just short of $30, which is right around the range of quite a few other f upper mid / sub-premium bourbons, yet twice the price of regular Beam and an Evan Williams more than Beam Black.  First off, nose: very soft, subtle orange and a light sweetness, but really very…ethereal?  I’m not sure I’ve ever found a lighter nose; I basically snorted this stuff to smell it.  The initial taste finds that citrus note fully expressed, with a tinge of acidity, and some dark sweetness that fades into a tad bit of oak, almost no vanilla and a lovely warming baking spice finish.  Overall, this is very tame at 95 proof, and very subtle and well rounded.  It’s as easy drinking as the other Beam labels tend to be, but it certainly is clear that they’ve gone to lengths in selecting their barrels.  My take away, my angle, if you will?  This is the perfect bourbon for an overwrought, overworked mind.  Easy drinking, subtle, so smooth you don’t have to think about it—just take a sip and it does the work for you. 

For those of you who may think I’m a little too booze and need more blues, here is Bukka White, moaning and droning the “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues.” This post has a side point–I’m going to Mississippi, down the delta, putting on my walkin’ shoes and hopping a passenger plane and ride. I’ll be stopping off in Memphis and drinking my way from grave to grave, playing music, certainly, and yes–there will be plenty of booze.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage (2004)

Evan Williams.  I suspect that quite a lot of people have mixed feelings about this name.  These feelings probably stem from some point in your youth, perhaps as you were first making your way into truly enjoying bourbon.  Likely the first time you had Evan Williams you thought you had stumbled into something good.  No, it isn’t top shelf in taste, but damn it has good flavor for its bottom shelf price.  Aged 7 years it’s probably the oldest bourbon at its rot gut price point.  It tastes a bit more mature too, and it goes down damned smooth.  At some point you may have dispensed with the glass.  In my case that was out of necessity, huddled around a campfire down in the bayou just off Lake Ponchartrain in March—booze and blues, raining down.  Likely your night got kind of fuzzy.  Parts may be forever erased.  I bet you woke up feeling like hell, your head throbbing, your guts tied up like a bowline and shivering with a near hypothermia you can’t shake in spite of the climbing southern temps.  Oh wait, that’s me again.  Anyways, that’s what Evan Williams conjures to me.   Bourbon that’s better than its price would suggest, and world class at shaking college kids from drinking whiskey. Ever. Again.  Lucky for me I was already out of college, and already too fond of whiskey to be chased off.  Besides, I’ve had worse hangovers.  That one is definitely top 5 though.  Come to think of it, Evan may have caused more than one of the top 5…

Tonight I am not here to talk about (or drink) some standard Evan Williams.  No sir, I have moved slightly up in the world, and this evening I tipple Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage.  After 9 years in the barrel this juice is bottled at 86.6.  I can even tell you this bourbon entered barrel 184 on April 2, 2004 and was put in glass on December 2, 2013 and sealed in wax.  Then I came along.  To be perfectly honest, I went into this purchase a skeptic.  This bourbon has garnered an excellent reputation, which didn’t jive in my mind with that day I woke up covered in spatter from the hatcheting open of a can of campfire ravioli.  Well, one sip, skeptic no more. 

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 On the nose this is remarkably warm, rich sugar dominates with vanilla and a bit of toasty oak, like sweet molasses cookies baked in a wood fired oven.  On the palate the impression only grows, with a nice slick body that spreads notes of spice, caramel, pear and honey.  The afterglow basks on the tongue with a warm baked cinnamon apple flavor and a light tinge at that back of the throat that turns my stomach into a warm furnace as it finally hits home. 

It’s quite evident that this 9 year old version of Evan, despite being only 2 years older is miles ahead of its kin, and in competition with some of the heavy hitters of the bourbon world.  The killer?  This bottle is only $25. Okay, admittedly that’s about twice its 7 year blended little brother, but this hasn’t caused a voodoo hangover yet and it’s quite simply luxurious to drink.   Summary?  Buy, buy, buy—at $25 a bottle I’m only a raise or two away from this being a daily drinker. 

Review: Templeton Small Batch Rye Whiskey

Dateline:  Chicago, 1928.  Eight years ago the manufacture and sale of alcohol were banned by Constitutional Amendment.  People are so desperate for a buzz they’re drinking rub alcohol.  Goddammit, they’re so high and dry they thnk Canadian whisky is good, poor bastards.  The man making his fortune off this prohibition? Scarface Al Capone, former New York street bulldog, part time psychopath, full-time gangster.  When you run the most notorious liquor operation in the country like Al does, you have your pick of the litter.  Mr. Capone, he drinks the high class domestic product.  Not some hillbilly heat moonshine full of wood alcohol and kerosene, but Iowa’s finest, Templeton Rye.

Flash forward to today and the Rye that Templeton once only cooked up illegally is now paying its dues to the revenues and has gone legal.  This new incarnation of the speakeasy legend is steaming off a prohibition era recipe, and playing big on its underground heritage.  Beyond their reminiscences of Prohibition legends and all that jazz age hokum this new Templeton is earning a new reputation in its modern incarnation, winning numerous spirits awards, including consecutive Gold medals at the renown San Francisco Spirits Tastings in 2009 and 2010.  But what do I care about gold medals?  When it comes down to it, bathtub gin or Templeton, what ot comes down to is hooch in the glass.

What comes in a glass of Templeton?  Whiskey fit for a bootlegging magnate, Capone had taste if this is what the old boy was drinking.  A wonderful and tantalizing nose of cinnamon, peppercorn and hefty brown sugar wafts draws you into a deep and complex first sip, with rye that goes beyond just that young cinnamon burn and almost widens across the palate to reveal a hearty dose of oak that can only have come from years of patience.  This rye is clearly well crafted, which is a stunning feat for such a young brand but the secret, I suspect, is that the folks at Templeton had a stroke of genius—they used a proven recipe.  Clearly they did everything else right, but to me the greatest genius of this product is that they took a recipe for a superior product that was unused, and made a superior product.  Also, I must say, the buzz is probably better than rub alcohol too.

Photo: Review in process

Hot Shots, Volume I : Redemption Rye Whiskey

Usually when I write these reviews I buy a bottle, stretch it out for quite a while, coming back to it every once in a while until I realize it’s almost gone and, goddammit,  I need to write that review before I polish the bottle off.  Not tonight. Tonight I have one shot to get it right. or wrote…writ? Anyways, let’s let this 30 cl little sample speak for itself:

Nose: Little but a tad astringent, with a little honey sweetness, some very mild rye spice, and some not unpleasant woody must, which very well could be from the glass I put it in.

Taste: That honey is there initially, but is quickly overtaken by a hot dose of cinnamon that dances and sparks on the tongue, and heats the the throat as it winds it’s way down the hatch.  A little more burn than you’d expect at 92 proof, which is just bully by me.

Afterburn (finish):  That cinnamon sits just right and damn does than burn hang on, my throat is still toasty, and I’m finding that slight musty woodiness was, perhaps, in the bottle after all.

Thanks to Ben Winston for the Drinks by the Dram set!

Overall this was a lovely little taste, and has left me hankering perhaps for a touch more.  Alas, that little shot was all I had, but the little bugger had some spicy fury to it!  So, what’s the point of this single shot tasting method?  It’s to drink the little single shots and decide if I want more dammit, and I do.  Also, this good be a good training trick for my palate so I’ll stop being so damned lazy and get it right the first taste from now on.  (Not likely)

Driven to Distilling: A trip to Wiggly Bridge Distillery in York, ME

I wasn’t exactly sure what the angle was when my mom and stepdad asked if I wanted to join them on a trip to a distillery.  Neither of them drink whiskey.  Neither of them drink much (by my standards), though my stepdad is a home brewer, soon to be brewery owner. Regardless of these facts, it doesn’t take much to convince me to go anywhere, never mind a distillery.  In the days before going over the pieces of the puzzle started to fall together.  The distillery owner started experimenting with distilling in Montserrat, my mother and stepdad are moving their to start the brewery.  The guy owns a wide variety of businesses around York, including carwashes—my stepdad owns a carwash.  It was a socially oriented business affair, it seems, but with me along to drink whiskey.  Sounds good to me. 

I woke up to head over there earlier then I do on the average work day, made the rendezvous with my companions for the day and we headed out to the Maine coast.  The town was dead, a dark hazy sky overhead and a crisp sea wind driving through the streets past the still boarded store fronts, closed for the season.  Inside Wiggly Bridge it was a different story.  Well lit and dank with the smell of fermenting grains and at the center of it all a man, who I would soon find out was a ball of endless ambition.  Dave Woods is well known around that part of Maine for his entrepreneurial ventures that span from the oil business to the pizza business.  Nowadays it’s his tight knit family that runs day to day operations, and Dave’s interest in whiskey consumes his days.  Between snippets of conversation on carwash bay doors and the like Dave’s story came together.  He was interested in whisky (he uses the scotch spelling) and decided, much like it seems he has decided many times before, he’d like to try his hand at it.  Dave and son David started hammering out the details in copper and wound up with a 60 gallon Arkansas style still.  Then he did a lot of reading.  Not much more than a year later I found him living on a timer, making required readings every 15 minutes, tossing 50lb bags of rye into a mash while simultaneously doing a stripping run.  All the while conversation bounced between carwashes, distilling, brewing and life on the island.  From what I gather the month or two that Dave spends in Montserrat are his only rest from 14 hour work-days, though I’ll admit a certain envy to what I call work in this case. 

At some point Dave broke out the whiskey.  The moment I’d been waiting for, naturally.  The first pour came from one of those little decorative one gallon casks that consumers can home age in.  It smelled decidedly smooth with hefty helpings of vanilla and a bit of spice.  I took a sip and started mulling over flavors.  The front was strong corn sweetness and a hefty vanilla.  There was a bit of an apple/peach note, and a deal of spice.  I went to speak and found my vocal chords a bit numb.  Turns out the little barrel was hiding about 125 proof.  The mash bill Dave has worked out is something like 56 % corn, 38% rye and the rest malted barley.  Honestly, I don’t remember exactly, I wasn’t taking notes—regardless I was pleased by his boldness on the rye side, mostly because I love rye and rye heavy bourbons.  Next Dave brought out some work in progress samples, one that he plans to age a bit longer, another that he planned to release.  Planned, I say because it turned out to be a failure.  The work in progress, a baby bourbon as the works in progress all are, was at a far more reasonable proof, with more open flavors but heavy on the vanilla from its short barrel time and full of hearty mid flavors, the dominant to me being that sweet peach flavor I found in the other tasting, and a nice cinnamon / nutmeg finish that lingered on.  The other work, the unreleased baby bourbon, was interesting to me.  Not because it had a nice flavor profile, it was musty and saccharine sweet, but because it showed Dave’s willingness to show the process—the failures.  Dave later shared with us a story of his first foray into the oil business, in which he boomed and busted, and it seems that this attempt was that first foray, but Dave showed that he’s learned his lesson, and rather than putting out this admittedly inferior product he’s tinkered around.  The final result of that tinkering is his latest white whiskey.  His white whiskey showed what I see as the promise of things to come.  While I’m not crazy about the white whiskey category, I see it as a tool of gauging what a whiskey will become, with age.  Dave’s current white shows he has found the sweet spot, so to speak, and it’s delightfully smooth with a soft sweetness and spice to spare.  Give this stuff some time and we may have something special.  But that brings me to another point.

Wiggly Bridge’s aging process brings up a debate that is raging through the craft whiskey world right now, when bourbon traditionally take 5 years to age, how do you get off the ground?  While other distillers turn to quick turnover products that require no aging, vodka, gin, and rum, Dave has decided to focus most of his energy it seems on bourbon.  He is doing a white rum, and planning selling his white whiskey as such, but he’s also playing a controversial game—speeding the aging process.  Using five gallon barrels and 30 gallon honeycombed barrels Dave is looking to release his first saleable product in mid-May, just a year and a half or so after starting the business.  The question now is will Dave’s gamble pay off?  Find out in our next installment:  Wiggly Bridge, High Tide or the Tipple Topple—Coming May 2014, likely.  

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There’s also pretty cool merch there, for the consumer looking to get ahead of York fashions