Heaven Hill Distillery – John E. Fitzgerald Larceny 1870 Straight Bourbon

Larceny 1870 BourbonTHIS LATEST EFFORT from Heaven Hill claims a long legacy—back to 1870, unsurprisingly enough—and namedrops Pappy Van Winkle amidst its well-toned promotional material. The relevant details are that it’s a 92 proof straight bourbon distilled with wheat as its complementary grain in place of rye with the goal of a smoother profile. Perhaps, but only with water—taken neat, the deep amber Larceny is rather too pointed in its spice and barrel char. Once given some time to spread out and diluted just a touch, its mouthfeel becomes much rounder and more approachable, revealing vanilla, a bit of honey, some corn sweetness, and a slight flowery flourish in the lasting finish, where some roughness of the barrel notes return. Though aged for a six-year profile, Larceny has the pop of a young bourbon, tannic with fruit skins and a little husky. An arresting profile altogether and somehow more composed than its key descriptors would suggest, its steadied by a sturdy body and underlying notes of caramel. Altogether a reasonable buy at approximately $25, especially compared to some ill-fitted grain bills that retail for twice the price. That’s your cue, Koval…

Rating: 83

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Jim Beam – Old Grand-Dad Bonded 100 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Old Grand-Dad Bourbon100 PROOF, reportedly around 30% rye, and less than $20 for a handle, Old Grand Dad hits the palate with the same unsubtle pop of his orange bottle. There are no illusions of refinement here—Old Grand-Dad is a firebrand, a sharp-tongued codger, and proud of it. As he should be, frankly, as one of the top bargains for a robust high-rye bourbon, and a straight one besides.

Though by no means one-note, Old Grand-Dad’s overarching impression is unified, quickly revealing its charcoal and raw oak in the aroma, then turning spicy and slightly astringent on the palate. Rye and pepper slot into the alcohol heat of the finish, where the body tapers off, a little sharply but absent any plasticy burn. Once past the gruff exterior Old Grand-Dad shows a slightly softer side with some corn sweetness and low hints of banana, pear, and a drop of honey—a slight reprieve, but definitely more in the buckwheat vein than wildflower. Perhaps those fruit esters would be given a little more room with a douse of water and at 100 proof the spirit could certainly spare the dilution. It would also stand up handily as a mixer with anything from a splash of ginger ale to a full on mint julep. But Grand-Dad himself probably wouldn’t approve of such excitations, and he’s still fine company on his own. Once one gets used to his nettles.

Rating: 84

Burn Stewart Distillers – Black Bottle Scotch (Old Green Version)

black_bottle_scotch_whiskey_bottleINITIALLY LAUNCHED in 1879, Black Bottle is no newcomer to the blended scotch scene, yet the past decade has brought it two new looks. The first was a buyout by Burn Stewart Distillers in 2003. The second and more substantial change was effected last year: a total repackaging of the bottle and a revamp of its recipe, both purportedly harking back to the look and flavor of Black Bottle as it existed pre-WWI. On such an occasion it seems meet to have one last round of the new-now-old recipe (as denoted by its longer-necked green bottle) before toasting its old-now-new successor. Or is that prede-successor?

A medium -light amber in the glass, Black Bottle’s bouquet are immediately indicative of its core provenance—Islay. Smoky, peated, dashed with some permanent marker, Black Bottle is rather more startling than a stereotypical budget blend and almost entirely in a good way. With some oxygen (or a dollop of water) it will smooth out with time, unfurling honeyed grains, slightly crisp almost like wheat, and lighter, mostly tart fruits like green apple. More enduring and memorable than any single aroma, though, is a warming aura that fills the nose and begins to creep down the back of the throat. This sensation transfers over entirely to the flavor, which is considerably softer than its initial aromas despite some initial spark, slight peppery crackle, and hint of char. Then, as with the aroma, the subtler second side is revealed—butterscotch, a little vanilla, and chloride-rich water for a slightly softened mouthfeel. The finish is of medium length and fairly well warming.

Islay is arguably the hardest Scotch profile for a blend to capture well, but Black Bottle makes a wholly admirable try. Although it does not quite deliver on its robust early promise, overall it boasts an array of articulate flavors and virtually none of the cheap whisky corruptions. Indeed, even more notable than its taste is its value; at around $18 it counts as a superior bargain for any kind of blend.

Rating: 85

Koval Distillery – Four Grain Whiskey

Koval Four Grain WhiskeyCHICAGOLAND HAS seen a spate of distillery openings in recent years, with most falling outside the city proper (e.g. North Shore, Few). Until 2008, that is, when Koval became the first to open inside city limits since Prohibition. Others have followed in their footsteps, but Koval still heads the pack of new brands redefining the Chicago micro-booze community—throwback, upscale, quirky, and a little bit sexy. Their portfolio is broad, primarily whiskey-oriented but with several flavored liqueurs and brandies as well.

            Four Grain Whiskey, reflecting the Midwest’s copious grain harvests, brings a diverse list of ingredients together in a single-barrel bottling of 94 proof. Its complex combination of oat, barley, rye, and wheat makes for a substantial presence on the palate and an almost confusing combination of flavors—banana, peanut butter, bread, and cereal sweetness, plus an array of fruit notes (peach, melon) and moderate oak from its approximate two years of barrel-aging. The finish is spicy, quite protracted, and a touch too cloying. Overall it’s a striking experience that could be magic in certain cocktails, but its lack of balance makes it a gamble for neat sipping: some may love its luscious boldness, others will find it cumbersome. Perhaps this was precisely the intent, as Koval seems disinterested in just sticking to the status quo or taking the middle path. Moreover, all their products are 100% organic and kosher, which goes some way to explaining the $50 tag. But not entirely. Better if it’d just spent more time in barrel to help it grow into its broad-shouldered frame.  

Rating: 86

Breckenridge Distillery – Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey

Breckenridge BourbonAN AMBITIOUS physician abandons the corporate world to invest his savings in a new craft alcohol company. Ensconced high up in the mountains of Breckenridge, Colorado, the brand touts small batches, pure ingredients, and painstaking recipes. Capitalizing on local tourism and clever branding, they enjoy extraordinary growth and go on to surprise established brands at major tasting competitions. Sound familiar? It’s been the craft beer MO for decades now, but the brand in question is not Breckenridge Brewery and its product no Vanilla Porter.

Rather, this is bourbon. But from the Rockies? Contrary to common conception, bourbon is not a regionally controlled product (like scotch or champagne) but a process: at least 50% corn in the mash, aging in first-use charred barrels, and a few other steps that replicable anywhere in the US, not just the verdant hills of Kentucky responsible for 95% of the world’s supply. Breckenridge’s spirit is a bourbon, then, though it is not legally ‘straight’ (at least, not yet), which would require it to be barrel-aged for at least three years. That threshold loosely compares to the blended vs. single malt divide in scotch, but the lesser designation hasn’t stopped Breckenridge’s whiskey from racking up the tasting medals.

And with good reason. Early on the palate it is tremendously smooth, giving some credence to the obligatory buzzwords about high-altitude snowmelt, etc. Another distinguishing factor is the 38% rye in its grain bill, several times the average and one of the highest of any standard bourbon; its white pepperiness plays to the young spirit’s vivacity instead of trying to imply a false maturity or depth. The midsection is pleasantly sweet and the mouthfeel well-rounded, showing more of caramel than corn. Oak is light in the mixture, though the aging was sufficient to impart some pleasant vanilla and a touch of char. Its middling finish is balanced despite the slight burn of its back end from its 86 proof. Overall the profile is confident, if not especially layered, and could be served neat or as an vigorous cocktail centerpiece. Originally sourced from Kentucky producers, the bourbon is reportedly now all distilled and aged in Breckenridge. One hopes they’ll continue to develop their portfolio with a straight, 100% Colorado offering in the near future. Until then this version will do just fine.

Rating: 88

William Grant & Sons – Grant’s Family Reserve Blended Scotch

Grants_Family_Reserve_Blended_Scotch_WhiskyA FADED CARAMEL color with light legs, Grant doesn’t cut an especially attractive figure in the glass. Yet it makes up for this deficiency where it counts with generous aromas and layers of flavor a cut above boilerplate blends. The nose opens sweetly, carrying more banana and vanilla than grain, but further on develops notes of heather, oak, baking spice, and a bit of peat. On the palate it is lively and young, with its barrel woodiness tingling powerfully towards the front of the mouth. Yet its flavors are well-proportioned and, being largely from Speyside, the blend maintains a smooth character overall. Some pear emerges towards its conclusion before a spicy citrus warmth akin to honey lemon tea that slides down easily along with a little hint of Speyside’s soft water.

More engaging than Johnnie Walker Red and cheaper besides, William Grant is also the largest independent distiller in Scotland. Only third behind international conglomerates Diageo and Pernod Ricard, they also produce a number of other spirits including the estimable Hendrick’s Gin and this one little brand of malt called Glenfiddich. Slainte to independence.

Brown Forman – Jack Daniels Old No. 7 (Black Label)

Jack Daniels Old No 7 Black LabelTHE BRANDING FOR Jack Daniels is the stuff of Americana legend. While Scotch whisky aspires to urbanity, Irish whiskey to a vague sense of adventure, and bourbon to the southern gentleman (or latterly, urban hipsters), Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey is unapologetically back-country, hard-edged, and sometimes even surly. Its rough-and-tumble advocates bear its banner across the backs of their sleeveless denim vests, and the bottle’s busy black label has the look of an Old West poster.

WANTED:

Jack Daniels Old No. 7
Neat or With Coke

With such a grizzled aura, then, it’s a surprise how smooth this sour mash whiskey turns out to be—hardly an analgesic nectar, of course, but neither the pure devil’s spit it might have been. In fact, it’s altogether rather mild-mannered. Comparatively speaking, of course.

A light honey in the glass with strong legs, Daniels gets its color from aging in charred oak barrels after being slowly filtered through charcoal made from sugar maple. This pre-barreling filtration is what distinguishes Tennessee’s whiskey from Kentucky’s bourbon, though both are distilled primarily from corn. And corn is indeed heavy in the aroma, almost as more of a syrup than the grain proper, with some additional aromas of malt, charcoal, vanilla, and a light perfume of fruity esters dampening down the 80 proof alcohol.

The first real crackle shows up on the palate about halfway through, though its warmth never turns harsh or aggressively hot like some young bourbons or ryes. The fruit remains steady through the midsection—some cite banana as almost too prominent—before a dominating surge of oak graininess that leaves little room for subtlety in the finish, which is already abbreviated. It’s still an unexpectedly layered profile, though neither complex nor very dynamic.

Old No. 7 is no real triumph of distillation technology, despite its long-standing tradition, and is altogether quite mediocre. Yet it’s easy to see how this Black Label—inexpensive, dependable, and ‘American Made’—became such a steady companion to so many generations. For socialites it’s strong enough to stand out in mixers; on solitary evenings mature enough to take neat; and for rabble-rousing bluegrass boys sweet enough to swig from a handle without stumbling off the stage. At least not before the second set.

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