Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey: Review and Tasting Notes

Stranahans Colorado Whiskey My bottle of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, like every other bottle of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, arrived with a tin cup over the cork on top. But unlike other bottles of Stranahan’s, my tin cup wouldn’t come off. It was stuck, and I wanted it off.

Stranahans Colorado WhiskeyI pulled, I pried, I yanked. I tried (gently) using knives and shivs and needle-nose pliers. And then I tried again (not-so-gently). Nothing worked. That cup was like a musclebound security guard protecting the treasure within the bottle. And I hated him for it. I wanted the good stuff inside.

Luckily, the folks at Stranahan’s were very kind – they sent me a replacement bottle and had me ship back the impenetrable one. They said, “We run into this issue from time to time, seems to be slight differences in the bottle/cap manufacturing.” Fair enough. As long as I finally got to open a bottle of Stranahan’s.

Stranahan’s is made in Colorado – you can visit them on South Kalamath Sreet in Denver. They started distilling back in 2004, and released their first bottles in 2006, eventually becoming one of the most well-known craft whiskies out there. In 2009, they won Whisky Advocate’s Artisan Whiskey of the Year award. Not bad, right? In 2010, they could be found in 38 states, but then made a sudden shift back to focus on supplying their home state of Colorado, plus letting supply (low) catch up to demand (high). They ramped down distribution, and ramped up production, and in late 2014, they went national again. I’m guessing those four years allowed them to build a bit of a whiskey cushion.

Stranahan’s describes their whiskey as such: “Born in the fires of George Stranahan’s old barn, our whiskey has always been hand-crafted exclusively with Colorado grains and Rocky Mountain spring water. Straight, rugged, and strong… double-distilled in small batches from our proprietary blend of four barleys, and then aged in virgin-charred American white-oak barrels.” (I can just picture the virgins charring that white American oak.) The important thing here, at least to me, is the four barleys (“primarily from locally sourced Colorado malted barley”). This is not bourbon – which is predominantly corn with barley and rye or wheat mixed in. And this is clearly not Scotch – which is, well, made in Scotland from malted barley and typically aged in used barrels. But Stranahan’s shares characteristics with each of those two great pillars of the whiskey world. The all-barley mash like a single malt Scotch, the new charred oak like an American bourbon. And it makes for an intriguing marriage.

As for the aging, on the bottle, Stranahan’s simply states a “distilled on” date, which does a bit of a disservice to the whiskey inside since it corresponds just to the youngest portion in the mix. I had heard it was a batch of different ages, but reached out to Stranahan’s to get a bit more detail. Head distiller Rob Dietrich shared that, indeed, “each batch is comprised of 2 year, 3 year, 4  year and 5 year old barrels for greater complexity and quality.” They use a #3 char on those white oak barrels then “cut the finished whiskey to 94 proof using local Eldorado Springs water, sourced from Rocky Mountain snowmelt in Eldorado Springs, Colorado.” Mmmmm, melted snow.

In any case, the combination of the malted barleys and the Colorado water and the American oak makes for a damn fine whiskey, one of the most simply enjoyable whiskies I’ve opened up in a long time. On to the notes…

Stranahans Colorado WhiskeyStranahan’s Colorado Whiskey
94 Proof
Approx. $55-$60 Retail
Tasting Dates: January 4 – 25, 2015
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent*

Take off that tin cup cap, and pour some Stranahan’s in. Take a whiff. It’s kinda subtle, reminds me of… cereal. Ever have Quaker Brown Sugar Oat Squares? That’s what this is, with alcohol (no milk required). There’s a bit of warm wood, cedar even. But mostly sweet toasty grain.

Now have a sip from that tin cup cap. Slow burn. Smooth burn. Balanced burn. Red hot and a touch of honey, not too strong, not too sweet. There’s an austerity to it compared to most bourbon. That’s the barley (I presume). There’s also a fine dustiness – not the kind of woody sawdust that older bourbon gets, but something like the fine powder of sugar and grain at the bottom of a used-up cereal box. A few more sips and something nutty comes out – pine nuts? Almond paste? Pine nuts, I think. Nuts. It’s just intriguing and fleeting and flirting around.

A cube of ice brings out some port-like notes on the nose, plummy red wine. More clove-spiced fruit, apples and oranges on the tongue. It gets denser and deeper. But less…  Colorado. Less… out west and away from Kentucky.

All I can say is, damn, this is lovely stuff. Once I got that tin cup cap off, the whiskey practically flew out of the bottle. Faster and flightier than any bottle I’ve opened in recent memory. The 94 proof is right on, no need for water, no need for ice. Don’t mix this into cocktails. Really. Just enjoy. I wish it were a touch less than the $55 or so I see around town. But, then again, it’s worth it.

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* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck
Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Stranahan’s.
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Jack and Evan, two singles looking to have some fun #whiskey

Jack Daniels and Evan WilliamsI posted this on Instagram the other day – having a little fun with the names of these two whiskeys and the fact that they’re both single barrel selections – “Jack and Evan, two singles looking to have some fun.” These were the two bottles I picked out to take with me on holiday. Both fun whiskeys. Both single barrel offerings.

The Jack was a single barrel selection I helped choose myself, a real “honey barrel” (AKA hitting the sweet spot of where this particular whiskey can go) if I must says myself. The Evan was one of a handful of bottles I picked up four years ago, in what I thought was a particularly good year (2010 release of bourbon put in the barrel in 2000) for the annual Evan Williams Single Barrel release.

The past couple nights, I’ve been tasting these side by side. And, dang, they are neck and neck in my book. Both great sips (I like them both with a single ice cube, but they do well neat, too). The Jack is indeed a touch mellower, with that charcoal filtering and all. The Evan is indeed a bit richer, a bit more toasty oak, a bit more brown sugar. (It’s worth pointing out that the Jack was roughly six years old, vs. ten years on the Evan Williams.)

But these are differences at the very edge of two fine whiskeys. I can’t help but think that, yes, despite all the madness around chasing rare releases – the Pappys and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collections and the this and that… we are blessed with a bounty of fine whiskey in the US of A, sitting on a shelf near you. Whether it comes from Tennessee or Kentucky, or maybe even somewhere else.

Happy holidays, and a happy new year.

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Copper & Kings, American Craft Brandy

Copper and Kings Brandy

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had brandy. Cognac? Great. Armagnac? That too.

Now how about in the past year? Yes?

Now keep your hand raised if you’ve had American brandy in the last year? Laird’s Apple Brandy? Excellent.

OK, now keep your hand up if you’ve had an American brandy in the last year that was made from grapes, not apples. Still with me? Paul Masson? E&J Gallo? Korbel? OK, I’m not judging!

Now lastly, who’s had an American craft brandy made from grapes? Germain-Robin? Awesome! And congratulations – you are among a select few drinkers out there, willing to forego the popular in search of something different.

American grape-based brandy seems an afterthought in today’s craft spirits world. French brands like Pierre Ferrand get all the attention behind fancy cocktail bars, and even Laird’s Apple Brandy, an American institution (since 1780!), has gotten a well-deserved warm embrace from cocktail enthusiasts. But American brandy pales in comparison to its foreign cousins and grain-based brethren (like bourbon!) in terms of popularity. Which is kinda sad. I asked one of my favorite liquor shops in Atlanta if they sold much American brandy. The response? “American brandy, other than Laird’s, is non-existent.”

But it mustn’t be that way. Just ask the folks in Cognac – brandy can be among the most amazing spirits you will ever taste, and Cognac still sells quite well, especially at the high end. Over here in America, high end producer Germain-Robin may be without peer in the brandy game, but it’s nice to see some up and coming brandy brands trying to make a splash and bring brandy back into bars. Which brings us to Copper & Kings.

Copper and Kings BrandyHere’s the way they describe themselves: “Founded by beverage entrepreneurs Lesley and Joe Heron, Copper & Kings produces non-chill filtered, unadulterated copper pot-distilled American brandy aged in bourbon barrels with no added boise, sugar or caramel coloring… The forward-thinking spirits distillery began producing modern brandy in a state-of-the-art facility earlier this year and celebrated with a grand opening ceremony in October.”

Copper & Kings operates out of the Butchertown neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. I was intrigued from the get go, and when I read on and learned a bit more about brandy’s history in the heart of bourbon country, my interest was piqued even more. From the company’s website, “distillation of brandy is as old as the Commonwealth Of Kentucky. Historical records show brandy being produced and regulated in Kentucky as early as 1781… (before) the Commonwealth of Kentucky was founded in 1792.” Turns out, even today, much of the mass-produced American brandy is aged and bottled in Kentucky. I did not know that.

Copper & Kings’ head distiller, Brandon O’Daniel, is described as “a Kentucky distilling thoroughbred with a bloodline that goes back four generations.” His family has roots in bootlegging and winemaking, and O’Daniel himself has spent years as a vintner, which certainly helps with understanding the potential for grape-based spirits.

While Copper & Kings is a young company, they are already offering two takes on brandy – an un-aged “immature” brandy, and an aged “craft” brandy, which is older than the company itself. Of course, this means they have found some stock to purchase and age and bottle that fit a certain profile they were looking for. I checked in with owner, Joe Heron (who also founded Crispin Cider), to get the scoop on their craft brandy:

We have brandy aged from 4 to 13 years in the bottle. We’ve found our sweet spot is around 7 or 8 years. We purchased aged pot-distilled brandy from many distilleries … (and) this was blended into our “DNA base” in Louisville. The DNA base is bottled, or aged further in bourbon barrels, or blended into our “new make” distilled in Butchertown – so three different uses. We will start to see our own distillate (as part of a blend with DNA base) reach the market in 3 to 4 years, and expect to be 100% distilled at the Butchertown distillery in around 6 years.

As for the immature brandy, Heron noted:

We are focused on classic brandy varietals – Muscat, French Colombard and Chenin Blanc. These are all Californian. We are fortunate in the USA to be able to distill and blend wonderful assertive aromatic grape varietals, giving us our own distinctive style. Muscat is the specific grape varietal used for both the immature brandy and absinthe (which Copper & Kings also produces and sells). Brandy distillate is always about varietal nuance. Restraint within the distilling process is incredibly important to maintain the nuance, to highlight the unique aromatics that are specific to individual varietals.

I asked him what he hoped to achieve for American brandy, and Heron wasn’t shy with his ambitions:

We aspire to add to Kentucky’s distilling heritage. Our ambition is to make American brandy as respected and admired as American whiskey / bourbon. We aim to make American brandy as highly regarded as Cognac and Armagnac.

Currently available in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio (or online at places like Ezra’s), these are fascinating sips for anyone interested in learning about brandy. The craft brandy, in particular, will make many a bourbon fan happy, and hopefully lead a few Kentuckians to consider other spirits bottled on their home soil. On to the tasting notes…

Copper and Kings BrandyCopper & Kings Craft Distilled Brandy
90 Proof
Approx. $35 Retail
Tasting Dates: December 1 – 15,  2014
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff*

OK, bourbon lovers – this looks like your favorite sip. It smells a good bit like your favorite sip – vanilla and light caramel from that time in the barrel, a good dose of crisp apple and pear, floral notes emerging if you sniff it over ice, even a bit of cotton candy sweetness. And you get a sense right away that this is going to be smoooooth.

I would not be surprised if many a drinker mistakes this for a fruit-forward bourbon. The entry is, as noted, smooooth, then some cinnamon spice and heat kick in – a brief moment of harshness there in the middle – then on into a long but pleasantly lingering burn. A cube of ice brings out a more lush feel, a touch more caramel, and some chewy grape gummy fruit. This is a pleasant sipper, especially on the rocks, but I wouldn’t call it overly complex.

Copper and Kings BrandyCopper & Kings Immature Brandy
90 Proof
Approx. $30 Retail
Tasting Dates: December 1 – 15,  2014
Thirsty South Rating: Fair – Good Stuff*

Now this will not be confused with bourbon. Or moonshine. Or whatever you like to call white whiskey. Clear as day, this un-aged brandy is admittedly better as a base for cocktails than it is as a standalone sipper.

The nose is heavily floral, loads of tropical fruit, highly aromatic. There’s ripe peach and mango, passionfruit – ever have that POG juice that was popular in the 90’s? That’s what this smells like. There’s also a background petrol-like note that may remind some wine geeks of German Riesling. Let this sit with ice and the nose becomes practically explosive – but it’s also a bit out of balance. To misappropriate that song on the radio, it’s all about that treble, bout that treble, no bass.

Sipped neat or over ice, the immature brandy is full and crisp, a bit tart, plenty fruity. But  it screams out for some other ingredients to play with in a cocktail setting (I feel the same way about most un-aged whiskeys – and I totally get why a new distillery needs to churn out un-aged products to grow their business). As it chills with ice, a yeasty character comes out a bit, like berry jam on a yeasty roll. The finish stays crisp, and goes on surprisingly long. You can find a number of suggested cocktail recipes on the Copper & Kings website, and I’d recommend that as the best way to explore this particular new American brandy.

For more about brandy and American brandy, check out The Serious Eats Guide to Brandy

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* Thirsty South Rating Scale:
Wow – among the very best: knock-your-socks-off, profound, complex liquid gold!
Excellent – exceptional in quality and character, worth seeking out, highly recommended
Good Stuff – solid expression of its type/varietal, enjoyable and recommended
Fair – fairly standard or exhibiting obvious though minor flaws
Avoid – move away folks, nothing to see here, a trainwreck
Full Disclosure: Tasting sample provided by Copper & Kings.
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Piehole Whiskey: Review of Apple Pie, Cherry Pie, & Pecan Pie Whiskey

Piehole Whiskey

Mmmmmmm, pie. Mmmmmmmm, whiskey. Umm, pie whiskey? Yes, pie whiskey.

floorpieWhen I first heard about Piehole Whiskey (in apple pie, pecan pie, and cherry pie flavors!), I couldn’t help but think about Homer Simpson. Humans like Homer are simply drawn to pie, in any flavor, shape, or level of quality. Remember the episode when Bart lays a trap for Homer by placing a piece of pie on the floor, and Homer emits a primordial, “Mmmmm, floor pie!” when he sees it? That is the human response to pie at its most basic. Whenever Homer’s in the mood for something stronger than Duff Beer, I have no doubt this would be his go-to drink.

Yes, people love pie. So why wouldn’t there be a pie that comes in the form of a whiskey bottle? I’m not saying that it would be my first choice of how to consume either pie or whiskey (nor my second choice, nor my third, nor my thirty two thousand five hundred seventy eighth), but I can see how lots of folks out there might think that pie whiskey is a good idea. After all, there’s plenty of whiskey flavored pie to be found.

piehole whiskeySo what is this Piehole stuff? It’s actually Canadian whiskey (aged between four and eight years) mixed with “pie-flavored liqueur.” 70 proof. All of $15 for a bottle. Thankfully, it requires that the buyer be of legal drinking age. And it comes to us from the innovation group at Diageo (owner of Crown Royal), where they are surely on the lookout for all sorts of intriguing ways to make Canadian whiskey as popular as bourbon is today. I have a feeling the Canadians will respect this export about as much as they do Justin Beiber. Just guessing.

The branding (PIEHOLE!) features retro pinup girls on each label, with names that match up with their respective pies – Sweet Cheri for Cherry Pie, Sweet Ashley for Apple Pie, you get the idea. They are all unapologetically sweet. Each of the pie ladies sits atop her very own slice of steaming, oozing pie. Subtle it is not. And neither are the aromas or flavors that each bottle emits. This is hit-you-over-the-head flavor, no mistaking what each one is supposed to be.

Instead of giving these whiskies formal reviews, I decided to text my (completely fabricated) 22 year old cousin, who might be more of the target market for such sexy pie-flavored products. What follows is our (also completely fabricated) exchange over a recent weekend:

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 2.30.19 PM

So I dropped the bottles off on Saturday morning and checked in later that afternoon to make sure he had received them and cracked them open…

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.27.14 PM

So, it was 3pm, and my cousin and his friends had already finished all three bottles of pie-flavored whiskey. They clearly liked it, but I had to push him for more of an assessment.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.06.22 PMScreen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.09.16 PMScreen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.12.11 PMScreen Shot 2014-12-07 at 5.12.42 PM

So there you have it. If you like pie, like whiskey, and can imaging marrying the two with a trip inside a Bath & Body Works, Piehole Whiskey may be just the thing for you.

Full Disclosure: Tasting samples provided by Diageo. Colin is recuperating just fine.

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Bottles I didn’t buy: Willett XCF Rye

Willett XCFI was in a liquor store today, and it happened to be at the same time that a distributor was bringing some things in. On the shelf, he had just placed a nice display of Willett XCF Rye, which I had heard of but never seen. The packaging is lovely – the stark white label and hand drawn illustrations are a nice change of pace amidst the typical text-heavy labels of other American whiskeys.

As for what’s inside – XCF stands for Exploratory Cask Finish, but it could just as well stand for “Extra Costs For (you).” Is that too harsh? I’m sorry. I just can’t see spending well north of $150+ on seven year old rye that was bought from MGP in Indiana and finished all of 90 days extra in a fancy used bourbon barrels that were also used in the making of Grand Marnier (or, as the label states, “finished in Curacao casks sourced from France”). The price at this store was actually quite a bit less than what I’ve read that others have paid – $130 vs. a more common $150-$200 elsewhere. Bargain? Not for me. I’ll happily pass on this and pick up 4 or 5 bottles of Rittenhouse Rye instead.

This particular Willett XCF is called out as version 1.0, meaning more are likely on the way. Is it delicious? I don’t doubt it. Orange (from the Grand Marnier casks) and rye go quite nicely together. (Read Sku’s review here.) Will it sell? Maybe so. The market has an apparently unquenchable thirst for anything rare and limited, so this fits the bill. Speaking of which… they had one bottle of Jefferson’s Ocean behind the counter. I didn’t even ask the price. I have better ways to spend my whiskey dollars than on gimmicks and hype.

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