George Dickel sent Thirsty South a video!

So George Dickel sent me a personal video. OK, maybe it wasn’t Mr. Dickel, himself. But someone at Dickel sent me a video! And it’s personalized just for Thirsty South! I’m absolutely blushing. Maybe it’s because I’m from Tennessee. Maybe it’s the glowing review I gave their Barrel Select whisky in the past. Or maybe it’s because millions (give or take a few million) of people read Thirsty South every day and will be more likely to go out and pick up a few bottles of Dickel as soon as they see this video. I don’t care. I’m just happy to have my video.

The video features Dickel’s handsome brand ambassador, Doug Kragel, who welcomes us (by name!) to the distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee. I’ve been there before, but maybe he forgot. In any case, he shares a bit about how Dickel distills their Tennessee whisky, and their recently expanded single barrel program. Click the photo below to see the video if you’re interested in learning more about Dickel’s approach.

Now excuse me while I go see if I can get a video chat going with Mr. Kragel. Do you think he really likes me? I think he likes me. But… what if they sent personalized videos to other whiskey writers, too?? Nahhh. I think Dickel only has eyes for me.

https://taylorstrategy.app.box.com/s/c3heiim2zcvu44podug9

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Whiskey, Stories, and the Truth: Review of Tin Cup and Clyde May’s

IMG_9351Whiskey drinkers today are interested in lots of things – good whiskey, of course, but also good stories. And also the truth. Finding good whiskey is actually pretty easy, despite certain labels being practically impossible to procure. Finding good stories? That’s easy too – historical figures, prohibition-era recipes, tales of lost this and discovered that, promises of the most locally-sourced ingredients – the stories take many forms. What seems to be in somewhat short supply though is the truth.

A lot of this comes from the fact that there are so many labels that don’t actually distill anything trying to make you think they do. Go google what’s been going on with Templeton Rye, for instance, and you’ll see that a story that was once a good one (small town! Al Capone! secret recipe!) has been found to be lacking in the truth (mistruths! manipulation! confusion!). And a whiskey that was once thought to be a good one is increasingly being dismissed as a fraud (and a flavored fraud at that). I wish we lived in a world where people didn’t have to make up stories to sell something, a world in which they could rely on a good product and the truth. And maybe we do live in that world, or at least one that’s moving in that direction – since as people get more into whiskey and start to learn about who’s making it and how and why, they get a greater appreciation for the authentic. And thanks to social media and whiskey blogs and our never-ending access to looking things up, those whiskey hawkers that blatantly make up stories are increasingly caught in the act (thank you, internet).

At Templeton, the truth seems to have caught up with the folks who have been spinning tales. They’re being sued, whiskey geeks are trouncing the brand, and I would bet that their sales are taking at least a small hit because of it. Which brings me to a few bottles of new-ish whiskey that have been sitting on my desk for a few months now.

One is an “Alabama style” whiskey, called Clyde May’s, and the other is an “American” whiskey, called Tin Cup, bottled in Denver and made with pure Rocky Mountain water. They both have stories to tell, that’s for sure. They’re both decent whiskeys, at least I think so. And they both walk the the line where insinuation and deception intermingle. Let me be clear, I don’t think either of them are telling falsehoods – but they both play with the truth in their own ways in an attempt to tell a compelling story.

Tin Cup Colorado Whiskey Let’s look at Tin Cup first. On the bottle, in big bold letters, you get “Tin Cup, Colorado” and “Made with Pure Rocky Mountain Water.” Smaller is the “bottled in Denver, CO by Tin Cup Whiskey.” Nowhere is a “distilled in…” or “distilled by…” message, which is your first indication that something shady could be going on. On the hang tag, “Colorado” is the biggest word and dramatic mountain scenery is the background. You also get a photo of Jess Graber, founder of Tin Cup, who “picked up his bags and moved to Colorado in hopes of finding himself and inspiration… fell in love with the mountains and discovered his passion for distilling… and Colorado’s Tin Cup whiskey was born.” Inside, Jess tells us he “made Tin Cup in honor of Colorado’s first whiskey drinkers,” and that, “Tin Cup is distilled from a blend of corn, rye and malt barley, cut with pure Colorado Rocky Mountain water.”

Tin Cup Colorado Whiskey On the Tin Cup website, you get more. It says, “Hello, I’m Jess Graber. I make whiskey… I began distilling in 1972… distilling became my full time work… (and) Tin Cup is my newest whiskey.” It goes on to say, “Let me explain how whiskey gets made here.” Let me repeat that… “whiskey“… “gets made“… “here.” Clearly they want you to know that Jess Graber is distilling this whiskey himself, right there in the gorgeous mountains of Colorado, right? Of course, they do. But he doesn’t, and they don’t.

There’s a “what’s in Tin Cup” section on the site that never says a thing to lead you to believe the whiskey is distilled anywhere other than Colorado. There’s a “Can I visit the distillery” section that does the same – leading one to believe that even though you can’t visit their distillery, there IS a distillery churning out Tin Cup whiskey somewhere in Denver. After all, Jess Graber helped found Stranahan’s, which DOES actually distill there.

Now, I must say that while the bottle and the website are clearly trying to pull the wool over your eyes and have you believe that this is whiskey fully distilled and made by Jess Graber in Colorado, Graber has been completely up front in interviews that they source the whiskey from MGPI (formerly known as LDI), which is the source for what seems like half the bottles of bourbon and rye on the shelves these days. So while I applaud Graber for being honest when asked, I sure wish their bottle and website were honest, period. Oh, and the bottle comes topped with a nifty tin cup you can drink from. Wouldn’t you know… it leaks!

Clyde May's Alabama Whiskey Now, on to Clyde May’s. This is an unusual beast for sure. Alabama Style Whiskey. On the bottle, there’s a very clear “distilled in Kentucky” line on the side, and a “bottled by Conecuh Ridge Distillery, Auburndale, FL” as well. So we have an Alabama-inspired product, distilled in Kentucky, bottled in Florida. There’s a “since 1946″ on the label, which is clearly a bit murky given that the whiskey has gone through many iterations of actual makeup, owner, and legality over the past many decades. There’s also a note that, “hints of green apple and cinnamon not only make it smoother than others – they’re what make it Alabama Style.” Which could lead you to believe that it just tastes like apples and cinnamon, or that they put actual apples and cinnamon in with the whiskey, or that they flavor the whiskey to give it hints of green apple and cinnamon. What do you think is the truth? The website helps a little, stating that “Clyde added oven-dried apples to his barrels. The resulting hints of green apple and cinnamon not only made it smoother than other whiskeys—they’re what made it Alabama Style. Today, we honor Clyde’s legacy with a blend of 5 & 6 year old bourbon, handcrafted in small batches and finished in that Alabama Style.” Based on that, I was thinking that maybe they use oven-dried apples today as Clyde May once did – but their representative tells me, when I ask, that it’s just flavoring.

I like Clyde’s story, I like the relative transparency on the fact that this is distilled in Kentucky (likely by KBD) and bottled in Florida, and that they are at least mentioning the age of the bourbon on the website. I do wish they’d clear up the flavoring thing, though, and be more upfront about what’s really in that bottle that makes it “Alabama style.”

On to the (very quick) reviews:

Tin Cup Colorado Whiskey Tin Cup American Whiskey
84 Proof, Approx. $35 retail
Rating: Good Stuff*
Smooth, nicely balanced with a good dose of rye in the mix. High rye fans out there will enjoy this for sure. Very nice sipping neat. Simply put, I dig the whiskey, but not the marketing. Maybe Jess Graber can get his folks to do something about the messaging on the bottle and on the website (and keep on bottling the good honest whiskey, but in a more honest way).

Clyde May's Alabama WhiskeyClyde May’s Conecuh Ridge
Alabama Style Whiskey

85 Proof, Approx. $30 retail
Rating: Fair*
You get green apple right off the bat on the nose, quite prominently. Sipping neat, though, this stings a bit for 85 proof and feels a bit off. I actually wouldn’t mind if the apple were more up front here (like it is on the nose). If you’re gonna do apple flavored whiskey, you may as well go big and DO APPLE FLAVORED WHISKEY! This should work just fine in cocktails or, heck, with some apple juice over ice.

In fact, here’s a simple cider and whiskey recipe shared by Clyde May’s, to let you dial up the cinnamon spice and apples on your own:

Alabama Whiskey Cider
1.5 oz. Clyde May’s Whiskey
3 oz. apple cider
1 orange, sliced
Allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg to taste
Combine apple cider, sliced orange and the spices of your choice (we suggest allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon) in a medium-sized pot. Gently simmer over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Pour into mugs and add in Clyde May’s Whiskey. Stir well and serve warm.

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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 samples provided.

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Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2014: Review and Tasting Notes

oldforesterAnother year, another “birthday bourbon” from Old Forester, a brand that still seems to be a bit under the radar (an increasingly rare thing). Chris Morris, Brown-Forman’s Master Distiller wants you to know, “Old Forester is the only bourbon still in existence today that was produced before, during and after Prohibition by its original distiller.” And now you know.

This is their thirteenth annual limited release, celebrating founder George Garvin Brown’s September 2 birthday. Last year’s version had a phenomenal nose, but the rest didn’t quite live up to the lovely aromas. This year? Same idea on what’s in the bottle, all distilled on one day 12 years ago. Similar proof (down from 98 to 97). A slight bump up from $55 to $60 recommended retail price.

old forester birthday bourbonOld Forester Birthday Bourbon, 2014 Limited Bottling
97 Proof
Approx. $60 Retail
Tasting Dates: October 1 -10, 2014

The color looks a bit lighter to me than last year, more golden. The nose is similar to last year’s, though not as noteworthy in its richness, and maybe a touch less balance than last year as it leans a little hot. Toasty oak, caramel, vanilla, and some peachy fruit. There is a bit of maple here, but not much in the way of cinnamon/spice.

Neat, there’s a woodiness to this one at first, a bit dusty, and the cinnamon comes in pretty quick and lingers long. Last year it brought to mind the cinnamon-dusted, candied almonds that they sell at ballparks or street festivals – and this year I think the cinnamon is even more intense (despite not being very present on the nose). Again, nice stuff overall, but it still feels a bit off balance, slightly harsh, for a 12 year old bourbon at less than 90 proof.

Ice brings out the brown sugar in the nose in a very nice way, and accentuates the peachiness as well, with some bitter orange mixed in. It does indeed make for a more lush feeling while sipping, but still not as harmonious as I’d like it to be until it starts to approach watery. There’s a fine line here where the ice and bourbon reach the perfect equilibrium, but it’s fleeting.

Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff* – it’s a very nice way to celebrate a birthday, but not a party I’d go out of my way for. I like the fact that Old Forester keeps turning out these limited releases, but wouldn’t mind seeing them play around with the age and proof  a bit to seek out something that stands out from the pack a bit more.

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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 Brown-Forman.

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2014 Parker’s Heritage Collection Wheat Whiskey

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Heaven Hill’s annual Parker’s Heritage Collection limited release is like a box of boozy chocolate… you never know what you’re gonna get. Last year, it was just a lovely selection of ten year old bourbon with that prototypical Elijah Craig profile. Before that, you could find an 11 year old cask strength small batch, a 27 ! year old, a cognac-finished… you get the idea. Box of chocolates. This year, the eighth version of the collection, we get a thirteen year old wheat whiskey. Not a wheated whiskey (a la Pappy Van Winkle or Weller or Larceny, which use wheat in place of rye as a minor contributor behind the dominant corn in the mash bill), but a wheat whiskey (a la Bernheim, which is among the very few American whiskeys that use wheat as the primary ingredient).

In fact, this Parker’s Heritage Collection release is a whole lot like Bernheim – as it comes from the very first run of the wheat whiskey that would later be bottled as Bernheim (which was first sold in 2005). This limited edition, though, is almost twice as old as regular Bernheim (which just recently added a 7 year old age statement to the bottle), plus comes to us non chill-filtered and cask strength – which is an approach that has served Heaven Hill well with their barrel proof version of Elijah Craig. The mash bill is reportedly 51% soft winter wheat, and there are actually two different batches being sold as part of the release, one at 127 proof, the other TBD. And for you detail-obsessed whiskey geeks, it was aged on the top floors of Heaven Hill’s Rickhouse Y in Bardstown. On to the notes.

Parker's Heritage Collection 2014 Wheat Whiskey Parker’s Heritage Collection, 2014, Original Batch Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey
127.4 Proof
Approx. $90 Retail ($5 goes to Heaven Hill’s efforts to support ALS research)
Tasting Dates: September 10 – 15,  2014
Thirsty South Rating: WOW*

The color? Deep amber, surely due to those years at the upper reaches of rickhouse Y (the higher up, the higher the temperature swings, and the more interaction the bourbon gets with the wood).

The nose? Toasty oak is quite prominent, in a very nice way. There’s a good jolt of Bit-O-Honey, with dark caramel and vanilla also coming on pretty strong. I also get a plum and dark berry fruitiness to it, that leads into hints of an oaky cabernet, even some Chateauneuf de Pape. Intriguing stuff. A touch of water softens the sweetness and amps up the warm oak, plus brings out  a background buzz of herbal spiciness that seems almost rye-like (crazy, I wouldn’t expect it from wheat, but there it is).
Parker's Heritage Collection 2014 Wheat Whiskey Label
Neat… as expected… this is really strong, but in a pleasing way. Tingly and soft at once, with a long cinnamon spice finish. The high proof works, and you can slowly sip this without fear. But a bit of water brings out the sweet depths in this whiskey and accentuates the nice balance between the many elements at play, with enough dark caramel and honey to please any bourbon fan for sure. The time in the barrel has rendered this far richer than many may expect from a wheat whiskey (regular Bernheim is known for being on the lighter side).

Parker's Heritage Collection 2014 Wheat Whiskey LabelEven better than adding a touch of water, a single ice cube works some magic here as it slowly cools and dissolves into the whiskey. The texture becomes thicker, lightly syrupy even, and the whiskey performs a tremendous tightrope walk of wood and spice and sweetness and grain and heat. I just want to chew and chew on it, and the long slow finish keeps you coming back for more. It gets more delicate, lightly floral, smoother and even chewier as the ice seeps into it, never reaching the point of being too watery. And as the ice settles in, it skirts into a more Scotch-like territory, with prominent grain notes coming forward  (as in a lighter, more floral and fruity Scotch, nothing smoky or peaty here). The cooled down finish carries mellow and warm grain plus tinges of cinnamon red hots at the end.

After enjoying the glass with an ice cube, I go back to a neat sip and that Bit-O-Honey pops out strong again. The range of expression here is crazy and fascinating. This is a drink well worthy of exploration.

There’s a good chance my love of this will be an outlier vs. others’ opinions. Is a thirteen year old barrel proof wheat whiskey going to be everyone’s cup of tea? No. Actually, I doubt anyone out there has ever tasted a thirteen year old barrel proof wheat whiskey. But this is remarkable and interesting stuff for any whiskey fan. And entirely unique. The extra age and the extra proof give this wheat whiskey an intriguing combination of wood and grain. Parker’s Heritage Collection has turned out a real winner here – something different, something stellar. Highly recommended if you can find a bottle, and the $90 recommended price is not bad at all for whiskey of this caliber.

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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 Heaven Hill.
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Elijah Craig 23 Single Barrel: Review and Tasting Notes

Elijah Craig 23 Bourbon whiskey

Oh, Elijah. I love what you’re up to up there in Bardstown. That 12 year old barrel proof beast of a bourbon? It’s simply one of my favorite bourbons of the past few years (though I wish it were a bit easier to find, and I wish the prices hadn’t crept up at retail from $40 to $60 in most places – but thank you anyway for keeping it coming). I was  impressed with your 21 year old single barrel release last year. And now you’ve come out with another limited release, of 23 year old single barrel bourbon – actually distilled and barreled just a few months apart from the 21 year old, but left to age a bit longer. That 21 year old single barrel showed well – not too woody, plenty of intrigue, a fine example of a nicely aged bourbon. Which, let’s face it, is an increasingly precious thing. So I was curious to see how two more years in the barrel might show itself.  Of course, Heaven Hill purposefully chose barrels for this new 23 year old that would best show at an advanced age – this time coming from the middle floors of their rickhouses. Let’s see how it stacks up to the 21.

Elijah Craig 23 Single Barrel Bourbon

Elijah Craig Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Aged 23 Years
Barrel #26, barreled on 2-26-90
90 Proof, Approx. $200 Retail
Tasting Dates: August 28-September 8, 2014
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff
(and pushing into Excellent on the nose)*

First off – the visuals. Comparing this side by side with the 21 year old release from last year, you’ll first note the same lovely bottle design (it better be at these prices), now with a dark camouflage-green label (and the edge of the label looking even more camo-like). We’re huntin’ old whiskey here. As for the stuff inside, the color of the 23 is just a notch deeper and more auburn than the 21, as might be expected.

On the nose, I thought (and still think) the 21 was like “sawdust baking in the summer heat in an old wooden barn… rum raisin mixed with a bit of purple grape… (working) together surprisingly well… hints of rye spice underneath, but not at all sharp or green.” This single barrel 23 follows a very similar profile – these are close cousins – but I’m getting a deeper brown sugar, and the grape notes take a backseat to ripe peach – like peaches caramelizing in a skillet, with a bit of almond paste thrown in. There’s a bit more dark oak, and still a good amount of heat (this is a powerful 90 proof). When I first opened this bottle, the wood notes often overpowered the fruit and spice and flattened everything else out, but over the course of a week being open, the bottle really settled down and heady whiffs of cinnamon brown sugar helped to push the nose into truly lovely territory – not too dark or deep or woody at all, simply harmonious.

For the 23 year old, I could copy and paste my first thoughts on tasting the 21, because they still ring true: “strong and persistent burn on the tongue, not unpleasant, but… strong for 90 proof. It manages to be full and thick without feeling syrupy, with a mouth-coating presence that seeks out every nook and cranny. There’s an almost-burnt-caramel quality to it, but it doesn’t comes across as sweet since the wood and clove-like baking spices are there tackling the sugar. This may not help to say, but it feels old in a way that is neither astonishing (as in the Pappy 23 year old) nor upsetting.” What I find, though, is that the extra age on the Elijah 23 is tipping this a bit out of balance, coming across as dried out at times. I wouldn’t call this over the hill, but it’s wobbling at the precipice.

A cube of ice mellows things out and brings out the butterscotch notes, but, just as it did in the 21, the ice strips away the unique aged character of the bourbon as well, making it more pedestrian. My preference on the 23 is to drink it neat.

I previously gave the Elijah 21 an “Excellent,” and I think the 23 delivers to that level on the nose – but I also find that the additional two years bring the 23 down a notch in terms of balance and liveliness – at least for the single barrel that I tried. Yes, if you want to experience an older bourbon, this is a great option. Like I said, any 23 year old bourbon is inherently precious stuff, and quite hard to find these days. In fact, this limited release of Elijah Craig will likely be evaporating from store shelves faster than a 23 year old bourbon makes its way  through the barrels and up towards the angels. I commend Elijah Craig / Heaven Hill for continuing to set aside good barrels to keep giving folks the opportunity to try extra aged bourbon (and consciously seeking the right barrels to go the distance). But I also look forward to allocating my bourbon dollars to the much younger 12 year old barrel proof version!

Please note that there WILL be variation from barrel to barrel – thus is the nature of single barrel bottlings.

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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 Heaven Hill.

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