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Hochstadter’s Vatted Rye: Review and Tasting Notes

Hochstadter’s Vatted Rye: Review and Tasting Notes

Hochstädters Vatted Rye Whiskey

Let’s hit this. Five facts about Hohchstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye Whiskey, followed by a review and tasting notes.

  1. This rye hails from Cooper Spirits Co. – the company that unleashed St. Germain upon the world. It should also be noted that these are the folks behind the eclectic portfolio that includes:
    1. Lock Stock & Barrel, the well-regarded (sourced Canadian) 13 year old straight rye whiskey
    2. Slow and Low, the bottled “Rock and Rye” cocktail that clocks in at 84 proof and is made with sourced rye, orange peel, and raw Pennsylvania honey
    3. Creme Yvette, the super-geeky liqueur from France with a long history of being used in super-geeky cocktails (which of these three is not like the others?)
  2. It’s the first rye officially designated as “vatted” (eh, marketing speak, but I dig the fact that they are relatively open that this is a blend of several sourced ryes)
  3. It is composed of five ryes ranging from 4 to 15 year old, from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Alberta, Canada, all “hand selected” by distiller Robert Cooper. At least we know that much.
  4. It’s 100 proof. Great for cocktails.
  5. It’s only $35. Which amounts to a darn good price point for rye these days.

So, interesting right? Blended rye, 100 proof, good price. Let’s give it a shot.

Hochstadter's Rye Whiskey VattedHochstadter’s Vatted Straight Rye Whiskey
100 Proof, Approx. $35 retail
Tasting Dates: Feb 12 – 15, 2016
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff*

Digging in to the nose here, a dark cherry sweetness jumps out, almost like you’ve thrown a Luxardo cherry into an Old Fashioned. I’d say it leans a bit more bourbon than rye – a mellow sweetness, warm spices, a bit of toasty wood – but there is a subtle rye spice buzzing in the background. It’s mellower and sweeter than a Rittenhouse Rye, for example (another well-priced 100 proofer).

Sipping neat, the heat comes out quickly. There’s a red hot cinnamon-y burst that comes on strong and stays through a very long finish. The dry spice of the rye comes through as well, but frankly this begs for water, ice, or some vermouth.

With a touch of water, the nose lightens up, some orange peel notes come out – sandalwood? Is that too obvious? In any case, it’s less dark cherry and more blood orange with the water under its belt. And it’s much improved for sipping, too, as the heat and cinnamon comes in check, and the rye bread character emerges a bit more. Not bad at all, but I wouldn’t put this in the same league as a Rendezvous Rye (from High West, around $50) where the older rye in the blend (which is 16 years old and 6 years old) has a more obvious and distinctive presence. The vatting approach here definitely produces a harmonious result, but not one with the depth of character that I was hoping for.

As for the standard test of any rye for cocktail-making – it does great in a Manhattan. Not too sweet, not too spicy, not too strong (but sweet, spicy, and strong enough alongside the sweet vermouth). I’m kinda digging this more than Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond (though I must admit that I’m not as thrilled with current-day Rittenhouse as much as I was with the Brown-Forman-produced version that was around until early 2015).

Hochstadter’s Vatted is a good rye, an interesting approach to blending, a well-priced rye, and a good rye for cocktails. But don’t expect it to knock your socks off sipping neat.

By the way, Hochstadter’s rye has distribution in 17 states, though is still jumping through the regulatory hoops of actually getting it onto shelves in some of those – including Georgia. In the meantime, try your maybe-not-favorite online reseller.

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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 Cooper Spirits Co.

 

Crown Royal? Yes, Crown Royal. Northern Harvest Rye and Monarch Whisky

Crown Royal? Yes, Crown Royal. Northern Harvest Rye and Monarch Whisky

Crown Royal Rye and Monarch

I’ll admit it. I wrote off Crown Royal long ago. I wouldn’t quite turn the stuff down, but seek it out? No chance. That cheesy purple velvet bag? That ostentatious golden crown? The fact that they have a “Regal Apple” apple flavored whisky? The fact that they’re from Canada!? But I also have to admit… Jim Murray’s absurd proclamation caught my eye.

What proclamation you may ask? (unless you’re a hardcore whisky geek, in which case you already know where this is going.) Well, Jim Murray is pretty widely regarded as a leading expert in the world of whisky. He is also well-known for making attention-mongering proclamations. And this year, it was his surely-intentionally-shocking singling out of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye as “World Whisky of the Year” that mongered attention. That’s right. A Canadian rye. From Crown Royal. World Whisky of the Year. Beating out Scotland and America and every other country that is not the home of poutine. Now, I had no expectation that this particular Canadian whisky was really the world’s best anything, but I was intrigued enough that I had to try it. Jim Murray’s shenanigans got my attention.

Being Crown Royal, the Northern Harvest Rye is widely available, and if not quite jumping off the shelves, selling at a pretty good clip thanks to the publicity. Its understated beige velvet bag is a nicely subdued alternative to the regal purple found wrapping up regular Crown Royal. And Murray’s proclamation wasn’t totally undeserved based on other industry insiders’ reviews – the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye also recently earned a Gold Medal and an Award of Excellence (no idea what that means) at the Canadian Whisky Awards. (The competition’s overall winner was Lot 40 Rye Whisky, of which I’m a fan.)

I also started digging a bit more into what Crown Royal was up to, and – amid the furor over Murray’s news – found several folks in-the-know singling out Crown Royal’s limited 75th Anniversary release called Monarch as an even better whisky. Sure enough, come December (yes, I’m behind on writing this up), Whisky Advocate named the Crown Royal Monarch as their Canadian Whisky of the Year. The Monarch, which actually first came out back in 2014, also won a Gold Medal at that year’s Canadian Whisky Awards. The only problem was – the Monarch (unlike the Northern Harvest Rye) was in very low supply and hard to track down. Luckily, I stumbled upon some bottles while I was on vacation – at a bargain price ($40) to boot.

So, how are they? Is the Northern Harvest Rye really a world-beater? Is the Monarch enough to change your perceptions of Crown Royal forever? On to the review and tasting notes…

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, Blended Canadian Whisky
90 Proof, Approx. $30 Retail (though I’ve seen everything from $25 – $50)
Tasting Dates: Dec. 2015 – Jan. 20, 2016
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff 

OK, Jim Murray. This is a fine rye. A fine example of Canadian rye. But “World Whiskey of the Year”? Give me a break.

First off – what exactly is this? Crown Royal says it is 90% rye. Canadian winter rye at that. The same rye that is a blending component in regular Crown Royal. How long is it aged? I have no idea. They’re not saying.

Now to the nose – which has a touch of wood, a bit of trademark rye sharpness, a touch of minty wintergreen, a bit of clove, and then a very prominent fruity note that reminds me of strawberries that have been sitting in balsamic – both bright and deep. In a similar vein, hints of Beaujolais-like notes pop in and out – fruity, juicy stuff. This is definitely not bourbon, and definitely not a typical (MGP) American rye, either.

On the palate – this Crown Royal stands apart from the regular stuff, though it does carry a similar thick and smooth mouthfeel. As some Canadian ryes tend to be, it is quite fruity, though the wood and cinnamon notes are more pronounced now than they were on the nose, as the mint fades to the background. The finish, to me, is a bit shorter and sharper than I’d like to see, especially given the Crown Royal pedigree. That said, it doesn’t feel either too young or too old, managing to convey a good bit of depth without going overboard.

A touch of water does nicely, bringing out some caramel and pulling the disjointed sharpness back into check. Ice makes it smoother and sweeter still, though interestingly brings out some dill notes on the nose, too, that some may find bothersome. Personally, I’d skip the ice – as it manages to call out the sharpness in the finish in an unpleasant way, and amps up that balsamic sweetness at the same time.

As for its use in cocktails, I find the Northern Harvest Rye to be a bit too… peculiar, in a distracting way. The fruitiness in particular detracts in a Manhattan, though I’m sure a good bartender could figure out a better use for this Canadian rye. And, if you can find this for $30, I do think it’s worth giving a shot to experience an interesting (if not world’s-best) Canadian rye.

Crown Royal MonarchCrown Royal Monarch, 75th Anniversary Blended Canadian Whiskey
80 Proof, Approx. $60 Retail (though I’ve seen everything from $40 – $70)
Tasting Dates: Jan. 1 – Jan. 20, 2016
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent

This limited release was meant to harken back to some of the early versions of Crown Royal. Crown Royal pulled from their stocks of aged whisky – “including a special whisky from the historic Coffey rye still, residing in Gimli, Manitoba.”

Again, no age statement or particulars. So it’s up to the tasting. On the nose, this is clearly an older, more elegant expression of what Crown Royal can be. There’s a bit of dark oak, and a prominent nutty character mixed with baking spaces – think pecan and nutmeg -with a hint of burnt orange peel. Lovely stuff.

On the palate, now this is getting really good – layers and layers of flavor, rolling over and over on the tongue. The nutty notes are dialed down from the nose, the dark brown sugar is there but very much in the background, and a toasty grain character (less rye than barley or even wheat to me) comes through, especially in the warm, long finish. There’s certainly rye in there, but it pops up in spots rather than dominating the taste. And there’s a dark berry fruitiness as well, but not nearly as prominent as in the Northern Harvest Rye. This is blended whisky done right.

Water? No. Doesn’t need it. Ice? Well, now this is interesting. Add a cube or two of ice and this starts to really loosen up, reminiscent of an orange blossom sweet tea on a hot day – smooth and refreshing. If you want to be contemplative, stick with a neat pour. If you want something deeply enjoyable, add some ice to make for a guilty pleasure. This is, to my tastes, leagues above that “world whisky of the year” – so if you can find a bottle, grab it. I wish I had taken more than the one bottle I did. But I bet Crown Royal will continue to offer some similarly interesting expressions over the years to come. I’ll be watching.

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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 of the Northern Harvest Rye was provided by Crown Royal.

Sorghum Meets Whiskey: A Southern Love Story

Sorghum Meets Whiskey: A Southern Love Story

Sorghum WhiskeyThere are plenty of folks who may disagree, but, among the pantheon of great Southern consumable liquids, surely sorghum syrup and whiskey are among the mightiest. Neither are exclusively Southern, far from it actually, but both have a storied history in our region and an inescapable connection to it still. According to the National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Association (the NSSPPA to those in the know), the two U.S. states that lead our sorghum syrup production are Kentucky and Tennessee. And what do you think of when you think of Kentucky and Tennessee? Whiskey. Thank you very much. So when you come upon the surprisingly rare meeting of these two Southern stalwarts –  sorghum and whiskey – it is cause for celebration, like a soiree out on the lawn on a moonlit Southern summer night toasting the union of two lovely souls.

Let’s back up, though, and take a longer look at sorghum, which is surely the lesser known partner in this pleasure-powering duo. If you’ve ever driven through rural Tennessee in late summertime, there’s a good chance you’ve seen sorghum out in the fields. And there’s an equally good chance you thought you were looking at corn. Similar stalks, bright tropical green leaves, as high as an elephant’s eye. The sorghum stalks do produce a grain, again not dissimilar from corn (popped sorghum is a thing, and it easily gives popped corn a run for the money in the crunch and flavor department), but sorghum’s greatest gift to humanity is the syrup which comes from pressing those stalks and boiling down the juice. It was a staple on Southern tables in the first half of the 20th century, gracing biscuits daily, but fell out of favor as sugar prices fell and farm labor costs grew. Thankfully, sorghum syrup is seeing a recent rebirth in attention thanks to chefs like Sean Brock and Linton Hopkins around the region who are eager to fully embrace the region’s historic culinary riches.

Despite the fact that sorghum syrup production is down to just 5% of what it was back in the early 1900’s, there are still a handful of sorghum syrup artisans out there making products every bit as delightful as the finest Vermont maple syrup or Tupelo honey. The jug I happen to have on my counter was purchased at Atlanta’s Star Provisions, and comes from Muddy Pond, a Mennonite farm in Tennessee. Mark Guenther and his family have been working their soil since the mid-1960’s, and continue to win raves for their outstanding sorghum syrup. Imagine taking the best qualities of a floral honey, a rich molasses, and a deep maple syrup and you’ll conjure up something like Muddy Pond’s sorghum syrup. While we’re on the topic, to get a better feel for Guenther and his family sorghum farm, please go watch this short from the Southern Foodways Alliance – it’s a far more immersive introduction to sorghum than what these words will provide.

Muddy Pond Sorghum
Now, as we turn our attention from sorghum to whiskey, let’s first think about sorghum as it relates to the world of spirits. Of course, sorghum can be used to replace sugar in cocktails (check out this fine concoction from H. Harper Station’s Jerry Slater, shared over on the Bitter Southerner), but it’s little stretch of the imagination to see that sorghum syrup could also be used in a manner similar to molasses – which is to say, as the basis for rum. Simply put, sorghum syrup has the sugar necessary to convert to alcohol, and the flavor to make it delicious alcohol.

But – you may ask – how do we get from rum back to whiskey, which was the whole point of all this? Well, there’s a bit of semantics here. Rum, by legal definition, must be made from sugar cane. A sorghum-based spirit simply can not legally be called rum. So a spirit made from sorghum must be whiskey, right? Well, the U.S. government says that whiskey must be made from “a fermented mash of grain.” Sorghum does indeed produce a grain, but most of the few sorghum whiskeys on the market in the U.S. (and there are a couple) are made from sorghum syrup (from the cane), not the grain itself.  (Side note: check out more geekery on this topic over on Chuck Cowdery’s blog – and also note that the Chinese have a very popular spirit called baijiu which is actually made from fermented sorghum grain and is reportedly the most-consumed spirit in the world!). But what if the sorghum grain were mashed up alongside the cane to produce the juice that gets boiled down to make the sorghum syrup? Turn’s out, that’s exactly what the good folks at Muddy Pond do out in their sorghum fields.

New Southern Revival Sorghum Whiskey

In Charleston, High Wire Distilling Company has been turning heads since its opening in 2013 with some distinctly Southern spirits. They’ve crafted a watermelon brandy from the juice of 273 heirloom Bradford watermelons from a nearby farm. They’ve also turned fresh-pressed local sugar cane into a purely Carolina take on Caribbean rhum agricole. Owner and head distiller Scott Blackwell seems to always be on the hunt for compelling ingredients to serve as the basis for his spirits, and he struck a small bit of Southern gold when he teamed up with Muddy Pond, the Tennessee farm mentioned above, to source sorghum syrup for his New Southern Revival sorghum whiskey.

I chatted with Ann Marshall, Blackwell’s wife and partner in High Wire, at a recent trade show to get the lowdown on their sorghum whiskey.  Their sole supplier is Muddy Pond, and Marshall notes that “their sorghum syrup is the most unique we have ever encountered, and we have been unable to source anything else quite like it.” High Wire has been buying Muddy Pond’s sorghum by the drum, and has already discovered that there’s not quite enough available to get them through the year. The sorghum harvest comes each September and October, so by the following summer, it’s just about gone. High Wire’s current releases of sorghum whiskey came from last year’s crop, and the whiskey sees four to six months in 15 gallon barrels to provide a bit of aging and character from the wood.

High Wire’s sorghum whiskey tastes like a far older spirit than a mere six month old. More interestingly, it somehow manages to tingle tastebuds with colliding but harmonious notes reminiscent of three other spirits you might be more familiar with – rum, bourbon whiskey, and rhum agricole – each emerging for moments of solo clarity before falling back into the chorus. The rum-like butterscotch tends to hold sway, but grassy notes reminiscent of a good rhum agricole come through, and then whiffs of vanilla and oak that will have you thinking bourbon again. If you tasted it blind, you might have a hard time placing it, but once you know what it is, picking out the distinctly-sorghum sweetness is easy, especially underpinning the long, warm finish. This sorghum whiskey makes for a lovely Manhattan or Old Fashioned, but the sorghum character is better appreciated sipping neat or with a cube of ice.

The biggest problem I have with High Wire’s sorghum whiskey is that there’s so little of it to be found. That said, High Wire does distribute all around their home state of South Carolina, and their products can be found (if you’re lucky) in Atlanta, Savannah, Washington D.C., and New York as well. If you can find it, grab a bottle. Better yet, grab that bottle, some Muddy Pond sorghum, then whip up a batch of biscuits for a bunch of friends and family. There’s a whole lot of Southern love to be found in that little party.

New Southern Revival Sorghum Whiskey
88 Proof, Approx. $60-$70 Retail
Tasting Dates: August 25 – September 24, 2015
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent 

New Southern Revival Sorghum Whiskey

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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 High Wire Distilling Company.

2015 Parker’s Heritage Malt Whiskey: Review and Tasting Notes

2015 Parker’s Heritage Malt Whiskey: Review and Tasting Notes

 

Last year, when Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage Collection release came out, I characterized their annual offering as “like a box of boozy chocolate… you never know what you’re gonna get.” Indeed, last year’s version was a wheat whiskey – a fabulous, awesome wheat whiskey – and the years before that saw a “lovely selection of ten year old bourbon…  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 ninth version of the collection, we get a Kentucky malt whiskey.

A KENTUCKY malt whiskey? When you read that, you’re probably thinking that would be the one piece of chocolate that bourbon fans would eye warily in the box – the piece that lingers long after the other chocolates have been eagerly snapped up. Malt whiskey is something that they do very well over in Scotland, and even in Japan, but good old Kentucky? There are a growing number of American malt whiskeys, especially of the craft variety – Stranahan’s is a great example, and other notables include Westland, Cut Spike, Balcones, Hillrock, St. George, Hudson, and Corsair. But Kentucky distillers? They’ve mainly stuck to bourbon and rye.

This year’s Parker’s Heritage release started with an experimental run of 141 barrels of  whiskey that master distiller Craig Beam put up in November 2006 – at 65% malted barley and 35% corn. It sat for a bit over eight years in new charred oak barrels (on the relatively high 5th and 7th floors of Heaven Hill’s Rickhouse Y for all you barrel geeks) before being bottled at 108 proof, with no chill filtering. Co-master distiller Denny Potter noted that Heaven Hill has “always prided ourselves on the high percentage of barley malt in our straight bourbons and ryes” – so there is a reason they decided to try out a more malt-centric whiskey so many years ago.

Will the market be clamoring for a Kentucky malt whiskey? I don’t know. But last year’s Parker’s Heritage wheat whiskey certainly showed the demand for a unique, well-made Kentucky whiskey that’s neither bourbon nor rye. Props again to Heaven Hill for pushing the whiskey envelope, and for supporting a good cause in the process (a portion of proceeds again benefits ALS research). So on to the tasting notes…

Parkers Heritage MaltParker’s Heritage Collection, 2015, Kentucky Straight Malt Whiskey
108 Proof
Approx. $100 Retail ($5 goes to Heaven Hill’s efforts to support ALS research)
Tasting Dates: September 01 – 08,  2015
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff*

Dark amber color, actually looking a good bit like maple syrup. It will get a bit cloudy (and lighter amber) with ice.

The nose is fairly mellow, subdued. You certainly get a bit of the wood influence from those eight years in the barrel, with faint cedar, maybe even a bit of pine, light brown sugar, light leather, a bare trace of vanilla. A touch of water or ice brings out a bit of crisp tangerine peel (not full on orange) and almond, plus a bit of poached pear. Behind it all is a noticeable but not in-your-face grain presence, lightly toasty and warm, a bit oatmeal-like even.

Sipping neat, it comes across a touch hot at 108 proof. Toasty/lightly-charred wood notes continue to emerge, as the dry wood elements from the barrel, somewhat sawdusty, are much more prominent here than on the nose. They are certainly more pronounced than the sweet aspects you’d typically get from a bourbon – and the grain notes from the malt still come through here as they do on the nose. A touch of water or ice expectedly smooths it out, brings out a light touch of caramel, and a very faint citrus fruitiness in the background, plus that sweet poached pear again. I still find it to be fairly mellow stuff – without the cinnamon brown sugar punch of Heaven Hill’s bourbons, nor the smoke or salinity most people may associate with Scotch.

The finish has a dry heat to it, and a hint of smoke (no peat, I repeat, no peat) – long and slightly bitter, though still pleasant. If you ask me, a cube of ice is the way to go, rather than neat, to get the most out of it.

Conceptually, I suppose this delivers exactly what you might expect from an eight year old Kentucky malt whiskey from a talented distiller – you get a balance of the typical Kentucky new char barrel, the grain-forward notes of a malt whiskey, and an overall profile that is a bit hard to pin down versus typical American whiskies. It’s not quite here (Kentucky) nor there (Scotland), but somewhere in the middle – a unique, well-integrated whiskey that doesn’t punch too hard in any direction. For those of you who seek out intriguing whiskies, this is certainly worth trying, and a great example of a big distiller’s take on American malt whiskey to contrast with its craft malt whiskey counterparts.

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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.
FEW Spirits: A few quick notes

FEW Spirits: A few quick notes

FEW_spirits

FEW Spirits, out of the great city of Chicago (well, Evanston, to be exact), has won boatloads of awards and received a good bit of acclaim as one of America’s leading craft distillers. Their rye whiskey was awarded Whisky Advocate’s Craft Whiskey of the Year in 2013, and their bourbon and barrel-aged gin join the rye with gold medals from the Beverage Testing Institute (if awards are your kinda thing). This spring, FEW expanded their distribution to include Georgia (and a few other states, they’re now up to 20 plus Washington D.C., and a handful of countries outside the U.S.), and sent me a few samples to get to know them better. Having spent a good amount of time in Chicago previously, I was well aware of FEW, but it was good to revisit their four main products.

The coolest thing about FEW is that they really make an effort to keep their production locally rooted – sourcing as much of their grains as possible from within 100 miles of the distillery, where they do all the fermentation, distillation, aging and bottling on-site. They famously grow the Cascade hops used in their American Gin in founder/distiller Paul Hletko’s own backyard. Herewith, some quick thoughts on their two primary whiskeys (one bourbon, one rye) and two primary gins (one regular, one barrel-aged). The rye, in particular, stands out to me as an excellent craft spirit worth seeking out. Oh, and don’t you love those photos up above? They come courtesy of FEW’s website, which also features a number of cocktail recipes for each spirit when you’re ready to play.

FEW_American_Gin1FEW American Gin
80 proof, Approx. $40 retail
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff* 

Interestingly, FEW’s American Gin is made from a wheated bourbon mash (70% corn, 20% wheat, 10% malted barley), with an intentional focus on the grains. They also include Cascade hops in the botanical blend and whole vanilla beans, plus more typical gin botanicals like juniper, bitter orange and lemon peel. Mild at first, with notes that may have you thinking … “vodka?” … before some interesting hints of green lemongrass and waxy vanilla seep in. Again, it’s mild when you first taste it, but you can pick up the subtle presence of the corn and grains, then a lingering acidic tingle with a juniper base finally jumps in on the lovely finish. This one grew on me and benefits from some air – and will do nicely in cocktails that call for a mild-mannered gin or as an introductory offer to any gin-averse friends.

FEW_Barrel_Gin1FEW Barrel Gin
93 proof, Approx. $50 retail
Thirsty South Rating: Good Stuff (approaching Excellent)*

FEW’s Barrel Gin actually uses a more neutral base than the American Gin (distilled to a higher proof and thus less grain presence coming through), and is also flavored with different botanicals to better harmonize with the barrel-aging. It goes roughly  6 to 9 months in a combo of new oak and FEW’s used bourbon and rye barrels. With just a whiff, this is much more intriguing than the American Gin, and – to me at least – you get both more of a gin/juniper presence AND the effects of the barrel also emerge in notes of warm sandalwood. Also on the nose, there’s a bit of lemon Pledge (in a good way!) and tropical fruit… think grilled pineapple. Sipping the aged gin also shows a nice layering of flavor, fairly rich and lush, with a lovely waft of floral notes coming in and out. The wood remains in the background, warm but subtle, and again the finish has a nice lingering juniper character that really shines.

FEW_Bourbon_WhiskeyFEW Bourbon Whiskey
93 proof, Approx. $50 retail
Thirsty South Rating: Fair* 

FEW’s bourbon mash bill is 70% corn, 20% rye, 10%  malted barley, and is fermented with a beer yeast that FEW says helps bring out some spice notes. No age statement, but it’s generally between two and three years. Give this a bit of air, too, to fully open up. The nose is quite nice, with some maple syrup, sawdust, and plenty of corn silk and that malt presence. Sipping, though, it comes across very young, in a not entirely pleasant way if you’re not a fan of young whiskies. I have a feeling this would really benefit from another couple years in the barrel, but as it stands, would have a hard time choosing this over much cheaper bourbons from larger distillers.

FEW_Rye_Whiskey1FEW Rye Whiskey
93 proof, Approx. $65 retail
Thirsty South Rating: Excellent*

The rye mashbill is 70% rye, 20% corn, 10% malted barley, and is fermented with a Loire Valley wine yeast that FEW says brings out fruity notes. The nose on this rye is super interesting, some cinnamon, deep juicy plum, clove and baking spice swirling around in a heady ethereal way. There’s a fascinating richness to it that is almost moving into Port territory. Sipping neat, more complexity still, a deep grape quality, a touch of sharp mint, and a background buzz of Christmas spice that builds on the finish. I’d love to see this one with a bit more barrel time as well (it’s also under four years), but it’s in a great place. My favorite of all the four FEW spirits tasted.

UPDATE (8/18/2015): Someone had asked what FEW’s barrel approach was on the bourbon and rye, so here’s a response from FEW’s PR manager, Jason Horn: “We’re actually using a mix of barrel sizes from quarter-cask up to the standard 53-gallon barrels. Paul blends different size casks of different ages together to get the flavor he’s looking for. In recent years, we’ve been moving toward a higher and higher proportion of the 53-gallon barrels, but it is still a mix.”

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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 by FEW.