While we are not able to offer these bottles to customers due to their extremely limited quantity, I was able to secure one set of the first twelve releases from Buffalo Trace’s highly anticipated single oak project. I definitely admire what BT is doing because as a whisk(e)y geek it’s absolutely fascinating – different bourbons being aged in barrels made from different parts of the tree, along with several other variables that all affect the flavor differently. They even have a website you can visit after you’ve tasted your bottle where you can leave your own personal feedback in exchange for the DNA info of each whiskey. It’s an ingenious way to get people involved in an education discussion of the product as well as obtaining valuable feedback from interested consumers. There’s just one gigantic problem – they didn’t make enough.
Even though the whiskies have been diluted to 45% and packaged in 375ml half bottles, there are still precious few of these whiskies available (when I finally logged into the BT website to leave my reviews there were only about ten to fifteen others – that’s nothing!) Each barrel is unique so imagine trying to supply the world’s demand out of one single cask! Tasting any one bottle on its own is meaningless because the goal is to understand them in conjunction with one another, so selling these single bottles as individual pieces was pointless. However, giving them all to one customer would be unfair as well as superfluous – these need to be analyzed in a group! I decided the only thing to do was buy the one set myself, call up seventeen friends, colleagues, and customers to split the cost, and divide the bottles up evenly. That way we allow the maximum amount of people to taste each bottle side-by-side as intended.
I recently finished my tasting session of all twelve and have rather mixed emotions concerning these bourbons. While I find each of them fascinating for what they are, I wouldn’t call any of them great or even worthwhile as a purchase. I loved tasting them and I will definitely buy the next set to do the same activity, but had I purchased these to drink and enjoy over time, I would have been gravely disappointed. Anyone thinking that they’ve missed out on the world’s greatest bourbon, fear not – these are far from a finished product, in my opinion. Others seem to agree because the average rating for most of these whiskies on the actual Single Oak website is around 70% which is a C- if I'm interpreting the scoring system correctly. Below are my tasting notes if anyone cares to read. All the whiskies in this group are eight years of age and the barrels were all toasted at #4 char.
Barrel #3 (top tree cut, rye mash) – all-spice, pencil shavings on the nose with vanilla, very peppery, resinous, and bright on the palate, finish is more pencil shavings and wood, very assertive
Barrel #35 (top tree cut, wheat mash) – brandied fruits on the nose with toasted wood and vanilla, an herbal, drying palate with toasted nuts, ashy finish
Barrel #68 (bottom tree cut, rye mash) – rich honey aromas blend into graphite with salted caramel. Slightly sweet on the palate with balanced richness, vanilla, and sandlewood. Saw dust on the finish,
Barrel #164 (bottom tree cut, wheat mash) – furniture store varnish with pencil lead aromas, green flavors, little richness if any, hints of grain, lean and lacking.
Barrel #99 (top tree cut, wheat mash) – unripe bananas on the nose with vanilla and Cognac, fatter textures and more developed flavors, spice and pepper on the finish
Barrel #4 (bottom tree cut, rye mash) – richer, more vanilla with sawdust underneath on the nose, supple palate with bolder wood flavors, green, vegetal, bitter on the finish.
Barrel #131 (top tree cut, rye mash) – green bananas with pencil shavings, paint thinner and Seagrams 7 on the palate, then all spice with a sandy, dusty finish.
Barrel #67 (tope tree cut, rye mash) – graphite, pencil lead aromas with faint vanilla, good baking spices with supple richness on the palate, herbal and resinous finish.
Barrel #100 (bottom tree cut, wheat mash) – candy peanut aromas with oak, rich more balanced palate with salted notes, balanced and lengthy finish.
Barrel #36 (bottom tree cut, wheat) – Payday candy bar aromas, nougat, sweet spices, nice vanilla notes on the palate, glowing with honey on the finish
Barrel #132 (bottom tree cut, rye) – brown sugar and molasses aromas, totally different than of the others on the nose, nutty, sherry flavors on the palate, tobacco finish.
Barrel #163 (top tree cut, wheat) – Baby Ruth aromas, black pepper and earthy must on the palate, faint richness but roars to a bold, spicy finish.
I tasted all twelve at the store with my assistant Kyle and we both felt that there was an overwhelming woodiness to all of these, but not new oak or vanilla. Most had a sawdust, pencil shavings, graphite, sandlewood element to them so I wonder where that’s coming from. Overall a great experience and I look forward to the next batch!
It's been a while since we've done some audio! Now that we've finally secured all of our casks from Scotland, we thought we'd break down the list and talk about each of the 18 total barrels. Listen to a few stories, tasting notes, and distillery information from our romp through the Celtic heartland. To download click on the link here or visit our iTunes site. For a complete list of previous podcasts please go to the link on the right hand margin. You can also listen via our embedded player below.
If you know you can’t spend any more money this month then please stop reading now.
We’ve finally locked in the pricing on our final four casks from Scotland and they are STUPID cheap. You’ll all be wondering how we did this, but all I can tell you is that we managed to get some close friends to help with the importing. That way we got wholesale pricing, rather than distribution pricing. The results are below. Four different decades, four insane deals. All scheduled for late November/early December arrival.
2000 Bowmore 11 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Sherry Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky – PRE ARRIVAL $72.99 - This one took quite a while to secure, but we finally landed another slam-dunk cask: a sherry-aged barrel of delicious Bowmore single malt! I'll never forget looking at David OG's face as we sat in the tasting room of the Sovereign offices tasting this whisky - "Tennis ball can?" we both said, nosing the complex whirlwind of aromas emanating from the glass. Vanilla, rich raisined fruit, creamy sherry, and yes a bit of tennis ball can! The palate is where the Bowmore campfire smoke and peat moss creep in and lead one's mouth to a succulent, savory finish. However, the nose is the real jewel of this whisky and David OG sat for more than twenty minutes just smelling it and smiling. Who doesn’t love sherry-aged Islay whisky, especially when it’s from Bowmore?
1980 Caol Ila 30 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky – PRE-ARRIVAL $174.99 - If you can't believe your eyes at the price of this Caol Ila 30 year old single barrel, cask strength bottle, we can't blame you. Is it a close out? No. Is it just not good? Sorry, we don't buy bad whisky. How is it that K&L is able to get an entire barrel of elegant, smoky, mature Islay whisky and sell it for $175? We'll let you in on a secret - we worked very hard to get these casks imported directly and we've enlisted the help of a few friends to get these incredible prices. Do a Google search and you'll find that the official Caol Ila comes in at about $350 while other expressions bottom out at around $280. This new relationship we've started with Sovereign from our recent trip to Scotland is the beginning of something very big - top level whiskies, all at cask strength, all at wholesale prices for our retail customers!
1990 Girvan 21 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Grain Whisky – PRE-ARRIVAL $73.99 - The home of the old Ladyburn distillery, this is the perfect sister bottle to our "Rare Ayrshire" cask (which unfortunately is now sold out). Girvan once housed the now defunct Ladyburn, but was more known for its role in creating the Black Barrel brand available in Scandinavia and Latin America. This is another whopper of a whisky that is difficult to describe. Dry, herbal, grainy on the nose, but the palate is expressive and clean, finishing with apples and pears in a fruity flurry of flavor. So much fun, but more for the experienced drinker than the novice. We loved the complexity of this whisky, but were very afraid about consumer interest due to its esoteric character. When we learned that we could work with an importer of our choice, we were able to negotiate an amazing price making this deal a no-brainer. Other prices on Girvan of this age (if you can even find a bottle) fester around the $100+ range, making our cask the equivalent of a closeout bargain. David OG and I felt a duty to import this barrel for the super whisky geeks out there, those who are never satisfied with the limited selection of most stores -the uber-curious, adventurous whisky connoisseurs everywhere. Compass Box's John Glaser told us we were making him proud!
1965 Caledonian 45 Year Old K&L Exclusive Sovereign Single Barrel Cask Strength Grain Whisky $149.99 - Closed forever in 1988, Caledonian was a Lowland grain distillery that was once famed for having Europe's biggest patent still. The nose is salted caramel and sticky Sauternes with rich and enticing aromas of sweet goodness. The palate however is grain all the way - lean and herbal, odd and exciting, crazy cool and super fun - truly a difficult malt to truly explain. Knowing this was going to be for the true whisky nerds out there, we originally decided to pass on this cask even though we loved it. However, when the owners let us deal via our own importer, we were able to work out a ridiculous price for such an ancient collectable (the closest comparison we could find was a 45 year Caledonian selling in the UK for more than $200). Similar grains of this age have sold at K&L in the past for over $300. While this bottle isn't for everyone, it is meant for the curious collector looking to branch out and understand the various styles of Scotch. Grain whisky has always been an important element of blended whisky and continues to provide the backbone to legends like Johnnie Walker Blue and Chivas Regal. While it has recently fallen out of "style," there is a strong grain whisky revival festering once again and we're glad to be, as usual, at the forefront of all whisky movements.
There's a lot of pretense in the enjoyment of alcohol and most of it is based on image. Society places value on knowing what's good and what isn't, so we of course feel the pressure to align ourselves with only the best! What amazes me however is when experienced vinophiles forget that their drinking habits weren't always quite so advanced and that they were once just as green as any budding enthusiast. I'll never forget going to a prominent local winery's tasting bar and trying to joke with the person pouring about the old days of Boone's Strawberry Hill. She stared at me, straight-faced, dead serious and said, "I never drank anything but great wine. Even when I was sixteen."
Drinking only what's "good" isn't something one can generalize because "good" isn't a blanket term. What people value depends on what they consider "cool" or desirable. I read an article in the New Yorker today that mentioned the "upper-middle class desire for authenticity" as a trend currently driving the food industry. I would venture to say that it's a topical force with booze as well, influencing the purchases of those who want to be viewed as more in touch with world culture. Other factors that currently affect our drinking image are points and ratings, rarity and collectability, and scale or size of production. Some people pride themselves on only drinking 90+ point wines, others only the whisky from closed distilleries. Some people are way too cool to drink anything you've ever heard of because they don't care about image (the irony is incredible).
Now I'm not pointing out the trendiness that influences other people's liquor purchases while considering myself above the fray. I'm just as susceptible to marketing and image as anyone else and so are most of the people I work with. What's interesting though is that, because we at K&L are considered experts, people tend to rationalize their purchases to us as if we are constantly judging them by what they buy (like the guys at the record store in High Fidelity). We are not some group of super snobs who only drink amazing, expensive, rare booze every time we imbibe. I, particularly, am very vulnerable to marketing and self-perception, and it has only been through trial, error, and much contemplation that I have come to the conclusions I have about alcohol and what it means to me.
No one wants to be seen as an uncultivated novice, but we all were at one point, so there's no point in acting like we're too cool. Every curious drinker tried to learn more about their passion by following other respected figures or those considered knowledgable - that's how we learned. What we also learned, however, (just like we did when we made friends on the playground as kids), was that certain wines, spirits, and cocktails could say something about the type of person we were. Some of us look back now to what we drank five years ago and laugh because we can't believe we liked some of the things we did, but those choices say something about our development as drinkers and as people. Our tastes have changed over time and so have our ideologies. Since I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about, I'll share with you some of the things I did when I was trying to "get into" wine and spirits.
-I started by purchasing the Wine Spectator and looked for all the affordable 90+ point bottles I could find. Then I called every store I knew of to find them. I figured this was what all serious wine drinkers did.
-I began downloading wine podcasts and listened to them while working out at the gym. I remember running on the treadmill at the Embarcadero YMCA after teaching all day, listening to three guys sit in their living room and talk about how many 90+ point wines they just finished drinking. In my mind I was learning more about wine. What I actually learned was how many 90+ point wines these guys were drinking.
-I watched Sideways over and over again and romanticized the idea of knowing as much as Miles did. I thought it would be so cool to sit with people and talk about wine the way it was done in the movie. It wasn't until years later that I realized he was supposed to be rather pathetic and annoyingly pedantic, as well as hypocritical.
-Once I hosted a dinner and was very proud of the fact that I was serving Yellowtail Chardonnay instead of Charles Shaw. It was a big step up in my mind.
-When I started at K&L I would go to the staff tastings, taste a wine I didn't like, but then learn later that it got great reviews so I would buy it anyway, thinking I'm supposed to like this. This happened many, many times.
-When I took over the liquor buying at K&L, I used to buy every single limited edition whisky bottle that came into the store thinking these must be the best because they're so sought after.
-I am still to this day more inclined to buy a wine if the label moves me. I love old school French labels that have a picture of a rustic farm or countryside drawn on them. It makes me think that I too am a Frenchman, sitting in the hills drinking some ploussard or slightly oxidized savagnin.
Is there anything wrong with any of the above admissions? I don't think so. They're not practices that I'm likely to follow now, but they're not too different from what many people do or have done. Nevertheless, some in the fine wine & spirits community (as referenced above) would die before ever admitting to having done something so elementary. Doing so might change their perceived image.