A Few Things

As many of you who read the Kentucky blog posts already know, we left Wild Turkey distillery on a complete high. We are absolutely pumped up about the kickin’ chicken right now. It’s not that the whiskey wasn’t good before, it’s that we had an entirely different connotation with the brand. While WT is one of the larger distilleries (pumping out 600 barrels a day in comparison to sub-300 numbers by Buffalo Trace and Four Roses), they don’t operate during the summer! Insanity, considering others are running 24/7 to keep up with demand. They close down because Jimmy Russell doesn’t think fermentation times in the heat of July make for good Bourbon. They’re totally old school about their production process and they’re not willing to sacrifice anything to capitalize on the current boom. They still cultivate their own yeast (unlike many producers who just use commercial powdered yeast) and they’re one of the few producers left (along with Four Roses) who still refuses to buy Monsanto GMO corn. Plus, their single barrel selections are absolutely fabulous. The single barrel Russell's Reserve is the result of Jimmy’s son, Eddie Russell, pushing for more “modern” releases. Jimmy isn’t a fan of the single barrel idea, but Eddie convinced him that they’re not changing anything about the whiskey, just the way that they’re choosing to bottle it. WT fills their barrels at a lower proof than other distilleries so the whiskey in barrel tends to be more mellow in flavor. I’m beginning to tire of the super high alcohol, bold and explosive style of whiskey, so that might be why Wild Turkey struck a chord with me. In any case, we’re extremely embarrassed that we were so out of the loop concerning WT and their whiskies, so we’re trying to get some of our credibility back now.

First thing’s first -- we’ve managed to secure more of what was a very-limited release earlier this year. Let’s just say that things went well while we were there, so there’s more where this came from. We only got about 12 bottles of this last time around, so grab while the grabbin’s good. I'm hoping these will be more readily available now.

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Kentucky Bourbon $53.99Bottled at 110 proof, the Russell’s Reserve single barrel isn’t labeled as “cask strength” but seeing that most single barrels of Wild Turkey we’ve tasted clock in at around 55% naturally, it might as well be. Wild Turkey isn’t a big, dark, rich, tannic style of whiskey. It’s a softer, more cinnamon and clove spice-dominated, easier-sipping style of Bourbon and the single barrel Russell’s Reserve might be the best product available from the distillery. It’s entirely drinkable at the full proof due to its more elegant style, but takes water or ice quite splendidly. Having recently visited the distillery, we’re now big fans of the kickin’ chicken here at K&L. The Russells have refused to alter their production methods to fit in with the current economic Bourbon boom. They still make old school Bourbon in an old school way and the single barrel is perhaps the best way to ascertain the quality of what they’re doing. Candy corn, mellow caramel, baking spices, and long, spicy richness that goes on forever, with just enough pop from the higher proof to really add that extra high note. Lovely, lovely stuff.

The single barrel RR is really fantastic whiskey and anyone wondering what’s going on over at WT, or who is curious about their hooch, should definitely check it out while we can still get more. I like it more than most of the other single barrel whiskies available right now, personally.

However, in addition to the single barrel RR, we’re also bringing in some of the not-so-new WT expressions we were lacking. For some reason we weren’t stocking these as well:

Wild Turkey Rare Breed Small Batch Barrel Proof Bourbon $39.99 - Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a 108.2 proof marriage of casks that brings more power and spice than some of the other more mellow WT expressions. It's woodier with more of the charred oak influence, but it handles that oak quite well. The finish leans more towards the herbaceous, but if you hang on until the end there's a lovely toffee and caramel note that sings a late swan song. Very fun whiskey that goes down way to easily.

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey $47.99Less spicy and leaner than the new Russell’s Reserve single barrel release, this Kentucky Spirit single barrel selections plays more to the mellowness that WT is renowned for: soft richness, the kick of high-rye, and a mild finish that lazily keeps lingering on long after it’s gone.

…and the newest release:

Wild Turkey Forgiven Kentucky Whisky $49.99 - Yet another whiskey release based on an accident or fatal event that didn't go quite as planned. When Wild Turkey accidentally dumped a vat of Bourbon in with their rye whiskey formula it sent master distiller Jimmy Russell through the roof. Eventually, however, all was "forgiven" when the resulting mess was expertly blended into something quite tasty. The result is what's now in the bottle: the spicy and herbaceous rye character is immediately apparent on the first sip, to the extent that the whiskey tastes mainly like straight rye whiskey. But the caramel and toffee richness comes late on the finish to help round it out. At first taste it may seem to be a one-note song, a one-trick pony, but give it a few minutes. There are layers and layers of flavor that need to be unraveled in the Forgiven and the whiskey rewards those who are patient.

I met with Anchor in San Francisco on Tuesday and I got a sneak peak at some of their new arrivals. This rum was delicious and we're planning on stocking it shortly.

This was the real stunner, however.  We’ve all heard a lot about these vatted malts from BBR, and now we can finally get ‘em in the states. I really liked this.

Berry Bros & Rudd Blue Hanger 7th Release Blended Single Malt Whisky $99.99 - Limited to only 3,088 bottles, this new variant of Blue Hanger is comprised of the following whiskies; one hogshead of Bruichladdich 1992, one butt of Bunnahabhain 1990, four hogsheads of Miltonduff 1997, and two hogsheads of Bunnahabhain Moine (peated) 2006. The blended malt whisky is named after William "Blue" Hanger, the Third Lord Coleraine, a loyal customer of Berry Bros. at the end of the 18th century. Considered one of the best-dressed men of his day, his nickname came from his preferred clothing color. Blue Hanger was originally a blended Scotch whisky intended for the diplomatic export market in 1934, but disappeared for a period of time until 2003 when Doug McIvor, spirits manager, began his experiments in vatting malts. His objective from the beginning has been to create the best blended malt possible from existing stock. The flavors are very soft and the Bunnahabhain comes through instantly on the palate, bringing the resinous, round, and subtly smoky flavors reminiscent of the distillery's older expressions. More smoke comes through towards the back, but there's always a rich, round, and supple texture persistent through the entire experience. It's a lovely whisky for fans of the the peated stuff that aren't looking for big, explosive, mouth-tingling smoke. A more refined experience overall and really interesting just because of the peated Miltonduff involved.

Lot's more to talk about but I'm short on time today.

-David Driscoll


Creating Different Bourbon Expressions

One question we're often asked by K&L customers concerning our various Bourbon selections is what makes one different from another. For example, if Buffalo Trace makes Buffalo Trace Bourbon, but also Eagle Rare, George T. Stagg, Rock Hill Farms, and a ton of other labels, then what's the difference between them? Obviously some whiskies are older than others. Some are obviously different in proof. But are those the only real differences?

I knew in advance of our trip that Buffalo Trace made three different mash recipes (high-rye, low-rye, and wheated) but I didn't realize that the distillery deciphered between Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare whiskies (both from the same mash recipe) by flavor rather than by design. The Eagle Rare Bourbon has a ten year old age statement, while the BT has no statement, so age can also be a factor, but according to the guys in Frankfort it's mainly decided by flavor. Certain parts of certain warehouses create similar flavor patterns in barrels as they mature, but they still taste through the casks to see which formula they're beginning to represent over time. If the whiskey tastes more like what they consider the Buffalo Trace flavor profile, they'll mark that barrel BT. If it's starting to taste more like Eagle Rare, then they'll call that one ER. In essence, the development of the barrel can often dictate which label it ends up a part of.

Heaven Hill had a similar explanation. Different parts of the warehouse, different alcohol percentages, and different flavor developments help to direct each cask into its ultimate expression. It's not always decided in advance, but rather later on down the line.

-David Driscoll


Voices in the Crowd

I was eating lunch with my wife today at Santa Ramen in San Mateo, a renowned noodle spot with a line out the door from open to close, and I couldn't help but eavesdrop on the conversation happening next to me. A young man was bringing his parents out to eat ramen for the first time with his Japanese girlfriend, who was trying to explain the significance of the soup to them. The parents were Chinese, so the couple was looking to use similar comparisons in Chinese cuisine to help them understand the experience. The father, however, was having none of it. 

"It's just soup," he said dismissively after the girl asked him what he thought. "It's nothing special. I eat won ton soup all the time."

"I think it's really about the broth," said the girl. "They cook it for eight to ten hours here and that's why it's supposed to be special."

"It takes hours to cook won ton soup, too," grumbled the father. His wife disagreed with that statement, but was critical of the soup's spiciness. "This isn't spicy at all," she griped. Until she got to the broth and almost choked on the fiery goodness. There was pretty much nothing the poor girl could do to get her future in-laws to appreciate the Japanese ramen. The father ended up leaving the table before the lunch was over after getting upset about the ten cent charge for a plastic to-go bag (a charge required by law now in San Mateo county). 

"They have to charge you for the bag," the girl said. "It's the law here just like in San Francisco."

"They don't charge you for bags in Chinatown," the man countered.

"Well, they're supposed to," said the girl.

You see this same attitude with whisky quite often – a certain stubbornness when someone tries to get another person out of their comfort zone. It might be a cultural defensiveness (like the above example) where one person's pride in their own heritage clouds their ability to appreciate another. I've met Kentuckians who won't touch a drop of Scotch whisky, and Highlanders who rather die than have a dram of over-wooded Bourbon. It might also be a reversal of roles where one person is angry that they're the person being introduced rather than doing the introduction. I got the feeling the father was also defensive because he wanted to be the one introducing the girlfriend to more Chinese delicacies, rather than the other way around.

I sometimes think that our egos are preventing us from really enjoying ourselves and the company of others. Very few people are willing to actually listen to you anymore. They're often too caught up in what they're going to say to you instead, or thinking about a similar experience that one-ups your own. The wine and spirits industry is rife with this kind of behavior, but maybe it's just a commonality among humans. And especially in-laws.

-David Driscoll


Kentucky Summary

I'm on the plane heading back via Chicago right now, going through the excess photos I've taken and thinking about some of the lessons I've learned and interesting tidbits I didn't get to fit into the series of posts this week. I am definitely leaving Kentucky with a very positive feeling concerning the producers we visited and their passion about whiskey-making. It is ultimately their fervor for fine Bourbon that inspires me, so I'm certainly recharged and motivated concerning my own. 

There are distillers in Kentucky who would rather make no Bourbon than mediocre Bourbon, even with the recent upswing in demand. In order to keep the supply chain satiated, many distilleries have added on extra shifts and are distilling every day without a rest period. It wasn't always this way for producers back in the day, especially during the summer months when many distilleries would shut down. Now that Wild Turkey has expanded into a newer, higher-volume facility, they can return to their old schedule, taking the summer months off to shut down the site. The reason behind this is the temperature. Jimmy Russell, like many before him, doesn't think that the distillate produced during warmer months is as good as the spirit produced during the Fall, Winter, and Spring. According to Russell, the fermentation times get all messed up and the resulting beer doesn't taste the way that it should. I'm not sure if Campari is too fond of this policy, but are you really going to tell Jimmy Russell how to make his whiskey?

Another interesting fact concerning Bourbon production is the location of the distilleries. Water is one of the most important facets of spirits distillation and you're going to need a quality well if you're going to make quality whiskey. Back in the day, before reverse osmosis was the norm and all water could be treated with ease, having the purest source of well water made a big difference in the quality of each Bourbon. Stitzel-Weller was known for having a fine well to draw from, which was part of the reason it was built out in Shively. The other had to do with taxes. Certain remote locations were free from restrictions and were easier to manage. This is currently the case with Adelphi's new distillery in Scotland, which is being built out the middle of nowhere for that same reason.

If you head out into the middle of nowhere, you can definitely find a number of old, non-operational distilleries from Kentucky's past, particularly if you see warehouses. Many ancient sites have been left completely as they were, while utilizing the rickhouse space without touching the still house. Heaven Hill purchased the old Glencoe distillery (in which David OG's grandfather once owned a share) for storage, but if you stumble out towards the back of the driveway the older facilities are still there. Being from the Bay Area, you don't see a lot of property just left unused like you do in Kentucky. It's really quite fascinating to know that these places still exist despite the fact they haven't been used in decades.

We hit up our share of liquor stores across the state to see if we would find anything interesting, but we didn't come up with anything crazy. I bought a pint of Very Old Barton 6 year 100 proof since we can't get that in California (only Ridgemont Reserve for us) and I really enjoyed it. It's a pretty good little whiskey, especially for the $8 it cost me. I snagged a 750ml as well for the suitcase. Another Sazerac whiskey we don't get is Ancient Age, so I ordered a glass of the AAA 10 year in downtown Louisville at dinner one night. When I went to find a bottle, however, all I ran across was one last 1.75L plastic jug at a remote Liquor Barn express. I asked if they had any 750ml bottles and they said the product was actually being discontinued. Other stores said they hadn't been able to order for months. That would follow suit with what we heard from the folks at Buffalo Trace. There's just not enough. 

The joke of the trip between us boys was definitely the Hot Brown. While we stayed at the Brown Hotel in Louisville for the first two nights, we failed to order what is perhaps the most famous local dish in Kentucky from the place known for making it best. Brian ended up getting Hot Browned (an open-faced turkey sandwich covered in cheese sauce) at Kurtz's in Bardstown. That was the last one any of us ate, but we definitely asked every person we met where we could get the best Hot Brown. That, of course, spiraled quickly into juvenile jokes about toilets. I still have the sense of humor of a six year old boy, so I was in tears most of the time.

Looking out at the bridge over the Kentucky river from Wild Turkey distillery, and into the forests beyond it, I was deeply moved by the beauty of the countryside in Bourbon country. There's definitely a feeling that gets into your bones when you there. It makes you want to watch horse races, and drink Bourbon, and eat Hot Browns. It makes you want to breath in the autumnal air and visit every distillery you can. Today there are Bourbons being made in Colorado, Massachussets, and even Texas, but there's something special about Kentucky. I'm not sure I've figured out exactly what it is yet, but I'm closer than where I was before. I guess it's probably just tradition, right? A heritage of which its people are proud and honored to be carrying on.

-David Driscoll


Pre-1964 Whisk(e)y Tasting @ Seven Grand - Oct 28th @ 7pm

Fresh off our LAWS VVOF tasting of legendary Stitzel-Weller bottlings, SoCal Whiskey Club is hosting an exceptional old whisk(e)y tasting of their own. While, we're wrapping up our trip to Kentucky, you could be sipping some pre-prohibition hooch in luxury. We've learned so much and accomplished an incredible amount, but the highlight of the week was tasting all this great Bourbon! We wish you could've all been here with us, everyone will get a crack at the casks we bought, but you can go celebrate our triumphant return with the SCWC guys @ Seven Grand in Downtown LA.

1. Old Sunny Brook 4yr Bourbon
93 proof - distilled 1937(?) bottled in 1941
2. Old Hillsboro Brand Bourbon
100 proof distilled 1937 bottled in 1942
3. G.R. Sharpe Old Style Whiskey
100 proof distilled 1913 bottled in 1917
4. Old Forester Bourbon
100 proof distilled 1952 bottled in 1957
5. Ambassador 25yr Scotch
86 proof distilled in the 1920's bottled late 1940's early 1950's
6. Ballentines 30yr Scotch
86 proof distilled in the late 1920's early 1930's bottled between 1954 - 1964

Buy a ticket - $75