Bourbon Awesomeness

While David is knee deep in pre-arrivals (the biggest perk of being in SoCal is that our brothers and sisters to the north get stuck with all the pre-arrival duties) I thought I'd bust this out to make everyone a bit jealous. Sometimes it may seem that we have a dream job, hobnobbing around the world and tasting booze all day, but it's not all fun and games for David & I. There are, of course, some wonderful incentives, but the long hours and a hectic pace take an extreme amount of energy. We also deal with our fair share of nut jobs and wackos. I can't count the number of people who are personally offended when I tell them there's about a 1 in 1000 chance that they actually get a bottle of Pappy from us.  "But, I'm a great customer. I shop here all the time." Sir, you seem like a great person, but I have a record of your order history, so who are we fooling here?" Not that that would affect your chances whatsoever (at least this time), but I think you underestimate the commitment of the people I'd consider my "great" customers. "Sir, why don't you carry Leopold Gourmel Cognac? It is the absolute best cognac made anywhere in the world and if this store were legitimate it would certainly be stocked." Well, dear friend, it has been closed out fifteen times in the last 5 years, so I'm probably not going to waste my shelf space on something that will be available at a big box store in a few months for a fraction of the price. 

But, we LOVE what we do. It’s exciting and we’re passionate about it. Occasionally, because of what I do professionally, I benefit personally. Here is one of those moments captured in low light at the LA Whisky Society bar. We’ve been planning this meeting for a long time. While the LAWS crew is really good at finding great whisk(e)y, sourcing this type of stuff is hard for even the most experienced dusty hunter. We're pretty Single Malt focused, so it was a nice change to taste some special bourbons. It takes an insane amount of commitment to come up with finds like these. I was proud I was able to contribute something to the line up as well. Enjoy!

One thing about these old bourbons, if you're lucky enough to partake, is that first impressions tend to be way off the mark. Something about spending 50 years in the bottle leaves theses all tied up and I regularly hear anecdotes about some crazy old bottle tasting terrible on day one, but phenomenal a few weeks later. Anyway, in general I found that every one of these improved significantly as the night wore on.  Just a heads up if happen to open something like this and don’t find it quite up to snuff on first nosing.

Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond 1945-1949

This legendary brand was created by R. B. Hayden, whose grandfather was the eponymous Basil Hayden. This brand, also named for that man is still going strong as Jim Beam’s high rye bourbon.  Back in 1945 when this was distilled, it was owned by National Distillers and produced at DSP-KY-14, which currently a bottling line for Jim Beam.  This was bottled in bond in 1949 at 100 proof.

Man oh man; do you get that cinnamon spice on the nose?  As it opens up, you start to see more of this sweet tart, crushed candy aroma. This kind of OBE type aroma, a bit tinny in the background, it isn’t unappealing.  As it breathes I get more of that gorgeous oak, really old growth and exotic. On the palate, less spice comes through, but still some cinnamon. Now onto the pepper and a touch of heat. It’s pretty nice stuff, but it’s not a monster by any means. It’s medium weight on palate and the length is good, but not extremely persistent.  I found it quite drying and savory on the end. Fun stuff!

A. Smith Bowman Fairfax County Bourbon 1950-55

One of my absolute favorite labels of the night, why don’t they bottle bourbon so regally any longer?  A. Smith Bowman is part of the Sazerac portfolio today and they continue to make some interesting whiskey. Located in Fairfax County Virginia, close to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Estate. This is my first Virginia whisky and what a whisky! This was quite acrylic at first, exotic chemicals and corrugated steel. Clear OBE in my opinion. As you can see the label reads “Heavy Bodied Bourbon”. Indeed!  As it aerates the chemistry set turns more into exotic herbs and oolong tea. Fabulously awkward. Pine resin and underbrush, perhaps some baking spice. This is a weird one, but definitely unique in a good way.  Kind of love it.

Very Old Fitzgerald 8 Year Old 1948-1956

Alright, here we go. This is the Stitzel-Weller that we retailed for $1000. Its rarity is notable as well as its price.   Apparently, this is very different from the Stitzel VOF from the subsequent decades, but I’ve only been lucky enough to mess with the Pappy’s and it is truly a different style from that. This was distilled while Pappy was still running the distillery, so I’d like to think that this is the way he liked his bourbon. That said it should be noted that PVW brand is relatively new and his importance beyond founding the SW distillery was not particularly notable before his progeny began to market what has become the world’s most sought-after bourbon. I get tons of candied fruit on the nose. Orange peels, licorice, cedar, varnish and cocoa. Dark cherry and hibiscus power through with some air. Very dry oak tannins run through the entire palate. It’s austere and rather pointed. On the palate I get candies (orange, cherry?) and fresh wood, some varnish, and more flower type flavors. Definitely not what I was expecting. Not sure it’s worth $1000 beyond its rarity, but it is an absolutely unique expression from a legendary distillery.

The President’s Choice For A Distinguished Gentleman

Man this is getting good.  The Presidential Choice brand became commercially available in 1968, this was bottled in 1963. "This whisky was selected by the President of Brown-Forman Distillers Corporation for its perfect balance and true Kentucky Bourbon flavor, and set aside for his private stock. This rare Bourbon was custom distilled and specially bottled at the direction of the president at the proof of 90.3 selected for barrel #989843 through barrel #989867.” Clearly, it’s very rare and for the distillery only. This is from 24 consecutive casks distilled Brown-Forman’s Louisville plant, which produces Old Forester. I believe it was quite a bit older than the rest, maybe something like 15 years old. At first I was very disappointed, but I soon changed my tune. This is some really special stuff and just needed a little air. The nose began to show deep dark wood, dusty spices and freshly cut wood.  Polished mahogany, wood cleaner and a touch of tea tree. Intense berry fruit and old growth forest on the palate moves from cherry fruit to darker flavors, coffee and savory spice.  Man I just love this stuff. If you see it, buy it.

Eagle Rare 10 Year 101 Proof

This is one of these legendary foafs that you might actually still find in some dusty corner of your local bottle shop.  The Eagle Rare brand was originally created by Seagram’s to compete with the popular Wild Turkey brand. I can only imagine the meeting that plan was hatched, “Wild Turkey is killing us! We need a bird whiskey stat.” Eagle Rare 101 proof is generally regarded as excellent and it was distilled at the Old Prentice Distillery, which is modern day Four Roses. This is much more familiar than the others. On the nose some sweet citrus fruit, pepper, it kind of reminds me of Four Roses. Go figure. On the palate, a nice caramel richness, with soft spice and some cinnamon bite. A lot of the guys really liked this whisky and maybe it was just because everything else was so different, but this fell a bit flat for me. Not that it’s not a great bourbon, because it is, but it’s just not quite as special as some of these others

I.W.Harper BIB 1944-1948

Here’s one that was a bit of a dud.  Cool old bottle a customer gave me (thanks Kamal!), but with a terrible fill. I.W. Harper is from Bernheim Distillery in Louisville and this is some special decanter version. Basically, it was fun and weird lavender and old rusty metal, but it fell apart. I pretended to like it because I brought it.  I didn’t. This is what happens when you get a vaped bottle. Beware.

1974, Kentucky Vintage 25 year Bourbon
I actually liked the last one better than this disaster.  This bottling of Kentucky Vintage created exclusively for the Japanese market is presumably made by KBD. Apparently, this style is typical for the Japan, which is a shame as I couldn't like it less. Weird sulfur and rotten flowers, hot trash and stinky wood. On the palate it tastes like lavender extract, with a hot dusty spice that makes you want to cry. It finishes Burny and mean. Reminds me a bit of mid 80s Bowmore. Some guys really dug this, but I was not one of them. This is a big fat fail for me.  

Jefferson's Ocean Aged Bourbon

Okay, here it is. Perhaps the year’s most controversial whisky, Jefferson's Ocean continues to make waves. Sorry... We received one bottle and auctioned it for charity. It went for $1000. It retails for $200 typically and I lucked out because one of our members has the hook up. Apparently, some accounts got significantly more than we did, so if you want to spend $200 on a bottle of this stuff apparently you still can. I wouldn’t. It’s kind of a fun idea, but honestly there’s not a whole lot of there there. I was hoping for some sort of salty Islay bourbon, but instead we just get a fine young bourbon. It tastes a lot like some of Jefferson's other whiskey. I would be happy to spend $30 or so, but much more is too much. At least the proceeds went to charity. The nose has a soft spice, grainy sweet corn and a light fruitiness. This subtle nuttiness is followed by vanilla and some sweet oak on the palate. The finish is predictable, but not unappealing. I really like the concept and I feel like there is a way to make something like this even more "oceany." Hopefully they will experiment more with this style, as the cost is prohibitive, more production would presumably alleviate that issue.

So there you have it. Some legends, some surpises, some mehs, and some real stinkers. All in all an incredible tasting. Thanks to all the guys who made this possible.

-David Othenin-Girard

David Othenin-Girard