Categories
Spirits Reviews Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Whiskey Review: John J. Bowman Single Barrel Virginia Bourbon


John Bowman BourbonJohn J. Bowman Single Barrel

Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Grade: three stars(Above Average)
Price: $50 (750ml)

I've been a resident of the Old Dominion for the past ten years, so I have a particular interest in Virginia spirits. This is especially true when it comes to the products made by A. Smith Bowman, since I lived just a few miles from the site of their old distillery for a big chunk of that decade.

The Bowman distillery was founded shortly after the end of Prohibition in a part of Northern Virginia that at the time was still very rural. Despite being less than twenty miles from Washington, DC, the area consisted mostly of farms and forestland.

Abraham Bowman and his sons began making whiskey there in 1934, and the company continued doing so for over fifty years, most of it sold under the Virginia Gentleman label. Although it is commonly believed that bourbon must be made in the state of Kentucky, this is not true. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. In fact, when settlers first started making bourbon in Kentucky, it was still part of Virginia.

As Northern Virginia became increasingly developed, and property taxes climbed, the Bowman distillery had to move sixty miles south to Fredericksburg. Eventually it was sold to the Sazerac company, owners of Buffalo Trace and many other brands of fine whiskey.

John J. Bowman bourbon is triple-distilled — the first two times at Buffalo Trace in Kentucky and the last time in a copper pot still at Bowman. It is then aged in barrels in the Bowman rickhouse in Fredericksburg. The climate of Northern Virginia is similar to that of Kentucky, but more variable, which has an effect on the aging of the whiskey. (Although I couldn't tell you what that is.)

This bourbon has a sweet, lively aroma of caramel and chocolate. The taste is dry and bold, more spicy than sweet. It's moderately hot at 100 proof, but not unpleasantly so. John J. Bowman has lots of flavor and a kick that will warm you down to your cockles. The finish is long and oaky with hints of vanilla. The bottle doesn't have an age statement, but it definitely has some years on it, probably north of ten.

I tend to prefer my whiskey a little less dry, but this is a very interesting spirit. It has a big, bourbon taste that I think a lot of whiskey drinkers are going to love, along with elements that remind me of aged Barbados rum like Mount Gay Extra Old. It's great to see the tradition of fine Virginia bourbon continuing, over two centuries after the colonists first began making it.

Categories
Spirits Reviews Taste Test Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Taste Test: Bourbons from $25 to $50

We conducted the second round of our bourbon taste test last weekend. The whiskeys this time all had a suggested retail price of between $25 and $50. (Our first Bourbon Taste Test featured bourbons under $25.) As was the case last time, some of the samples were provided by the distilleries and some were from my own cabinet.

The whiskeys were all tasted blind, so the participants didn't know which bourbon they were drinking. (I poured the glasses, so I had a vague idea of which order a couple of them were in, but I was very close to unaware.)

We tasted eight whiskeys, all Kentucky straight bourbons, ranging in proof from 80 to 120. The prices ranged from $29 to $40. The whiskeys were all drunk neat. With the exception of one, all of them were better than average, and the overall quality was higher than in the first tasting.

You can see the line-up in the photo below.

Bourbons
The bourbons were split into two groups of four, with a short break in between the two groups. Each whiskey was tasted in a 1/2 ounce serving, and then notes were made. We discussed each of the bourbons as we drank, and then discussed them all together once we were finished.

Here they are in the order tasted, with the grades we gave them and selected notes. The grades are based on quality alone, without regard to price.

Basil Hayden's 8 Year-Old
Price: $37
80 Proof
Final Grade: B-
The "sweet smell of vanilla" and toffee isn't matched by the flavor, which is "oaky" and rather plain. Starts off "sharp," but "fades quickly." It has some complexity and some spicy notes, but more would have been welcome. A decent bourbon, but nobody's favorite.

Jefferson's 8 Year-Old Very Small Batch
Price: $30
83 Proof
Final Grade: B-
A faint "slightly fruity" aroma leads to a smooth taste that "uncurls in your mouth." The flavor ends up woody and oily, more reminiscent of Scotch than bourbon. Better than average, but a little too one-note.

Four Roses Small Batch
Price: $29
90 Proof
Final Grade: C
A strong, "antiseptic" smell is followed by a dry, "bitter" flavor. More wood taste than anyone on the panel cared for. Complex and "assertive," but too rancio-like for our tastes. [This was a disappointment, as I've drunk this bourbon in cocktails before and enjoyed it. I suppose it's possible we got a bad bottle this time.]

Eagle Rare 10-Year Old Single Barrel
Price: $30
90 Proof
Final Grade: A-
Now we're talking! A delicious aroma of toffee leads to a sweet and spicy flavor. It's "nutty" and "warm" with a sensuous finish. A near-perfect balance of sweet and spice. This was the stand-out of the first round of four. A delicious bourbon. I could drink this every day.

Elijah Craig 18-Year Old Single Barrel
Price: $36
90 Proof
Final Grade: A
Wow! Eighteen years in the barrel have worked magic on this whiskey. It begins with a fruity, spicy smell and then gets even better on the tongue. The flavor is a mix of sweet caramel and vanilla, with enough oak — but not too much — to give it complexity. It closes with a finish that is warm and succulent. This bourbon is so good it's practically decadent.


Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select

Price: $33
90.4 Proof
Final Grade: B+
Opens up to a gorgeous, sweet, "fruity" aroma — this is a wonderful smelling bourbon. The taste is "oaky" and "nutty," well rounded and dry rather than sweet. It starts off smooth, but then kicks in with a long, spicy finish. A very interesting bourbon. Definitely worth exploring further.

Baker's 7 Year-Old
Price: $37
107 Proof
Final Grade: B+
"Earthy" and "nutty" (peanut brittle and toffee?) on the nose. The taste is likewise nutty and spicy, with enough heat to make you wake up and pay attention. There's some vanilla sweetness in there, but mostly dry overall. A complex, distinctive bourbon that demands to be sampled again.

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
Price: $40
120 Proof
Final Grade: B
Whoa! This is powerful stuff. A sweet, "candied" smell paves the way for a sweet and "bold" taste. (Did I mention this is strong?) It "dances around your mouth" with flavors of grain and fruit, and has a robust, spicy finish. [Editor's note: If I were to taste this again, I would dilute it so that more of the flavor would be revealed. I think it would score higher than.]

The Four Roses Small Batch didn't find favor with the panel, but all of the rest of the bourbons were greeted with open arms. The two that ranked the highest — Elijah Craig 18 Year-Old and Eagle Rare 10 Year-Old — were superb. But the bourbons that scored just under those were likewise outstanding.

This collection of whiskeys shows more than anything else how skilled and sophisticated the experts at the country's major bourbon distilleries are. Their mastery of crafting fine spirits is nothing short of outstanding. Bravo!

Categories
Spirits Reviews Taste Test Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Taste Test: Bourbons Under $25

We had three friends over last weekend to taste some bourbons. For this first group, the theme was "bourbons under $25." A few of the bottles were submitted by the distilleries, and the rest were from my own cabinet.

We conducted the tasting blind, so the participants didn't know which bourbon they were drinking. (I poured the glasses, so I had a vague idea of which order they were in, but I wasn't sure exactly which was which when we were tasting them.)

The results were surprising in some cases, and expected in others. All of the bourbons were judged to be at least okay — even the lowest scoring spirits were still okay.

We tasted eight whiskeys, all Kentucky straight bourbons, ranging in proof from 80 to 100. The prices ranged from $12 to $25, although most of them can be had for less if you shop around. You can see the line-up in the photo below.

  Bourbons

The bourbons were split into two groups of four, with a short break in between the two groups. Each whiskey was tasted in a 1/2 ounce serving, and then notes were made. We discussed each of the bourbons as we drank, and then discussed them all together once we were finished.

Here they are, in the order tasted, with the grades we gave them, along with selected notes. The grades are based on quality alone, without regard to price.

McAfee's Benchmark Old No. 8
Price: $12
80 Proof
Final Grade: B+
A pleasing vanilla aroma, followed by the taste of caramel. "Medium smooth" and "not sweet." "Middle of the road," but with a nice flavor. A very solid bourbon.

Zackariah Harris
Price: $12
80 Proof
Final Grade: B-
Slightly "bitter" and "oaky," but otherwise not a lot of flavor. A very brief finish. With slight dilution it all but disappeared.

Four Roses Yellow Label
Price: $18
80 Proof
Final Grade: B-
Divergent scores, but some found it "harsh" and without a lot of flavor. Everyone thought it smelled of vanilla, but no one could taste it. A long finish, but "not complex."

Wild Turkey 81
Price: $20
81 Proof
Final Grade: B
"Tangy" and "sour" and even "tastes like apple." Spicy and fruity with a medium finish, this was well-liked by most.

Maker's Mark
Price: $25
90 Proof
Final Grade: A-
"Complex" and with a "lot of flavor," this was the highest-scoring bourbon of the night. Several of us noted how the flavor "blossomed" on the tongue, "full of corn," with a long, enjoyable finish. Ranked #1 by three tasters, and #2 by the other.

Buffalo Trace
Price: $25
90 Proof
Final Grade: B
Sweet on the nose, but spicy on the palate. "Smooth" yet "bold," this was a crowd pleaser, but not a standout for anyone. The brief, spicy finish was noted by almost everyone.

Elijah Craig 12 Year
Price: $21
94 Proof
Final Grade: B-
A surprise last-place finish for a bourbon I've enjoyed on many occasions. A "sweet aroma" of toffee was followed by a "harsh bite" on the tongue. Warm and spicy, this one didn't earn much praise from anyone.

Old Forester Signature
Price: $20
100 Proof
Final Grade: B+
"Spicy," "fruity" flavors of corn, peach and oak combined with a smooth taste and a medium-long finish to make this one a popular choice. The strongest whiskey and the last of the night, it was our second favorite overall.

The most surprising result was Maker's Mark, which was the clear favorite of the night. A lot of people expect Maker's to be uncomplicated and even boring, but nobody felt that way. Maybe it was the extended time to open up, maybe it was that it was different from everything else — or maybe it's just damn good bourbon.

The best value choice was definitely Benchmark Old No. 8. I'd never even heard of this bourbon before, but it impressed everyone. Any bourbon you can buy on sale for under $10 that tastes this good gets the Professor Cocktail Seal of Approval.

Stay tuned for our next whiskey taste test: bourbons from $25 to $50. That should be coming next month.

Categories
Spirits Reviews Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Whiskey Review: Evan Williams 1783 Bourbon

Evan_williams_1783Evan Williams 1783
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Final Grade: A-
Price: $15 (750ml)

The Evan Williams family of whiskeys isn't as well known as some others (like Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, and Maker's Mark), but it should be, as they make some of the best bourbons for the money that you can find.

Evan Williams 1783 is named for the year in which Williams first established his distillery in Kentucky. It's a small batch version of Evan Williams Black Label that spends some extra time in the barrel. (It used to be labeled as being ten years old, but the distillery has since removed the age statement.)

Its production is overseen by the father-son pair of Master Distillers, Parker and Craig Beam, using (allegedly) the same process and traditional recipe made by the brand’s namesake. Who knows if that last part is true or not. What's certain is that the results are excellent.

The aroma of Evan Williams 1783 is succulent, full of sweet corn and vanilla. The flavor matches the smell, sweet and caramel-like, with some oak, a slight toastiness, and a touch of spice. You can taste the extra aging that this expression gets over the Black Label. It's very smooth, especially for 86 proof, and goes down especially easy with a couple of ice cubes.

Some whiskey drinkers will likely find this too sweet and lacking in the big, bold quality that many bourbons have. But there's so much flavor here, especially for the price, that it demands to be tried at least once.

Fans of softer bourbons like Maker's Mark are especially urged to seek this one out. Evan Williams 1783 Bourbon is a fine-tasting whiskey at an amazing price.

Report Card

Quality Grade: B+
Value Grade: A
Final Grade: A-

Categories
Spirits Reviews Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Whiskey Review: Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon

Four_roses_sbFour Roses Single Barrel
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Final Grade: A
Price: $39 (750ml)

The Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky is one of the most acclaimed in the world. Their bourbons win gold medals regularly at all the major competitions, and their 2012 Limited Edition Single Barrel was recently named by F. Paul Pacult as the 3rd best spirit in the world.

The Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon is their highest end whiskey that is regularly available in the United States. Bottled at 100 proof, it's a bold bourbon that is loaded with flavor and enough kick to get you moving.

From the opening sip, it's an explosion on the palate, with many tastes circling around each other. There's vanilla and fruit (cherry maybe?), along with honey and a little spice. It's very well balanced, with the different flavors playing together nicely.

As mentioned above, it's a strong whiskey, and has a long finish to it. It's not overpowering, but it's a spirit you'll want to take your time with, so you can still taste and enjoy the various flavors. You might want to drink it with a little water or a couple ice cubes. I tasted it both straight and on the rocks, and with just a little dilution it goes down very easily.

Everything that Four Roses makes is good, and the Single Barrel is one of their best. It's big and bold, while still maintaining both nuance and even elegance. Distiller Jim Rutledge has once again shown why he's one of the best in the business.

Report Card

Quality Grade: A
Value Grade: A-
Final Grade: A

Categories
Spirits Reviews Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Whiskey Review: Tullamore Dew

Tullamore-dewTullamore Dew
Blended Irish Whiskey
Final Grade: B
Price: $20 (750ml)

Tullamore Dew is an old brand of Irish whiskey, first distilled in Tullamore, Ireland in 1829. It's gone though many changes, owners and locations over the years, and is currently owned by spirits conglomerate William Grant & Sons, makers of Glenfiddich and The Balvenie scotches, amongst other brands. It is currently made at New Midleton Distillery in County Cork, although Grant & Sons recently announced plans to build a new distillery in the town of Tullamore.

Tullamore Dew, sometimes referred to as "Original," is the entry-level expression of the whiskey. (There are also 10-year and 12-year-old versions available.) It has a pale-gold color in the glass, accompanied by the sweet, honeyed aroma of cereal grain that fades quickly. So far it is about what you'd expect of a basic blended Irish whiskey — those familiar with Jameson or Bushmills will recognize it.

Those traditional characteristics continue on the palate, with a medium-sweet, honey flavor, with a fair bit of heat on the finish. Tullamore Dew isn't as smooth as most older whiskeys, or those containing a higher proportion of malt whiskey (like my favorite, Bushmills Black Bush), but the finish is quick, so it's not unpleasant to sip. From the taste, I assume this is made with a high percerntage of grain, rather than malt, whiskey.

There really isn't much about Tullamore Dew that is distinctive. The distiller clearly wasn't trying to break any new ground here. Rather it is a well-made, traditional Irish whiskey blended to a middle-of-the-road, but still pleasing, profile. It is a tasty, well-balanced spirit, good enough and affordable enough to drink every day and to mix in the cocktail of your choice.

Report Card

Quality Grade: B
Value Grade: B
Final Grade: B

Categories
Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Ten Suggestions For Bourbon Beginners

Chuck Cowdery is a bourbon expert and a member of the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. He writes for The Whisky Advocate, WHISKY Magazine and other places. So when the man talks bourbon, he's worth listening to.

Chuck has compiled a list of 10 bourbons for beginners, and I think it's the best list of its kind that I've seen. These are great recommendations.

I'm going to list his suggestions below, but make sure to click through to Chuck's website to read his commentary.

1.  Maker's Mark (Beam Inc.)
2.  Knob Creek (Beam Inc.)
3.  Woodford Reserve (Brown-Forman) 
4.  Eagle Rare Single Barrel (Sazerac) 
5.  Bulleit (Diageo) 
6.  Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage (Heaven Hill) 
7.  Russell's Reserve Bourbon (Campari America) 
8.  Ridgemont Reserve 1792 (Sazerac) 
9.  Four Roses (Kirin) 
10.  Weller 12-Year-Old (Sazerac)

I have not yet tried all of these whiskeys, but the ones I've had are excellent. Any of these would make a worth addition to your liquor cabinet.

The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home…

Bourbon

Categories
Spirits Reviews Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Whiskey Review: Bushmills Black Bush

Black_bushBushmills Black Bush
Blended Irish Whiskey
Final Grade: A-
Price: $32 (750ml)

Like many Americans (and maybe even a few Irishmen, although I'm more skeptical of that), I spent St. Patrick's Day drinking Irish whiskey. Unlike most of them, I did so with pen and pad in hand, scribbling notes as I enjoyed a glass of Bushmills Black Bush.

Black Bush is the premium blended Irish whiskey produced by Bushmills Distillery. It's a blend of malt whiskey and batch-distilled grain whiskey that is aged in Oloroso sherry-seasoned casks.

Black Bush has a welcome aroma of spice and malt, reminiscent of toasted cereal grains. (This is not surprising, given that Black Bush is reportedly made with 85% malt whiskey, a higher ratio than the usual blended Irish whiskey.) After some time in the glass, the scent of caramel starts to come through as well. It's a very inviting aroma that promises good things to come.

The taste confirms that promise. The flavor of caramel and malt continues on the palate, along with the essence of oak and sherry. The time spent maturing in former sherry casks definitely gives this whiskey an additional something special.

Black Bush is a remarkably balanced whiskey, achieving harmony between sweetness and spice, and smoothness and fire. (Is "smoothness" a word? If not, it should be.) Is has just the right amount of heat to it, giving it a nice kick without making it hard to drink.

All in all, a marvelous Irish whiskey that can be enjoyed any time.

Report Card

Quality Grade: A-
Value Grade: B+
Final Grade: A-

Categories
Spirits Reviews Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Whiskey Review: Red Stag Spiced Bourbon Whiskey

Redstag_spicedRed Stag Spiced Bourbon Whiskey
Flavored Bourbon Whiskey
Final Grade: B
Price: $18 (750ml)

Red Stag Spiced builds on the popular line of flavored whiskeys that Jim Beam began with their original Red Stag product, Black Cherry Bourbon. For this new spirit, the distillers start with their flagship four-year-old bourbon (Jim Beam White label) and infuse it with cinnamon and other spices.

At first whiff, it's all cinnamon. Upon further review, it's still cinnamon, and lots of it. That flavor carries over into the spirit itself. A somewhat artificial, but not unpleasant taste of cinnamon candy. Kind of like a Red Hot, but without the overpowering spiciness. It makes itself known, for sure, but it doesn't overstay its welcome.

Red Stag Spiced is warm and sweet with a touch of oakiness, but I found that the bourbon got lost in the background. You can taste a little of the whiskey in there, but not as much as I'd hoped for. I don't think that's a drawback for a lot of consumers — after all, you don't buy a spirit like this if you're expecting fine bourbon. But I was hoping for a little more of the whiskey to assert itself.

The finish is fleeting, ending on a somewhat funky (musty?) note that, fortunately, fades quickly. This is where the flavor really leaps out as being too artificial. It's possible that this would not be as noticeable if you drank it mixed with something else, perhaps Coke.

I had a conflicted reaction to Red Stag Spiced. On the one hand, it's a successful version of what the distillers (apparently) set out to do. It's uncomplicated bourbon that tastes like cinnamon. On that basis, it's a success. But even so, I don't see myself drinking it very often. However, if it sounds like the kind of thing that you'd enjoy, you should definitely give it a try.

Report Card

Quality Grade: B-
Value Grade: B
Final Grade: B

Categories
Spirits Reviews Whiskey Whiskey Reviews

Whiskey Review: Michael Collins Irish Whiskey

Michael-collins-whiskeyMichael Collins Irish Whiskey 
Blended Irish Whiskey
Final Grade: B+
Price: $25 (750ml)

Reviewed by Bob Montgomery

Michael Collins Irish Whiskey is a blend of malt and grain Irish whiskey, as most standard Irish whiskeys are. (They also produce an all-malt version.) It is double-distilled, in contrast to most Irish whiskeys, which are triple-distilled. This should lead to a bolder, less smooth product, and in fact Michael Collins is a bit bolder than some of its competitors.

The flavor on the tongue is malty, a bit sweet with some hints of raisins and a touch of smoke. If someone handed you a shot and told you it was Scotch, you might not call them on it, although it doesn’t quite have the unique character I expect from a decent Scotch.

Michael Collins is going its own way with this blend, aiming for something with a little more heft to it than its better-known competition, and getting part of the way there.

This whiskey will bring a little more to a cocktail and a bit more edge to an Irish Coffee, but still be very sippable should the mood strike. A reasonable value and worth a try if you’re looking to expand beyond the standards.

Report Card

Quality Grade: B+
Value Grade: B
Final Grade: B+