On July 5, 2017, at a yet-to-be-named distillery in Newport, Tennessee, Sazerac launched a new chapter in the history of this storied company. Master Distiller John Lunn and Distiller Allisa Henley filled the distillery’s first barrels with new-make Tennessee Whiskey.
Nobody’s going to be drinking this whiskey for years. (How long has yet to be decided.) And it doesn’t even have a name yet. But given the Sazerac company’s reputation for excellence, we can expect that good things will happen.
Buffalo Trace Distillery has long been one of the most aggressive whiskey outfits when it comes to experimenting with and producing new bourbons. Their latest is one that's already generating a great deal of interest: Stagg Jr.
A younger version of the highly sought-after George T. Stagg Bourbon, this new bottling is, like its Dad, barrel-proof, uncut and unfiltered; clearly a whiskey designed to appeal to the bourbon connoisseur.
The first batch of Stagg Jr. comes from barrels aged for eight or nine years. (The regular Stagg is aged for at least 15 years.) So it's not a young bourbon by any means. It's coming in at a whopping 134.4 proof (67.2% ABV).
The aroma of the Stagg, Jr. bursts out of the glass. Rich, candied fruit, with moderate ethanol fumes. You can tell it's going to be a strong one.
Taking a few sips, I immediately tasted a burst of caramel sweetness, followed by a delicious grain flavor, and finally closing with a lingering spicy finish. It has quite a kick, but it's a welcome one. This is definitely a hot spirit, but not an overpowering one.
A splash of water brought out even more of the unctuous, almost honeyed sweetness. Stagg is made from Buffalo Trace's "Mash Bill #1," which is their low-rye version, containing a higher percentage of corn. Even so, you can taste the rye influence. There are some pumpkin pie spice hints of cinnamon and clove that help balance out the sweetness.
Interestingly enough, just a little more water overpowered the spirit. You'd think that a bourbon this strong could handle a lot of dilution, but I found that the flavor started to drown very quickly. So add water with a very strict hand.
I have not had the pleasure of tasting the original George T. Stagg, nor many of the other highly acclaimed bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle. But I am quite confident when I say that this is the best bourbon I've ever tasted.
Expect this whiskey to be almost impossible to find. Once it hits the shelves, people are going to swarm on it like locusts. Stagg Jr. will be available in select markets beginning in August of this year — but not for long.
John J. Bowman Single Barrel Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey Grade: (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.
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.
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!
As I mentioned yesterday in our Father's Day Gift Guide, one of the perennial favorite gifts for Dad is Canadian whisky. A popular spirit with a mass-market following, Canadian whisky appeals to most tastes, and is an excellent idea for Dad's who enjoy a tipple. The Sazerac company recommends two of their own brands to give, both of which have racked up their share of awards.
Although it may be an American holiday, this Father’s Day, Sazerac is encouraging gift givers to go Canadian – Canadian whisky, that is.
A category that’s on the upswing, the Canadian whisky segment has seen strong growth in the past few years as younger consumers are discovering it and realizing the category has some merit.
And Sazerac is helping that trend with its two premium Canadian whisky offerings, Caribou Crossing, the world’s first single barrel Canadian whisky, and Royal Canadian Small Batch Canadian whisky.
Introduced in 2010, both brands have seen nice growth and distribution has expanded as a result. “Although the Canadian whisky category as a whole remains flat, the premium and super premium category has really taken off,” said Kevin Richards, Canadian whisky brand manager at Sazerac,
Since its introduction, Caribou Crossing has received a myriad of accolades, including most recently the Chairman’s Trophy and a “92” rating at the 2012 Ultimate Spirits Challenge, and a “93” rating from John Hansell at WhiskyAdvocate. Two years ago the Single Barrel was named “2010 Canadian Whisky of the Year” by canadianwhisky.org; it won a double gold medal at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition; a gold medal and “90” rating from Tastings.com (Beverage Testing Institute); a gold medal and “90” rating at the 2010 Ultimate Spirits Challenge; a silver medal and best in class at the 2010 International Wine and Spirits Competition; and a bronze medal at the 2010 Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition. Whisky buffs can expect to taste radiantly-hued nectar with a nod to the tantalizing silky texture provided by the barrel. The rye grain cuts through the wood flavors making its spicy presence known without risking the creamy vanilla custard smoothness. The finish is oak with an orangey tang.
Royal Canadian Small Batch has its own set of hardware. Its most recent win was a “90” rating in the 2012 Ultimate Spirits Challenge, in addition to its gold medal and “90” rating from Tastings.com (Beverage Testing Institute); a “90” rating from Wine Enthusiast; a silver medal in the 2011 Ultimate Spirits Challenge; and a bronze medal at the 2011 World Spirits Competition. Royal Canadian is sweet and smoky like a Memphis BBQ. The initial sip is velvety smooth with huge flavors. There is a nutty praline sweetness that slides through the creamy rich sensations. The finish is a bold reminder that this is whiskey and the citrus-spicy conclusion just leaves you with the desire for the next notable sip.
Both brands were created by native Canadian Drew Mayville, Sazerac’s master blender. Mayville himself hand-selects the barrel used for Caribou Crossing, choosing the most mature and flavor-rich samples available and overseeing the bottling of each individual barrel. The Royal Canadian Small Batch undergoes a similar stringent selection process under Mayville’s watchful eye. The barrels themselves are from Sazerac’s 270,000 plus Canadian whisky barrel inventory.
The two Canadian whiskies make ideal gifts for Father’s Day, and are at price points for discriminating budgets. The Caribou Crossing retails for $49.99 for a 750 ml and the Royal Canadian Small Batch is $19.99 for a 750 ml.
The Caribou Crossing comes in an elegant gift box, taking care of the gift wrapping for you.
You don't have to wait for St. Patrick's Day to drink something green — today is National Absinthe Day! Long the preferred libation of the Parisian Smart Set, absinthe is an anise-flavored spirit infused with a variety of botanicals, including the infamous wormwood.
The "Green Fairy" as it's sometimes known, absinthe was long reputed to have hallucinogenic properties due to the presence of thujone, a chemical compound contained in wormwood. This led to absinthe being banned in the United States for many decades before its return in recent years. Sadly, however, it was all nothing but a myth.
Although drinking enough absinthe — which typically contains a very high alcohol content — will no doubt cause one to see things that aren't really there, this has nothing to do with any special characteristics of the spirit. If you drink a sufficient quantity of ripple the same thing will happen.
Absinthe was traditionally used in the preparation of one of the most famous cocktails, the Sazerac, although it is now usually replaced with an absinthe substitute like Herbsaint. Absinthe is such a strongly flavored spirit that usually a dash or two is enough to get the job done. Witness this cocktail, taken from Jim Meehan's The PDT Cocktail Book.
1 1/2 oz Plymouth Gin 1 oz Grapefruit Juice 3/4 oz Plymouth Sloe Gin St. George Absinthe
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled, absinthe-rinsed coupe. No garnish.
I'm not much of a fan of the flavor of licorice, so I wouldn't drink absinthe straight. However, in a drink like this or the Improved Gin Cocktail, it can add a nice accent that makes the flavors come alive.