One of the highlights of the whisky year for people who love awards and rankings is when Jim Murray publishes his Whisky Bible. Murray tastes seemingly every whisky produced in the world, and gives it tasting notes and scores. He also provides his rankings of the world’s best whiskies.
Murray has just announced his 2014 pick for the best whisky in the world: Glenmorangie Ealanta 19 Year Old Single Malt Scotch. Not only does he say it’s the best, he gives it a score of 97.5 out of a possible 100. He said it has “one of the longest finishes of any Scotch this year…Borderline perfection.”
Should you care? Who knows. I find rankings like this interesting, although not necessarily useful. It’s like the Oscars — it calls attention to notable achievements, even if the idea of something being “the best in the world” is ultimately kind of silly. It gives us something to talk about, a jumping off point for discussion, and I think that’s always a good thing.
But here perhaps is the cool part about this particular selection. You can actually buy a bottle! So many of these highly rated, award-winning whiskies are impossible to find. This one, however, is currently available from Caskers.
Is it worth $120? I have no idea — I haven’t tried it. But if anyone has, please let us know.
Whisky lovers rejoice, Buffalo Trace Distillery is releasing its 2013 Antique Collection in late September. The highly anticipated collection will once again feature five limited-release whiskeys of various ages, recipes and proofs. Here’s what ardent fans can expect:
Eagle Rare 17 Year Old
The previous edition of this bourbon was honored with a Gold Medal at the 2012 International Wine and Spirits Competition. The 2013 edition was distilled in the Spring of 1993 and has been aging on the 2nd, 3rd and 6th floors of Warehouses I and K. The barrels selected for this batch were actually aged for 19 years, and the taste has been described as dry, with hints of oak, leather, and tobacco.
George T. Stagg
The 2012 release of this perennial favorite was named the “World’s Best North American Whiskey” at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards. The 2013 George T. Stagg was found in Warehouses I, K and Q. This uncut, unfiltered bourbon was distilled back in the spring of 1997 and weighs in at 128.2 proof, not as strong as some years, due to the location of the barrels on lower floors. “We sample many barrels throughout the year to find the best ones to create George T. Stagg. It just so happens this year, most of the barrels had been stored on lower floors. The temperature remains cooler down low where it balances the mature flavors from the wood and in turn the proof climbs slowly from the entry proof. The quintessential George T. Stagg taste is there – a big, bold whiskey that is easy to sip,” said Harlen Wheatley, master distiller. Although still highly allocated, Buffalo Trace did begin to start putting more barrels away back in 1997 for future George T. Stagg releases. This whiskey tastes of fudge, vanilla, and tobacco.
Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old
Last year’s release was awarded a 95 rating and Liquid Gold Award in Jim Murray’s 2013 Whisky Bible. This 2013 rye whiskey release was aged in Warehouses K and is described as mellow spice, vanilla sweetness, mint, and a dry finish.
Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye
Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye is an uncut and unfiltered straight rye whiskey. The 2012 edition was named “World Whisky of the Year” in Jim Murray’s 2013Whisky Bible. This year’s Handy was distilled in the spring of 2007, aged on the seventh floor of Warehouse K and weighs in at 128.4 proof. The flavor has been described as toffee, clove, and allspice.
William Larue Weller
William Larue Weller is the Antique Collection’s uncut, unfiltered, wheated recipe bourbon. The previous edition was named the “Second Finest Whisky in the World” in Jim Murray’s 2013 Whisky Bible. The 2013 offering was distilled in the spring of 2001 and aged on the third and fourth floors of Warehouses M and P. This William Larue Weller release registers in at 136.2 proof. It tastes of dates, caramel, and brown sugar.
The Antique Collection was introduced more than a decade ago and has become a cult favorite among whiskey connoisseurs. Since 2000 these whiskeys have garnered numerous awards from such notable publications as Whisky Advocate Magazine, Spirit Journal and Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.
The 2013 Antique Collection whiskeys will be available in limited quantities starting in late September or early October. Suggested retail price is $70 each. For more information visit www.greatbourbon.com.
Hakushu 12 Year Old Single Malt Japanese Whisky Grade:(Superb) Price: $60 (750ml)
Japanese whisky has been steadily growing in popularity in the United States, but I hadn't had the opportunity to try any until recently. After enjoying a glass of Hakushu 12 Year Old, it's clear to see why this whisky is winning so many fans.
Similar in style to Scotch whisky, Japanese whisky is distilled from malted barley, and is available in both single malt varieties and blends. (This is the former, meaning the contents were all made by a single distillery.)
Hakushu is Suntory's lesser-known distillery — Yamazaki is the one that is more familiar to most whisky drinkers. Located in the forests near Japan's Southern Alps, the Hakushu distillery makes what Suntory calls "the fresh Japanese whisky."
Like all Japanese whiskies, Hakushu is generally intended to be drank over ice or in Highballs. You certainly can drink it neat — that's how I tasted it — but the flavor is designed to stand-up to mixing and dilution.
As the Hakushu moniker promises, this whisky is fresh and crisp in aroma, slightly sweet, and with a hint of smoke. (Hakushu 12 Year Old is lightly peated.)
The flavor is light, bright and fruity, with just a touch of oak and sweetness. There are wisps of peat there, but they're fleeting. This whisky finishes a little spicy and fairly briefly. A very satisfying dram all around.
With this being my first experience with Japanese whisky, I don't have anything to compare it to. (Other than different styles of whiskey, of course.) But I can say this is a tasty whisky, very approachable, and definitely worth trying.
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.
Properly stocking a home bar can be an expensive proposition. There are many different products you likely will want to buy, and a lot of them aren't cheap. The good news is, you probably won't be going through the bottles that quickly, and most alcohol stays good for a very long time.*
GIN There are three different major styles of gin: London Dry, Old Tom and Genever. (You could also throw Plymouth Gin into the mix.) The good news is you only need to buy one bottle to start: London Dry. Tanqueray has long been my favorite, but Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater are excellent as well. Buy whichever one is cheapest.
VODKA It's easy to spend more money on vodka then you need to, especially if you reach for the Grey Goose because you "heard it's the best." By all means, pick up an expensive bottle if you're feeling flush. My favorite, which is medium-priced, is Stolichnaya. But you'll get by very well with some Sobieski.
RUM Rum is a little more challenging, because rums vary a lot depending on what country they're from, what color they are (light/white vs. gold/dark), how long they're aged, etc. I would recommend starting out with two bottles, one of white rum and one of gold rum. Cruzan (from the U.S. Virgin Islands) is recommended — both cheaper and better than the ubiquitous Bacardi. But if you can find Flor de Caña (from Nicaragua) it only costs a little more and is excellent. If you don't drink much rum and only want to buy one bottle, I suggest you get some Appleton V/X, a very versatile and tasty rum.
TEQUILA Tequila has grown enormously in popularity over the past several years, which means there are now a lot of great choices on the shelves, in all kinds of prices. If your goal is to make Margaritas and other similar drinks, you'll want a silver tequila. I recommend either Camarena or Milagro. They're both affordable and easy to find.
WHISKEY This is a tough one, because there are so many types and so many choices. Do you go with a Scotch, Canadian or Irish? Bourbon, rye or Tennessee? If I were buying just one type, I would probably go with bourbon, and would probably get Maker's Mark. Maker's isn't the favorite whiskey of a lot of people, but it's a very good one and it's something that almost any whiskey drinker will drink without complaining. If you want to branch out and add a Scotch, I'd go with Johnnie Walker Black. Again, not always a favorite, but a crowd pleaser.
BRANDY Cognac (which is brandy made according to certain rules in a particular area of France) was hot a decade or so back when the hip hop community discovered it, and brands like Hennessy and Remy Martin were name-checked in rap songs. It's cooled off since then, so there are plenty of good bargains to be found. (And also plenty of bottles that will cost you as much as a nice vacation.) If you want a simple brandy, I find Raynal to be quite good. It works fine in a lot of cocktails and won't set you back much at all. If you're looking for something a little more sophisticated, go for one of the cognacs made by Pierre Ferrand. (Their Ambre is very good and only costs around $40.)
ORANGE LIQUEUR If you're going to make any kind of cocktails, you're going to need some modifiers, with the most common being an orange liqueur. It might be triple sec or Curacao, but in order to make a Margarita or a Sidecar or Mai Tai, you're going to need something. There are many different types of orange liqueur, ranging from cheap to expensive. Unfortunately, the cheap stuff is usually not very good. On the upside, a bottle will last a long time, so it doesn't hurt as much to splurge. If you want a dryer liqueur, go with Cointreau. If you want a sweeter one, go with Grand Marnier. Yes, they're expensive. But they're so good that you'll be glad you spent the extra money.
VERMOUTH If you're planning to make Martinis or Manhattans, you'll need to get some vermouth. Sweet (red) vermouth goes in a Manhattan and dry (white) vermouth goes in a Martini. There are some high-end brands that are delicious. But on the affordable end of things Martini (sweet) and Noilly Pratt (dry) work very well.
You're not going to get this done without spending a couple hundred bucks. But once you do, you'll be able to make a lot of drinks — and save yourself a ton of dough over what you'd spend in a bar. Plus, with a little practice, you'll be able to whip up some great cocktails that will quickly make you the envy of all your friends and neighbors.
*Except for vermouth. Vermouth is only good for a couple of months once you open it. And only if you keep it in the refrigerator. And yes, I know vermouth isn't a spirit. Neither is orange liqueur.
St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner, which means many drinkers will be turning to Irish whiskey for their drink of choice. The Irish whiskey category is hotter than it's ever been, so there are more choices than ever before.
Here at Professor Cocktail we do the heavy lifting so that you don't have to. ("Heavy lifting" sounds better than "heavy drinking.") We sampled a variety of Irish whiskeys so that we could decide which to recommend to you.
For this taste, we focused on blended Irish whiskey. This is by far the most popular type of Irish whiskey available in the U.S., as well as the most widely available.
A blended whiskey is a combination of different whiskeys, including both single malt and neutral (or near-neutral) grain whiskey. Blending the whiskey gives it a lighter, less flavorful character that many drinkers find more pleasant. (It turns out that more flavor isn't always better.)
For our line-up we selected a variety of the most common blended Irish whiskeys, several submitted by the spirits companies themselves, and a few from our own stash. We also included one extra-aged whiskey for comparison. (All Irish whiskey is aged for at least three years — but often no longer than that.)
This group of whiskeys was defined more by their similarities than by their differences. As expected, all of them were fairly light in flavor and without a lot of complexity. The colors, tastes, and aromas didn't vary as widely as with many spirits. Even so, there were still some differences that allowed us to pick our favorites.
Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey ($24) — Straight-ahead blended Irish whiskey: a little sharp, a little sweet, with a malty flavor that reminds you of breakfast cereal. This is light and easy, and very drinkable. (Recommended)
Michael Collins Blended Irish Whiskey ($23) — The stand-out of the entry-level whiskeys. This spirit has a rich, honeyed flavor, with just a touch of smoke, that was very appealing. Vanilla notes contribute to the mild sweetness, but everything stays in balance. Overall, a very nice whiskey. (Highly Recommended)
Concannon Irish Whiskey ($25) — This whiskey, distilled by Cooley in Ireland, is aged in petite sirah casks at the Concannon Winery in Livermore, California. That gives it the expected "winey" notes, which aren't uncommon with Irish and Scotch whiskey. What was a surprise was the aroma and flavor of smoke. It was definitely the strongest char of the group, reminding us more of Scotch than the usual Irish. That could be an advantage for some drinkers, but the flavors didn't balance for us, making this one a disappointment. (Not Recommended)
Bushmills Blended Irish Whiskey ($24) — A raw, grainy flavor on first sip gives this whiskey plenty of bite. It mellows out after that, though, and ends up more astringent and spicier than most of the others. Reactions were mixed, but the floral/vegetal accents were popular with some. (Recommended)
Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve ($38) — The only whiskey in the tasting with an age statement, this is a blend of whiskeys from 12 to 15 years old. The extra time in the barrel gives this whiskey the darkest color or any in the sample. It also gives it the most complex flavor. Less sweet than the others, it has a tart, fruity taste with elements of caramel and spice. Although one taster found it bitter, overall this got high marks. (Highly Recommended)
Jameson Blended Irish Whiskey ($25) — The expected grainy, sweet character, but little else to distinguish it flavor-wise. This whiskey seemed hotter than the rest, and consequently seemed even lighter in taste. (You can taste the alcohol, but the malt flavor is overmatched.) I prefer Jameson in cocktails, but if you're searching for that Irish whiskey "kick," this is the way to go. If you're looking for a subtle sipper, look elsewhere. (Recommended)
Tullamore Dew Blended Irish Whiskey ($21) — A typical Irish whiskey, produced at an untypically fine level. Medium sweet, slightly honeyed, slightly malty. This made us think of breakfast: cereal and toast. An excellent everyday whiskey and a nice finish to the tasting. (Highly Recommended)
I'm a Scotch fan, but if I wanted to try some bourbons, what should I pick?
Maker's Mark is the bourbon that a lot of people start with. It's one of the best made whiskeys around: balanced, flavorful and very tasty. It's a milder, wheated bourbon, though, and if you're an experienced whiskey drinker it might not have the zing you're looking for. But it's damn good stuff.
Knob Creek is another old standby, considered by many a step up from Maker's Mark – bolder and zestier, without the mellower, sweeter wheat flavor. Like Maker's, it has a classic bourbon profile that most people enjoy.
I asked a friend who's a real bourbon expert (unlike me, a pretend bourbon expert) and he recommended Blanton's or Basil Hayden's. They're both complex and spicy, with flavor profiles that a Scotch fan might enjoy.
If you're an Islay/peat fan, you might want to try a bourbon that has a high rye content, like Old Grand-Dad, Bulleit or Four Roses Single Barrel. Of those, my favorite is Four Roses Single Barrel.
My two favorite bourbons currently are Elijah Craig 18 Year-Old and Eagle Rare Single Barrel. Sadly, the former has been discontinued, although you can still find it on some shelves. Eagle Rare should be easy to find. These were the two winners of the bourbon taste test I conducted a while back.
There are several highly acclaimed bourbons that get all the accolades – e.g., Van Winkle, Parker's Heritage, George T. Stagg, Black Maple Hill – but they're hard-to-find and expensive, and probably not the best place to start.
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.
Evan 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.