The New York Times recently convened a panel of experts to taste several rye whiskies. If you’re a fan of Professor Cocktail’s, you’ll know we’re rye lovers around here. So we were interested to see the results.
The tasting panel consisted of Eric Asimov, David Wondrich, Robert Samuelson, and Florench Fabricant. I think we can rest assured that this quartet knows their whiskey very well.
The article includes a lot of interesting background on rye whiskey and what’s happening with the category these days. So I highly recommend reading it.
Here were their favorites. (They mention several others as well.)
#1: Knob Creek Straight Rye Whiskey 100 Proof (3 stars)
#2: Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye 90 Proof (3 stars)
#3: Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Rye 90.4 Proof (3 stars)
#4: New York Distilling Company Ragtime Rye 90.4 Proof (3 stars)
#5: Michter’s U.S. 1 Straight Rye 84.8 Proof (2.5 stars)
The only two I have tried are the Knob Creek and the Michter’s. I liked both of them, but I don’t think either would be in my top five.
Illuminate recently launched a North Coast Sauvignon Blanc, which I decided to taste. It’s a limited production wine that is aged entirely in stainless steel tanks, with no secondary fermentation.
It’s a dry, light-to-medium wine with some tangy citrus and plum flavors, but it finishes more floral and herbaceous than fruity. It has a good amount of acidity and scant minerals. This is a crisp and refreshing wine, but the alcohol level (13.9%) is on the high side for a Sauvignon Blanc, so be aware of that.
The North Coast Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t have a lot of complexity, but It’s a respectable and pleasing effort, especially at the price point. It would pair well with foods containing green herbs such as basil, rosemary, or cilantro.
Note that the images are of the 2014 vintage, but this review is of the 2013.
Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, Castle Brands is reinvigorating and reintroducing their line-up of Irish whiskeys. They were kind enough to share samples with me so I could put them through their paces. (For some past thoughts on Irish whiskeys, see our Irish Whiskey Taste Test.)
Castle owns two Irish whiskey brands: Clontarf and Knappogoue Castle. Clontarf is the entry-level blended whiskey, and Knappogoue Castle is their line of single malt whiskeys. None of the whiskeys are actually distilled by Castle, and their sources are unknown.
Clontarf 1014 Irish Whiskey (not pictured) 40% abv. $20.
A very light blend, composed of 10% single malt and 90% grain whiskey. Aged for 4 years.
Smells: Like honey.
Tastes: Briny and a little bitter.
Thoughts: Reminds me of other blended Irish whiskeys, like Jameson and Bushmills.
Bottom Line: An acceptable Irish blend, drink it in coffee or highballs.
Knappogoue Castle 12 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey 40% abv. $42.
Aged for 12 years in ex-bourbon casks. “Lightly” chill filtered.
Smells: Like toasted breakfast cereal.
Tastes: Like malt with a hint of coffee.
Thoughts: Easy to drink and tasty.
Bottom Line: A nice, straight-ahead single malt. If you’ve never tried Irish malts, this is an excellent place to start.
Knappogoue Castle 14 Year Old Twin Wood Single Malt Irish Whiskey
46% abv. $60.
Aged for 14 years in ex-bourbon and sherry casks. Non-chill filtered.
Smells: Malty and fruity.
Tastes: Dry and oaky.
Thoughts: Too much wood, flavors out of balance.
Bottom Line: If you like your whiskeys on the oaky side, you might enjoy this better than I did. Not sure if the sherry aging did anything other than give it a little color.
Knappogoue Castle 16 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey
40% abv. $100.
Aged for 14 years in ex-bourbon casks and 21 months in sherry casks. Lightly chill filtered.
Smells: Like sweet maple breakfast cereal.
Tastes: Like oak and cereal grain, with some fruit and spice (like pepper).
Thoughts: A rebound from the 14 Year Old. Definitely has more of the sherry influence.
Bottom Line: More rounded and balanced than the 14 Year Old. Although expensive, this is a nice dram that would stand up well compared to other whiskeys. Not all the distilling expertise is in Scotland!
Overproof spirits have been gaining in popularity over the past few years. Barrel-proof bourbons, Navy-strength gins, even 110-proof tequila are entering the market with regularity. But high octane rums have long been a staple on the liquor store shelves — with Bacardi 151 being the most notorious example — and are regularly drunk by the Caribbean locals.
Now Barbados-based Cockspur has entered the American market with their own version: Cockspur 130 Overproof Rum. How does it match up?
This rum is crystal clear, bottled straight off the still with no aging. Not surprisingly, it smells like ethanol — 130 proof is 65% alcohol — but not overpoweringly so. You can still smell a lot of sweetness, along with tropical fruits like bananas.
When you sip it, you notice right away that it’s strong, but you also notice that it’s full of flavor. Sweet with just a little spice, and lots of marshmallow and banana. Unlike some overproof spirits, Cockspur 130 doesn’t blow you away with its potency.
Whether or not you want to drink this straight depends on how sensitive you are to the fire of alcohol on your tongue. But you certainly can drink it that way if you want, and enjoy the taste a lot. It also has a great deal of potential in cocktails that I look forward to exploring further.
The most obvious competitor to Cockspur 130 Overproof Rum is Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum. They’re comparable in most ways, and while I haven’t tasted them head-to-head, I’m inclined to give the nod to Cockspur. A very nice, very strong rum.
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.
Spiced rum is a category of spirits that often gets no respect. And for good reason, too: it's usually pretty gross. But there are times when spiced rum can be useful. Mixing up a punch or grog, for example, or giving a little extra zing to a Rum and Coke. What should you do in those cases?
We sampled six popular spiced rums to find which ones you can safely use, and which you should avoid. Here are the results.
Coruba Spiced Rum Score: (Not recommended) Price: $16 (750ml)
Jamaican rums are probably my favorite overall, so I was looking forward to this one. Sadly, it didn't match up to the quality and taste of Coruba's dark rum. It has the typical spiced rum flavor profile of vanilla, cinnamon and caramel. But that's about it. This isn't a bad rum, but it's slightly harsh and much lighter than regular Coruba. Nothing much to recommend it.
Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum Score: (Highly Recommended) Price: $17 (750ml)
This is by far the highest octane rum in the bunch, clocking in at a whopping 92 proof. You can smell the ethanol when you lift the glass to your mouth. This stuff doesn't mess around. It's also very strong tasting — this isn't a subtle spirit. But the flavor works very well. Lots of cherry and vanilla, cinnamon and cloves, maybe even a little almonds in there. It has just the right amount of sweetness, giving it a nice balance. My favorite of the bunch.
Captain Morgan Sherry Oak Finish Spiced Rum Score: (Not recommended) Price: $20 (750ml)
The ubiquitous privateer Captain Morgan makes a foray into the finished rum category with this new offering, which rests in Sherry casks after aging. It starts out well, with a sweet and fruity aroma that's appealing. The taste is also sweet and fruity, and the Sherry flavor is there — but so is a chemically aftertaste. I could have recommended this as a sweeter spiced rum if not for that odd, off-putting note.
Shellback Caribbean Spiced Rum Score: (Not recommended) Price: $16 (750ml)
I had good things to say about Shellbacks Silver Rum when I reviewed it a while back. Unfortunately, their spiced rum doesn't earn the same praise. It has the same overpowering aroma of vanilla extract — which is not a deal breaker; this is spiced rum, after all — and the vanilla continues onto the palate. But that's all there was. Lots of sweet, artificial vanilla, with little other spice.
I'm not usually a fan of Bacardi's offerings — their mainstay rums are just too flavorless to be of any interest — but their spiced rum brings something nice to the table. Oakheart has a rich, fruity smell — lots of plum and vanilla. The taste is pleasantly spiced (cinnamon) and fruity, with some caramel-like sweetness. There's a little bit of oak, but not as much as the name would imply. A solid spiced rum and one of the two best overall.
Cruzan 9 Spiced Rum Score: (Not recommended) Price: $16 (750ml)
I love Cruzan rums in general, but this was a bomb. It reeks of brine and medicine, and the taste is the same. An overload of spice with salt and pepper, allspice and juniper assaulting the senses. It ends up all running together and tasting pungent. A spiced rum shouldn't be sweet, necessarily, but it should have some sweetness. This was too dry. A disappointment.
The Bottom Line:
Sailor Jerry and Bacardi Oakheart were the best spiced rums of this batch. Both are recommended, but Sailor Jerry is better, and its higher proof means it will stand up in cocktails especially well.
Aviation Gin American Gin Grade:(Superb) Price: $28 (750ml)
First launched in 2006 as one of the pioneers of the new trend in American gins, Aviation has been repackaged with a striking new look that classes up the bottle to match the contents.
Aviation tastes like gin, but not the gin we're used to. It has the requisite juniper flavor, but it's much more subtle than in London dry gin. (That makes this a nice alternative for those who find gin too piney.) It has pronounced notes of citrus and spice, and an almost briny character that would probably go great in a Martini.
Aviation is softer than most gins. A little more inviting. It's designed to be used in cocktails, especially those from the pre-Prohibition era. But you can certainly drink it straight if you want to, and won't be disappointed.
I didn't make a Martini (or an Aviation, this gin's namesake cocktail), but I did mix it in a Gin and Tonic. I was concerned that the less assertive character of this spirit would get lost in the mix. But no fear. It balanced quite nicely, making for a tasty, refreshing cocktail that is dangerously easy to drink.
Aviation Gin is 84-proof, but never harsh. It's a different style of gin than the norm, but that's a good thing. Tasty alternatives are always welcome, and Aviation Gin matches up quite nicely on that score.
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)
Pacific Rim Dry Riesling 2008 Riesling Columbia Valley (Washington State) Price: $12 Highly recommended
Pacific Rim Dry Riesling is produced in Washington's Columbia Valley, a region growing in regard for its fine Rieslings. Ninety percent of the wine made by Pacific Rim is Riesling of one type or another, so it's no surprise they know what they're doing.
Pacific Rim Dry Riesling 2008 is off-dry, even slightly tart, with prominent citrusy fruit and subtler floral flavors. It has a moderate level of alcohol (13.5%), so it's easy to drink a few glasses if you're having it with dinner. And you should, as it goes very well with food.
Pacific Rim Dry Riesling is aged in stainless steel tanks and never sees oak. That gives it a light, refreshing taste that will especially appeal to those who are looking to try a white wine, but aren't fans of Chardonnay. This is not an overly complicated wine, but it has enough flavor and crispness to please most crowds.
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.