Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bourbons from the past


Very confusing for us entusiast that entered the whisky world via single malts. Opposed to malt whisky bourbon whiskey is recipe based as well as distillery based.
Chuck Cowdery made a very good guest blog on John Hansell's website about the american definitions of whiskey of which I will quote
For a product to be labeled “bourbon whiskey” it has to meet tighter requirements. The mash must be at least 51% corn, the distillation proof has to be less than 160° proof (80% ABV), the barrel entry proof has to be less than 125° proof (62.5% ABV), and the oak containers have to be new and charred, but there is still no minimum age specified.
That brings us to “straight bourbon whiskey,” which has to comply with all of the above plus spend at least two years in wood. Why the word “straight” was chosen to mean “aged in wood for at least two years” I cannot explain.
The majority of distilleries making bourbon on a large scale is located in Kentucky. The fact that bourbon is recipe and brand based sometimes has the effect that it's not obvious where a particular bourbon is produced, I guess that some bourbons might even be vattings from several distilleries? (Jim Beam's are!). Some distillery based brands do exist thou, I can mention Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, Makers Mark, Wild Turkey. Some brands aren't obviously connected to a distillery, I can mention Sazerac, George T Stagg, Pappy van Winkle, and some brands have changed distillery of origin, some even more than once.

Everybody acquainted with scottish single malts know Diageo and their series : Classic malts of Scotland

When Diageo were still United Distillers they were also (trying to) operate in USA. They acquired a range of distilleries and companies, mainly Schenley which had George T Stagg (distillery) and Bernheim amongst others. United Distillers also acquainted Stitzel-Weller, Glenmore and others.

They kept some brand names, and sold of others (Sazerac to name one), after a few years they closed all their distilleries and continued with the new Bernheim only, which were eventually sold to Heaven Hill, which ended Diageo's adventure as distiller in Kentucky. But not as a company selling bourbon. They kept some brand names and do now source their casks from other companies

In the 90's they releases their bourbon pendant to the classic malts, The Bourbon Heritage Collection

This miniature set is a gift from S´tan, thanks a lot

Writing about bourbons is harder than writing about single malts for me. I am not a very experienced bourbon drinker. It's mainly about toffee and wood for me. But I have to say I enjoyed these drams, 

1. George Dickel, Special Barrel Reserve 10yo 43%
Tennessee Bourbon ?

George Dickel uses Tennessee Whiskey is label, but I guess they could label their whiskey bourbon if they wanted to..they just don't. 

Loads of sweet toffee, the wood impact is gentle. Easy drinkable. Toffee is the dominating flavour. The spirit is gentle and this is the most smooth, toffee custard caramel american whiskey I ever had. Yum Yum

Rating 84

2. Very Special Old Fitzgerald 12yo 45%
Stitzel-Weller ?

Woody like an old scotch, very drinkable, slight toffee in the finish where the wood gentles. Wood is the dominating flavour, with strong toffee. Juice

Rating 84

3. Centennial W.L. Weller 10yo 50%


Nose is a bit solvent like. Dominating flavour is floor coatings. But still a lot of toffee. Is this the higher ABV coming through ?

Rating 80

The WL Weller and Old Fitzgerald should be bourbons with wheat as secondary grains, now on to a couple with rye as secondary grain

4 I. W. Harper 15yo 40%
DSP-1, whatever that is

Aaaah, what a wonderful nose. This have some rye in the recipe and the result is a more spicy bourbon. Bourbons with a rye component becomes me very well. Rye is to bourbons what peat is to scotch, wise men have said. The nose is rye-spicy, and the spicyness follows over on the palate. This is like a very very good old grain. Where do you get stuff like this today S'tan ?..and did I say the nose was terrific ?

Rating 90

5. Old Charter Proprietor's Reserve 13yo 45%
Old Charter Distillery

The rye in this is slightly less dominent and it doesn't come through as delicate as in the I W Harper. The wood is more dominant and I also get some dark liqourice

Rating 84

All 5 of this had the similarity that I felt I was drinking juice and not hard liquor. They were just so sipping friendly. I really liked them. Rye versus wheat is spice versus toffee for me. I like them both, but to me rye is the new black. I must be a peathead :-)

As I understand it on S'tan, the 4 Kentucky Bourbons were all made in  distilleries that doesn't exist any more. George Dickel is still running

And these bottlings where around 30$ for full sizes...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Charbay Winery and Distillery

In January 2010 I had the pleasure to taste Charbay-II (thanks Adam) and I got aware of a winery on the hills between Sonoma and Napa Valley in the wine country just north of San Francisco, California.

Charbay is NOT on the main road

After a somewhat longish ride on small hilly roads, in dense forest, I finally found Charbay. It quickly realisedt that Charbay had it's distilling facilities in Ukiah, a bit north of the winery, but the old stills were displayed outside

A still, a boiler and a condenser

The stills will look familiar to those who are acquainted with Cognac. Alembic style!. Now, for a person who has seen quite a lot of scottish distilleries, the unusual about Charbay is not how the whisky is distilled, or the look of the stills. To see traditional potstills outside Scotland is actual a somewhat rare sight, but this is still quite similar to setups seen Scotland, which is the motherland of whisky, if not yours, it's mine. This doesn't mean good whisk(e)y can't be produced outside Scotland or on different still designs and setups.

Charbay is a good example. I had the honour of meeting Charbay's Marko Karakasevic. Charbay was founded by his father, who began distilling in California in 1983 and is 12th generation from a family of European distillers. Marko is 13th generation. Having a winery, and a distillery making wine and fruit based spirits, Marko turned to whiskey, as he was also a fan of the great new wave of american microbrew. He thought..why not turn these great ale and beers into whisky. Now this is quite unusual. The beer used is bottle-ready beer from a Northern Californian microbrewery. Marko uses several kind of beers and ales. Pilsner, IPA's and Stouts.

The Charbay I tasted in 2010 was release II

Charbay II at Ardbeggeddon 11

Charbay II is made from a pilsner, matured for approx. 6 years in casks, then 3 additional years in stainless steel tanks. Now I don't have any particular tasting notes for this whiskey, I tried it during a social event, amongst a "few" other drams, so my approach was not being scientific :-)

I remember liking it though, liking it so much I spend a few hours searching out this winery !

Aging a whiskey on stainless steel tanks is also unusual. Well maybe aging isn't the correct term to use, but I could have said marrying or mellowing. 

If you think nothing happens outside a barrel go google Old Bottle Effect or those Eau-de-vie's (or was it grappas?) that has been "matured" in glass (or was it also stainless steel). Anyway.

Marko want's the character of the beer/ale used to be a dominating factor of the final whiskey or spirit. He uses french oak that has previous held Chardonnay. He wants the oak to mellow and age the spirit, but not influence it to a greater extend, like bourbons.

It's hard to find Charbay II outside californian specialist shops. 

Marko and a wee still used to make brandy for fortified wines

I also had the honour of trying a wee sample of a couple of Marko's next projects. An IPA based whiskey, still maturing. This was a just one year old. The initial nose had the expected "youthness" to some degree, but the palate really surprised. What a pleasant explosion of flavours. Using the most expensive wash in the industry pays off it seems. I quickly noted down liquorice, tea, wood and roasted barley as the dominant tasting notes. I remember Marko looking at me like I was a bit weird when I mentioned tea, but I can calm him with the fact that it's not the first time I had that look :-), I often find things others wonder where the *censored* I got that from

A selection of Charbay's products

Visiting Charbay and talking to Marko was a very exciting experience. Marko has decided to do things his own way, and very different than others. So far his whiskey's has been produced only in very very small quantities. It is high quality, well matured whiskey. There's a lot of American microdistilleries coming up these years. I've tasted quite a lot of products I felt weren't really bottle ready, together with Anchor's Old Potrero Hotalings Whiskey 14yo, Charbay are the only superb products I have tried. The rest I would rate promising, but I have far from tasted everything :-)

Oh, afterwards I drived around Napa Valley. I tried a few wines I liked, something that usually happens once in 5 years. I should have brought a designated driver...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Las Vegas Distillery

A couple of weeks ago I happened to be in Las Vegas with a group of whiskyfriends, and we took the opportunity to visit Las Vegas Distillery

I had been aware of them for a year or so, as they had a website and plans to start a distillery. Recently I also followed them on facebook so I was quite aware the distillery was just about to start distilling.

It's not easy to start a distillery in a state that has no tradition for distilling, and no regulations for it either, but George Racz is about to have done it. George Racz is Hungarian, born in Rumania and has been living in USA less than 10 years. When he and his wife decided they wanted to take a big chance and open a distillery they took the bold decision to open one in Vegas. A city and state with no distilling tradition. It may be very smart to open a distillery in Las Vegas. A world famous city with many tourists should give quite a few chances of interested customers passing by. And it's not like the city lack bars either :-). Probably the best gamble done in Vegas!

We arrived friday noon and George was there to greet us

George Racz talking about his copper angels, the name he has given to his stills

A combo still. Left potstill will be used to double destill whiskey

The stills had just been installed when we visited. Next step was water distilling, and the first spirit to be produced will be vodka. Apart from vodka, other ready spirits like gin will also be produced. The main "problem" for new whiskey distilleries is that it can take a long time for the whiskey to mature, so producing ready spirits can be necesary to have some income...but vodka and gins can be very nice spirits to drink, especially if you don't like whiskey :-)


George told us that he intend to experiment a lot to find out what works out. Bourbons, Ryes, Malt Whiskeys and much more. Even a 7 grain whisky was in the plans (rye, corn, wheat, rice, oat, barley and one more I forgot about!)

Adding to this he will use several sizes of casks. George will experiment a bit with a variety of whiskeys and cask sizes, so I expect a lot of different styles to be produced, let's see how much will get bottled :-)

He plan to have as much as possible grown "locally" a farm in northern Nevada. More info about this and a lot of other things on the distillery website, which is a very informative website. I like informative websites. Too many, especially american whiskey websites are sometimes too much myth and too little info.

Not a Porteus, nor Boby :-)

We all thought that George was very pleasant company so we invited him over for a dram!. His good humour and entusiams will put a smile on your face :-)

"I am starting to love my job" George said

You can follow Las Vegas Distillery on facebook. I find it exciting to follow the daily do's of an upstarting distillery from the other side of the globe!

I am also excited to follow the distillery in the years to come. I am sure I will get around Las Vegas again and will for sure go around Las Vegas Distillery everytime. It is located in Henderson, in the eastern part of Las Vegas, half the way out to the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. I really hope the Nevada laws will make it possible for Las Vegas Distillery to open a shop on the premises and allow guests a wee tasting. It will make a lot of difference for us travelling whisky tourists :-)

And if you're there on a saturday they might be having a bottling party!

My good luck and best wishes to George and the Las Vegas Distillery

I hope he makes some rye whiskey in one of his quartercasks, should be bottle ready quite fast (on the relative scale of time to mature whisky)