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Bourbon Review: Woodford Reserve

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Drive several miles from the city of Versailles through the rolling green hills of the Kentucky countryside and you’ll find the oldest currently-operating distillery in Kentucky.  Distilling began in the 1780s on the land now occupied by Woodford Reserve. In 1941 the distillery was purchased by Brown-Forman Corporation, the American company that today owns Jack Daniel’s, Chambord, Southern Comfort, and other spirit businesses. Operation ceased in the late 1960s, however, and Brown-Forman sold off the property in 1971. It wasn’t until 1993, when Brown-Forman repurchased the distillery, that the Woodford Reserve brand was created.

Since then the distillery has produced its flagship product, Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon. In 2012 it introduced Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon, and this year the brand will introduce Woodford Reserve Rye Whiskey. In addition to these permanent products, Woodford has released a Master’s Collection expression each year since 2005.

This review is for the flagship Woodford Reserve bourbon.

Type: American Kentucky Bourbon
Proof: 90.4 proof
MSRP: $35

Color: Dark goldwoodford2
Aroma: Vanilla and banana with a hint of honey.  Upon opening, charcoal and oak.
Palate: Sweet caramel and spice with a slight hint of banana.  The oils leave a thin coating on the tongue.

Andrew: Not only is Woodford Reserve my go-to choice for bourbon-based cocktails, it’s also an excellent sipping whiskey. Though it’s owned by a larger company, Woodford produces a high quality bourbon that does justice to the historic distillery where it’s created.

Michael: There are a handful of whiskies that I failed to appreciate at the inception of this blog that I have since come around to, and Woodford Reserve is certainly one of them.  The brand has a strong desire for innovation, but, unlike so many craft distilleries, it does not forget the foundations and traditions of the bourbon industry. It is this crossroads of tradition and innovation that I find so intriguing.  Woodford Reserve is the perfect bourbon for early summer afternoons and evening and I look forward to reviewing other products from this distillery in the weeks to come.

Verdict: Saturn, the 7th level of Paradiso.

Scotch Review: Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 – Amontillado

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Laphroaig needs no introduction, and neither does its Cairdeas series, which as we’ve mentioned in the past, means “friendship” in Gaelic. This is the 2014 edition of Cairdeas, finished in Amontillado casks. Amontillado, the Sherry wine named for the Spanish region of Montilla, has a rich amber color that is transferred to this scotch when it is finished in the used casks.

Type: Islay Scotch
Proof: 102.8
MSRP: $75

Color: Dark Straw
Aroma: Musky peat smoke, figs, and hazelnuts, with hints of lemon zest. Strong undertones of sherry and wet hay.
Palate: Sherry, cereal, dried fruits. Long, peat smoke finish.

Andrew: What I love about the Cairdeas series is that every year is a new attempt to find an interesting take on Laphroaig. The 2014 Cairdeas is no exception, and while it’s not nearly as good as the 2013 port wood finish, the Amontillado finish presents a new perspective on a whiskey I thought I knew well. The winey notes are clear, but so are new notes of figs, nuts, and lemons. I’m looking forward to the 2015 edition.
Michael: Whether it’s fair or not, the 2014 Cairdeas will always be judged on its immediate predecessor, the 2013 edition, which was simply masterfully done.  The 2014 edition is an excellent whisky in its own right — Laphroaig with a twist of American bourbon barrels and dry sherry — a combination that combines wonderfully.  The 2014 edition has grown on me as I have worked my way through the bottle over several months.  Cairdeas 2014 is a wonderful complex whisky, even if I was initially disappointed that it did not achieve the mastery of the 2013 edition.  Such is the nature of experimental limited releases.

Verdict: Stars, the eighth level of Paradiso.

Bourbon Review: Eagle Rare

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Eagle Rare is brought to us by the highly renowned Kentucky distillery Buffalo Trace.  You may remember Buffalo Trace from our visit to the distillery or from our past review of its flagship product.  Buffalo Trace has firmly established itself as the cutting edge American distillery and each of its products are highly sought after.

Eagle Rare is an older, more mature, release than the more familiar Buffalo Trace Whiskey.  Aged for a minimum of ten years, each barrel is hand selected by the master distiller to achieve a consistent taste across bottles.  Eagle Rare has already brought home some hardware in 2015, earning a gold medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Type: Kentucky Bourbon
Proof: 90
MSRP: $36

Color: Copper
Aroma: Spice, herbal, vanilla, old wood, and tones of orange zest that become more pronounced on opening.
Palate: Very dark chocolate, intertwined with citrus and almonds. Finish is warm and dry.

Andrew: Eagle Rare is what a bourbon should taste like — classic, refined, and smooth.  I will certainly purchase another bottle because of the brand’s versatility; it will go down nicely either neat or in a cocktail.  Eagle Rare, likely the second or third best release from this distillery, is better than most flagship products.

Michael: I was slightly disappointed by Eagle Rare.  I did not think that the palate sufficiently matched the aroma and for me personally, it was a bit spicy for a bourbon.  Please note that I am in the minority here and that most whisky experts — which I am most decidedly not — give Eagle Rare high praise.  I am deferring to Andrew’s judgment for the verdict.

Verdict: Saturn, the 7th level of Paradiso.

Whiskey Review: Jack Daniel’s Green Label

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Founded 1875 (or 1863, depending on who you ask), in Lynchburg, Tennessee, where it’s still headquartered, Jack Daniel’s is the best selling brand of whiskey in the world. Its founder and namesake, Jasper “Jack” Newton Daniel, started experimenting with making whiskey when he was young. He took over the local preacher’s distillery in 1884, and the signature square bottled Tennessee whiskey has grown in popularity ever since.

A 2013 state law requires whiskey marketed as “Tennessee whiskey” to be, like bourbon, at least 51 percent corn and aged in never-used charred oak barrels. Additionally, Tennessee whiskey must be filtered through charcoal and stored in Tennessee. The passage of this law, supported strongly by Jack Daniel’s, was controversial: some competing distilleries felt that the law was modeled specifically to fit the Jack Daniel’s distilling process. In 2014 an effort to repeal the law failed. Jeff Arnett, the master distiller at Jack Daniel’s, said of the Tennessee whiskey controversy this past year: “I would love to stop debating it and get back to making it.”

The whiskey we review today is Jack Daniel’s Green Label Tennessee Whiskey. Their green label bottle is a bit more difficult to find, and is lighter and less mature than the standard black label.

Type: Tennessee Whiskey
Proof: 80
MSRP: $21

Color: Light Bronze
Aroma: Vanilla, charcoal, burnt toast, cereal, sulphury
Palate: Initial vanilla. Cereal and sulphur throughout. Short finish.

Andrew: The first thing I noticed was the unusual aroma: not being a bourbon, there was no strong honey notes, and instead there was a mix of cereals and sulphurs. The taste was mild and simple, and while the finish was short it had a notable lack of any harsh spices. Overall I was very happy with the Jack Daniel’s Green Label and would certainly consider it as a base for whiskey cocktails.
Michael: Green label has become a personal favorite of mine for cocktails.  It has enough taste to provide a strong foundation for a mixed drink without utterly dominating the other flavors present.  That is a hard combination to find in reasonably priced whiskies.  A lot of people consider Green Label to be a cheap imitation of the “real thing” or Black Label, but in my humble opinion these folks have no idea what they’re talking about.  Just because Green Label does not grab ahold of your tongue and drag it around a coal mine for a mile and a half does not mean that it is doing you a disservice.  I am quite happy to have found Green Label in Pittsburgh and will almost certainly purchase it again.

Verdict: Mars, the 5th level of Paradiso.

Scotch Review: Kilchoman Machir Bay

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Kilchoman is a relative newcomer to the Islay whisky scene, but is already drawing favorable reviews equivalent to its elder island cousins, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg.  Beginning production in 2005, the distillery orders the same malt specifications as Ardbeg but employs a drastically different vision to its product.  Without wholly abandoning the peaty identity that Islay whiskies have become known for, Kilchoman markets a younger, fresher spirit to whisky enthusiasts.

Machir Bay is the flagship Kilchoman release.  The release uses malts from Islay’s famous Port Ellen distillery and does not contain an age requirement.

Type: Islay
Proof: 92
MSRP: $58

Color: Straw
Aroma: Honey and caramelized sugar with chestnuts, dry apples, and peat smoke as tertiary aromas
Palate: Light and slightly fruity initial taste with cool, sweet notes extending to the middle taste.  There are medicinal overtones in the middle taste and peat smoke on the long, oily finish.

Andrew:  Kilchoman is breath of fresh air when it comes to Islay whiskys. I like strong peat and smoke as much as anyone else, but Kilchoman proves that an Islay can be just as interesting as the more complex Speysides and Highlands. Excellent single malt, and I’m looking forward to their future releases.

Michael: You can tell by the color of the whisky that this is not a product that has been aged for long.  I think that younger whiskies get something of a bad reputation in the spirit world and are considered less desirable by people who think that the only thing that matters to taste is the number of years the whisky has been in a barrel.  I really enjoyed this whiskey and would certainly consider purchasing it as a “change of pace” Islay.  It maintains a certain freshness without losing the smokey peat I enjoy.  Directly comparing it to Laphroaig, Ardbeg, and Lagavulin might be unfair but of the four Kilchoman still has some catching up to do.

Verdict: Saturn, the seventh level of Paradiso.

Scotch Review: Laphroaig Cairdeas: Port Wood Edition (2013)

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Our love of Laphroaig is well known, so we were very excited to review the distillery’s special edition series entitled “Cairdeas.”  Cairdeas means “friendship” in Gaelic.  Gaelic is still intermittently used in parts of Scotland, especially in the northwest of the country.  I was surprised to find Gaelic road signs and radio stations during my travels there.

Laphroaig releases a Cairdeas edition each year, which Andrew and I very much look forward to.  Andrew has developed a habit of bringing me a bottle of Cairdeas for special occasions — wedding, baptisms, and the like — and it has certainly become a way to celebrate our friendship.

Type: Islay
Proof: 102.6
MSRP: $80

Color: Port red with a hint of copper
Aroma: Very sweet off the nose with peat smoke, sea salt, and medicinal overtones
Palate: Matches aroma to perfection.  Initial taste has butterscotch, spice, and rhubarbs.  Peat smoke dominates the middle taste but gives way to a wonderfully long, oily, port-sweet finish.

Andrew: There are few better whiskys with which to celebrate the Easter season. The Cairdeas 2013 is one of Laphroaig’s best, with its perfect blend of peat and port. I wouldn’t have imagined that the traditional Laphroaig could be improved so much, but this edition magnifies the beautiful aromas and taste of the original to create a wonderfully unique and exceptionally enjoyable Islay single malt. While I look forward to every subsequent Cairdeas which Laphroaig will produce, I doubt they will be able to produce something more perfect than this.

Michael:  The 2013 edition of Cairdeas achieved a level of perfection unrivaled at the price point.  Simply put, this bottle is a masterpiece and if you can still find it you should absolutely buy as many as you can get your hands on and put them away for very special occasions.  Without question this is the best whisky I have ever had.

Verdict: Empyrean Heaven, the tenth level of Paradiso.

Irish Whiskey Review: Teeling Small Batch

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The Teeling family started making whiskey in Ireland in 1782, when Walter Teeling founded a distillery in Dublin.  In the 1980s, John Teeling bought the rights to Irish whiskey brands such as Tyrconnell (which we’ve reviewed before) and made these whiskeys in a distillery on the Cooley Peninsula. Jim Beam bought the Cooley Distillery in 2012, but Jack Teeling (who owns Teeling today with his brother, Stephen) convinced Jim Beam to sell them several thousand barrels of aged whiskey from the distillery, which gave the new family-named brand a head start in creating their first batches.  The Teeling distillery, which will open to visitors in 2015, is the first new distillery in Dublin in 125 years.

The whiskey we are reviewing today is Teeling’s Small Batch, which is aged in bourbon barrels and finished in rum casks, making it, like all of Teeling’s whiskeys, more unique and interesting than others in Ireland.

Type: Irish Whiskey
Proof: 98
MSRP: $40

Color: Autumn Straw
Aroma: Honey, salt, mist, and notes of pear. Very light.
Palate: Strong, a bit spicy, with floral and mild citrus notes.

Andrew: Of all the Irish whiskeys I’ve had, this might be my favorite. Teeling is lighter and less harsh than many Irish whiskeys, and brings a unique and fresh flavor profile to a genre of whiskey which we have historically found rather uninteresting.
Michael: I think Teeling has the most potential of any Irish whiskey we’ve reviewed thus far.  It seems like there is some room for the brand to turn out a more refined product over the next several years, but given that this particular project only began in 2012, color me impressed.

Verdict: Jupiter, the 6th level of Paradiso.

Whisky Review: Amrut Fusion

Amrut Fusion

Amrut Distilleries was founded in Bangalore, India in 1948 when relaxed laws made it easier to obtain a distillery license. The distillery began by selling brandy and other liquors, and in the 1980s it created a barley blended whisky. Amrut faced many unique challenges in the years that followed, discovering, for example, that the high temperatures of the Indian climate lead to a higher rate of evaporation, or angels’ share, than in other parts of the world.

In 2004 the distillery began selling the world’s first Indian single malt whisky in Europe under the “Amrut” brand. Indian whisky sales in Europe, however, struggled to gain traction until 2010, when English whisky writer Jim Murray rated Amrut Fusion as the third best single malt in the world.

The variety of Amrut we review today is the Amrut Fusion, a single malt first released in 2009 that’s distilled from a blend of three quarters Indian barley (grown in Punjab and Rajasthan) and one quarter peated Scottish barley.

Amrut FusionType: Indian Single Malt Whisky
Proof: 100
MSRP: $70

Color: Tarnished bronze
Aroma: Caramel and barley, with hints of orange and peat smoke
Palate: Strong barley and oak flavors initially. Long, strongly spiced finish.

Andrew: I’ve spent time in India myself, and so I was excited to try the country’s premier single malt. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed. While the strong barley aroma carried into the palate, I found the flavors a bit overwhelming. The subtler peat and citrus notes were drowned out by the spice, and what could have been a more complex, unique whisky ended up being one I will probably avoid next time.
Michael: I respect Jim Murray’s opinions but for whatever reason I simply can’t see why he loves Amrut so much.  Yes, it’s new and exciting.  Yes, it is a decent whisky that comes from an area of the world not known for distilleries.  To me, though, the flavors were not blended properly.  There was so much spice we could barely find the peat and citrus notes.  The flavors were perhaps complex, but not necessarily pleasant.  I think we’re comfortable cutting against the conventional wisdom with this review.

Verdict: Mars, the fifth level of Paradiso.

Scotch Review: Glenrothes Select Reserve

The Glenrothes Select Reserve

Glenrothes was founded in 1878, but due to financing issues the distillery wasn’t completed until 1887.  The distillery continued to face challenges throughout its history; they suffered fires in 1897, 1903, and 1922.  The Speyside distillery is located in Rothes, Scotland, and sells bottles by vintage, not by age. They also produce several non-vintage reserves (one of which we review here).

Glenrothes is therefore nearly the exact opposite of every distillery we have reviewed on this blog before in one important respect.  Every release brings a new taste profile, almost as if each release were its own special edition.  Glenrothes Select Reserve was built after the brand gained mainstream popularity with the idea that it would be the flagship bottling for the distillery — the one product that would taste the same year in and year out.

The Glenrothes Select ReserveType: Speyside
Proof: 80
MSRP: $39

Color: Golden straw
Aroma: Honey and wet hey. Opens nicely and accentuates the aromas.
Palate: Initial taste is mildly acidic, hints of fruits, particular pear. Light, citrus finish to cleanse the palate.

Andrew: The Glenrothes felt like a very well balanced Speyside: light and refreshing, but not too sweet. Even so, I found myself wishing it was a bit more complex. All in all, a solid whisky and one I would definitely recommend.

Michael: I think this is a great whisky for anyone who is trying to experience a Speyside for the first time.  The taste profile is extremely refreshing and it certainly has all the classic characteristics one would expect from a whisky of that region.  I also think this is an excellent bottle for the price point.  It might not have a unique twist on a classic taste, like many brands do, but sometimes executing a classic taste well — even if unspectacularly — leads to a great product.

Verdict: Jupiter, the sixth level of Paradiso.

Scotch Review: Arran Sherry Cask 1997

The Arran Malt Single Cask

Isle of Arran Distillers operates the only distillery on the 10-mile wide Island of Arran. The isle was likely the location of St. Brendan’s monastery of Aileach, founded in the sixth century. Just to the west is the Holy Isle, which was home of the Irish abbot St. Molaise of Leighlin in the seventh century.

Arran was once teeming with dozens of distilleries — all of which operated underground, out of reach of the authorities, to avoid taxes.  The last underground distillery closed in 1837, and the island didn’t have another distillery open until 1994, when Isle of Arran Distillers opened.

In the short time since it has opened, however, Isle of Arran has produced many excellent single malts and blends. Several of their releases have been finished in cognac, port, or sherry casks, and they released a peated single malt in 2010.  By 2012, the brand had 11 distinct releases ranging from Arran-14 to Icons of Arran “Peacock” (1996).

The Arran Malt Single CaskType: Highland / Isle of Arran
Proof: 106
MSRP: $120

Color: Red copper
Aroma: Needs opening up. Winey oak with a hint of cherry.
Palate: Matches aroma. Strong cherry tones on finish.

Andrew: The strong, complex aroma is probably my favorite part of this whisky. Strong scents of sherry, mixed with fruits, oak, and a touch of smoke emerge after adding a bit of water. The palate is crisp and fresh, and matches the aroma perfectly. I was not disappointed with this single cask, and it’s now one of my favorite highlands.

Michael:  I thought this was an extremely solid highland whisky.  A sherry cask finish is a little out of the ordinary for Arran, which prides itself on using bourbon barrels under the theory that sherry casks cannot give the whisky the spicy vanilla flavor that the master distiller is attempting to create.  It’s almost unfair to judge the brand this early.  By my count, the 1997 barrels were produced in the third year of operation.  It will be interesting to see how the brand improves as it ages.  Do yourself a favor and listen to St. Brendan’s Fair Isle when drinking Arran.

Verdict: Jupiter, the sixth level of Paradiso.