1987 Old Grand-Dad BiB 100 proof – Tales of Ghosts and Butterscotch

Being the season of the witch, I decided to get into the spirit and bring you tales of ghosts, apparitions, and of course one perfect expression of fine vintage bourbon.

To start with, as far back as I can remember I was fascinated by ghosts. Not just ghost stories that kids sit around a camp fire retelling, each time less scary, but the real deal. The full specter apparition.

For example: a few years ago my wife and I were strolling through New Orleans, past the rows of decaying pastel shotguns, through the oaks that stroke the ground in the Congo Square. Our destination: St Louis Cemetery #1, the City of the Dead. A fantastic venue to find potential names for our soon-to-be first born baby.

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St Louis #1 is a magnificent site, reputed to be the permanent home of the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. For happy souls it’s the final monument of record that details their centuries of life and death. For the restless, wayward soul, it’s less of a cemetery than a hotel. Some inhabitants leave, some stay. Surrounding St Louis #1 is a high wall, 8 feet of white stucco stone, though it’s debatable whether the wall is meant to keep “them” in, or us out. Either way, there is but one entrance. As we made our way along Basin Street we walked behind an older couple, all of us enjoying a warm June day in New Orleans, in no hurry at all. We were a half block or so from the gated entrance of the cemetery, an imposing wrought iron affair, dripping with tears of rusty grime and patina. Silently I hoped it would be open, as I had not checked the hours of entry beforehand. The older couple now just 60 feet or so ahead paused at the gate and then proceeded in. This immediately made me happy; No awkward excuses explaining why I didn’t perform my due diligence. My wife commented that we were looking into the future, that perhaps someday we would be that old couple, strolling hand in hand. As we got to the gate, my eyes, I thought, had to be deceiving me. The big old wrought iron gate stood closed, a physical barrier spanning the stone pillars like a battle hardened sentinel, married to the wall by a massive iron padlock clasping together two ends of thick logging chain, fulfilling its promise to keep the gate closed to all. But, wait. How? Um…. Did I? Did I actually just see that? Did the old couple just walk through a 200 year old wrought iron gate? I stood there, amazed, mystified, and in awe of things I can’t explain. I reached out, took one of the big iron bars in my hand and tugged it as hard as I could. Nothing, not even a creak. I turned to my wife, she being the ultimate skeptic, “Did you see that? I mean, you saw what I just saw, right?” She stayed quiet and I started to repeat the question again when her hand went up and her response, paused and pointed, “Yes, I did. I do not care to discuss this again.”

That’s New Orleans. At that point I demanded that we spend time in pursuit of things a little less paranormal, retreating for dozens of oysters on the half shell and multiple drams of George T Stagg at the Bourbon House.

I sit here typing away with a smile, reliving that moment of spectral shock, the distance between here and hereafter a shorter path than I care to walk.

Now, allow me to wind into this specific story one of the most epic bourbons you could ever hope to sip, a 1987 Old Grand-Dad 8yr Bottled in Bond 100 proof. It’s a National Distillers product, and to me the best of the best from that label. The OGD is also somewhat a ghost of bourbon. It had once existed, been plentiful on the shelf during the days of the glut, and it sat year after dusty year, until one day it had all vanished. Now it makes intermittent appearances, aficionado’s spinning tales about the old distillery and bottle sightings in decrepit old stores, thick with layers of dust and history. Making appearances. Vanishing. Ghosts.

It’s known by various names and memes, and the one you hear so often like other National Distillers offerings is “Butterscotch Bomb”. Well, that’s not far off the mark, and a perfectly acceptable description. But there is so much more to it. The color is golden, my mind’s image of treasure…Howard Carter peering through the hole into Tutankhamen’s tomb with a candle, it’s light vanquishing the cursed darkness and reflecting off the decadence, him replying “Wonderful things!” when asked what he saw.

The nose is a pillow of silky, sugary wind. It rises, like a sweet apparition right out of the glencairn into my nose. It’s so gentle and elegant. Butterscotch, yes, so obvious. Soft brown sugars and mild barrel char. And, age. Bourbon is just not made like this anymore. Not that there isn’t amazing bourbon now, there obviously is. There is just nothing like this. Breathing deep, I experience that rush of nostalgia, of being a kid trying to unwrap pieces of Halloween booty. The old lady up the hill that gave out butterscotch discs she had pilfered from some restaurant candy dish. The sugars starting to break down and meld with the wrapper, the way it smelled; sweet nitroglycerin. It’s not complex, but simple in its magnificence. It’s straight forward and hits all the perfect notes. Breathe as hard as you want, because even at 100 proof the alcohol never stings the nose. Ugh, I could smell this for hours. But it beckons me, leads me directly into the sip.

The Old Grand-Dad’s flavor is everything you want bourbon to be. This is the syrup you dream about. This is the flavor that stands up to the nose. It possesses a huge, orbicular, rich mouthfeel. Almost akin to the perfect cup of coffee cut with real cream, and the sweet flavor of butterscotchy caramel drizzled over the top. It’s literally the “every man’s” bourbon. If a mad scientist could process every good bourbon flavor profile and desire into 2oz of brown liquid splendor, it would drip out of the burnt beakers and coiled tubes into his glass in the form of this astonishingly good Old Grand-Dad BiB. Dr. Frankenstein would sip it and throw his hand in the air, screaming “It’s Alive! It’s Alive!”

The finish is simply a tidal wash of; you guessed it, butterscotch, with a mild 100 proof sizzle, a gunpowder fuse. It doesn’t linger on and on. It passes silently like a hooded figure, floating legless into the night. Its Halloween candy and I cannot resist the temptation for just one more pour.

If you happen to find a bottle, stashed away in the cupboard of that dilapidated old house on the hill that you were always told was haunted, hang on to it tight, because it will disappear quickly, like that old couple through the gates of the cemetery.

Happy Halloween.

Four Roses Single Barrel “Captain’s Pick” – A Taste of the Hemingway Dream

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I am a student of Hemingway.  Not in an academic sense, but rather in a way that I allow myself to be moved by his words, and in that, my fascination with the man and his writing and style has grown over time.  Seemingly diminutive sentences somehow managed to burst forth with colors, sounds, flavors, scenery and emotions.  Some of my earliest interest in bourbon was actually piqued by the way Ernest talked about drinking whiskey with his friends under the buzzing neon glow of the Select, or any number of zinc bars that dotted the grand boulevards or post war Paris. Imagine the pre-prohibition era bourbon he drank back then; It must have been fantastic!!

Of them all, my favorite Hemingway passage comes from his timeless novel, The Sun Also Rises.  If you are at all interested in wanton adventure, epic road trips, drinking until your faculties are gone, partying for weeks without pause, living like its your last day on earth and finding the ultimate inner peace with nature, this is the book for you.  In particular there is a section having to do with Ernest (Jake in the book) traveling with his buddies high into the Pyrenees mountains of Burguete, in Spain, to fish for trout on the Irati river.  I’ve read it so many times it’s as real to me as a personal experience, and even now I can feel the cold mountain stream as I wade in, coming up over my wading gear, the cold water stiffening my joints as I bait the hook with a real worm rather than a lure (leaving me more able to concentrate on tasting bourbon than fishing.) The cold of the water is in direct contrast with the heat of the Spanish sun on my face.  I can smell the beautiful fragrance from the myriad of lush mountain flowers in heavy bloom that sway in the constant breeze.  I can taste the wild berries that grow in thick bushes along the river bank, plump and juicy, gushing with sugars, waiting to be snacked on, the juice running over the edge of my chin.

By Hemingway’s description (this is my favorite part) there is a mountain spring near the stream, where icy water comes out of a steel pipe into a basin, covered by a couple of old boards.  He sinks two bottles of juicy red wine into the basin, and puts the boards back in place.  When it’s time for lunch, he goes to retrieve the wine, and says when he plunges his hand in, the water is so cold it goes numb.  The day is hot and the wine is icy, the combination of which causes the wine bottles to sweat with heavy drops of cold perspiration.  The wine is only average quality, nothing special, but it is cold and cools them off.  He and his buddy sit under a large shady tree, talking about their fish, drinking the wine.  That’s about as relaxed as I could possibly imagine being.  Just spending time with good friends, over a drink that one of them brought along.

And that brings me around to the Four Roses Single Barrel “Captain’s Pick”.  I will make a bold statement and say that if Ernest had possessed two bottles of the “Captain’s Pick” rather than the table wine the innkeeper sold them with their lunch, that’s what he would have been drinking.  I’ll start off by professing that this is one of the finest OESO’s I’ve ever had the pleasure of sipping.  At 10 years, 9 months the age is perfect for me.  Another component that speaks to its quality is that numerous palates I know and trust picked and verified this barrel, unanimously.

But it’s even more than that.  I don’t drink bourbon just to drink bourbon. I want it to tell me a story, take me on an adventure, move me into quiet relaxing contemplation, similar to the way a Hemingway novel does. The “Captain’s Pick”, to me, is the bourbon embodiment of the fishing tale in The Sun Also Rises.

The nose is crisp and sweet, like biting into a honeycrisp apple on a November morning, and brings to mind the dinner Hemingway had at the inn the night before walking into the mountains.  Every facet of flavor I could detect in the five pours I tried were the absolute embodiment of the description of their dining experience. The cold night air penetrating the dining room, such that they could see their breath. The oak panels on the walls, dark and smoky.  The wooden bowl full of sweet, ripe wild strawberries. The smoke emanating from the charred woodburning stove in the cook’s kitchen, mixing with the juicy table wine.  The nose of the Four Roses is all of this.  Its a liquid cold wind, juicy red berries surging, surging, surging.  Fresh, fragrant wild flowers filling the room.  The aroma of an old oak table sitting close to an open hearth, heating and drying in caramelized decay.  I get all of that.  I even find a tantalizing component of sweet beech-nut, fresh tobacco.

A quick swirl of the glass to regenerate the juice, and my anticipation of the flavors that will fill my mouth build, like the moment you can see the riffle in the stream swirl and churn, boiling up, knowing a big fish is about to take the bait. Swirl the glass; tug the line. Admire the color; eye the line in the water. Raise the glass to your lips, letting your senses take in the sweet aromatics; feeling the feedback through the line, something taking the bait, you set the hook and fight the big fish in. Bang.

The flavor is just so…confident, and aware of itself (similar to Hemingway’s provacatrix, Lady Brett Ashley). The knockout punch I described before. It’s the absolute forwardness of the berries and wild flowers that have spent their life soaking in the sunshine on top of a mountain, drinking in the clear, crisp water through the soil, which only days before had been locked in a snowy, frozen embrace with the top of the summit.  I get a scent of nectar, and imagine it wafting through the air drawing big butterflies and honey bees in to feed. My God, the berries and flowers are so strong and evident.  They drown out any trace of the typical “corn”, which can get stale in some bourbons.  The sweetness is also a primary color in this painting. A mild hint of cinnamon, mild spice. A touch of honey.  More beech-nut as the flavor arc starts over the back side into the finish.

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The finish is the shade of the copse of trees near the stream, delivering coolness in the summer.  A great place to relax with your friends watching the water roll by as the sun rolls over. It’s still hot, but comfortable, with a minty element that surprised me, cooling itself off, like flavor-shade.  There is a hidden semi-sweet toffee component, a little more sweet and spicy tobacco.  It transitions seamlessly out of the flavor, burns constant like a match, and peters out with delicious smoke.

Yes, Hemingway would have loved this bourbon.  He would have shared it with his friends, in times of happiness and celebration.  They would have passed the bottle around a big circle of people, nudging everyone to take a pull, amid cheering and laughter, the clinking of glasses and revelry setting the mood.

Bourbon like this is meant to be shared with good friends and good people, and that was precisely why this one was picked.

Cheers!

Willett C12B 22yr – The New Orleans Praline Pecan

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Ah, New Orleans.  Joie de vivre! The joy of life!

I love the city of New Orleans. It’s literally one of my favorite places on earth, and quite often, I pine for it….I dream about it. It calls to my heart, beckoning me home.  My relationship with New Orleans goes back centuries.  My x5 Great-Granddad was born near Versailles, Ky, but the family relocated to southern Indiana, where they set up a farm and eventually a freight hauling business. His son, William was a veteran of the Mexican War, and spent the years between that conflict and the Civil War  growing the business, running flat boats down the Mississippi, heavy with cargo, hauling Indiana corn and barrels of Kentucky’s finest whiskey to the houses of ill-repute in the French Quarter.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, William raised a regiment of Indiana farm boys and was commissioned as a Captain.  They marched south, fighting all the way through Louisiana, finally arriving in New Orleans, and were part of the force that conquered the city.  William kept his command headquarters near the river until 1866, at which point he resumed his flat boat business hauling Bourbon to Bourbon Street, as well as raising “blooded horses”.  That’s some life.

The city is in my blood, just like bourbon. I know that, and I get down as frequently as I can.  One of my favorite things about New Orleans are the smells of culinary excellence that emanate from hot kitchens throughout the city.  Nowhere in the country is food as good as it is here.  Fresh vegetables being chopped and the Holy Trinity cooked into a roux, savory seafood gumbo and jumbalaya bubbling in a cast iron pot.  Popping, sizzling alligator sausage browning in the skillet, hot french bread piled high with meat into a gigantic muffalatta. Beignet’s covered in powdered sugar at Cafe Du Monde.  But my absolute obsession is the one treat that is not easily duplicated anywhere else, the New Orleans candy kitchen pumping out hot dollops of caramelized sugar and pecan, soft and thick, nutty and sweet.  The Praline, pronounced “Praw Line”.  They are irresistible.  The best part is, you walk into the store, and there is always a sweet face that greets you saying, “you want a prawline sample, baby?”  Well yes, yes I do.  I hit them all.  The Candy Kitchen, Aunt Sallies, Southern Candy Makers, Leah’s, Lorretta’s, Laura’s….on and on, you get the picture.  They are all slightly different, but none more or less amazing that the others, as long as they are fresh. Gotta be fresh.  Those dank toasty pecans sweating inside that buttery sweet sugar.  Oh Lawdy. I assume these are the hors d’oeuvre’s that are passed out while you are in the queue at the gates of heaven.

I ask myself, why has no one ever transformed this confection into a decadent drink?  Well, apparently Drew and Willett were way, way ahead of me.

Simply put, the incredible 22yr old C12B is nothing short of a liquid pecan praline candy. Sweet and aromatic.

Keep in mind that at 135.8 proof it’s a hot little beast, so for me and the purposes of this taste, I found that a few drops of Kentucky limestone filtered spring water and 17 minutes of air will bring this juice into the perfect state of drinkability. As per usual, doctor it to suit your taste.

The color of the C12B is dark and golden. but it sparkles and glimmers…like the Mississippi at dusk, when the sun is going down, and the lights off the Crescent City Connection bridge mingle with the neon glow of the French Quarter, shimmering off the rippling black water.

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The nose is well-rounded and super sweet, identical to the moment you break through the plane of the entrance at Southern Candy Makers. PRALINES AND PECANS! Sugars melting and cooking, stirred within an inch of their life.  The musky pecans sit in buckets, waiting for their moment to be dumped, adding a sort of desert aggregate that binds the candy concrete together.  I find the heaviest scent of the copper kettle burnt sugar and pecans comes when I hold the rim of my glass closer to the tip of my nose. Any closer to your nostrils and the high alcohol content will bite you, but good.  I could inhale this creole perfume forever, and it puts me right there in the Vieux Carre.

The flavor continues this party. The sweetness jumps right out of the glass, kissing you on the lips on the way by, whispering “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”….Let the Good Times Roll.  The pecans are more pronounced and vanilla that wasn’t as apparent in the nose is right in there. The grains are coming out, like pie crust. BOURBON PECAN PIE.  It’s utterly delicious, an easy drinking ultra-aged barrel proof bourbon. How wonderful is that?!?!

My notes say: “My heart is beating, longingly, to be sitting in Jackson Square, strolling at a relaxing pace past the artists and fortune tellers.  Listening to the gentle clip clop of horse-drawn carriages pulling their fares along Decatur. A loose affiliation of young ragamuffin brass players and a bass drum form a crude-yet-perfect second line band, marching jovially, playing beyond the limits of their instruments for tips. The Natchez steam boat sits like a grand old wedding cake bobbing in the river, its steam calliope toot-tooting, echoing through the alley ways.”

This is fertilizer for your soul’s happiness, cultivating smiles.  You see?  This is what an epic bourbon can do.  Put you in your favorite places, favorite moments.

The finish is not the typical sizzle, and it would be insulting to compare it to a “burn”.  It’s more, explosive…  A volley of howitzers fired from Washington Battery.  It’s best described as fireworks, a BOOM and fade, followed by another BOOM and fade.  Each blast is discernible from the previous one.  Big and bold, pop after pop.  As it travels over the top of my tongue, heading towards the throat, I give a couple of short exhales and inhales to feel the full extent of the alcohol in my nose.  That’s the money, good Cajun jalapeno’s that have been baked in brown sugar.  And then it drifts away…….like the Mississippi river, or the revelers that party into the night, throwing beads and living for the moment, slowly wandering into the sunrise, towards the river walk, disappearing into the light, ready for sleep.

I love Willett Family Estate bourbon…..

Heaven Hill Select Stock 131 Proof Rye Bourbon – Adventures with a Bourbon Phantom

“This. This pour.  Please, just suspend me in this moment, forever…..”

That was my initial thought as I took my first sips of the the Heaven Hill Select Stock “Rye Bourbon”. A 131 proof phantom; A tasting adventure cloaked in mystery.

Part of what I love about sipping bourbon is the adventure that comes along with it.  Sometimes I feel like anyone who saw me holding my glencairn would be instantly reminded of any number of scenes from an Indiana Jones film.  Indy is carefully inspecting a booby-trapped artifact in some ancient cave in South America, bewildered and entranced by its beauty, contemplating the moment in an almost  spiritual fashion, fawning over the details of craftsmanship of the piece….the dancing torch light reflecting off the gold gilding and casting an aura over his face. Except my idol is that of a 15 year old corn based bourbon, rather than an…..idol.  Well, idols come in many shapes, sizes and pours I suppose.

Regardless.  Any of us that revel in experiencing the deepest nuance of the most epic drink are also adventurous spirits at heart.  Bourbon is in our blood and its a deeply gravitational force, a pull of charred oak and mashed corn that excites our senses and causes the pulse to speed up in anticipation.  Real life provides few chances of adventure on par with that of Indiana Jones, however the desire for mystery and adventure remain…..

So when I was offered the opportunity to try an expression of bourbon that I had no idea even existed, I didn’t hesitate to accept.

This particular pour is the Heaven Hill Select Stock 131 “Rye Bourbon” picked for Bourbon Bar. If you haven’t heard of it, you aren’t alone.  It’s the kind of pour that’s spoken about in hushed tones between only the elite connoisseurs of the bourbon world. This particular juice comes from a 65 gallon barrel that was a sister to the 9 barrels that would eventually become the storied William Heavenhill 15yr 135 proof green label bottles.  It was set aside as a private pick for a hotel bar in Atlanta, and bottled at 131 proof as Heaven Hill Select Stock.  In fact it’s the only Heaven Hill Select Stock that wasn’t of the (delicious) wheated/cognac finished variation.  Unfortunately, there was some disagreement between the hotel management and the bar over the purchase, and ultimately it was decided the assumed owner couldn’t take possession of the barrel.  The remaining bottles went back to the warehouse, where they sat in languished exile for 19 months, waiting for a white knight to rescue them out of a future of uncertain obscurity.  From there the story becomes murky, and a bit of a mystery to say the least. It seems some of them managed to cast off their shackles and disappear like 131 proof phantoms, scampering silhouetted under the blue moon of Kentucky into the night. However, the method of their exodus is shrouded in more secrecy and hypothetical conjecture than the famed Alcatraz prison break.

Its altogether fitting, and at the same time unfortunate that this juice didn’t receive the typical bluster and fanfare that would (and should) accompany a bourbon of such magnificent quality, character and back-story, not to mention rarity. No lines waiting around the corner of the Bourbon Heritage Center.  No awkward pictures from the parking lot.  In truth, I had never seen this bourbon, let alone heard of this bourbon, and that’s a shame because it’s simply a majestic pour, one of the finest I have ever had the pleasure of sipping.  Majestic isn’t even a word that does it justice.  Mesmeric might be better.

All I knew was the advice that accompanied this pour; In essence, “Give it a drop of water and all it’s beautiful secrets will be revealed.”

The first thing I noticed while swirling the glass was how dark this bourbon was, more akin to an ultra-aged specimen that had been cooking down, forgotten, in the back of the warehouse for 24 years.

Just as the bourbon rolls off the lip of the glass, that split second that it’s suspended in air is a moment I would love to have paused, or slowed to a state of near pendulous animation. My nose is gushing full of sugars and musky charred oak, but the definition of these scents is so much more refined than any I have experienced before. It’s a language of waveform, rich and rolling. I detected ultra-rich dark roast coffee, creamy, heady. It’s gracefully overwhelming, but not overpowering, and an utter experience rather than just a smell. I can actually taste the juice before it hits my palate. It makes a grand, elegant entrance, announcing it’s arrival in an unforgettably thick wave of sugary pipe tobacco and syrupy caramel, melting in my mouth like a combination of maple cotton candy and oakey-smoky resonance. The pungeant aromas of toasted pecans mingling like lovers hands with the sweet scents of pipe tobacco.  A July wind that has wafted though miles of Southern Indiana cornfields, thick with humidity that rises like a sweet apparition out of the landscape, gently whipping through the swaying tendrils of my papaw’s giant weeping willow tree.  Oh that pipe tobacco, and leather….this is exactly what I want in an aged bourbon.

The mouth-feel is just enormous and substantial. A friend compared it to that of truffles, and that’s not far off.  It invades every corner of the inner mouth and olfactory senses.  You can practically see it, and it literally disintegrates into multiple soft flavors.  At least five times I shook my head in disbelief, exhaling with puffed cheeks and pursed lips as if I’d just done 350 sit-ups. (disclaimer: I hadn’t…)

The flavors are immediately sweet….decidedly up front.  More of the tobacco dancing with herbal/floral notes, like sweet breakfast tea, or a basket of dried flowers. A mild spice of rye, trading punches with caramel. The flavors retreat, then reappear, floating, bobbing, weaving….  My notes said, “I close my eyes.  I’m standing in the barn, in the afternoon when the heat begins to break.  The ground corn is laid out for the cows, musty and sweet.  I can smell the wildflowers and papaws old pipe. I’m chewing on caramel squares, my favorite. The old oak boards of the barn siding have been absorbing sunlight all day, and they creak as moisture evaporates, expelling the heat with an exhalation of caramalized oaken dreaminess.”

This is quite possibly the most complex bourbon I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting.  It took me three attempts to decipher the nose and flavors, and there was still more of the flavor riddle that could have been untangled.  I tried it straight (AMAZING), and with a drop of water (ALSO AMAZING). To aid in that, I kept the previous night’s empty glencairn covered, and let the aroma bake itself inside, which made many of the oak and sweet flavors come alive.  I would sip and smell at the same time, letting the flavors wash around in my mouth…..until the finish took control.

And that finish!  It’s hot, but not blazing, and certainly enjoyable straight or with a drip of spring water. It coats the entire mouth, tongue and lips with an amazing amount of heat an sizzle. The burn expands, similar to the way Stephen Hawking would describe the Big Bang. Ever expanding. Exponentially multiplying itself. Beyond comprehension. It lasts as long as you want it to, until you are ready to extinguish it.  It will wait, like glowing embers in your core, beckoning you like a siren to try just one more epic pour.  You can’t resist. You just can’t!

How lucky I felt to sip the Heaven Hill Select Stock 131.  How lucky are those that actually have these bottles, giving them the ability to partake in this mesmeric pour.

That, my friends, is the meaning of Epic Bourbon.

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1968 Kentucky Tavern 8yr – The Easter Basket

I’m sure a lot of you grew up the same as me. If your mom took you for ice cream, there was vig to be paid.  By that, I mean the distance between the drive thru window of your local frozen treat establishment and the middle row of a 1982 Buick station wagon was bisected by your mom, who would invariably take a bite out of your delicious sugar cone filled with Southern Butter Pecan, Rocky Road or Double Fudge Chocolate with sprinkles. If you were like me, that drove you to angry tears.  I was able to counter this offensive by determining which flavor mom hated, and training my palate to enjoy only that: Mint Chocolate Chip.

And did anyone else believe that Halloween was a fictitious celebration created by some sinister branch of the Masonic order, whose entire goal was to give fathers of the world the opportunity to sit around the house on a perfect fall evening, while their kids dressed up and left the house for 2 hours, only to come back with baskets filled with delicious candy? (disclaimer: Dad is a Mason.) Did anyone else’s father yell “Bring back Snicker’s….full size.” After 3 costume changes you’d tramp in with your winnings, and before your stunned eyes the basket would get picked over and groused through until nothing was left except the miniature Hershey Special Dark bars. But it technically qualified as candy, and as such I would learn to love it and revel in it’s subtle sweetness.

Even the Easter basket held no sanctity in my family.  My sister, having devoured hers like the Rock Biter in the Never Ending Story would find a way to home in on my bunny treasure, leaving me with nothing but those damn black licorice jelly beans.  I tried stashing my sugary hoard in a purpose built vault, which was really just a tunnel system hollowed into a pile of dirty laundry in the back of my closet.  But after weeks I would just forget it was there.  And my sister would still find it anyway, going so far as to tunnel through the wall of her adjoining closet. Such was the measure of her resolve.  In time I realized that sweet revenge could come swiftly by leaving that rabbit a note that said, “Dear Easter Bunny.  Leave black jelly beans.  That is all.”

Which brings me around to Kentucky Tavern 8yr, bottled in 1968 at 43%.

I love old bourbon.  There is something intrinsically cool and fascinating about drinking juice that was purchased new by relatives that are still with us or long gone. I think about its life, where it’s traveled, and what stories it could tell. If it longed to reach its true potential of providing the final drinker with ultimate satisfaction and enjoyment, thus fulfilling its role in life. This particular pour came via a friend, who found it after 40 some odd years, lurking in his wife’s grandmother’s basement in Alabama.  What an amazing journey. From Kentucky, to Alabama, to North Carolina, to the Internet cul-de-sac occupied by Epic Bourbon…..

As I poured it out I said to myself “I hope I can do this one justice.”

The nose opened, as I expected, smooth.  The low proof meant there would be little in the way of alcohol burn or astringency.  My nostrils were filled with the sweet scent of mild oakiness and spice.  And delicious black licorice. It was really effervescent, and I half expected to open my eyes and see champagne-esque bubbles dancing around in the glencairn. But most enjoyable to me was the way it just smelled….old. Not old like a 22 or 23yr old bourbon, but more like the inside of a photo album your granddad shows you of him and his buddies before the war, or the way the interiors of classic cars smell.  History.  Its not something that can be duplicated.

The flavor was a full on, full blown Easter basket from my youth. Thank you, drunken rabbit.  My notes said BLACK LICORICE, ALL THE WAY, “all the way” being a time-honored phrase old southerners say at the lunch counter when ordering a burger, meaning slather that thing with all the good stuff, as much as you’ve got. Heavy on the front end with the black licorice, the warm loving spice of black jelly beans hit the front of my tongue, transitioning over the ridge into subtle special dark chocolate.  It’s everything I could have wanted.  Why didn’t I ask the Easter bunny for 1968 Kentucky Tavern?

The finish was a tingly burn in the center of my upper soft palate, near the back teeth, and the sides of the tongue.  It was such a nice experience.  It hung around for quite a while, long enough that I was surprised, minty and electric with hints of the dark chocolate still lingering.  That put a vision of my mom, sitting in the front of that mammoth Buick, the hot sunlight of a beautiful southern Indiana August sky beaming through the windshield and radiating off the red vinyl dashboard, already sun-baked and cracked. Her face grimacing as the cool menthol minty ice cream dotted with bits of chocolate dripped onto her hand, and saying “this green shit…” under her breath.

With my final sips of the Kentucky Tavern, I closed my eyes…I sat in the back of that car, politely eating my mint chip ice cream, a plastic baggy filled with black jelly beans that I’d snuck along, lapping away with delight as we crossed the Kennedy bridge into Louisville, the Doobie Brothers “For Someone Special” on the radio, on our way to the now long-gone Galleria….

God, I love old bourbon.  Only old bourbon can do this……

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Willett Family Estate 24yr Barrel “3709” – A Step Back in Time

I’ve always had an interest in history. I love things that bleed antiquity. It’s been this way since I was able to get my own library card and stuff my book bag with oversized dusty copies filled to the brim with historical analysis of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, blueprints and schematics of steam powered ships and every piece of literature I could get my hands on having to do with primitive machinery. And I especially love history that you can see, touch and taste.

I grew up near an old settlement, actually more of a pioneer village called Spring Mill. It was a tiny town that cropped up in the middle of a small valley in the early 1800’s, swiss cheesed by caves that were cut out of the same limestone filtered water that feeds the springs used by our beloved distilleries of today. The beating heart of the town was a 3-story grist mill, powered by a 24 foot water wheel, which was fed by a massive Romanesque aqueduct system out of Hamer cave. It’s an outstanding piece of machinery, even by today’s standards. The mill’s primary function was grinding corn between two huge stone disc’s, pulverizing it into a fine powder used in everything from corn mean to sour mash in the old distillery behind the mill. Since it was so close to our house, just a country mile away, I spent as much time as I could there, marveling at the water wheel, studying the giant wooden gear mechanisms. It smelled like ancient oak and corn being abused and pulverized by the torque, friction and weight of the grinding wheels.

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So how does that relate to Willett you ask? Please allow me to explain.

First off I must confess, I have a bit of an infatuation with bottles of Willett Family Estate bourbon. There is just something so classic about them, from the 10yr all the way to the 24. They never cease to amaze me, never cease to be an experience unto themselves. Always enjoyable. They are just so fantastic and mysterious. Every bottle is an individual, a person, with characteristics that you want to get to know better. You want to become best friends. For me, drinking a Willitt is like that conversation with the perfect girl (you know the one) that carries on into the early hours of a summer morning, as the sun is just starting to peak over the horizon and burn the haze out of the sky. You don’t want it to end, and look at your watch with slow blinks, trying to make the second hand slow down. You hang on every word, every facial expression, every laugh. You feel as if you are drowning, intoxicated by the moment. That’s how Willett’s are for me. Filled with nuance, class, exclusivity and excitement. Every bottle is an adventure into the unknown, but I always leave the glass empty, believing I have just experienced the best there is.

And so I went into my tasting of the 24yr in just the same mindset.

At 114.6 proof, this is by no means the strongest WFE I have ever had. Although I consider myself a high-proof guy (125 is a great proof for me), I was excited to see what kinds of flavors were in store. I poured a finger into the glass, swirled it, and let it sit a moment. But I couldn’t wait too long, the anticipation just wouldn’t allow it. So I gave it a good long snort, and to my immediate surprise I had to back my head up. This old girl seemed a lot stronger that 114 proof. In a blind test I would have guessed much higher, maybe even 135. I took the slightest sip, just to see if the intensity could match the nose, and it was no slouch. Heavy burn from the get go. My neighbors blood hound was yarlping in the background, but with my eyes squinted shut I could imagine it was actually a Dalmatian barking “Get out of the way!” while riding shot gun on an old horse drawn fire wagon, careening through the streets of San Francisco on the way to the blaze engulfing the Hard Luck Saloon.

I let the glass get a little more air and tried it some more, and it proved to be just as intense. I wondered for a moment if I’d put on bourbon goggles that exacerbated some form of primal dyslexia, and this was actually 141 proof. I checked the numbers again; Sure enough 114. So I filled the glass again.

Though it pained me to do it, this time I put a few small drops of real limestone spring water in the glencairn. Have you ever seen one of those old cartoons where a witch is cooking up some kind of brew in a cauldron for dinner or whatever, tossing together an odd mix of eye-of-newt, weasel toe nails and frog eyebrows…and then she drops in that one final ingredient and a huge *POOF* and a mushroom cloud follows. It was like that. Maybe not exactly like that, but that’s how I wanted it to be. I gave the water some time to settles in to its new surroundings, dissipating into the thick brown juice, and a couple of good swirls and minutes of air.

This time, the nose opened up completely.

I was immediately greeted by a wonderful heavy aroma of black walnuts. Specifically black walnuts. There is a difference. Contained within was a nice component of roasted coffee beans, a toasty char emanating from your favorite local coffee shop. As well, there was also one of my favorite standard bourbon nose components: syrup. Oh this doll was syrupy.

But there was something else, something so familiar that it was taking me back to a place in my youth. I was having these wonderful flashes of instant recall from some place in the past, far removed from the present but not from the forefront of my mind. I kept on smelling, determined to re-discover the source of this brilliant scent.

And then I got it.

With every pull, I was getting a good deep breath of the grinding room inside Spring Mill. The heavy old oak plank floors, creaking and pluming a century worth of hand hewn life all around us. The friction of the grinding wheels as they spin. The sweet ground corn dust hanging thick in the air like a cloud, getting deep into my lungs. All of these components coming together perfectly inside this glass, into my nose, taking me back to my youth. I can see the gears; I can hear the water in the flume, spilling over the sides into the creek that rushes past, the groans of the grand old water wheel as it turns at 60 RPM, toiling away proudly saying “hello again, old friend”.

The flavor also delivered the components that I love in a Willett experience, like a Crispy Cream donut, hot, sweet and delicious. Plenty of decadent cocoa in this pour, interspersed with rich burnt sugars. It was delightful, ever so.

And the finish? In my notes I wrote “Magnus Ver Magnusson”….he being one of that all-time great strong men, and “Nuclear Bomb.” The burn was intense, something I love in bourbon (don’t we all?), and it was sustained. On and on and on and on. And just like that great moment with the perfect girl, I found myself looking at my watch, trying to convince the second hand slow down, so I could draw out every last moment of the flavor and finish.

The post nose of the glencairn was a deliciously dreamy cocoa and roasted pecan. I could huff this all day.

So once again, Willett Family Estate does not disappoint. They continue to release epic bottle after epic bottle.
And that’s what Epic Bourbon is all about. Bravo, Drew…..

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Four Roses 2015 Limited Edition Small Batch – The Shakespearian Olfactory Journey

“Whoa.”

This was my initial thought after nosing the new 2015 limited edition small batch, Jim Rutledge’s final gift to the bourbon world. It was especially exciting because I had no preconceived notions about the olfactory journey this juice would be taking me on.

I wish after huffing that glencairn for the first time I would have had some video footage of my facial expression. Eyes closed, glass over the nose, a soft inhale of the golden brown liquid. Eyes quickly open, jaw drops. “Whoa.” A quick swirl of the glass. Eyes closed again, glass to the nose, inhaling with a little more bravery, not fearing the sting of alcohol. Head nods in righteous approval, smiling intensely. “Yes, yes, yes!”

I continued to nose the small batch in this fashion for a good 30 minutes. I simply didn’t want it to end. It was, in a word, incredible.

In fact while doing this tasting I commented to one of my friends that the flavors are not necessarily complex. In fact they are quite easy to pick out. What makes this bourbon truly special is the way the flavors evolve over the life of the pour, like scenes in a Shakespearean play……

Follow me.

Act 1: The Nose.  The nose punches hard out of the gate with an extra heavy shot of spearmint. It’s the bourbon scent version of a kid in 1969, putting on his giant Pioneer headphones, dropping the vinyl on the turn table, the first album by some band called Led Zeppelin. Crackle. Pop. Sizzle. Crack. And the fierce guitar crashes in with two of the most powerful chords ever beaten out of a Telecaster. BOM BOM!!…..BOM BOM!! The kid sits straight up, knowing this is not the ordinary listening experience. Ditto the small batch.

I nose the spearmint a little more, slosh the glass and set it down. I think my daughter is running around when she should be asleep. I say to myself “I’ll go check on it and let the juice reset.”

When I come back I pick up the glass, and wonderful char hits my nostrils before I have a chance to really breathe deep and soak it in. Not too heavy. It’s still minty, but on a crash course of descent into something else. Can’t put my finger on it. At this point I need to put some laundry in the dryer, so I slosh the glass and set it down.

After finishing the closest thing to a workout I’ll get tonight, I pick the glass back up and bury my face in it. Whats this? What on God’s green earth is this? Heavy but equal doses of sweet heady chocolate and sugary toffee? This is chaos! Utter Madness!  Katy, bar the door!  What happened to the char and spearmint?? Oh it’s so heavenly. I suck it in until I’m fairly certain the nose is depleted or my smeller is broken.

I slosh the glass once more. I’m hungry. But I don’t want to eat anything that might throw off my taste buds, so I just stand in the doorway of the pantry staring at a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, casting an eye back to the bourbon, then back to the chips. Feelings of anger and longing course through me like a bad breakup in 12th grade. No, I won’t ruin this pour.

I tell myself this is the last sniff, that I must move onto the tasting phase, lest I nasally ingest this drink or absorb all the aroma out of it leaving me with tasteless stale water.  Oh the thought.  One last foray into the glencairn with you, nose.  Pull hard. I’m instantly transported back to my Papaw’s farm, the fruit cellar under the old house, sitting in the doorway in late summer, letting the cool air waft out with the hard musty scent of 5 gallon buckets overflowing with drying walnut rinds….and bushel baskets filled with wild cherries waiting to be canned.  That cherry……

How is this possible? How are all of these distinct and beautiful aromas able to coexist?  How can this all-star cast of players not completely overwhelm the show, but rather complement each other and unite into a stronger team? I can only assume that the various recipes are somehow separating themselves from each other inside the tiny glass, competing for dominance as the air unlocks them, blossoming fully before bowing and stepping back, allowing another recipe to share in the spotlight and shine like a superstar.

I am utterly amazed and smitten and have yet to do anything but smell it. 

Act 2: The Flavor.

There should have never been any doubt that the flavor would live up to the nose.  Jim Rutledge didn’t hang around to pad his 401k, nor release this bottle just to toss any old pond water out there.  I hold the glass up to the light and marvel at the colors, still trying to understand the chemical make-up that allows it to pack in so many discreet flavors. 

Time to taste. 

I tilt my head back, letting the juice hit my lips.  Immediate burn…and…..SPICE! Spice! More spice! There’s my OBSK.  At 16 years old, I assumed you would bite me sooner or later. This bourbon is a spicy devil, yet at the same moment its ultra juicy. There is nothing soft about this one, it’s as bold as you would want drink yet still be within the realm of enjoyable without proofing down or wishing you had your money back. 

Yet it’s delicate too.  There are underlying fruit flavors that dance around in the background.  Not necessarily important enough to decipher one by one (though I tried), yet the show wouldn’t be nearly as good without them.  There is also a bold component of cinnamon candy, which was new to me from a Four Roses pour.  I swish the juice around in my mouth, it’s like I’ve loaded my fist with sugary dried fruits and Big Red gum.  I keep getting surprised and delighted by how delicious this is!  The spice comes in waves, crashing against my lips and the roof of my mouth like high tide before a storm, hanging around long enough to make its point and inflict a little beach erosion before slowly descending back.  The wave washes away, followed quickly behind with a smattering of spicy mint.  I have to say I like the mint, it’s almost a welcome cool down.

This all leads into Act 3, the Finish. Fini.  Finir. Esperanto. Un fini lisse.

Big, bold, burn. Think not so much a great Chicago fire, or even Brooklyn in the 70’s, but more so a wonderful fireplace, crackling oak logs, heat that warms your soul. It’s a wood burning stove baking a juicy cherry cobbler.  The juices are overflowing the crust and dripping onto the wood, delivering a sweet scent of charred cherry.  What I really enjoyed was the hint of rich chocolate behind the heat.  It hangs high in the mouth and drags over the top of the tongue and down the back of your throat into your chest, closing like a curtain.

If you want a little more fun, don’t wash your glencairn.  Leave it to sit out overnight.  The next morning take a whiff of the heavy cocoa being emitted by thee residue of the glorious pour you had the night before. 

To me, this is an absolute A+ pour.  Well done Mr. Rutledge, your magnum opus.  Please take a bow.

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