Willett Family Estate B49 vs B49C – The Battle of the B’s

Two of the more highly sought after releases this year (rather a large percentage of the sought after releases this year) came from Willett Distillery. I’m talking about the 22yr B49 and B49C.  People seem to fall into two camps regarding which one is better, and after reading other opinions, I decided to check them both out myself, and weigh in.  Could the B49C live up to the hype?  Were these sister barrels exactly the same as some said, or did the “individual characteristics of each barrel” make an overwhelming difference in the flavor profile and enjoyment of this bourbon?

That two amazing bottles came from Willett should not be a surprise at all, seeing as how Drew Kulsveen and Company have been cranking out the hits all year, from the extremely delicious 10 through 13yr bottlings, to the ultra-aged 22yr barrel proof nectar. C barrels. B barrels.  Wheaters.  Whatever you like to call them, all I know is I have enjoyed those that I’ve had opportunity to taste.  When I hear rumblings of yet another release dropping on that hill in Bardstown, my mouth starts watering and I get a glimmer in my eye, which I typically compare to Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver, with drink, fight and gold on his mind in the 1950 Disney classic, Treasure Island.

Instantly my world descends into a flurry of mental mileage calculation and risk versus reward.

If I leave now, driving 90mph, can I make it before they close? No.

If I leave now, driving 100 mph, can I make it before they close? Probably.

Will I get nabbed by the speed trap in Ashland, Ky? Probably.

Will I get caught by my wife, and will the punishment be severe? Yes.

Do I have a spare $800+ to spend, or that I can spend without getting caught? No.

Is it worth it? ABSOLUTELY!

After setting a blistering pace down I-40 (quicker than Rowdy’s pole time at the last Charlotte race), I already picture myself flying down the old main street in Bardstown like a scene out of the Dukes of Hazzard, Roscoe trying to tail me in a bullhorn clad 1972 Cadillac convertible, Flash’s head hanging outside the window, yarlping “Bow! Bow! Bow!”  I slide through the round-about in front of Talbot Tavern, partially sideways with the rear passenger door flying open, like Steve Kinser in a World of Outlaws feature…getting off into the grass, plowing through Janice Worthington’s freshly laundered white’s that are drying on the clothesline, flapping in the breeze.  I blast up that gravel road shifting rapidly and burning through every gear, fishtailing all the way, and hand-brake turn crookedly into the nearest spot adjacent to the gift shop.  I run in, panting, sweating, and eyeing the display case.  I ask if they have anymore wheaters.  The lady says “We didn’t release anything today.  Who told you we did?”

“THWARTED AGAIN!” I scream at the Heavens. An orange cat looks up from cleaning himself, nods in quiet admonishment as I sulk dejectedly back to my car….and drive off into the darkness of the Blue Ridge.

Such is a typical story (although this only happened this way once…or twice).

So the B49, and B49C, both special bourbons, in their own ways. For the purposes of this tasting, I tried each one knowing what it was, in order to get a good mental baseline, then I tried them blind, then once more knowing the contents.  I found that the B49 might have benefitted from a misting of water.  But the B49C?  No way.  It was perfect.  Despite that, I left them neat.  They were pro-boxers, squared up toe to toe blow for blow, ready to see who had the moxie to go the distance.

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Here were my notes on each:

B49C:

Nose – “Oh shit, that’s nice.” Oaky and thick. I wrote “Big dog tobacco. I love tobacco.”  So much of personality dancing around in the glass.  Sweet, chocolaty, and peppermint.  My nose says mint chocolate chip.  I make a mental note to pair this bourbon with a sleeve of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies in the near future.

Flavor: Again, sweet and enticing. My notes say, “A geyser up through the roof of my mouth. Proofy, sweet and nutty.” The flavor jumped out of the glass onto my tongue.  While it’s hot, it’s not overbearing.  I didn’t bother making any adjustments to it, and it needed very little air.  Nope, it was perfect on its own.  There was something almost floral happening, as opposed to the dankness I sometimes pick out of a bourbon that’s sat in oak more than half my life.  I detected a crisp note of sweet honey that gave way to a pillowy shot of cocoa.  It’s just delightful.  The consistency of the liquid is so light, yet has such a punch.  It evaporated  almost instantly in my mouth.  I said something similar about another aged Willett I had months ago, and I remember it well, that the liquid had the same lifespan and quality as cotton candy.  It just kind of resonate for a moment, then went through a fission process and was gone, leaving you with just the candy.

Finish. The finish is fast; zippy.  No aftershocks or explosions, and not a lot of separation between blasts of heat.  No, it broils, a very acute sizzle.  It lingers on the front of the tongue, and the rear palate/top of the throat.  It’s utterly pleasant.

B49:

My first impression was “Oh, well, this is similar.” But after a moment, the similarities ended.

Nose: This one was hot to my nose. Hot oak and tobacco.  I can just picture a bolt of lightening striking the old tobacco barn, causing a fire that blazes all night, emanating the sweet smell of drying leaves and caramelized oak in the misty July air.  The VFD can’t get their truck through the muddy ruts, so the barn cooks down to its skeleton, till nothing is left but the smell and memories.  Underneath was a faint drip of honey, but not much, and I wasn’t sure it my nose was just playing tricks, as if I expected the honey, and therefore it existed. But it lacked the cool cocoa and mint.

Flavor: Full of the tobacco and caramel I described before. But those components are the underlying magma to a very peppery, spicy mantle. I said, “More heat than sweet.”  I didn’t proof it down, though it may have benefitted from a drop of limestone water, but rather I let it stand on its own accord and merits.  But whereas the sweetness balanced the heat in the B49C, that same balance was lacking here.  Not that it wasn’t good; I don’t mean that at all.  It just didn’t possess that same sense of singular harmony that I found in the 49C.

Finish: In the simplest of terms – Hot. I wrote “A forest fire in my chest”. It was a wily one, burning all over the place, with no stated direction or destination.  It just flowed like liquid looking for the quickest way south, scorching everything in its path.

The Post Nose on both of these was similat, and it was a bomb of choco-oak and vanilla. Not much I enjoy more than getting up in the morning and nosing the remnants in the glencairn while waiting for coffee….

Final Verdict:

While these are both fine bourbons, for me, the B49C was clearly the winner. Without a shadow of a doubt.  Everything just worked in harmony, all of the components complimented each other, nothing was overshadowed, everything shined.  In all three tests, known and blind, I picked the 49C.  In my notes, it looks like I was negative on the B49, but that’s not the case.  I did enjoy it.  But B49C was just better through all phases, so much so that I believe it shone a spot light on the B49’s deficiencies that may not have been as obvious had this not been a side by side.  So there you have it.  B49C.

Now if you’ll excuse me.  I just heard that Willett may be having a special midnight release, and if I leave now, I can just get there….

Cheers and Happy New Year. Here’s to more epic bourbon in 2016!

 

2015 Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye -The Mystery Tasting

I love a good mystery. This goes back to the second grade when we started reading the Boxcar Children (where the real mystery was how those kids managed to survive eating nothing but bread, milk and clams). Add to that the board game Clue. Guessing who shot JR. A litany of well written novels. Even the Lost program on the ABC television network. I love not knowing what will happen next, trying to figure it out myself, keeping mental notes on who did this, who did that, who seemed suspicious, whats the deal with the dog and the smoke monster, on and on.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love sipping and writing about bourbon so much. Every pour is a bit of a mystery, or at least that’s how I approach it. I go into each glass like a detective/WWII code-breaker, ready to decipher the flavors, see what new secrets have been revealed with air and age. I try to imagine the barrel the liquid aged in, and what the Master Distiller must have been thinking when he tasted the contents and said “Thisn’s ready”.

So when I got a cryptic message, basically saying “I’m sending you a sample, but I’m not telling you what it is. I want you to do a blind tasting and tell me what you think.” lets just say I was a little more than intrigued, and gladly accepted the assignment. Of course, I trusted that this sample wouldn’t be a joke or trickery, the kind that just meets the most basic requirements of what can legally be called bourbon….

Again, all of these notes were made prior to me knowing I was drinking 2015 VWFRR.

The package arrived, and inside was a little bottle with the letters “BIN” scrawled on painters tape and affixed to the side. That made me chuckle.

Pouring out the juice, I was immediately greeted by an aroma in the nose comprised of symphony syrupy char, like molasses, mixed with a hint of vanilla (yum.) There was also a fresh fruity component, citrusy. It was bourbon-ish and I would have not thought it was anything else, but……In the back of the room sat a familiar fellow I know too well, that I can only describe as “Brut”. If you have read my past works, there is one in particular where I basically break down my feelings on the old school Brut aftershave, and compare it to the scent I detect in ryes that render them all but undrinkable to my palate. In this pour it’s faint, and I try to make myself believe otherwise, but it’s undeniable. I say outloud to myself, “This is a rye.” However, the Brut it wasn’t as overpowering as some that I’d had. So it must be high aged. Many of the younger ryes are so heavy on the Brut that they send me into a near migraine of head spinning nausea.

No, this was softer. The Brut was definitely there, but farther in the background, like a necessary component, even if I don’t like it. I call this “Chef’s Intention”. Allow me to explain: I dislike certain things in my food, certain flavor profiles or textures. Pickles for instance, or large pieces of onion. I will always ask the kind girl at Chick-Fil-A remove the pickle from my sammich, because it’s disgusting. Infact, the “no-pickle” sticker was created by CFA corporate just for me. Or if I go to McDonalds, I start to ask them to do this or that to their burgers, but I end up asking them to remove me from the establishment. However if I go to a really nice restaurant, I leave it be, I don’t ask the chef to take it off the plate, because he intended for it to be there. It has a purpose in the dish, and without it, the composition fails, like the Mona Lisa with no smile, or worse, buck teeth. So that’s the frame of mind I was in when I detected the Brut in this pour. Leave it be.

The next thing I noted was how soft the nose texture was. This was certainly not a high proofer. To me it didn’t even seem to push 100 proof.

On the sip, there was a decidedly citrus flavor, like grapefruit peels. The obvious oak as well. And it had some nice spice, a component of cinnamon candy (rye.), and ever so slight Fleer bubblegum mixed in there. Basically it was sweet. The citrus was the most prevalent slice of the pie chart for me. I was unaccustomed to this component. There was also the mild Brut flavor again. Just let it go I kept telling myself. The mouthfeel was light and airy, summery in a way. There was a layer of cool mintyness dancing around in circular pirouettes.

Everything was just so well balanced. This was one delicious pour.

The finish was mild and spicy. Not a hot, high-proof alcohol burn, but rather just natural spice. A little sugary, even. That was nice, something I don’t often get with my love of atomic high proofers. It wasn’t super long lasting, but it didn’t need to be. It was just right.

The post nose really stood out on this one. So heavy with the carmelized oak that I crave, billowing up and out of the glencairn like a pillow of syrupy wind. Delicious.

And looking back now at my notes, at no point did I write any disgusting comments about the Brut aftershave. It was in there, an important layer. I still don’t know what puts me off about the Brut, or even what ingredient actually creates it, but as long as it’s built into a recipe as tastefully as it was in BIN, I’m cool with it. Its just perfect.

Here were my final thoughts before learning this was 2015 VWFRR: So there you have it. It’s rye. I don’t like rye. But I do like this. What is it? No idea. But I want it. Let’s hope my gracious benefactor sees fit to send me another sample (or the remainder of the bottle!).

In closing, I guess I do like rye, at least the ones that keep the Brut in check and are aged to perfection. The 2015 VWFRR is special…..

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2015 Bourbon of the Year – Four Roses 2015 Small Batch Limited Edition

There is a lot of weight that goes along with declaring a Bourbon of the Year.  It’s not not as easy as doing a tasting and translating some scribbles onto a blog (or in my case banging out a novelette description of aged Kentucky distillate).  I was unsure if I even wanted to do this, especially in light of one of the more high profile recent Bourbon of the Year picks, which seemed farcical (or laughable) and had everyone who enjoys the most epic drink running through the streets of the village, pitchforks and torches in hand, like a hill of fire ants that was just kicked over.  I knew by laying my cards on the table I would be opening myself up to the same level of conjecture, ridicule, agreement and criticism.

I tried to be a judicious as possible.  I poured through my notes on every bourbon I tasted over this past 12 months, the vast logs of information I had compiled on every tasting.  Star Ratings.  Smiley faces.  Words that trailed off the page like an EKG of drunken, slurred prose. I wanted to find the clear winner.

And not everything I tasted was great, or even good.  There were plenty of embarrassingly mediocre pours, certainly.  Comically, there was one bottle that was so perfect in it’s utter terribleness, coming in “A #1” in every category specified for juice bad enough to trigger your gag reflex, that for one ironic fraction of a second I actually considered making it the bourbon of the year…..

After reading through my book, I whittled away at my list, did a few more tastings, pared again, tasted more, and finally was down to my finalists. And there were some amazing pours too, three of which deserved honorable mentions.  Willett Family Estate’s  22yr B49C and C4D, and the syrupy William Heavenhill 15yr Cask Strength 144.

And that leaves me with my pick for 2015 Bourbon of the Year.  I’ve read a number of different threads espousing the virtues of this bottle or that.  But in my opinion, there is only one clear winner:

Four Roses 2015 Small Batch Limited Edition.

4Rsmble

Let me state that again to be clear.

Four Roses 2015 Small Batch Limited Edition.

Here was my original review on it:

Epic Bourbon’s Four Roses 2015 Small Batch Limited Edition Review

The 4R 2015 SmBLE delivered perfection in spades.  The evolution of the life of the pour was like nothing I had ever experienced before.

The nose: It’s so beautifully complex yet simple to decipher. The initial spearmint bomb that evaporates into chocolate and toffee that evolves into a fruit cellar filled with walnut rinds and cherries.  Wave after wave of intense pleasure.

The flavor: A 16 year old OBSK in the recipe, are you kidding me?  You know the magic of those ultra aged Four Roses single barrels, and here it is on display.  All of the majestic, bold spiciness right there to kick you back in your seat, clearly stating that this is not a desert wine.  But it’s not all a show of strength, and has a delicate side of dried fruits and berries drizzled with caramel char, mixed with soft cinnamon candy, like Big Red gum.

The finish: I can’t come up with words better than my original review, “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.”

So there you have it.

The 2015 SmB LE is Jim Rutledge’s parting gift to the world, and for that alone, it should be on everyone’s “must have” list.  After making my decision, I ran my final pick past numerous enthusiasts who palates and opinions I know and respect, and we all came to the same conclusion.  Everything this bourbon offers, the evolution, the journey of scents and complexity of flavors combined with how extremely easy it is to not only drink but also enjoy make it more than just a simple pour on a typical night (though it’s great then too), but move it into the realm of something more ethereal. It’s not a drink, it’s an experience.

That’s what makes the 2015 Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition my pick for Bourbon of the Year.

Kentucky Owl Batch 2 – 117.2 Proof

Back in the old days, men would sit around on front porches or store fronts, joshing with each other. Hard to imagine now a time before internet, or phone, or TV, or anything else remotely compared to social media. Back then, social media was just plain social. “Hey buddy, come on up here and grab a drink. You look like you need it.” Then the old boys would banter about their day at the shale pit or steel mill, over a nice sip of bourbon. In this way they got to know each other; they connected.

By now you know the story of Kentucky Owl, but for refresher: The proprietor of a quaint Kentucky inn becomes determined to resurrect his family’s old bourbon label, dormant since prohibition. Quantities are extremely limited and it’s only available in Kentucky, there-by vaulting this bourbon into a frenzy of immediate must-have status. If you’re involved with bourbon for no less than 7 minutes, you will undoubtedly have become mired in some kind of conversation about Kentucky Owl; Good, Bad or Ugly.

So for the drink itself: There are bottles of bourbon that I consider to be easy pours, and I can drink them immediately. Some take finessing. For me, Kentucky Owl took finessing…..which doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means there is more waiting to be unlocked. On my first pour, the nose and flavor immediately disappeared, overshadowed by a nuclear finish that had me re-checking the proof. I’m a high proof guy, and I thought this one was hot as hell.

So I set about trying to find the sweet spot. I approached it like Alton Brown would and broke out my tasting kit in force. I put everything on the table and kept a written log of my methods. I experimented with the type of glass; from regular glencairn to tiny plastic communion cup. I tried air, from 5 minutes to an hour. I tried a drop of tap water, a few drops of real limestone well water and an ice chip. Eventually I found a winner using a regular glencairn, freezer chilled for 15 minutes, adding eight drops of limestone well water (hint: get some), and left it to acclimate for 30 minutes. During the wait I watched Breaking Bad and ate some crackers, and just before drinking, I ate four Whoppers.

Out loud I said, “There it is.”

Nose: A nice pop of spicy peppermint discs, followed by vanilla and a dash of toffee. But what it’s really got in spades is heavy toasted cigar tobacco, specifically so. It reminds me of an old country store I used to frequent, with the local post office sitting right next to the deli counter. It’s where you went to get a roast beef sandwich, your mail, and to find out the local crop reports. The room was old, heavy oak plank floors that were last washed in the flood of 1938, dark oak panel walls, and fireplace crackling in the corner. A couple of old men sat out on the front porch, chomping old cigars, playing a hotly contested game of checkers, the same as they had every day since the brick mill closed 30 years ago. Every time the door opened, it drew the cigar smoke in like a bellows. It’s a scene right out of an early John Cougar Mellencamp video (actually it is, he shot a couple of them there).

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Flavor: A healthy dose of liquid cinnamon candy, very reminiscent of the Willett 4yr Green Wax Rye after it gets dialed in. I need to see that mashbill here, seems rye heavy. There was a goodly amount of oak, and the right amount of sweetness, a spoonfull of brown sugar you sneak while pies are being made. There was a hint of cola syrup too. The limestone well water helps even out the flavors, tempers the consistency and delays the finish so you can really swirl the liquid in your mouth.

Finish: What had once been a Fermi-esque uncontrolled chain reaction is now more akin to that slow burning fireplace I mentioned before. It still burns on for a while, but it no longer needs to be described in half-lives.

Post nose: All the caramelized, sugary oakiness that I love in a post nose. More of the cigar tobacco, though not as powerful. It’s the char, man….

There you have it, my opinion. I liked it. All I had to do was spend a little time getting to know it, and connecting. If you have this one on your shelf, go ahead, pop it open and dial it in. Maybe the winning formula is the same as mine, maybe for you it’s a little different, but it’s in there somewhere. I’d love to know what you find!