2016 Michter’s 10yr Rye – Mild, Mellow and Relaxing

Ahhhh, spring time. At my house everything is in bloom; the wild strawberries are ripening all over the yard, the honey bees are buzzing around our magnolias and fragrant, flower laden wisteria vines.  The grass is emerald green, and drops of dew burst out of the white oak tree branches where new leaves are sprouting, scenting the air with that fresh oak aroma.  The sun is setting later in the evenings, which are perfect for sitting out in a comfortable chair with your best friend, an oak log fire crackling and smoking in the background, tree frogs chirping happily around the banks of the creek in the valley below.  There’s a family of barred owls hooting, chortling and conversing with “Who. Who. Who cooks for you’allllll?”  They are plotting, planning and triangulating the warrens of bunnies that run rampant under the ivy and monkey grass on the hill, their safe haven from the yelping bloodhound that patrols the fence line.  It’s not yet oppressively hot and humid, and mosquitoes are noticeably absent.  Breezes blow out of the northwest, having come across the peaks of the Blue Ridge, descending right into the Triad, importing scents of fresh evergreen and snowy streams.  From the south the buckled jet stream is pumping in wave after wave of warm, salty gulf coast air.  Eventually those two systems are going to mix it up, swirl into the heavens and burst out into a symphony of thunder and pouring rain that evaporates off the mossy, sun-heated creek stone porch behind my house, unlocking an earthy fragrance that accentuates everything else.

This is my tranquil spot. It’s a melting pot of scents and sounds.  It’s a special place to have a pour.

Typically I enjoy these evenings with a glencairn in hand, filled with thick syrupy bourbon, but occasionally I want something else. A hoppy craft beer from the local brewery.  A glass of dry red wine.  Maybe a mix of simple syrup, bourbon and bitters, sipping pleasantly with some bluegrass or A Prairie Home Companion, wafting soft twangs of Foggy Mountain Breakdown out of the porch speakers.  Ghosts of Flatt and Scruggs.  Sometimes I go super low budge, with a Coors Light in a vintage Rick Mears can coozy if there is a race on the radio.  Sometimes I don’t even need the coozy, as the can won’t be filled long enough to get warm.  Like you, there are any number of drinks I could apply to any number of situations, and I always know what’s right for the time.

It’s almost never a rye.

Self-admittedly, I’m not much of a rye drinker, but when the bottle of 2016 Michter’s 10yr rye arrived at my home, I was excited. In truth I’d never had the M10 rye, partially because of my avoidance of rye, but also because I cannot get it where I live.  Not to mention, they didn’t even release one last year.  At 10 years, it’s older than most other ryes on the market.  It’s not ultra proofy, coming in at a mild 92.8%.  But the color is dark and rich.  I tore at the green wax and filled my glass.  The whole walk out to the back porch, an aroma of sweet, dark rootbeer candy was wafting out of my glencairn and washing out right under my nose.  I let it sit for a bit to get a little more air before plunging in.

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The nose is so good. I could huff on this for hours.  It’s just so smooth and sweet.  In fact it made me think of classic southern sweet tea, so sweet that you can smell it across the room and develop dental cavities before you even taste it.  The sweet tea component was very forward in the profile.  But this one was sweetened with brown sugar rather than white.  Vanilla dances up out of the glass.  There is also a fruit component, a mild orange rind and citrus to my nose.  I didn’t get the strong spice that I get from other ryes.

The flavor is subtle, soft and sweet. There is a nice baking spice component.  Think French toast simmering on a griddle, all buttery but with some spicy cinnamon, loaded onto a plate and slathered with real mountain maple syrup.  The oak is detectable in the profile, though it’s behind the sugar, coming through with a toasty aroma.  It’s faintly like bread baking in an open hearth, reminiscent of the summertime exhibitions of primitive life at the pioneer village I grew up near.  Finally, I tasted honey.  Not the super sweet clover variety, but the wild gold we get out of the hollow log, comb and all. It’s more earthy, like linden honey or maybe buckwheat, the varieties that have a bit of spice to go along with the sweetness.

Maybe there is some bit of flavor lost at the lower proof, but I had no complaints. I felt that the mellowness exhibited here is just so relaxing.  Springtime sunsets behind an approaching thunderhead.  Wind in the trees.  A couple of people I talked to missed the classic rye profile and spice that they find in some of the other big ryes, but for me this is just right.  The spice is there when the flavor approaches the finish.  The finish is simple and straight forward.  It hits on the sides of the tongue, then works its way around, hovering on the back of the palate.  The post nose is heavy oak, full on dank barrel stave and char that gets butter soft overnight.

The M10 Rye doesn’t have the mechanically powerful punch that I look for in most pours, but for me, in the relaxed frame of mind I’m in, the lower proof is a welcome change. It means I can have four more glasses without destroying my tongue, and in truth I did have two more pours after the first one.  I have another bottle of rye, a younger green wax dubbed the Soul Mate.  This tops the Soul Mate.  Every time.

The 2016 Michter’s 10yr Rye is just a great sipping drink. It needs very little air, though it continues to open as it sits.  It’s easy.  Mild. Mellow.   Relaxing.  Perfect for that spring evening.  In fact it’s great for any evening.

Cheers.

Willett Family Estate Bourbon 4yr Barrel #69 – The New Kid in Town

Note: As I wrote this review, I had the Eagles song “New Kid In Town” on my mind.  It seemed pretty appropriate, specifically the opening line:

There’s talk on the street; it sounds so familiar.
Great expectations, everybody’s watching you.
People you meet, they all seem to know you.
Even your old friends treat you like you’re something new.

On a recent jaunt to Bardstown, I was finally presented with the opportunity to taste barrel #69, of Willett’s own distillate. From their mash.  Through their still.  Aged four years, in their houses on the hill. Approved by Drew Kulsveen.  It’s the first release of Willett’s homemade, barrel proof Family Estate bourbon, with the family crest right there on the front for the world to see.  No stress there, right? I won’t get too deeply into the specifics of the surroundings as that’s a much, much longer story which deserves every bit of its own telling.  But I’ll give you a general overview.  After meeting up with some friends at Willett and doing the tour, we found ourselves back in Bardstown, drinking on the patio outside of the Harrison Smith House.  The sky was overcast, typical of April in Kentucky, that gray cloud covered haze, stuck somewhere in the ether between winter and spring.  It was cold, of a mild deep-diving Canadian bluster variety; what we call jacket weather.  The drizzle fell on and off.  No one noticed.  We had been drinking all manner of bourbon and rye for the better part of 4 hours…..

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That’s when a bottle of Barrel #69 appeared, slammed down on the head of an old aging barrel being used as a parking lot implement. We all stood there and looked at it.  At this point, I’d read almost nothing about Willett’s 4yr release, at least in terms of a proper tasting and evaluation.  It seems most people either guzzled them quickly, or more likely stashed them away in the bunker along with bottles of 2014 George T Stagg, Parker’s Heritage 27yr, Four Roses 17yr Barrel #9, dusty bottles of mid-1980’s bonded Old Fitzgerald, and basically any other bottle that I wish I had open right now.

Now, Willett has become synonymous with mind numbing 22yr old wheaters and sassy, proofy teenagers that offer big doses of tobacco, caramel and campfire char still smoldering the morning after an all-night rager with your best friends. The best part is that even as consistent as they are, every one is unique in its personality.  Some showcase sweetness, some are brown sugar and oaken butter, some are proof and flavor bombs.  But on the whole, they are all pretty damn good bottles.  High age, high proof, and utmost quality, even if the source of the juice is still a mystery.

So with that, I like a lot of others were impatiently anticipating Drew’s thumbs-up to finally release the first examples of his own bourbon on the world. I have to imagine this was a stressful experience.  Everyone gets stage fright.  Artists, whether painters or poets, musicians or play writes are subordinates to their mental fears about what people will say of their work.  Criticism, even when constructive, can constrain the process.  The word was “Drew didn’t sleep for three days” after releasing his first barrels (four in all).

For my own taste, I can’t say I’ve ever found a four year old bourbon appealing. I’m pretty much transparent in my praise of the higher ages and barrel proofs.  For me the kids are just too unrefined.  Too wild.  The flavor profiles are usually absurdly heavy on oily corn with little much else to offer in the way of complexity.  Sometimes they try to overcome the lack of flavor by upping the proof in a coy attempt to substitute burn for piquancy.  Sometimes they don’t even go that far, instead struggling to overcome the absence of any quality with clever packaging, heavily waxed neck and absurd story about the juice within being crafted based on a recipe reputed to be recovered from under the seat of John Dillinger’s car by Al Capone himself.  It never works, at least not for me.  No matter how high they aspire to go, they always come crashing back down to the ground in spectacular fashion.

But that’s where Drew Kulsveen has managed to defy gravity and all laws that we knows to be good and just and true. Four year olds shouldn’t be good, or at least not as good as this one.

I’m sipping it now, and it’s just as tasty as it was that afternoon in Bardstown. I was so enamored I actually contacted Drew at that moment.  He had to know he’d done well.

This is not the Willett that you know; it’s a completely new animal. No one will ever call this one “The Darkness”.  The color is like that of golden, sugary sourwood honey, and seems lighter that almost everything I put it next to.

The nose is just a full on candy rush and heavy on berries and wildflowers. I was actually shocked at how much the candy and flowers component dominated up front.  It’s an intoxicatingly alluring scent that seems so pure.  The first time I sniffed at it, standing on the side of the round-about in Bardstown’s center, I looked up, smiled and said “Wow.  Life Savers.  It’s Life Savers.”  The candy element was not what I expected at all.  But more than that, this new species of Willett can best be described as a super floral.  So floral infact, it’s as if Willett perfected a sort of bourbon cold fusion, taking some of the best recipe’s Four Roses has, and applying Fleischmann-Pons theory of cold fusion and smashing them down into a compacted, concentrated shot of scent and flavor that diddles every switch in your olfactory nerve center.  Red and green lights are flashing, buzzers and Klaxon sirens are going off.  I nosed it and nosed it for longer than I probably should have, so much that my buddy asked if I was drinking it, or if just wanted to look like I was drinking.  But the nose was just so mysterious and appealing, I wanted to get deeper into it, with more analysis, letting it reveal all of its rosy red berry and candy-gram nuance.  But I had to get to the flavor.

My initial thought was “balance”. This bourbon just has such good balance, especially for a four year old, for all the reasons I listed above.  It’s playful but not overly wild, and the flavor is right there for your enjoyment.  There is a juicy abundance of sweet red currants and wild cherries mingled with light, light caramel.  The berries stay forward in the profile and dominate through the duration.  There is a mild oak pattern underneath, sweet and smoky.  I also pulled out a component of mint.  I found the flavor reveals its maximum peak when you sip it, hold your breath, let it swirl mid-tongue and then exhaling as you swallow.  At 60.5%, the burn is right where you want it to be.  It’s doesn’t overpower, neither does it leave you wanting something stronger.  For a different experience, take a tiny sip and let it sit on the back of your palate leaving your mouth open while holding the glencairn right off the front of your nose, then alternate inhaling quickly between your mouth and nostrils.  I coughed a couple of times, but it’s so damn smoky and sweet.

The finish coats the top of the tongue and the back of the palate in smooth waves of minty smokiness that sustains for longer than I thought it would. It’s light and fresh, and refreshing.  The berry flavor really hangs over in the aftertaste, well after the burn has dissipated.  How pleasant.  The post nose gave me flavors of cocoa and honey.

I’m really looking forward to what this bourbon will be like when it hits 8 years old, 12 years old, etc. Its great now and it’s only going to get better.  Willett is on to something special, but did we expect anything less?

Get some sleep Drew. You deserve it.

Cheers!