Four Roses Barrel Pick Part 3 – A Gaggle of Whiskey Pigs Drinking at Harrison Smith House

We’d finished our tour at Willett and headed back into Bardstown, making our final assemblage in the tiny back parking spaces behind the Harrison Smith House, three cars loaded down like a holler-n-still Bedouin caravan, trunks brimming with bottles that ranged from ultra-old Brown and Foreman employee only gifts, to 1960’s Old Taylor decanters, to Willett’s first aged distillate.  Aaron and John, the bourbon prophets from the Northland joined our party, towing a full complement of boxes and bottles in the back of the car that would be the envy of most bars and taverns in Kentuckiana. Aaron had driven down here through the Alberta Clipper that was pounding Chicago, and its chilled breezes followed him right across the rolling plains of northern Kentucky.  The afternoon was cold, gray and it rained lightly on and off, a cool mist; the kind of sky you notice in old photographs of your grandparent’s house from winters long ago. Faded, darkened at the edges.  The pours started immediately, and heavy.  The aroma of duck fat simmering like a sacrifice to the God’s of Kentucky was wafting out of the kitchen windows.  We huddled together around an old barrel, its top serving as our table, the Bar du Saint.  Try this, try that, this is it.  Lifesavers. Caramel char. Vanilla toffee. Cherry and anise.  Papaw’s tobacco barn.  I stood behind the barrel, hammering a recently released Willett 4 year old, barrel 69.  Realizing we were consuming mass quantities of rare alcohol on a sidewalk in Kentucky on a Sunday, within blind sight of the county courthouse, I asked Sean if we were risking getting cited, or worse, arrested. In a heavy drawl that was only party slurred by the gulp he’d just choked down, he replied, “Man, we are in Bardstown. We would probably get arrested if we weren’t doing this.”

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We carried on this way for an hour, getting louder and more rowdy.  At some point Jamie walked up off the street with a box of liquid treasure to share.  I did the math and we had roughly enough bourbon for every member of our party to drink 7 bottles before dinner.  I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough.

A door cracked open from behind the historic Federal-style building of the Harrison Smith House.  A wild-eyed bearded fellow says “Hey, are you guys, are you guys ok?”

We told him who we were.  He said, “I’m Newman, I’m feeding you.  You look like you need some water, I’ll bring some out.”  He wasn’t far off; I’m fairly certain John had jaundice at that point.

We decided to move our party up off the street to the side patio of the house.  Boxes filled with open bottles were arranged on the black iron table, filled to the breaking point with every Four Roses limited edition single barrel, small batch and ultra-aged gift shop release.  The Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon Women fall release was a particular favorite in the chilly parking lot.  There were wax top Willetts.  Gift shop Willetts.  Wheaters.  A stellar line-up of Smooth Amblers. An old Old Overholt. Various private barrels of Russell’s Reserve. Knob Creek private picks.  On and on and on.  We drank glass after glass, having a better time with each sip, and the proceedings continued up until the point it started to rain.  We would have been happy as it was, but Newman told us to go on in.

Standing and holding the door open for us, he said “Just head up there and set your boxes down.”

We followed Aaron, unquestioningly, up the stairs, arms loaded with bottles, and suddenly realized that our inebriated navigator had just led us into Newman’s private residence, with wife and kids staring back at us.  It’s like the story of the driver who plows his car into a lake because his Garmin didn’t say “Turn.”  We waved stupidly, and walked backwards down the stairs.  I was actually sweating from embarrassment.  Newman seemed unconcerned.

We re-arranged the bottles that still contained bourbon on a table in the dining room, then set out to drain them.

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We all needed to eat. Newman laid out manna from heaven for us, both in the form of boudin filled egg rolls (which could be the greatest marriage of two foods in history) and an 11 year old bottle from Willett, known as The 2015 Whiskey Pig.  The glencairns started appearing from left and right, with the ferocity of heavyweight boxers.  I don’t think the server behind the bar was prepared for the ferocity with which we would attack the bar to be the first to get a pour of the Pig.  Everyone wanted a pour, or a double.  The Whiskey Pig was flowing.  It was so perfect.  I mean really.  It was so sweet and powerful.  It had a supreme burn, with perfect balance of oak and sugar.  I felt special getting to sip and enjoy such a famous pour.  (It deserves it’s own review, and it will get one soon.)

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Newman brought our football helmet sized bowls overflowing with steak tartare, and little toasts to spread it on that tasted something like sweet cornbread.

Sean said, “Damn son, that’s a big ass bowl of tartare”, which he pronounced Tower Tower.

We drank and ate for eternity.  I slammed a C22D wheater.  God, I love Willett.  The banter between new and old friends, an online fraternity who have been acquainted for no longer than an internet eternity.  We talked shop, bourbon, favorites, picks, secret shelves, bunkers, etc.  It was fantastic and frenetic.  More pours.  I grabbed a deep glass of 2010 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch, my first foray with that edition.  I dubbed it the “Better Than Anthing” pour.

Then the staff started bringing out plate after plate of food.  Aged, smoked duck over a ring of grits, filled in the center with greens, slathered in a sauce so special that when I asked Newman to divulge the recipe, nee the ingredients, he looked at me inquisitively and said, “No idea, I just whisked together what tasted awesome.  It’s great, right?”  Uh, yeah.  Great is an understatement.  The chef and cooks at the Harrison Smith House would proceed to feed me what stands out as one of the top three meals I have ever eaten.  A four year old aged pork belly and arugula salad over a grilled biscuit.  A chorizo meatball over hominy and gravy, covered with a quail egg.

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Just then a white wax Willett, a Dugz and Willyz 17yr old bottle, made it’s way around.  I want to say I loved it, but I didn’t.  It was pretty tobacco heavy, and I love tobacco,  But it had this weird, acrid aftertaste that was just not good.  On the heels of the barrel 826 and the Whiskey Pig, the Dugz never stood a chance.  Over by the bar, Greg was ham fisting both Whiskey Pig and some bottle of old wine he had brought, nosing one after the other.  I opened up my bottle of Lincoln Road Knob Creek dubbed “Sweetness”, which everyone liked.  I ended up leaving that bottle for Newman to enjoy, seeing as how he took his night off to host our bourbon soiree.

Newman’s staff continued to bring out more courses.  I really wish I could remember everything that we ate.  It was all so choice.  (Perhaps my compatriots can chime in here.)  But I had consumed so much bourbon, my memory got a little cloudy.  I remember looking over at Jamie at one point, eating a flourless chocolate tort covered in ooey gooey chocolate ganache, and grinning “Can you believe we get to do this?”

Another pour or two of Whiskey Pig.  A glass of wine.  Another 2010 Four Roses.  Hell, I drank the 17yr white wax Willett from the bottle.  Then, as the clock struck 2AM, Jamie killed the Pig.  That was the ceremonial end to the evening.

I was wiped out, having consumed bourbon for a better part of the day, with more to come in a scant few hours.  It was time for a curtain closing.

The last thing I remember saying was “Tomorrow, the pick.”

Next up: “Part 4 – We Pick the Barrel We Weren’t Supposed To Pick”

Kentucy Owl Batch 6 – Yeah, it’s that good…

FYI – this is a quick take review primarily because I wanted to get something out there right now. But I’ll give you my immediate thought:  Kentucky Owl Batch 6 is so good, I’m going to give it two reviews.

For background…wait, I don’t need to go into the history of the marque. If you are reading this and you are interested, you already know the cool backstory.  What’s important here is the bourbon.

I’ve read a couple of other reviews, and my feelings and notes are very similar, which lends credence to my review.

Bourbon Buddy mentioned in his review the color, and I noticed this immediately too. I had to look at it in some different lighting in various rooms in my house just to make sure my eye weren’t playing tricks. The barrels that Dixon blended into Batch 6 are around a decade old on average, and then batched for a few more. But this one has the appearance of a bourbon that’s been aging away for 20 or 21 years.  It is SO dark.

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The nose emanated with a wonderful smoky char, and gobs of strong honey, mixed with breakfast spices. There is also a fresh component, almost like an evergreen.  It was comparable to an early morning hike through the mountains along a rushing stream, dew dripping on the deciduous trees surrounding you.  The entirety of the nose put me in mind of the way grandma’s kitchen used to smell on cold winter mornings, when you knew she had been up early, stoking the wood stove, wood caramelizing, getting the griddles good and hot and slathering them with butter, slinging a thick slice of bread that had been dredged through cinnamon and spice to make French toast.

It’s the mouthfeel of this one that really caught me, and this is the standout component. It’s hard to come up with the right superlative, so I’ll just say “spectacular”.  It’s thick and viscous, akin to the consistency of Mrs. Butterworth’s pancake syrup.  Oily is a great operative word.  Yes, the love child of olive oil and bourbon.  It reminded me a lot of Bernheim-era Weller that I’ve tried.

As soon as I tasted it, I knew it was special.

The flavor profile isn’t cloyingly sweet, but it has a specific kind of richness, almost like a perfect bowl of cinnamon and brown sugar oatmeal. Or the perfect batch of caramel corn at the County Fair.  There is a level of spiciness, a biting oak that lets you know there is power behind the 55% alcohol, but it’s more of a dessert spiciness.  That fresh woodiness is in the profile as well.

The finish is such a great sizzle. It’s got major legs on the finish, and it goes on and on, hitting all areas of my mouth and back of the tongue.

I love the new Kentucky Owl. You will too, if you can get it.

It’s early, and the fall releases haven’t been sent out yet, but it’s really hard to see anything else topping this one for my selection as Epic Bourbon’s Bourbon of the Year.

Yeah, it’s that good…..

Four Roses Barrel Pick Part 2 – “Drinks in a Stranger’s Basement”

Part 2 of the journey to Bardstown to pick a barrel of Four Roses.

The car was cruising along, south of Louisville, past the airport, past the tips of the spires at Churchill Downs. I was on my way to meet an epic rabble of bourbophytes.  “Step on it!” I said, only half joking. I was disappointed to find that the house at the exit off the interstate had taken down its banner that said “Bourbon ruins lives and property.”  The sign was long gone, as were the rusting, gutted wrecks of Detroit steel that had served as lawn decorations.  The man who made the sign obviously did not live at that property anymore, so maybe what he said was prophetic.

As the car blasted through the angels share of billowy steam rising from the hills and valleys around the gargantuan Beam facilities in Clermont, I realized I would have a little time to kill.  I suggested a stop at Heaven Hill, and with some minutes to spare and I ambled into the Bourbon Heritage Center.  I was still wearing the beat up Old Grand-Dad shirt that I planned on changing before dinner, but I figured what the hell, there is time.  I walked in the door, still smelling like 100 proof butterscotch.  The lady working the front desk could see me coming from a mile away, and probably smelled me too, most likely assuming it was my breath rather than my garments.  She greeted me in a nice enough fashion, showcasing the manners she was undoubtedly raised with.  But then her face went somewhat cold, one eye did full a slow blink as her lips pursed and she stated flatly, but with a slight chuckle, “We don’t have anything you are looking for, sir.”  An awkward moment of silence ensued, leaving me to reply with a silent nod of consideration.

At that moment my phone buzzed.  It was Travis.

On the other end of the line I heard a voice, “Dude, where are you?! We are in Bardstown.  We have a pour of Willett 826 waiting on you!”  I broke into my best impression of a clumsy Usain Bolt and sprinted for the car.  I goaded myself, “Run faster, you fool! That bottle won’t last long with their kind!”  He said they were all at a friend’s place nearby, a bourbon safe house, and I should come too.  They had just popped a bottle of Willett barrel 826 (aka God’s Special Reserve) and were watching the Masters.  Before departure, I popped the trunk lid and dug another sample out of my bag.  Being in this proximity to Heaven Hill dictated that I drink a little WHH 144; Oh Lord! 144 proof syrup that Zeus puts on his pancakes! I didn’t spill a drop.  Only minutes away, I said to the driver “Gun it”.  He looked at me quizzically in the mirror.  I backed it up with, “I said to.”

A text pinged in, saying “Come in through the back gate, we are downstairs.” The car pulled into the driveway, the driver noticed he was blocking some cars and backed out, stopping along the street.  I decided to change my shirt.  I whipped out a nicer looking polo, and just as I was in that vulnerable position of having my arms over my head, doing that belly jiggle shimmy to tug the new shirt on, a lady walking a dog passed by, peering in at me.  I couldn’t tell if she was interested or scared.  I noticed I had a rather large lint ball hanging precariously from the rim of my belly button, and out of habit nipped it out as she was watching.  Deep breath, sigh.  Regroup dude.  I sauntered across the driveway humming Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me”.

As I opened the gate and walked into the backyard, I had a moment of panic hoping that I’d gotten the address right, or that Travis hadn’t given me the wrong one, or pulled a prank on me.  He wouldn’t do that, or would he?  I kept listening for sirens and played out 1000 scenarios in my head of what to say to the Bardstown PD while cuffed in the back of their squad car for breaking and entering.  “I swear to God officer, this is not my fault.  It must be a prank.  I was just here to kill a little time, watch golf and get drunk as shit before going on a distillery tour.  That’s it.”  I stepped towards the door, away from the door, towards the door, away from the door.  I was kind of a buzzed ballet.  I’m sure the neighbors, if they didn’t think I looked creepy and suspicious before, were in full on panic now.  A sheepish knock.  The door cracked open, there was Travis, that glorious bastard.

A glass of WFE 826 was already poured and airing out.  He handed it to me, gladly.  I sipped, smiled.  Sweetest thing ever.  Fucking peanut butter cups.  Walking through the basement, my eyes had to adjust to the darkness, and there I met some of my partners in this adventure.   Sean was at least three times my height and was pure Kentucky.  He got up and gave me a mountain bear hug, which to him probably seemed like a handshake though I felt my ribs pop and strain under the pressure.   He sat back down, literally across two recliners.  Greg looked like an elder statesman, swirling his glass, though the beads of sweat forming on his head and the half empty bowl of pimento cheese in his lap belied his hangover.  They had already been at the drink for days and I was late to the party.  Travis was in the corner shot-gunning a plastic bottle of Pedialyte, and I swear for a moment I thought I spied him nosing its aroma……

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After consuming more of the 826 and a few crackers loaded with good southern pimento cheese, Travis who at this point was actually laying in the floor in front of the screen, rallied a little bit and in a brief moment of clear-headedness suggested we’d waited long enough and should try to get to Willett, as we had reserved the last tour of the day.  Though he was operating within the cranial fog of a man who had been consuming bourbon since the sun came up, he made a convincing argument.  We all got up, made a game plan and started walking towards the door.  I stuffed a handful of crackers in my pocket.  Greg said something  that I absolutely didn’t understand.”  Sean translated “He needs to go to the hotel.”  I opened the door which happened to be right next to the basement bar that was stocked with all manner of bourbon.   Ten minutes later we were still standing at the bar drinking a new release OBSV from Four Roses, talking shop.  I smacked myself in the face and did that Scooby Doo head waggle from side to side when he sees a 6 foot tall sandwich, ah diddy yah diddy yah diddy yah..  We had to get serious; I had made a pact with myself that we could not be late for the tour.  I pulled on my jacket.  We said some obligatory “see you in a few”, and shook hands.  Then Sean brought out some Four Roses from the 1950’s.  I pulled off my jacket, had to have it.  Everyone had a pour and unfortunately we were all underwhelmed, which was the impetus for getting us out of the neighborhood.  It was like a 60 year old liquid abort button.  (Note: I was informed my scribblings were wrong. The bottle was Brown and Foreman!) The fellas were taking Greg back to his hotel.  I was on my own, but I said I’d delay the tour guide.  It was 3:26.  The tour was at 3:30.  Willett was 10 minutes away; Once again I tell the driver to step it up.

Getting to Willett is nothing short of a scene from the Dukes of Hazzard.  I’ve made this drive a few times.  You blast through the round-about that rings the Bardstown courthouse, down a road that goes from nicely paved to chock hole central before petering out in a creek bottom.  You have to smash the gas going up the next hill, and as you reach the plateau you will be stunned to find yourself actually at the top of Heaven Hill, surrounded by cavernous white aging warehouses, coated with an ever growing 5’oclock shadow of mold, a byproduct of the aging process.  Down the other side of Heaven Hill is the entrance to Willett, though it’s easily missed.  Its gravel, all the way up another long grade, a hard left hander past ancient sheds and spring houses.  I got a good look at Warehouse C, the place where drams of dreams live.  The car made a hard hand brake turn into the parking spot, gravel dust flying into the air and rocks peppering the corrugated tin of an derelict shed trumpeting our arrival.  Throwing the door open and jumping out the hatch I quickly realize my seat belt is still buckled and the force pulling me back down into the seat.  I was too pissed on aged corn mash to worry or be embarrassed.

I needed to regroup, again.  I grabbed the samples and dug through them.  I needed some Willett, pulled out a couple of solid samples of B49C and C4D, and hammered them.  Man, I love Willett.  I hopped out of the car and headed towards the gift shop.

Next up: “A Gaggle of Whiskey Pigs Drinking at Harrison Smith House”

The Four Roses Barrel Pick – Part 1 “Drinks on the Flight”

Back in April, I had the opportunity to meet up with a group of bourbon devotees who were flying in from around the country to select a private barrel of Four Roses. For this trip, I only had 24 hours to spare.  What follows is my account of the event.  I call it Fear and Loathing in Bardstown…..AKA The Time I Drank Bourbon for 20 of 24 Hours.  It’s long, so I broke it up into parts.  Journey with me, won’t you?

Part 1 – Drinks on the Flight:

The purpose of this trip was clear and simple. The invite had come weeks prior.  I had been asked to tag along on a private barrel selection at Four Roses distillery.  I was more than excited, because for all the bourbon I imbibe, this would be my first attempt at actually providing input on juice that other people would enjoy.   In addition to that, we would be having a private dinner on the eve of the pick at the center of “all things culinary” happening in the Midwest, the Harrison Smith House, to meet, greet and otherwise drink with other well respected bourbon aficionados.  I was absolutely not turning that down.  I’d also been asked to drop into Michter’s distillery in Louisville (another story soon to be told).  Impossible would be the operative word in describing how I could have anticipated the course of events that followed, and how I would pack it all into a scant 24 hours.

Last minute trips are not at all what you call inexpensive. In truth, the invite wasn’t last minute, but my decision about going was.  It also took a while to sell my triathlon bike in order to finance the First Class airfare.

My trip into the beating heart of bourbon began like most of my trips, meaning 15 minutes after I should have realistically left for the airport, I was still at home, setting up my DVR. I hustled a change of clothes into a bag still filled with crumpled receipts, mismatched socks, a flip flop, cellphone chargers for phones I haven’t owned since 2003, three pairs of busted ear buds, and various other contraband all of which was coated in a fine powdery sheen of pink that had once been the contents of a bottle of Pepto pills, crushed by time and airline baggage crews.  I left all of my toiletries with the intention of stimulating the local economy by buying new ones at the drug store, and ran out the door.  That’s right, I forgot them.  However I did not forget the clear 1-gallon plastic bag, filled beyond capacity with 2oz sample bottles containing all manner and example of great drinking bourbons, from vintage National Distillers to Parker’s Heritage releases, Willett wheaters to Van Winkles, barrel proofers and syrupy high rye recipes.  Amid the chaos of my ‘go to hell’ bag, I cuddled and caressed the ziploc before stuffing it down into the duffle with all the care I could muster.  After that it was off to the races, and I had to get to the church on time.

I breezed through security, which is always nice. Once in the air, I broke out the sample bag.  I was like an artist laying out his pallet, arranging the bottles by color and recipe.  I selected a 2oz sample bottle of 1984 Old Grand-Dad.  Ah, that butterscotchy darling.  It was an hour long flight, time to relax and think about the events to come, make a game plan, set a pace that I’d run my race.  I was still nosing the OGD when we hit a huge pocket of turbulence mid-sip, a 30,000 foot, 600mph shuck and jive that cause me to jostle and spill a bit of the National Distillers nectar on my shirt. I looked down for a few brief moments, assessed the damage and sprang into action. Twisting the fabric as hard as I could, simultaneously kicking my head back in the seat, letting the spillage drip into my mouth.  I got a stare of feigned disgust from the older couple sitting next to me, though I detected a tinge of grudging envy in the man’s eyes.  Yes, I’m drinking on a flight.  Yes, I brought my own.  Yes, it’s in a medicine bottle.  Yes, I did a lot of sniffing, sipping, ooing and ahhing.  Yes, I just drank brown liquid out of my shirt.  It’s not my first time wearing a barrel.  I broke out two more small bottles of other bourbon, and when they looked at me crosswise and the older man questioned what I was drinking, in my best Hulk impersonation I growled “Goykh Smash!!!” and slammed my fist down on the armrest, hiding a wince of pain.  When I got to the end of all three bottles I combined the dribbly contents into a mile high vat, shaking it hard in the air with fury then slurped it down.  Returning tray and seat backs to an upright position would be no trouble.  It was my own posture and poise I was worried about.  Man, was that ever a smooth landing.  Smyooooth.  I sandwiched up at the airport Quizno’s kiosk on my way out of the terminal, guzzled a bottle of sparkling water, jogged in place briskly singing Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” a little too loudly, and reset, waiting for my transportation.  It’s been a long time, indeed……

Up Next: Part 2 – Drinks In a Stranger’s Basement

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Quick Takes: 2014 Lincoln Road OBSK

I’ve had this bottle for a while, and it’s always been a go-to for me. I keep thinking I’ll write something about the Lincoln Road OBSK, but it always gets bumped for a “sexier” label. That shouldn’t happen. Jamie Farris and his wife Misty have picked some of the all-time best private barrels of Four Roses.

But this one is even better.

I poured a glass last night and yelled upstairs, “Honey!?!”
“Yeah babe, what’s up?”
“This is the best pour in my cabinet!!”

A long moment of silence, then, “That’s great.”

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The bottle is almost depleted, and it’s worth writing about. There is probably a pour or two remaining, and it has mellowed perfectly. The nectar at the bottle of the bottle is the best of the best, the final splendid drops that pack all of the flavor. It’s akin to the way I ate cereal as a kid, when I loaded the bowl down with heaping helpings of white granulated sugar. When all the cereal was gone I would drink the milk out of the bowl. Eventually the only thing that was left was a syrupy slurry of simple sugar, oozing out of the bowl sap-like, condensed with all the other flavors of whatever the cereal had been……

Nose: The nose is truly magnificent. Overloaded with caramel and syrup. Burnt oak, but not musty. It gets an Academy Award for the depth of sugar. A hint of berry, but not anything like other OBSK’s I enjoy. This one is way heavier on the sugar and caramelized char, and less of the spicy dryness. The berry is still present, but there is less of the sweet pie filling and way more of a smoky campfire, griddle slung precariously over the top, frying up buttermilk pancakes, with gobs of gooey, buttery syrup slathered all over them. A handful of wild berry cast over the top, for an added punch.

Flavor: Mouthfuls of the caramel and sweetness. A gush of vanilla. The berry components are balanced with the oak and sugar. The spiciness that once existed has turned creamier. It’s almost reminiscent of a Rootbeer float. It’s so smooth, zero astringency. It really puts me in a Fall sort of mood. Jacket weather. Brisk mornings fishing. Earlier sunsets.  Cooler evenings. Outdoor fires with friends gathered around, telling stories. Drown me in this, please.

Finish: It’s not nuclear. And though it was probably a lot hotter a while back, it’s opened up significantly, shedding the fissile material around the edges and leaving nothing but the ultra-pleasant intensity of superb bourbon, right at the top of my tongue. The burn is a mellow heat wave in the summer sun. Southern humidity. August in the Carolinas. Ever present.

If Jamie could dig one out of a private collection at Lincoln Road, I’d be on the Interstate right now to come get it.

I will weep when this one is gone…….