Around the Barrel #4: Better Aging Through Science and a Beam Small Batch Tasting

Crusaders, sincere apologies for the delay on getting this one out, but we had a great deal of technical difficulty. If you notice anything abnormal in the cast itself, that’s probably why. And by abnormal, I don’t just mean our usual abnormal selves! In this Around the Barrel we talk through our article about the ‘science’ behind some of the accelerated aging techniques as well as do a tasting of the Small Batch Collection from Jim Beam. For those of you playing at home, that’s Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s, and Baker’s. Also be sure to check out our entries, as well as all the others, in the If I Had a Benjamin series over at Modern Thirst! Cheers and enjoy!

Around the Barrel #4: Listen Here

Ratings (listen to the cast for our full tasting notes!):

Basil Hayden’s: 7-8 years old, 80 proof. Rarity: Albino Squirrel.

Chris: 2.5 Barrels

Darren: Scratch

Knob Creek: 9 years old, 100 proof. Rarity: Squirrel

Chris: 2 Barrels

Darren: 2.5 Barrels

Baker’s: 7 years old, 107 proof. Rarity: Albino Squirrel

Chris: 2.5 Barrels

Darren: 2+ Barrels

Booker’s: 6-8 years old, 124-131 proof. Rarity: Albino Squirrel

Chris: 3 Barrels

Darren: 3 Barrels

If I Had a Benjamin ($100), Darren Edition

A friend and fellow bourbon media colleague, Bill of Modern Thirst, started a group project of sorts with us and several other bourbon media folk. The premise is easy to envision: What would you buy if you had a Benjamin, a $100 bill, to spend on bourbon at the store? Rules: Disregard sales tax, only bourbon, rye whiskey, or American spirits (no beer or other spirits), no rare bottles (reasonably available), and that’s about it. Read Chris’ response here.

IfIhadaBenjamn

First off, when people learn I have a bourbon podcast and blog, they’ll usually ask the polite, “Oh, really, that’s interesting, what’s your favorite bourbon?” A loaded question if there ever was one. I came up with my own standard answer, “It depends on what I’m doing and my mood.” A little dry and not very fun of an answer, but it’s the correct and 100% true answer for myself.

So this question at hand is open ended. It wasn’t “What would you get 1) to bring to a nice dinner party to share, or 2) to a rowdy party, or 3) to give to an old friend…,” so I’ve had to come up with a general answer. I’m going to do my best to choose a number of bottles good for a variety of situations. My portfolio will be diversified so to speak. Essentially, this would be my list to give to intrepid bourbon/whiskey neophytes who want to drop $100 on a good spread, or for myself to have a decent spread on hand at home for any given occasion or mood. I have also limited myself to things readily and easily available year-round at most large liquor stores. So let me get down to it and tell you my choices and why I chose what I did.

I’ll start with the most expensive choice.

Knob Creek Single Barrel, 120 proof, $40, 750 mL

This is a solid sipping bourbon with a great flavor profile and a little kick with the higher proof. It goes great neat or with a large ice cube mellowing slowly. Knob Creek single barrel 120 proof will help you relax after a hard day, or celebrate with a solid readily available higher shelf bourbon. Simple as that. It’s still a great value at around $40, something that is becoming more and more rare nowadays.

My next two choices are mainly for mixing. Everyone loves a good cocktail, and, especially with the craft cocktail boom, many people are just starting to experience how great a well-made cocktail can be, and these two choices are great for just that purpose.

Bulleit Rye Whiskey, 90 proof, $25, 750 mL

Bulleit Rye is an American rye whiskey, also readily available, that is excellent for mixing. Rye whiskeys in general tend to make better cocktails than bourbons, though not always. The spiciness of the rye whiskey compliments the various other ingredients common to cocktails: lemons, oranges, sweet vermouth, etc. If you haven’t made a Manhattan with a rye whiskey, you’re missing out, and a bottle of Bulleit Rye will get you started. Are there better ryes on the market? Sure, but they are also more expensive. So for this exercise, I’m going with Bulleit Rye.

Old Granddad 114, 114 proof, usually less than $25 or so, 750 mL

Old Granddad 114 (OGD114) is a high proof bourbon that is a great cocktail base. It’s high rye mashbill makes that no big surprise. The higher proof also helps it pack a bit more bite that I’ve found makes a delightful Bourbon Negroni (non-rye whiskey Boulevardier, if you like). I’m scared this one is going to go out of production, but hopefully not.

My final choice is a good bottom shelf bourbon for when the night is no longer young, and you’ve already had a few better and more expensive pours (read, you’re a sheet or two to the wind).

Kentucky Tavern, 80 proof, less than $10, 750 mL (also available in 1.75 L for around $17)

This is a bottom shelf bourbon we’ve touted before many times on our blog and podcasts. I can drink this on the rocks easy, and don’t mind mixing it with anything, especially Coke, as it’s so inexpensive. I would have chosen a 750 mL of Kentucky Tavern Bottled in Bond, 100 proof (usually around $11-13), but it went out of production in 2011, the distillery stocks were gone in 2013, and anything on the shelves today is the very last of the distributors’ stock. If you find any, definitely buy it, because it is gone for good now.

So there are my picks for If I Had a Benjamin. It’s very easy to blow through $100 on bourbon or whiskey in general. These four picks are a good swath that would keep me going a while for my basic bourbon needs limited to $100 or less. Let us know what your picks would be, and, as always, Cheers!

-Darren

If I had a Benjamin ($100)…By Chris

Recently the guys at Modern Thirst proposed a nearly impossible question to a slew of bourbon writers, “If you had $100 to spend on American whiskey, what would you buy right now at your local store?” This sounds like an easy question, but the more I thought about it, the harder it became. Am I sipping it or making cocktails? Is it just for me, or am I taking it to enjoy with friends? What’s the temperature outside? Did I have a good or a bad day at work? What’s new that I haven’t tried? Are there any store pick single barrels available? What can I even get today? Which direction is the wind blowing?

These questions notwithstanding, it seems like what you can actually find changes daily depending on the bourbon trade winds. For example, Elmer T. Lee would easily be on my list, but you can’t find it anymore. The quality of Eagle Rare has gone down so much that it got the boot. Weller 12 has become nearly as hard to find as the notorious Van Winkle line. Our beloved Kentucky Tavern BIB is discontinued and Ancient Ancient Age 10 year is on hiatus for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s almost as if we’re cursed to see every reasonably priced bourbon we fall in love with fade into obscurity. With all this in mind, I decided to cheat a little and come up with two scenarios. First, what do I keep consistently stocked at my house and replace as needed, and second, what would I bring to a party where I don’t know the tastes of the people coming. Both are based on what I know I can get nearby right now, or at least with relative ease. There would be some overlap between the two lists, but for the sake of keeping it interesting I’m going to only allow each bourbon to appear once. We’ll link to everyone’s responses once they come out and you can read Darren’s response here.

What’s always in my bar?

Always buy in bulk

Always buy in bulk

As you might imagine, this changes constantly and has taken over way more space than it probably should. But there are a few things that I always have around. Our readers know that we at BOTB like good values and Swiss Army Knives of bourbon that can be excellent sippers as well as make a delicious cocktail. Here’s what I’ve always got on hand:

Knob Creek Single Barrel ($35-40) – This is just a great all around bourbon at a damn fine 120 proof that allows it to be sipped neat, put on ice, or put in a Manhattan and it still shines through. I prefer the store select bottles, so go for that if you can find it.

1792 Ridgemont Reserve ($25) – One of our favorites. Easy drinking, always pleasant, good in a cocktail, and a damn good value for a blend of 8-10 year old bourbons. If you can find a store select single barrel, again, go for that. I have a stash of some single barrel from Kroger of all places, which is delicious.

Ancient Ancient Age 10 Star ($12-15) – This is my go-to everyday mixer. A 6ish year old blend of the higher rye mashbill from Buffalo Trace, this always hits the spot. And yea, I know you can’t get this one in the state of Kentucky, but if you know anyone outside of the state I’m sure you can figure it out.

Weller Antique 107 ($22-25, it seems to change daily) – Weller Antique is always in my top 5 bourbons. Great price, great flavor, solid proof. That’s really all it takes to make me happy. This tastes like apple pie to me and makes any day better. And yea, yea, I know this is becoming hard to find now. But if you keep your eyes open, it’s reasonably easy to find. And you know what, I love it, so there.

What do I bring to a party?

Like my bourbon transport device?

Like my bourbon transport device?

Four Roses Single Barrel ($35) – For some reason a lot of people still don’t know about Four Roses. They need to, and that’s why I like to bring this for people to try. On second thought, maybe I should stop doing this. You can pry my Four Roses Single Barrel from my cold, dead hands!

Very Old Barton BIB ($12-15) – Bottled-in-Bond bourbons are delicious, interesting, and filled with history. It’s hard to find a BIB expression that isn’t at least pretty good. Our favorite, Kentucky Tavern BIB, is sadly no longer available, but this one comes from the same distillery and basically tied KT in our Bonded Mash Madness competition.

Old Grand Dad 114 ($22) – This high proof expression of Old Grand Dad seems to fly blissfully under the radar. The high rye content and high proof make it stand out in almost any cocktail. I don’t know why it’s still so cheap, and I don’t know how long it will continue to be available, but for the time being it is a helluva bourbon for a damn good price.

A Straight Rye Whiskey (depends, but readily available with the balance) – Some of my favorites are Bulleit Rye, Rittenhouse Rye BIB, Smooth Ambler Rye, and Sazerac Rye. I know not picking one is a cop-out, but I tend to float between ryes. I don’t have a single favorite in this <$35 price range. My overall favorite is easily the single barrel Smooth Ambler, but that is closer to $50-60. Ryes are much older than bourbons in heritage, and always spark a good conversation. They’re also somewhat polarizing, but that’s half the fun honestly.

So do you Bourbon Crusaders agree? Disagree? Want to rage quixotic against not being able to find some of these in your area? Let us know in the comments! We want to hear what your lists would be and can’t wait to see what some of the other writers chose. Cheers!

Better Aging Through Chemistry?

The internet has been all a-twitter lately about various forms of expedited aging in whiskey and bourbon. A majority of the discussion has been about whether or not these accelerated products can still meet the legal definitions of Kentucky Bourbon, Straight Bourbon, or even just plain Bourbon (for more on that aspect, check out Fred Minnick’s blog here and here). As that discussion continues, we thought we would give you guys the lowdown on what we know (and don’t know) about some of these processes and how they might work. We’ll be looking at TerrePURE by Terressentia, Cleveland Bourbon, Defiant Whiskey, and the “chemical reactor” from Lost Spirits.

Warning, science ahead…and pseudoscience, for that matter, as some of this, though proprietary industry methods, seems a bit shrouded in too much vaguery (read suspect).

Abbreviations: GC = Gas chromatography, LC = Liquid chromatography, and MS = Mass spectrometry.

TerrePURE by Terressentia

Let’s begin with TerrePURE by Terressentia. This process has a significant buzz in the industry and is essentially a way, they claim, to improve a distillate. Ty Tyler began his research in this area in 1999 and has been gaining ground in the awards circuits for his treated products. As of this writing, the company itself is primarily a sourcing and treatment facility for private labels, but has also recently acquired the Charles Medley Distillery in Kentucky and has expressed interest in producing a Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (more on this later). The main claim made is that the TerrePURE process reduces “unwanted, harsh-tasting congeners” for a “smoother” spirit. They achieve this by utilizing “ultrasonic energy” and “applied oxygenation” following distillation. Congeners such as methanol, isobutanol, amyl alcohols, propanol, methanol and “free radicals” are said to be removed. They have run their product through both GC/MS and LC/MS and, if their graphs here are real, then the process apparently does just that. Whether this distillate is smoother or tastes better is in the tongue of beholder. The interesting thing about these compounds they desire to remove is that, traditionally, they are removed (to variable degrees) by the distiller as part of his selection of the heart of the distillation which involves discarding the heads and tails of the distillate (some distillers re-distill the heads and tails as well).

A second claim they make is that as a result of using the TerrePURE process, their products will come with less severe hangovers and they cite research (three papers)* which they claim basically says “the less of these bad congeners, the less severe the hangover.” It’s certainly plausible, at least. Terressentia is up front that this is hypothetical, but there is some research which supports the theory, as they cite.

Terressentia also claims that the TerrePURE process “converts harsh-tasting acids to smooth tasting esters.” A 2010 paper from the College of Charleston chemistry department showed their process resulted in the esterification of fatty acids, specifically hexadecanoic and octadecanoic acids, into ethyl esters. If you remember our podcast on the chemistry of bourbon, you’ll know that esters do produce some of the more interesting flavors in bourbon, such as coconut, banana, apple, cinnamon, etc.. These are usually produced from reactions between the barrel and the distillate over time naturally during aging in a warehouse. Some esters have bad flavors as well, such as airplane glue and cleaning products, so the ending result is really a chemistry crap-shoot to some degree. A 2008 study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry** does indeed list hexanoic and octanoic methyl esters as present in high concentrations in whiskey, but they do not list at all hexadecanoic and octadecanoic acids or their esters. The slightly more recent 2014 article*** in Food Chemistry by Collins, Zweigenbaum, and Eberle does list oxo-octadecanoic acid as a constituent, but does not call any special attention to it for concentration. Hexadecanoic and octadecanoic acids are much longer chains than hexanoic and decanoic acids, so one would presume these would only come about after much longer aging periods anyway, but that is just our guess.

Regardless, go watch a video with the inventor here, and as a bonus you get to see their machine, which looks surprisingly like a Chik-fil-a lemonade dispenser with a giant red “start” button on it.

*(1) Verster, J. (2008). The Alcohol Hangover-A Puzzling Phenomenon. Alcohol & Alcoholism, 43(2),124–126.

(2) Swift, R. & Davidson, D. (1998). Alcohol Hangover: Mechanisms and Mediators. Alcohol Health & Research World, 54-60.

(3) Rohsenow, D., Howland, J., Arnedt, T., Almeida, A., Greece, J., Minsky, S., Kempler, S., & Sales, S. (2010). Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 34(3), 509–518.

**Poisson and Schieberle. Characterisation of the most odor active… J. Agri. Food Chem. 2008. 56, 5813-19.

***Collins, Zweigenbaum, and Eberle. Profiling of nonvolatiles in whiskeys… Food Chemistry. 2014. 163, 186-96.

Cleveland Whiskey

Next up is Cleveland Bourbon Whiskey. From what we could gather, the process is as follows: The whiskey distillate is aged normally in a new charred oak barrel for around 6 months, such that it meets the minimum legal requirements to be called bourbon. At this point, the barrel is chopped up and placed into a proprietary pressure tank along with the now ~6-month-aged bourbon. This tank is then cycled over high and low pressures to force the whiskey in and out of the barrel fragments. There is an additional aspect of “oxygenation,” for which we couldn’t find any details. The company claims that this cycling creates a product that tastes significantly older than its real age of just over 6 months. As for how it tastes, we have not tried it yet, so we can’t say. Our fellow Bourbon media friend Ginny Tonic has, and you can check out her review here.

Defiant Whisky

Defiant is a distillery in North Carolina, family owned and operated, which makes vodka and whisk(e)y. They are open about their process to more rapidly “age” their whiskey. They have a large tank into which they dip a great number of spiral cut wooden “staves” (see the picture below). They leave the distillate in the tank for 6 weeks, and what comes out after that time is a whiskey with a nice familiar color, and a taste that I personally guessed at about 4-5 years of age (see our Podcast #6 for my initial complete review). According to their sales representative that I spoke with while tasting, the average guess is between 4-6 years. Their process is pretty straightforward as explained above, but additional information is that only glass, copper, and stainless steel touches their whiskey (the tank is stainless), and their still is actually from Germany, not Vendome.

defiant

Lost Spirits

The final, and most complicated, process we’re going to cover is the “portable skid-mounted chemical reactor” which is “charged with oak blocks” by Lost Spirits. They claim that in 6 days they can create a spirit (rum in this case) with a chemical signature “closely approximating” the signature of a 20 year old product. The process was developed by Bryan Davis, and the company states that they are set to have their reactors widely available by 2016. Here is how the process works:

Phase 1 – Esterification of short chain fatty acids, creating fruity character esters

Phase 2 – Breaking down of charred oak, extracting wood derived aldehydes and medium chained fatty acids (from our chemistry cast, remember these theoretically include things like yummy lactones and vanillin, as well as tannins)

Phase 3 – Esterification of medium chain fatty acids and phenols/phenolic acids from the wood

So how does any of this equate to creating a spirit with a 20 year old signature? According to the “White Paper” provided on the Lost Spirits website, they utilized GC/MS to find each different chemical in the product and how much of it there is. Without getting too technical, these can be really finicky, and they depend on a good database with reliable mass measurements for the compounds of interest. They then compared the 33 year old rum to a new rum distillate to see how certain compounds and their levels changed. This was used as a set of standards with which to compare their Colonial Rum made with their proprietary chemical reactor.

Are you all scienced out? Well, go get a bourbon, this is going to get worse.

Here is where we get slightly confused about their analytical process. Lost Spirit assumes that the build-up of acetyl (specifically 1,1-diethoxyethane) is directly proportional to age, as they place their test rum at 15-20 years based on the ratio of acetyl as compared to the new make and 33 year old rum. Upon further investigation of the information available on their website, the compounds they used to show ‘age’ were not ones we were familiar with from our past research into what chemicals are in your whiskey. From the paper by Poisson and Schieberle, the ones Lost Spirits studied were not those known as the most characteristic of an American bourbon whiskey. Yes, this is bourbon and not rum, but Lost Spirits states that they were using whiskey databases for their barrel aging analysis because rum studies were not available. To be specific, Poisson and Schieberle cited the following compounds as the most characteristic (highest concentration and highest detectability threshold) for Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey:

(E)-beta-Damascenone (cooked apple, fruity), gamma-nonalactone (coconut), gamma-decalactone (peach), (3S,4S)-cis-whiskey-lactone (coconut), eugenol (clove, spice), vanillin (vanilla).

So what did Lost Spirits test for? The following:

Isoamyl Acetate (Aroma: Sweet banana, fruity, with a ripe estry)
Human detection threshold: 2ppb

Ethyl Octanoate (Aroma: Waxy, sweet, pineapple, fruity, with creamy dairy)
Human detection threshold: 15ppb

Ethyl Butyrate (Aroma: Fruity, Juicy Fruit, pineapple, cognac)
Human detection threshold: 1ppb

Isovaleraldehyde (Aroma: Chocolate, peach, fatty)
Human detection threshold: 1ppb

Ethyl propanoate (Aroma: Sweet fruity rum, Juicy Fruit, grape, pineapple)
Human detection threshold: 10ppb

Ethyl Hexanoate (Aroma: Sweet fruity pineapple, waxy green banana)
Human detection threshold: 1ppb

These are all compounds known to be in Bourbon Whiskey, but they aren’t some of the ones that are best known to contribute aged character to Bourbon Whiskey. Here is a graph from one of Lost Spirit’s early studies showing the increase in concentration of some of these compounds when comparing the unaged and 33 year old rum:

Unaged to 33yo

We want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but this is the source they give in their paper for the above compounds: http://www.leffingwell.com/esters.htm. Please, do take a moment and visit that website. You’ll be greeted by a copyright 1999 webpage that plays “Surfin’ USA” through your speakers. So could these compounds be representative of aging? Possibly–but also possibly not. As we know, every barrel and every piece of wood is different, so we would expect compounds to vary widely among them. The provided evidence is based on a single sample, and that’s just not good enough for us. We’d love for one of these processes to work, but so far, the science just hasn’t convinced us. We hope to get the chance to taste some of these products in the near future and put them to the human test, but, until then, all we have is the data. We have contacted Lost Spirits regarding why they chose these particular compounds, and will provide an update if they get back to us.

So what now? Why go through two years of general chemistry and organic chemistry on our blog? The Bourbon Question, that’s why.

As stated at the get go, the big buzz around all of these new “fast aging” methods is making people ask, “Will it be bourbon? Will it be Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey?” Good questions with, what we think, are mostly straightforward answers. Federal Law defines what is and isn’t bourbon, and Kentucky law states what has to happen to put “Kentucky” on the label as well. See our PODCAST #1 and 27 CFR 5.22 and KRS 244.370 for all the juicy legal details and history.

Again, the reactions that occur naturally during the aging process inside a barrel make most of the contribution to flavor and aroma, and 100% of the color of an aged product. To oversimplify a little bit, over time, many compounds undergo reactions, aided by oxygen, adding to their size, or chain length, and, for the most part, resulting in tastier compounds. Aging is, of course, different for every barrel and every rickhouse condition, so when a whiskey hits its ‘sweet spot’ can vary drastically.

With regard to TerrePURE, one asks, “but wait, this process seems to be performed on raw distillate, how does this give me any simulated barrel age?” It’s a very good question with again a very mysterious answer. They state that they are “infusing charred oak staves” during the processing for whiskeys. What that means is anyone’s guess, and we couldn’t find any further information about it. Presumably this means that barrel fragments or such are placed in their system and jiggled about by ultrasonic waves (think jewelry cleaner machines at the mall) and infused with oxygen to simulate aging. So would this itself be bourbon? We say no, as it hasn’t been aged in new charred oak barrels. Fragments of wood do not a barrel make. Additionally, at what point does removing these compounds in a distillate take it too far away from the character of the grains specified in the definition of whiskey itself? That’s a very important question with probably a not very straightforward answer. Now, to be fair, in one of the articles above at Fred Minnick’s blog, the Terressentia CEO, Earl Hewlette, states when they do begin making bourbon, they will comply with all laws regarding aging (i.e., at least one full year in Kentucky to have “Kentucky” on the label, and a at least two years for it to be labeled “Straight”). Thank you, Fred, for being on the ball with this, and thank you, Terressentia, for being open and responsive!

Defiant is calling it plain “whisky,” so they are off the hook. Is it whiskey, yes. Is it decent, yes. OK, fine.

Cleveland Bourbon apparently had their heart set on calling it bourbon from the start. They appear to be following the laws and are openly stating as such. Is it bourbon? It appears so. Is it good? Again, we haven’t tried it, but let us know what you think.

As far as the Lost Spirits process goes, without knowing what they are adding, and possibly subtracting, to make their ‘chemical reactor’ function, it is impossible to say how this would affect calling their products “bourbon.” At this point, it is unclear, but on possibility is that the law is possibly behind the technology and would allow for it to be called as such.
So that is our best answer so far to the Bourbon Question. However, there is another level to this. A slightly nefarious level. What will the labelling be like? The article above from Fred Minnick covered this, and we agree with Fred, perhaps not to ascot-donning levels, but agreement nonetheless. At the Bourbon Classic Master’s General Session, he asked the panel about labeling and honesty and up-frontness in that regard. We were treated to what became a somewhat tense and heated exchange as views differed greatly on the panel. We at BOTB would like to come out publicly as being very much in favor of honest and up-front labelling. Aged 6 weeks? Then put “Aged 6 Weeks” on the bottle and explain briefly the non-barrel aging process used to do so on the back label for instance. In short, don’t be deceptive or obfuscate.

Cleveland Bourbon appears to be upfront which we applaud them for.

Defiant is likewise upfront and open about their entire process, so that’s always excellent.

Lost Spirits appears to be experimenting with whiskey and bourbon, as they are primarily in the white spirits business currently, so time will tell.

TerrePURE hasn’t released a bourbon yet, but state they will follow all laws accordingly.

We hope this has been helpful to your understanding of these new processes. It’s almost inevitable that more of these will be popping up in the near future, so don’t expect this topic to go away from bourbon circles any time soon. Hopefully this little article will also help you sort through some of the claims, present and future, so you can sort them out for yourself to make the best decisions when you go spend your hard earned money on a bottle of whiskey–bourbon or otherwise!

A final note is this: We are not at all against these new technologies and methods. We are science nerds ourselves and love this kind of stuff. We also are both bluff old traditionalists who don’t like change, and it’ll take a lot to convince us with regard to these new “aging” technologies. One thing we try and do consistently is have it be abundantly clear when we are stating facts as best we know them to be, and when we are stating our opinion. Hopefully we’ve stayed true to that in this complex article. Let us know what you think!

Cheers from Chris and Darren!

Our Day at Jim Beam with Fred Noe

If there is one family that could be called the royal family of bourbon, it’s the Beams. For seven generations, starting with Jacob Beam after moving to central Kentucky in 1788, the Beam family, in one way or another, has had a hand in just about every major brand of bourbon out there. Yes, including non-Jim Beam products and distilleries. For the entire in-depth rundown of all the Beams in bourbon, be sure to listen to our Podcast #3. In it, we describe in detail as much as we could muster about which Beam did what where and when!

It goes without saying that we were excited that our second stop on the Bourbon Classic Media Tour was Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, KY. The last time I visited the Beam distillery was in grade school on a field trip (you read that right, that’s how Catholic schools roll). Back then (early 1990’s), it was little more than a nice slide show/film and a bourbon ball tasting–we sadly couldn’t taste the real deal at the time, something about the law, blah blah.

The Basic Facts:

Parent Company: Suntory Holdings Limited (Japan, Head Office in Osaka)
United States Immediate Parent: Beam Suntory, Inc.
Location: Clermont, KY
Master Distiller(s): Fred Noe
Mash Bill(s): Officially a secret, but said to be 75% corn, 15% rye, and 10% barley for the main mashbill; and 60% corn, 30% rye, and 10% barley for the high rye mashbill (Old Granddad and Basil Hayden’s)
Aging Rickhouses: On site
Bottling: On site
Website(s): http://www.americanstillhouse.com/ and http://www.jimbeam.com/
Public Tours: Yes, daily: $10, Free under 21 years of age

We were first greeted in the Gift Shop by the wonderful Megan Breier, Kentucky Bourbon Ambassador at Beam Suntory, to start our tour off.

Highlights of the Tour and Grounds:

  • Non-GMO grains used exclusively due to the European market preference
  • A majority of the grain is sourced locally, but the rye is Canadian
  • The distillery uses around 200 acres of grain per day for their mash
  • Aging barrels are from Independent Stave Company, and a level 4 char
  • There are eighteen 45,000 gallon fermenters on site
  • Booker’s always comes from the middle portion of the 5th and 6th floors of the rickhouses
  • The Small Batch bourbons are distilled twice: once by column still and once by pot still
  • The Small Batch bourbons are also distilled to a lower ABV to reduce the amount of water necessary to add for proofing (except Booker’s, to which no water is added)

Outside the Knob Creek Single Barrel bottling house, we had the opportunity to theif some from the barrel and taste it. Mighty good as always, especially in the bitter cold of that day! Once inside and a bit warmer, we had the chance to bottle our own Knob Creek Single Barrel 120 proof. We picked our empty bottle, washed it ourselves on the “bourbon fountain” (they don’t use air or water so as not to blow in impurities/dust or lower the proof), then put a sticker on it with our name and sat it on the line to get filled, corked, and labeled. Watching it proceed down the line and knowing it’ll be your own personal bottle was more than a bit exciting, especially since we both love Knob Creek Single Barrel. At the end, as it comes off the line freshly labeled, a worker dips the top in black wax and impresses the circumferential seal. He then dips the very top in the wax again, at which point you can put your thumb print in it if you so desire–a nice personal finishing touch. After the tour, the bottles are waiting for you in the gift shop with your name sticker on it for picking up.

The main bottling line is impressive to behold, indeed. Each shift must bottle a certain number of cases before they can leave. As Beam has many products, and a huge worldwide demand, this policy is understandable. Though the way the line was running while we were there, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. The well trained staff are clearly pros when it comes to ensuring a steady reliable supply of some of our favorite brands.

Outside the main bottling area is what can only be described as every bourbon drinker’s dream–a large locked storage area containing several bottles from each batch of each brand from the past two years of production. This area includes bottles from the foreign shipments, too, including 4 Liter bottles of Jim Beam (see the pictures below) which are quite impressive and illegal to sell in the U.S. unfortunately. They keep it for quality assurance and control and is used for reasons such as customer complaints (example hat tip to Megan!):

Picture it:

Angry adult on the phone: “This Jim Beam is weak and watered down! Here’s the bottle number…”
 
Jim Beam Helpful Staff: “OK, sir, we have checked that batch, and the quality and proof are as they should be. Perhaps a resident of your home has drank some and replaced the volume with water?”
 
Angry adult: “Timmy!!! Did you drink our Jim Beam and put water in it to hide it! … YOU’RE GROUNDED!”

At the end of the tour, we then had the unique and special opportunity to sit down with the legend himself, Fred Noe, in his newly constructed office house for a personal tasting and story session. Among memorable quotes from Fred during this session is the gem, “If you’re drinking Booker’s, you better have your pajamas on.”

Of importance, we asked about the Suntory purchase of Jim Beam, and Fred said, thankfully, Suntory doesn’t do much in the way of telling him what to do, and pretty much have left things alone, so Fred and the experienced people at Beam still have good control over the products and how they are distilled and aged, etc.

However, there is still a mystery surrounding Old Grand Dad 114. Fred was reticent to open up about our question regarding where this originated and future plans for the label. The polite, but brief, response was that the label was purchased by the Beam company and is made on site. He did mention that there are some extra-aged barrels of the high rye mashbill (OGD/Basil Hayden’s) which slipped through the inventory cracks and may eventually get released. In the end, we didn’t press the issue, but would absolutely love to see a 10 or 12 year old Basil Hayden’s.

Popular brands currently produced by Jim Beam:

  • Jim Beam, Jim Beam Black, Jim Beam Bottled-in-Bond (recently released), Jim Beam Rye, Booker’s, the Knob Creek line, Old Grand Dad, Basil Hayden’s, and many others, including flavored whiskies.

Cheers!!!

PS: Stay tuned for an upcoming podcast tasting of the small batch line from Jim Beam!

Bonded Mash Madness Results!

Fellow Crusaders, the NCAA Basketball Championship is upon us tonight. I have no idea who the two teams playing in it are though. So since the championship game is a letdown, I figured it would be a good night to announce the champion of our Bonded Mash Madness! Darren and I both did the entire tournament blind and compared ratings only after each game. We agreed on all but the final game. The real surprise was how close things got towards the end. By the semifinals, our scores were all within 0.5 for each game. As we suspected, purchasing a Bottled-in-Bond bourbon means you’re going to get something worth drinking. We had a lot of fun doing this, and we would love to see your results!

Bourbon Battle Royale Results

If you don’t feel like clicking, the winner was Kentucky Tavern BIB! It was literally by a nose, as I preferred KT and Darren preferred the VOB. Our scores evened out exactly, and upon further examination, we crowned KT the winner by a nose. Literally by the butterscotchy and delicious nose. Cheers!

I.W. Harper Returns to the U.S.

Hello, fellow Crusaders! Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be at the formal coming out party for the upcoming new I.W. Harper releases. “But wait, I know that brand,” some of you might be saying–particularly if you or your drinking buddies spent anytime overseas or in the military. The I.W. Harper brand has been dormant in the U.S. since the late 80’s/early 90’s, but it has been going strong in 110 other countries and military bases. Very soon though, we’ll get to take one back.

Isaac Wolfe Bernheim was a business trained German who immigrated to the U.S. following the Civil War. Beginning as a “peddler of Yankee notions” up and down the east coast, he was forced to stop when the horse he traveled on died. He settled in Peducah, KY and took notice of the surrounding prolific whiskey businesses and decided to give it a shot. When deciding upon a name for his then sourced whiskey, he decided that ‘Bernheim’ was not nearly American enough to be successful. While reading the horse racing section of the paper one day, he saw a horse named ‘Harper’ and thought that was a strong, American name, and I.W. Harper Whiskey was born. He would go on to purchase a distillery with his brother and begin making the whiskey himself. The bourbon would become known as “The Gold Medal Whiskey” due to the awards it won in the late 1800’s. Bernheim Brothers and Company would shut down under Prohibition, and I.W. Bernheim himself was retired by the time the 21st Amendment was ratified. The brand was eventually resurrected and ended up in the hands of United Distillers, which later became Diageo. When American bourbon sales were languishing in the late 80’s/early 90’s, the brand was made export only and became very popular internationally, particularly in Japan. After a long absence, the brand is returning to the U.S., and I’m here to tell you what I thought.

I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Harper by GroupPhoto Courtesy of Taylor Strategy

Distilled by: Officially it “contains whiskey distilled at the current Bernheim distillery.” Unofficially they’ve said the loss of the Four Roses distilling contract will not affect supply, so it probably is all Bernheim/Heaven Hill. It also was “most recently” aged at Stitzel-Weller.

Age: NAS (but said to be a blend of at least 4 year old bourbons)

Proof: 82

Mash Bill: 73% corn, 18% Rye, 9% Barley

MSRP: $34.99

Nose: Heavy on the corn sweetness, spearmint, some nuttiness, and with more time the vanilla and coconut notes come out more, overall pleasant for a 4 year.

Taste: Corn forward, spearmint again, a bit of a yeastiness (think Jim Beam) on the mid-palate, a little clove on the finish.

BBB Rating: 2.5 Barrels. This is a bourbon that doesn’t have anything glaringly wrong with it, but also isn’t extremely interesting. I found myself comparing it a lot to Kentucky Tavern BIB, wishing it had more of KT’s punch and character. I really wish the proof were higher, but at it’s current proof, I can’t say I’d recommend spending $35 on it when so many good 4 year whiskies exist around $15. I’m glad to see it back but won’t be keeping a bottle on hand.

I.W. Harper 15-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Cavenagh 15yr HarperPhoto courtesy of Taylor Strategy

Distilled by: This one is all Bernheim, and they state it officially. Again “most recently aged” at Stitzel Weller.

Age: 15 Years

Proof: 86

Mash Bill: 86% Corn, 6% Rye, 8% Barley (not a typo, it’s THAT much corn)

MSRP: $74.99 and will be a limited release, likely once this year and once next year

Nose: Very sweet, candied nuts, slightly astringent, barrel notes come out more as the bourbon sits.

Taste: Circus peanuts (these if you don’t know what that is), lots of candy notes, berries/red fruits, new oak, a much lighter profile and finish than I would have expected, most likely due to the high corn content.

BBB Rating: 3+ Barrels. This is a good bourbon. If you know our scale, 3 means we like it. I wish, really wish, this had been higher proof. Something is lost in the lower alcohol content. This one gets much better the longer you let it sit, hence the + on the end of the rating. I was very content to sit and sip this, but don’t think I would rush out for a bottle at that price point. Granted, it’s pretty hard to sell a 15 year old product for much cheaper these days. I would recommend trying it in a bar before you buy. Very pleasant, but lacks that punch that makes you remember it.

Until next time, cheers!