An Afternoon at St. Augustine Distillery

It took me far too long to get there, but I finally paid a visit to the St. Augustine Distillery in, surprise, St. Augustine, Florida. Purported to be the first bourbon distilled, aged, and bottled in Florida, it seems almost too fortuitous that they waited for me to move to Florida to put some in a bottle. I started my afternoon with the free tour available to everyone before having a great sit down conversation with the CEO, Philip McDaniel, so we’ll start there.

The first thing you notice about the distillery is the amazing location. The whole operation, aside from some aging facilities, resides in the first commercial ice plant in the state of Florida. Opened in 1917, this was a crucial service providing the seafood and produce industries with ice need to ship their wares across the southeast. The building itself has a very appealing historic look and the restoration fits right in with that aesthetic. The waiting room has a series of informational displays about the history of the building as well as a great deal of space devoted to their relationships with local farmers. They clearly pride themselves on using anything they can from local, small famers, and utilize small businesses when they have to go outside of Florida.

After a brief wait, we were escorted into a video presentation room. Oh great, another video. I waited with baited breath for the Florida equivalent of the disappearing Indian in Buffalo Trace’s epically sappy intro. Oh glorious day, they didn’t actually show a video! Instead a very cheerful tour guide gave some history and introduced us as “workers”, complete with workplace safety rules. The company takes a great deal of pride in the creation of jobs in the area, so this was actually a nice touch. What came next was interesting. The crowd cheered at every mention of alcohol, and was significantly more interested in ethanol itself rather than the forms it came in. Being used to the Bourbon Trail, I have come to expect throngs of whiskey nerds wanting to drink every last drop of knowledge they can about differences in distillation, mash bills, aging practices, and the like. This crowd was obviously here to drink. And the more I paid attention, reminded me more of a cruise ship shore expedition than whiskey travelers.

The tour itself was remarkably brief with little detail, but this is exactly what the crowd wanted. These were tourists who happened to come to a distillery. In a move of pure genius by St. Augustine, the tour was about 15 minutes of going through the facility and then another 20 minutes of instruction on how to mix cocktails with their various spirits, complete with a taste of each. Samples of the straight spirits were never served. By the end of the tour, you got to try 4 cocktails, all of which had branded mixers available for sale so you can do it at home. As much as it pained me to try 3 cocktails made with clear spirits, I played along, and you know what, they weren’t bad. I found out later that they have a nearly 50% conversion rate to sales from the tour, which is remarkable. They’ve figured out their audience and played directly to it; I can’t argue with that.

It was at this point I broke away from the tour and went to talk with Philip, the co-founder and CEO. His passion for supporting the local community was instantly apparent, and this permeates every aspect of the operation. The building itself had been completely run down, and he worked with a group of local families who wanted to restore it and bring additional jobs to the area. They work with Florida farmers and companies whenever possible, and when sourcing other materials, such as barrels, they choose companies which are independently owned, like Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville. Everything they use is produced entirely in the United States, even the bottles. They have an interesting zero waste water system in production that recycles the water within their steam heating system. Sustainability, a focus on the local community, and job creation are the pillars of their operation.

The bourbon itself is interesting in many ways. Philip says he was inspired by Stranhan’s in Colorado and Maker’s Mark, and he wanted to create a spirit somewhere in the middle. This resulted in the first high barley bourbon recipe I have ever seen: 60% corn, 22% barley, and 18% red winter wheat. The barreling process was also unique, and partly due to unexpected results. The Double Barrel bourbon was originally in a 25 gallon barrel for 16-18 months. Soon it became clear that the small barrel and the Florida heat were making what would become black barrel tea. With advice from Dave Pickerell, formerly of Maker’s Mark, they put the young bourbon into used 53 gallon barrels for about another year. While technically this sounds to me like a bourbon barrel finished bourbon, Philip was confident that using the younger age statement makes the labeling correct. We here at BOTB are sticklers for semantics in bourbon, so for now we’ll just agree to disagree. The bourbon is not chill filtered. Cheers to that as we happen to love non-filtered bourbons.

The process of getting here was not easy for Philip and his crew. Initially he was not allowed to serve samples of any kind, and there was a limit on sales of two bottles per customer, per year, per label. To fix the first issue, he helped start the Florida Distillers Guild and campaigned to allow for the serving of samples. To solve the sales issue, he created 3 different labels for each type of spirit they distill. Genius. Stick it to the man.

You may have realized by now that I haven’t talked much about how the bourbon actually tastes, and I’m not going to say a whole lot here. We’ll taste it on the upcoming cast for those of you that are dying to hear more. Briefly, it has nice cinnamon/clove notes but tastes young and somewhat scotchy/irish whiskey-y (that’s definitely not a word) from the high barley. I’m not a big fan of young bourbons or barley based spirits, so this on isn’t on my favorites list, but may hit the spot for some Crusaders. That said, I still want you to buy something from St. Augustine, be it the bourbon for cocktails, or perhaps the gin, which is phenomenal. Off the still at 160 proof the gin was unbelievably epic, and I would buy that all day. I want you to buy something to support what these guys are doing with the knowledge that their goal is a quality brown spirit and they are bound-damn-determined to make one. They have the motivation, the sense to seek out experts to help with what they don’t yet know, and are committed to bettering their community. Think of it kind of like a Kickstarter contribution, but one where you actually get to purchase an existing product that you can make a tasty cocktail with. If you can find the port finished bourbon, that one is actually darn tasty. One that I haven’t yet been able to get my hands on a bottle of unfortunately.

If you’re in the area definitely stop by and see for yourself, the difference in experience from the Bourbon Trail is worth the (free) price of admission by itself. And make sure to check out the Ice Plant next door to get some of their spirits in a carefully crafted cocktail. We didn’t have time on this trip, but will definitely put that on our docket next time we’re down. Cheers to you Philip for an excellent afternoon and your efforts to spread the bourbon gospel to Florida. We at BOTB salute you!

As a bonus, here’s my recipe for making an Old Fashioned with St. Augustine Double Cask Bourbon:

2 oz Double Cask Bourbon

Half-dropper Beehive Spiced Orange Bitters

Splash of Water

Slice of orange

2 tsp Brown sugar

Muddle the orange slice (sans peel) with brown sugar, bitters, splash of water and splash of bourbon. Top with remainder of bourbon and stir. Add ice and stir to chill. I serve mine on the rocks with a flamed orange peel and homemade maraschino-ish cherry.

Around the Barrel #6

So we have risen like the proverbial phoenix and are back with a podcast just for you, our loyal Crusaders. A little something to brighten your Friday commute. On this cast we do a tasting of some fantastic Knobs…(Knob Creek Single Barrels) and talk about some of the happenings since we last recorded. We hope you enjoy and that we come back with full force, fist shaking bourbon entertainment! Cheers!

Darren and Chris

Downloadable link: Around the Barrel #6

Review: The Hilhaven Lodge Blended Whiskey!

Well, bourbon and whiskey in general are the bee’s knees today. Everyone wants to try their hand at it. Rush Hour, Rush Hour 2, and Rush Hour 3 director Brett Ratner is no exception. After buying the Hilhaven Lodge, an exclusive home in Beverly Hills which has been owned by many a star of the silver screen, he shortly thereafter decided he wanted a whiskey to go with it. Which is never a bad idea, except for maybe driving a car.

The Hilhaven Lodge’s marketing firm reached out to us to see if we were interested in trying a sample. THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS “YES!” Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?! As we often joke, our favorite bourbon/whiskey is whatever you’re buying.

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Interestingly, The Hilhaven Lodge was sent a cease and desist letter from none other than Heaven Hill, claiming that there would be confusion in customers’ minds regarding mixing up the two names. Ratner then sued to end the trademark dispute, which apparently was successful, as we now have The Heaven Hill, err, the Hilhaven Lodge whiskey on the shelves in several US markets. For a fuller dish, see this article from the Hollywood Reporter. That was all back in early 2015. Fastforward a year and a half and through one crazy presidential election, and here we are, tasting and reviewing it for our wonderful listeners and readers!

Bottling: Elegant with a wood cork. Attention to detail matters, and the bottle looks slick.

Mash bill: Unknown. It is a blend of three whiskeys: a bourbon, a Tenneessee whiskey, and a rye whiskey. The ratio is also unknown.
Bottled at 80 proof.

Color: Straw-Honey, light color

Nose:

Darren: Young, corn with definite hints of rye. No strong scents.

Chris: Sweet notes of salt water taffy, butterscotch, and red fruit. Some corn/grain. Mostly light sweetness.

Palate:

Darren: Light. Light bodied. Less overpowering corn than comparable young-aged bourbons (likely rye influence). Very slightly astringent on the very back.

Chris: Thin all across the palate. Sweet, red fruits from the nose come forward more. Still some salt water taffy like candy. Some barley-like flavor, reminiscent of an Irish whiskey. More alcohol than would be expected at the proof. Reminds me of a thinner and less complicated version of Michter’s American Whiskey.

Rating:

Darren: 1.5 barrels.

Chris: 1.5 barrels.

Impression: It’s very drinkable, and nothing outright unpleasant about it. A higher proof would likely have helped a lot. The inclusion of a rye in the blend makes it better than most young bourbons/whiskeys. There is a market for this style of whiskey, but it isn’t us, as we tend to be biased toward higher proofs. Maybe this will give bartenders something other than Mellow Corn to ironically rave about for the time being.

Cheers!
-Chris and Darren

Booker’s 2016-05 “Off Your Rocker” and “The Big Man of Jim Beam”

It’s a great feeling to like something, then liking it even more as time goes by, till, eventually, it’s love. Over the last two to three years, but especially 2015 and 2016, my interest in, and appreciation for, Booker’s has done just that: turned into love. Named for the previous Master Distiller at Jim Beam, Booker Noe, Booker’s can easily be recognized from afar in part thanks to the wooden box the bottle comes in. The box may be a sales gimmick, but the contents are anything but. Like the Big Man himself, there’s nothing small about Booker’s: packed with flavor, packing a punch, and always a hit at parties. As Fred Noe, Booker’s son and current Master Distiller, told us one cold February day, “if you’re drinking Booker’s, you better have your pajamas on.”

Those of you familiar with Fred Noe know he’s quite the raconteur, and a genuinely friendly well-loved guy. He apparently got a lot of it from his father. In order to preserve and spread the story of Booker, author Jim Kokoris penned the book “The Big Man of Jim Beam,” the story of Booker Noe and the Number One Bourbon in the World.

Jim Beam and their associated marketing team reached out to us recently and provided us with a gift box containing nothing less than pure gold. Well, it may as well have been: it contained a bottle of Booker’s 2016-05 Off Your Rocker and a copy of the aforementioned book, as well as a nice leather bookmark stating “Tasting Booker’s is like tasting the past.” – Booker Noe.

Like a six year old on Christmas, that box was torn into and the bottled opened in a flash! Off Your Rocker comes in at a blazing 129.7 proof at 6 years 7 months and 23 days in the barrel.

batch-5-ticket

Color: Deep amber.

Nose: Darren: (with splash of water) Caramel and vanilla dominate. Chris: Ethanol, Beam yeast, sweet corn, graham cracker 

Palate: Darren: Full bodied, oak, mint, subtler caramel and vanilla than the nose suggests, but still very accessible, orange rind. Very well balanced. It tastes like it should be the official bourbon of camping. Just a small splash of water is all that’s needed to fight the burn of the high proof.

Chris: Graham cracker, not much vanilla, real maple syrup, thinner than most Booker’s. Very characteristic Beam. Not the depth and character I’m used to in Booker’s. 

Guest taster Jason V: Cherries, caramel, mild oak, toffee notes, easy drinker.

Rating: Darren: Strong 3.5 barrels, pushing 4. Chris: 2.5 barrels.

Note: This is likely the most disparate review we’ve ever had. While Darren fell in love, Chris was put off the strong Beam yeast/grain profile that is usually far more subtle in Booker’s. Chris had been drinking mostly Big Man, Small Batch, and a bottle from the mid 2000’s recently, which may have skewed his results. Either way, Booker’s is always a solid bet and makes one hell of a Manhattan (we call it The Widowmaker). We just sincerely hope that the younger age and somewhat uncharacteristic notes of this bottle aren’t a harbinger of things to come as the bourbon boom continues.

The book itself is next in line on my stack. I can only read so many books at once! I’ve flipped through the pictures, though, as any American would. They give a nice glimpse into the personal life of Booker Noe, and really remind me of being back home in Kentucky with family and friends.

Let us know what you think of this batch of Booker’s!

Cheers!

Darren and Chris

Knob Creek Single Barrel Private Barrel Selection by Modern Thirst and the Party Source

One of the best parts of producing a bourbon podcast and blog is meeting other great people with the same interest and goals: good bourbon and getting the word out. We first met Bill and Matt of Modern Thirst a few years back through a mutual friend, and it’s always a fun time when we’re together at bourbon events, or even just on a buss…

Earlier in 2016, the guys from Modern Thirst teamed up with the Party Source to pick a barrel of Knob Creek Single Barrel, 120 proof. As this is generally one of our standard always-on-our-shelf at home bottles, we were excited to try this bottle. While Bottom of the Barrel isn’t primarily a review site, in fact we review as little as possible, we were happy to give our thoughts on this bottle.  Here’s what me and Chris have to say about this barrel pick:

Background: Barreled Halloween, 2006 at 126.1 proof, Floor 4/7 in Warehouse L, 9 years old(almost 10). Private barrel pick by Modern Thirst and the Party Source.

Nose: Caramel sweet bomb with high char notes, hints of apple, very faint bright floral note akin to a Four Roses; addition of water really brings out the citrus. Chocolate becomes more apparent after a few minutes of rest.

Taste: Sweet heavy oak and char front that recedes into pleasant vanilla and caramel, bitter orange, cloves, and lemon; addition of water oddly makes the alcohol much more noticeable with a slightly astringent orange-chocolate predominance, with a lessening of the caramel and vanilla while keeping the heavy oak and char backbone, water somewhat enhances the similarities to some OBSV Four Roses single barrels.

Rating: Strong 3.5/5 barrels. As much as we enjoy the usual Knob Creek Single Barrel 120 (long one of our favorites), this was a slight step above. Chris notes that for him, this is likely due to his enjoyment of sweet, caramel bombs tempered by citrus, not unlike an Ethiopian coffee.

Overall, this is a fantastic private barrel pick of what is always a great bottle. It’s well worth the ~$45 price tag. Get it before it’s gone, it’s spooky good!

Cheers,
Chris and Darren

The Great American Whiskey Fair 2016

Hello, fellow Bourbon Crusaders!

We’re back! After what has been a harrowing year in our private lives worthy of a soap opera, we are finally back in the saddle of bourbon writing  and pod casting for your pleasure and edification.

Once again, I was able to attend the Great American Whiskey Fair here in Columbia, SC on September 29, 2016. Having been the two years prior, I can honestly say that it gets better each year. It’s organised by the owner of a Cajun and Creole restaurant in Columbia appropriately named Bourbon, as well as a very nice Italian restaurant named Rosso Trattoria. The event is catered by Bourbon and included pulled pork, quail gumbo, and all the fixins with locally sourced quail from Manchester Farms.

With over 500 whiskies, one has to do a little…selective tasting. After attending many, many similar events, one learns to try the new and untasted, and forego tasting that bottle you love but have sitting at home. This will just give a little taste of what I felt were the highlights. Granted, this is the Great American Whiskey Fair, but as of last year, they started to allow whiskies from outside the United States, hence the Scotch and Irish whiskies being well represented.

As usual, the bad news first: Smooth Ambler is getting near depleted of all the Seagram’s stocks they purchased, so go ahead and buy up whatever Old Scout you can. Pretty soon, just like the rye, the bourbon won’t ever be available again. They will be replacing it first with an American whiskey (aged ~4 years) and eventually with a properly aged bourbon when they so deem it ready.

Now for some good news! Bellemeade Bourbon made from MGP distillate, a product of Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery outside Nashville, TN has been, of course, distilling their white dog for some years now. It’s not on the market just yet, but shortly, there will be a little side trip of mine to Charleston where a tasting of their not released bourbon as-of-yet will occur. Stay tuned for a review.

Another highlight of the night was sampling Bellemeade’s 9 year single barrel at 111.8 proof. This is of course still from their MGP juice, and it did not disappoint. I’ve long been a fan of regular Bellemeade, and this single barrel selection was a step above. It didn’t hurt that it was barrel proof as well. I’ll be on the lookout for this to hit shelves around here for sure.

Next up was Templeton Rye which is easy to get, and we’ve had it before, but they actually just started releasing a 6 year product, and at the same time added an age statement on their 4 year rye. In an age of dropping age statements, this is always welcome, despite age not necessaarily correlating with “better.” Templeton uses a proprietary mashbill from MGP, so it isn’t the normal 95/5 rye mashbill, and as with Pikesville Rye last year, these ryes with a scoop of corn in the mix are very pleasing.

Now for some more local South Carolina fun! Carolina Moon Distillery in Edgefield, SC, makes several whiskies and other products, among which are Ole Tom whiskey and Tally Ho bourbon. The Ole Tom is a 100% corn mashbill and is aged in used bourbon barrels. Rumor has it the used barrels might come from a distillery which buys a lot of red wax. Ole Tom has a strong but not overpowering corn whiskey taste, somewhat mellowed down by aging in the used bourbon barrels. Now, their Tally Ho offering is interesting. It’s aged just 1 year in new 15 or 30 gallon barrels, and has a 60% corn mashbill, and frankly, was one of the best 1 year aged bourbons I’ve tasted. In the category of year-old bourbons, I’d only put the Elijah Craig experience year-old sample from a few years back ahead of it. Interestingly, they source the smaller barrels from Blackwater Barrels in Bamberg, SC. We’ll be watching this company.

With that, it’s time for some interesting foreign whiskies and tid bits:

Teeling Irish Whiskey had several products for sample, among them their Small Batch and Single Malt varieties. The small batch was very pleasant and light, as most Irish whiskey tends to be. Now, the single malt was actually a bit too floral for my personal liking, but still very quality. A bottle of the small batch will soon be on my shelves, and if we can work out a time, a podcast with the distiller’s son is in the works.

The tasting ended for me with Johnnie Walker Blue, which I had never tried. It’s a blend of many whiskies, with a minimum age of 25 years. So good. So very good. So very expensive…which is why Black exists. Solid tasting blend of at least 12 year old whiskies for those who haven’t won the lottery.

As usual, there was a cocktail competition, wherein four South Carolina bartenders battled it out using ingredients from Angostura to chickoree liqueur and even a smoke gun… These seem usually like it’s more fun to watch than judge, as all the cocktails seem too complicated to be readily made without extensive planning and supplies. It would be fun to taste some, but that’s probably where it would end for me. Give me a well-made Manhattan any day. That being said, it takes quite a bit of knowledge and skill to come up with these complex creations and concoctions, so hats off to all the great bartenders out there. WE LOVE YOU. Of note, Eddie Russel of Wild Turkey fame was there for the second year running as one of the cocktail competition judges, and of course was available at the Wild Turkey station throughout the evening.

So that’s a quick and dirty look at some of the highlights from the Great American Whiskey Fair 2016. It’s not too early to start planning your trip to Columbia next Fall for 2017 which is sure to be even better.

Cheers,
Darren

The Grand Podcast

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Hello, Crusaders!

We had ourselves one helluva time this past week on the Rogue Buss and at the Bourbon Classic in Louisville, KY. We had the opportunity to record a cast with some of our favorite people, and we’re happy to share it with you! In it, we talk about some of our experiences during the week as well as our thoughts on some timely bourbon issues. I’ll link below to everyone involved, and we highly recommend you check them out. Special thanks to Mike Woods of Sips, Smokes, and Suds for providing his recording services! And don’t worry, we’ll be coming out with some posts about our personal experiences and pictures from the week, in particular Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., Copper & Kings, Four Roses, and Castle & Key, soon!

Cheers!

LISTEN HERE: The Grand Podcast

Bill and Matt – Modern Thirst

Ginny and Charlie Tonic – The Charlie Tonic Hour

Jonathan and Tamara – Eight Piece Box

Mike and Zane – Sips, Suds, and Smokes

Melissa – Bourbon and Banter

Special thanks to the Rogue Buss sponsor Four Roses and the Bourbon Classic!

P.S. We’ll tell you what a Rogue Buss is soon.