Friday, August 17, 2012

Thomas H Handy Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey

If you can read that label, you'll see that this baby comes in at a powerful 128.6 proof.  Not that I have to explain myself to anyone, but the bottle is almost empty not because I drank it all, but because I have just rebottled some of my stock (see this link for my post about rebottling).  In any case, I apologize in advance that Urban Grain has become a string of whisky reviews of late, just seems to have happened that way. 

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye is part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection that comes out each fall, this one is from 2011.  I was able to get this from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, of all places, for $60, a great value.  In general the Antique Collection bottles are a bit hard to come by, but they are out there.  I believe this whisky is an uncut and unfiltered version of their "baby Saz," a 6 year rye that you can find for about $30. 

Color-For such a high proof I'd expect a darker whisky.  This one is straw/gold in color.

Nose-Nose this one too quickly and you wreck your senses in a hurry.  What comes to my mind is the cinnamon part of a sticky bun, coated in vanilla icing.  Rich and sweet, yet sharp and spicy. 

Taste-I am trying this with no water.  I wouldn't recommend drinking too much high proof whisky with no water, but they bottled it that way so you could try it that way.  The taste is an onslaught.  Again, cinnamon and vanilla, here with some oak in the background.  Like a slice of rye bread with butter and honey.  The alcohol burns through the whole palate into the finish.  But it still maintains a certain softness and pretty full mouthfeel despite the sharpness.

Value-I think the $60-75 price range is fair for the higher end Buffalo Trace products.  They are unique, and their high proof is bang for the buck.

Intangible-I used this in a Manhattan once and it was maybe the best Manhattan I've ever had.  I love the Antique Collection, but I don't love how hard it is to come by.  I think this year I will hunt for Stagg again.  Of the 5 entries in the collection, I think Stagg is generally the most special.  But the W.L. Weller gives it a run for it's money.  Both of the ryes are fantastic but I don't know if they are quite on the level as the other two.  I've never had the Eagle Rare 17, though it's probably the easiest to find. 

Jim Murray's review of the nose says the following, "Any crisper and the glass would shatter: hard as a diamond rye, but oh! so much more of a rare and valuable gem! Rye concentrate."  Then he reprints that description for taste, finish, and balance verbatim.  "I think you may have got the idea," he says.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Collingwood Canadian Whisky: Toasted Maplewood Mellowed

Canadian whisky is, to many, the least exciting major whisky region in the world.  When you think of Canadian whisky, you think of "CC" Manhattans and bottom shelf booze.  Also, I've been burned by boutique Canadian whisky before.  But I read an article by Davin De Kergommeaux in the latest Whisky Advocate mag about how Canadian whisky is good for summer due to its generally lighter profile.  The article points out that despite the trends of specialty bourbons and single malts, "tanker truck after tanker truck filled to the brim with Canadian whisky streams, seemingly unnoticed, from Canadian distilleries into the U.S."  Popular doesn't equal good, but still.  I had been eyeing up this bottle for a while now, and the article pushed me over the top.  It doesn't hurt that it's produced by Brown Forman, makers of Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve.  They know their way around brown liquor. 

Disclaimer: the following description of the process is paraphrased from  The spirit is first triple distilled in copper column stills at the Canadian Mist Distillery (Apparently, Canadian Mist makes two spirit bases, one with Ontario corn and western barley, and one rye based).  The recipes are aged and eventually blended.  When the final result is married in stainless steel, toasted maplewood staves are added to the vats to mellow the whisky a bit further.  This is not unfamiliar territory, as Tennessee whiskies have long been mellowing their product using maple.  It's new to Candian whisky, though it makes sense, as they have plenty of maple up there.  Chris Morris, master distiller for Brown Forman, also recently put out a limited edition maplewood edition of Woodford.  But enough with the backstory.  FYI this whisky is 80 proof.  Let's give it a go.

Color: Light, due in part to the proof, I'm sure.  I'd like to learn more about how mashbills affect color, as well, but not tonight.

Nose: Hmm, a bit astringent.  I get some fruit, like pears.  No noticeable maple.

Taste: The first thing I notice is a pretty rich mouthfeel on this one.  I'd say that's pretty rare on a $25 bottle.  The pear is there in the taste, too.  It's pretty sweet, not in a bad way.  Like maple syrup.  This may satisfy your sweet tooth.

Finish: No joke despite the low proof.  Mellow, yes, but just enough burn to make its presence known.

Value: Solid.  I would recommended this as a low risk change up to your usual lineup.   

Intangible: The first Canadian I've had that I really liked.  I wonder if I gave Forty Creek, a craft Canadian whisky, a raw deal?  Maybe my palate was too accustomed to a certain flavor profile and I am more open minded now.  Then again, no one at the whisky part liked it...Some folks online say the Collingwood bottle looks like dad's aftershave, but I think it's quite handsome.  Takes up some shelf space, though.

Here's the brief description from, for the record: "Dark fruits, Concord grapes, roses and spring flowers with a rich and creamy mouthfeel. Split cherry firewood with earthy rye and tingling hot pepper. Floral & Fragrant." 

I don't know about all that, but it was pretty decent stuff.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ancient Age Taste Off

When I was in North Carolina, I stopped in their state controlled liquor store.  I had hoped to do some real dusty hunting at liquor stores on the way down, but it wasn't meant to be, I'd have to settle for whatever the fine state of NC had to offer.  Most of the mid and higher shelf products, in both scotch and bourbon, were the usual suspects, nothing I couldn't find up here.  Invariably, however, the bottom shelf looks different from state to state.  All of the major bourbon distillers make 1-3 primary recipes, and age, proof, and package them all to have their own identity.  Thus, Benchmark is the same juice as Buffalo Trace, which is the same juice as Blanton's, George T. Stagg, and so forth.  The nice thing about this store was that they had a bunch of cheapos in pints, so I was able to get a few different ones to try for not a lot of coin. 

In addition to the two Ancient Age labels I picked up, I bought a handle of TW Samuels 100 proof bottled in bond, by Heaven Hill.  You might recognize the Samuels name as a famous one in the bourbon business, as they are the family that started Maker's Mark in the middle of last century.  The label is pretty funny, see if you can read the quotes:

I guess I should have known from a bottle with a "built in pourer" that the stuff inside was not likely to be good.  It wasn't.  But you never know, I've had some good cheap whiskies.

I digress, let's taste.  These Ancient Age whiskies pictured at the top are from Buffalo Trace.  The one on the left is 80 proof and aged "thirty six months."  The one on the right 90 proof and called "10 Star."  Who knows what that means, it has no age statement.  Interestingly, the 80 proof version states that it is made by Buffalo Trace, while the 10 Star says it's made by Ancient Age Distillery.  Each costs about 5 bucks.

Color:  Both are very, very light in color, like straw.  The 90 proof has a slightly richer tinge. 

Nose: The 80 proof is very corny, light, and sweet smelling.  The 10 Star has a bit more interest, with some cinnamon and spice.  I don't think it's the higher proof alone, this one must be a bit older.  I just did a quick Google it seems this one is 6 years old.  My nose didn't lie.

Taste: The 80 proof is hard to describe.  It tastes simultaneously good and harsh.  There is flavor there, some vanilla, some fruitiness, but buried under a certain unpleasantness.  Maybe it's too young, or it's a bad "cut."  The 10 Star is leaps and bounds better.  It has the cinnamon spice that was on the nose, and a bit of vanilla pudding.  It has the character of Buffalo Trace, but more like Benchmark in terms of overall quality, in my opinion.  I wrote this post while tasting and a few nights later had the 80 proof again.  It might satisfy a sweet tooth.  Not so bad.

Finish: As you might expect, the 10 Star wins here, with a higher proof and more barrel, it lingers a bit. It has a similar fade to Benchmark, mostly pleasant, on the top of your mouth.  The 80 proof doesn't stick around too long.  Maybe that's a good thing? 

Value: Clearly the 10 Star is the better value, it was pennies more, at least in North Carolina.  I don't think either of these whiskies are particularly bad, but not that good, either.   I'd probably grab Evan Williams Black Label or try something else before going back to either of these.  Jim Murray rates the 10 Star 91.5, that's pretty high for him.  I'm not sure I was that taken with it, but the fact that some connoiseurs regard it that well does speak to it's value.

Intangible: Buffalo Trace puts out great products from the top to the bottom.  Remember my Dad's Hat review recently?  Buffalo Trace's crappiest stock is 3X older than these new upstarts.  It will take a while for craft distillers to make a major impact, as, unlike beer, whisky requires years to truly shine.  What a luxury to have rows and rows of warehouses to dump whisky from.  I can imagine the folks down in Frankfort now, "This barrel is not fit for our flagship Buffalo Trace.  It's okay, let's just dump it into the next Benchmark batch, sell it for a few bucks and still make a profit."