Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Lagavulin 16 Single Malt Scotch Review & Tasting Notes


Ashes to ashes... dust to dust. Fairly early in my Scotch journey, I was strictly a Speyside guy. Glenfiddich and Chivas are where I parked my palate, and I was happy. But, even at that young stage in my wanderings, I was very curious. I had an invitation to go to my first big whiskey event:  Whisky Extravaganza down in Miami.


As I started moving from table to table, opening up my eyes to more choices than I could shake a stick at, I got to the Lagavulin table. I asked a lot of questions, I held out my Glencairn glass, they poured Lagavulin 16, I sipped, and my palate was absolutely destroyed. I thought I licked the inside of a 1970's American car ashtray and followed it up with a charcoal briquette lozenge. Oh... it was hideous, and I stayed away from peated Scotches for awhile. 


Flash forward a bit and I was brave enough to give it another go.  I started off with some Highland options (Talisker was a favorite), and then dipped my toe into Islay, and quickly becoming a fan of Ardbeg. But, whenever Lagavulin was offered, I shied away because, well, that disgusting memory would cause my mouth to go dry and pucker. 


And then flash forward several more years until, at a local Scotch tasting, Lagavulin 16 was on the menu. My enemy. 


Unfortunately, I had two things against me:  I now have a public reputation and I was in a public venue with a lot of people who know me. And, those people expect me to #DrinkCurious and not turn anything down.  I very much have a love/hate relationship with that philosophy.


So, there was no getting out of this. I was stuck. A friend was pouring and he dumped that Islay devil in my Glencairn...


Ah, before I let the cat out of the bag, there is some product information that needs to be shared. Lagavulin 16 is a single malt that is bottled at 43% ABV.  It retails for about $88.99 and is part of the Diageo portfolio. The distillery itself was founded in 1816 and has a storied history. Before the Lagavulin distillery was built, there were many illegal distilleries built on the grounds. 


Appearance:  In my glass, Lagavulin 16 presented as a brassy, dusky amber. It generated a thin rim and offered long legs that raced back to the pool of liquid sunshine. 


Nose:  There was no mistaking the aroma: Peat, peat, and more peat. But, with a much more mature nose, I discovered beneath all that peat was brine and sweet caramel.  When I inhaled through my lips, it was all vanilla cream.


Palate:  My first sip was oily and coating, but not what I could describe as heavy. The first thing to strike my palate was, not surprisingly, peat and ash. Like my nose, my palate has matured and developed and I've grown to appreciate peat. And, the best description I can use to describe what I tasted was coffee ice cream. The coffee and vanilla were thick.  Below those, I found brine and seaweed.


Finish:  I found it was very long, smoky and oaky. But, punching through that was a tasty caramel, chocolate, and toffee mixture similar to a Heath bar.


Bottle, Bar or Bust:  As I've proven to myself time and time again, always come back to revisit things you don't like. And, don't have it take years for that to happen. I've made this mistake time and time again and I often wind up kicking myself for it.  Lagavulin 16 was godawful - years ago on my then very immature palate. That's all changed. I'm in love with this Islay devil and if you have a fondness for peat, I believe you will, too. This gets an easy Bottle rating. Cheers!




My Simple, Easy-to-Understand Rating System:
  • Bottle = Buy it
  • Bar = Try it first
  • Bust = Leave it 

Friday, May 22, 2020

Hey, I'm now a Certified Bourbon Steward!




Something I've wanted to do for a few years just happened. You can thank COVID-19 for my having time and opportunity to finally sit down and get this done. I'm now officially a Stave & Thief Society Certified Bourbon Steward


What, pray tell, is a Certified Bourbon Steward?  The program was developed in 2012 by Moonshine University "to promote and uphold Kentucky's distinguished Bourbon culture and to set the standard for the authentic Bourbon experience through premier training and education."


The course was fun, and even with my background, I walked away learning something new. I've discovered along the course of my life that no matter how much knowledge you have about something, there is almost always more to learn.


Strangely enough, the part of the exam that made me nervous was the flight creation, tasting notes, and justifying the reason for creating the flight. Let's get real, I plan out tasting flights for my whiskey workshops and I write whiskey reviews. It should have been a cinch, right? Yet, I'd never really been judged on my reasons why I put a flight together, and no one ever graded me on tasting notes. They're just something I do.


If you're curious, I decided to do a vertical flight of Evan Williams.  With all the Bourbons I have in my library, for whatever reason, those bottles screamed out at me.  The flight consisted of the Green, Black, White, and Red labels.   


I was very excited when I received the results a few days after the exam, particularly what I was stressed over:  

The focus a single-producer flight can have is stunning, and an eye-opening experience for some. In this instance, this flight resolves any question in your guest’s mind as to what happens in the barrel – the evidence is right in front of them. Good nosing & tasting notes, too – nicely done. 

There are additional classes offered and I'll be continuing my education.  If you're interested in learning more about the Stave & Thief Society, you can visit them at the Stave & Thief website.  I hope to see you as a fellow Steward, cheers!

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Chattanooga Whiskey Cask Strength Bourbon Review & Tasting Notes



Pardon me, boy.   
Is that the Chattanooga choo choo?   
Yes yes track twenty-nine.   
Boy, you can gimme a shine.   
Can you afford  
to board the Chattanooga choo choo?   
I've got my fare,   
and just a trifle to spare.



I'm not here to sing the accolades of a train, but I am reviewing a whiskey from Chattanooga. In fact, that's the name. Chattanooga Whiskey.  This would be their cask strength Bourbon.


According to their website, Chattanooga Whiskey has a short, but interesting history. Once Prohibition was rescinded, Tennessee only allowed three counties to legally distill whiskey. The rest of the state was dry. Then, in 2009, the state voted to allow 41 additional counties to distill. Except, Chattanooga was not in one of those counties. In 2011, the Chattanooga Whiskey brand was founded, and they contracted with MGP to provide them with distilled spirits. Two years later, Chattanooga was finally able to legally distill. They opened the Chattanooga Whiskey Experimental Distillery, and then, their Riverfront Distillery.


The cask strength is a four-grain Bourbon, with three of those grains consisting of different malts.  They call it a Tennessee High Malt Bourbon.  The mash is yellow corn, malted rye, caramel malted barley, and honey malted barley. It aged two years and was made in small batches from between eight and twelve barrels.  Today, I'm reviewing Batch 19G19R, which is unfiltered, bottled at 111° and retails for about $44.99.


In my Glencairn glass, Chattanooga appears as a burnt orange amber. It left a thin rim on the wall that led to thin legs. Those legs raced back to the pool of liquid sunshine.


Aromas of caramel and chocolate hit me hard, and underneath that was fruitcake. Not the crummy one that gets passed along year after year with no one ever enjoying it, but the good kind, the one soaked in alcohol, the one that everyone digs into.  When I inhaled through my lips, it was a mixture of honey and caramel.


When the liquid passed my lips, it was a very thin mouthfeel. My first thought was, This is 111 proof?  At the front of my palate, it was as if I stuffed a Bit O' Honey in my mouth. That was soon followed by a train of dark chocolate, vanilla, and cherries. Then, on the back, I tasted toasted oak and a pleasant smokiness. The finish was a very, very long ride down the tracks with white pepper. 


Bottle, Bar or Bust:  Chattanooga is a two-year-old Bourbon that is far more mellow than you'd expect. My guess is that it had something to do with the various malts.  This was a very unique pour and interesting would be an unfair description. When you combine that with the low price, especially considering it is barrel proof, it becomes more and more attractive. I enjoyed drinking this, and I believe you will, too. As such, it takes my coveted Bottle rating.  Cheers!




My Simple, Easy-to-Understand Rating System:

  • Bottle = Buy it
  • Bar = Try it first
  • Bust = Leave it 

Friday, May 15, 2020

Luca Mariano Old Americana Bourbon Review & Tasting Notes



When you distill in your garage, you have some hurdles to overcome. Particularly legal ones. When Francesco Viola, a first-generation Italian-American, started distilling on his own, he had to cease and desist. Yeah, he found out what he was doing was not legal when his neighbor pointed it out, and then, when he didn't believe his neighbor, he talked to his lawyer. That was the end of his garage distilling operation.


Francesco then decided to do things legally and set up shop with Wilderness Trail Distillery in Danville, Kentucky on a contract-distilling basis. His backstory is his recipe is a blend of his grandfather's and modern-day methods of distilling spirits. One of Francesco's goals was to provide a whiskey that people could afford and buy repeatedly. He calls his whiskey Luca Mariano Old Americana Kentucky Straight Bourbon, which is named after his son, Luca Mariano, who, incidentally, is named after Francesco's grandfather, Mariano.


If you visit their website, the tagline states it is a Family-Selected Premium Whiskey. It is "Born in Italy and perfected in Kentucky." Of course, Bourbon is not born in Italy. But, it is a backstory that fits the image he wants to portray.


While the percentages of the mash are undisclosed, it is a Bourbon distilled from corn, rye and malted barley that is aged at least four years.  Once it is dumped, it is blended in small batches and then diluted to 83°. Luca Mariano retails for $44.99.  The batch I tried was 2019-03.


How does Luca Mariano taste? The only way to find out is to #DrinkCurious.


In my Glencairn glass, Luca Mariano appeared as a chardonnay color.  It left a medium rim and created medium legs that dropped slowly back to the pool of liquid sunshine.


An aroma of sweet corn greeted my nostrils. Underneath was light oak, apple, and grass.  Beneath the grass was an astringent quality.  When I inhaled through my mouth, it was a mixture of sweet corn and smoke.


The mouthfeel was very thin. The palate itself was as well.  Corn was prevalent, and at mid-palate, that astringent quality returned. It was followed by mint and char. All of that led to a thankfully short finish of black pepper and smoked oak.


Bottle, Bar, or Bust:  I understand the need to maximize cash flow, especially when you're first starting out. Even with contract distilling, things get very expensive very quickly. One way to do that is, aside from making vodka and gin, is to lower the proof as mild as possible while still retaining character. While I don't know what different proofs were tested before arriving at 83°, this was not the right choice, at least not for this particular batch. As I said in the notes above, the palate was thin. I've had 80-proofers that perform well, it can be done.  While I always want to see start-ups succeed, unfortunately, Luca Americana one needs a lot of tweaking and rework before it gets a positive recommendation from me. This one is a Bust.  Cheers!



My Simple, Easy-to-Understand Rating System:

  • Bottle = Buy it
  • Bar = Try it first
  • Bust = Leave it 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Belfour Rye Whiskey Review & Tasting Notes


These days, it seems like every celebrity has his or her own distilled spirit. Whether they are recording artists, actors, or athletes, the name attached to the spirit is meant to convey quality or exclusivity. And, they almost always command a celebrity price tag.


Today I'm reviewing Belfour Spirits Rye Whiskey. If you're a hockey fan, you know who Ed Belfour is. He is "Eddie the Eagle," the NHL Hall of Famer and one of only two players who has won the trifecta:  The Stanley Cup, The NCAA Championship and an Olympic Gold Medal. Well, these days Belfour is the President and CEO of Belfour Spirits in Dallas, Texas.


If you peruse its website, you can view a brief backstory that starts with Grandma and Granpa Belfour who were 1930s moonshiners in Saskatchewan, Canada. I have no idea if it is true or not, but I'll take it at face value. Ed purchased his first still in 2014, and his son, Dayn, learned distilling at Woody Creek Distillers in Basalt, Colorado. Ed is described as an active CEO and is involved, amongst other things, selecting the barrels. 


Belfour Springs rents distilling time and space from Southern Distilling in Statesville, North Carolina. The Rye is from a mash of 70% rye, 20% corn and 10% malted barley. It is aged for at least 18 months in new, charred oak and bottled at 94°. Speaking of the bottle, it is absolutely gorgeous. It reminds me a lot of the IW Harper 15 bottle. It is something you'd want to keep as a decorative decanter when the whiskey is gone.


Distribution is currently limited to Texas and Illinois. The plan is to release six additional states (as well as Canada) each year.


As stated earlier, one of the things that celebrity spirits all seem to have in common is a celebrity price tag.  Belfour Rye is no different. A 750ml will run about $89.00. That's very steep for an 18-month whiskey. The big question becomes, does it light the lamp? The only way to know for sure is to face off and #DrinkCurious.


In my Glencairn glass, Belfour Rye presented as a rich, caramel color. It created a thin rim that led to slow, very fat droplets. Those droplets just stuck to the wall and didn't really drop back down.


A mix of sawdust and molasses greeted my nose. That was followed by floral rye. Finally, I found mint and fresh coffee. When I inhaled through my lips, I tasted bread. It was even thick and chewy, something very strange as a flavor but that's about the best descriptor that made sense.


The mouthfeel was thick and creamy. The more I sipped, the thicker and heavier it became. On the front of the palate, the sole note was cocoa. At mid-palate, it became a blend of cereal and caramel. Then, on the back, I tasted rye spice and mocha. There wasn't a lot going on.


Perhaps the most complex part of this whiskey was the finish. It was long, building, and warming. Oak was the first thing picked up. A blast of black pepper followed. Then, the spiciness of ginger came into play. And, once I thought everything was done and over with, coffee muted with a bit of creamer.


Bottle, Bar or Bust:  Belfour Rye is easy to sip and there is no body-checking of the palate. It has an interesting finish. But, I'm hung up on the $89 price tag. I've tasted many, many whiskeys presenting similar quality for half the price (or even less).  Granted, none of them have as beautiful a package as Belfour Rye, but that's not something I consider when selecting a whiskey.


Rating this as a Bust would be unfair despite the hefty expense. This isn't a bender by any means.  Belfour Rye would be much more interesting with a few years added to it to bring out more flavor. Conversely, it could be more complex at, say, 100° instead of 94°. Regardless, there is potential here.


If you're a big sports fan, I could picture a strong desire to grab a bottle, especially as a first release. I'm going to rate this a Bar, which is exactly where I think you should try this before seriously considering a purchase.  Cheers!



My Simple, Easy-to-Understand Rating System:

  • Bottle = Buy it
  • Bar = Try it first
  • Bust = Leave it 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Iowa Legendary Rye Red Label Review



Iowa has a rich bootlegging history. Unlike many of the moonshiners of long ago, who distilled (and distributed) in secret, in Iowa, particularly around Carroll County, the local economy depended heavily on it and entire towns were in on the operation.  Oh, it was still illegal as hell, but when the revenuers came, the whole town was in on making sure there was denial, deflection, and distraction. It went from the moonshiners to the pastors and from the police to judges. Everyone was in on the game.


Recently I was in Carroll and had an opportunity to meet with the folks at Iowa Legendary Rye and was shown around by Rich, Alec, and Max. There were a lot of things said to me in confidence that I promised I would not publish and you know what my integrity means to me. In other words, if I'm not talking about it, don't ask because I won't tell. And, if you don't see a photo of it, it is because I agreed not to photograph it. Nothing illegal, just trade secrets.


Speaking of illegal, this recipe goes back to 1931 and unlike many backstories that are just tall-tales, Rich is the real deal. Things with Iowa Legendary Rye went legal in 2014.




The distillery is located in a nondescript one-story building in downtown Carroll.  You could drive right by the place (I did) and not even know the building housed a distillery. This is a true micro-distilling operation. Iowa Legendary Rye prefers to use the term small batch which is descriptive but as many whiskey people know, the term has no legal definition. Micro-distillery is much more accurate.


Ingenuity is key at Iowa Legendary Rye.  Handmade tooling, home-made stills, and a ton of growing-up-in-the-moonshine-business things are how it is done. I saw stuff that distilleries have spent tens of thousands of dollars on that Rich, the guy who has been doing this since he was a kid, spends $20 on parts from the local hardware store and it works just as well, if not better. I found myself laughing - not at them - but just in jaw-dropping shock with what they're doing compared to what I'm used to seeing. 





It starts off with the grain. Everything except the barrels and bottles come from Carroll County. They're using 100% organic rye and a bit of cane sugar.  There are no enzymes used at all. The rye is then ground and then fermented in 53-gallon, food-grade plastic barrels. They're distilling about 50 or so gallons a day.




First, there is their white whiskey. It is proofed down to 80° and this is the base for everything Iowa Legendary Rye puts out, including the vodka. For what it is worth, I tried both.  The white whiskey lacks any heat and goes down way too easy. The vodka is distilled twice and then charcoal-filtered (using one of those $20 contraptions I mentioned earlier). It is fruity with grape, melon, and berry - something that I don't run across often in vodka.


Everything is aged in 15-gallon, #5 charred oak barrels. That's right, #5 char. Those barrels are aged between 18 and 24 months before being bottled on-site using a very small, hand-bottling machine.  I got to visit the equally non-descript rickhouse.




Iowa Legendary Rye makes three finished whiskeys:  Black Label (their standard Aged Rye), Red Label (called Private Reserve, which I will review), and Patriot, which is a limited-edition, twice-distilled, twice-aged barrel proof Rye.


I want to thank Rich, Alec, and Max for both the private tour and the sample for a no-strings-attached, honest review of the Private Reserve.


Private Reserve is essentially Aged Rye that is then aged a second time in used cooperage.  Retail is about $69.00 and it, like everything else (except Patriot) is bottled at 80°.  Is an 80° Rye that many people have never heard of worth $69.00?  The way we find out is to #DrinkCurious.  For the record, I'm pouring Batch 44.


In my Glencairn glass, Private Reserve appeared as the color of chardonnay. It left a very heavy rim that created medium-fat legs to drop back to the pool. 


Even before the glass got anywhere near my face, the aroma of buttered popcorn was in the air. Coming closer, brown sugar joined the game. I discovered a slight evergreen (not to be confused with juniper) quality, and then vanilla cream. When I inhaled through my lips, a flavor I'm fairly certain I've never used in a whiskey review before: buttermilk.


A thin but coating mouthfeel greeted my palate. There was no burn factor whatsoever. At the front, I picked up caramel and (again) buttered popcorn. Come mid-palate, those flavors melted into both vanilla and chocolate. Then, on the back, a healthy dose of rye spice and tobacco leaf, with just a touch of coconut.


The long finish of charred oak, cocoa, and black pepper built fast without becoming overwhelming. I did discover that my hard-palate started to tingle, perhaps because I was casually sipping without long pauses in between.


Bottle, Bar or Bust:  The question I asked earlier was, Is an 80° Rye that many people have never heard of worth $69.00?  This, like the white whiskey, went down way too easy. It has an enticing nose, and while it had some familiar rye notes on the back and finish, the front- and mid-palates were on the unusual side for Rye, especially the buttered popcorn. This is something I could sit on my zero-gravity chair on my deck and smile while drinking. And, it may even be a bit dangerous due to how easy it is to enjoy. 


$69.00 is on the pricey side for true craft whiskey and for that, it needs to do something different. Iowa Legendary Rye accomplishes that task and does it in a great way. As such, it snags my coveted Bottle rating. 


On a parting note, I'm learning that Rye and used cooperage make an excellent combination - not just Iowa Legendary Rye but other brands as well.  Cheers!






My Simple, Easy-to-Understand Rating System:

  • Bottle = Buy it
  • Bar = Try it first
  • Bust = Leave it 

Monday, May 4, 2020

AD Laws Henry Road Bonded Malt Whiskey Review and Tasting Notes




American Malt Whiskey is the future.  Oh, I don't have a crystal ball or anything. But, I do see the segment growing by leaps and bounds. Several years ago, I might have told you American Malt was an unmitigated disaster. But, as of late, this category has matured and I've really enjoyed a lot of what I've tasted.




When Laws Whiskey House approached me with their Henry Road Bonded Malt Whiskey, I was absolutely intrigued. First of all, it was Bottled-in-Bond. With me, that's an attention-getter. If you are unfamiliar with Bottled-in-Bond, it has some simple rules:  It must be a product of the United States. It must be from a single distilling season (January to June or July to December), distilled by a single distiller at a single distillery. It must be aged at least four years in a government bonded warehouse. It must be bottled at 100°, no more, no less. Finally, the label must state where it was distilled and, if bottled elsewhere, who bottled it.





Second of all, I've found Colorado Single Malts to be very hit-or-miss. I've not had an American Malt from Laws before and was curious how they'd handle it.





Laws' goal was to have a "terroir-driven, unapologetic whiskey." To accomplish that, it uses a mash of 100% heirloom malted barley from Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa. The grain is grown along Henry Road, hence the name of the whiskey.  Colorado Malting handles the malting of the barley as well. Laws uses open-air fermentation tanks and a copper pot-column still.  Meeting the guidelines of Bottled-in-Bond, it ages this whiskey for four-plus years in new, 53-gallon charred oak barrels. Retail is approximately $74.99 and distribution is currently limited to the Colorado market.





I'd like to thank Laws Whiskey House for providing me a sample of their Henry Road Bonded Malt Whiskey in exchange for a no-strings-attached, honest review. And now, let's #DrinkCurious and get to it, shall we?





In my Glencairn glass, Henry Road appears as a bronzed amber. It created a thin rim that shockingly generated no legs. The rim and the droplets it created just glued in place.





Aromas of chocolate filled the room while I was allowing the whiskey to rest. When I was ready to investigate further, honey and chocolate were dominating. Further exploration provided a light mint mixed with oatmeal. When I inhaled through my mouth, it was all Granny Smith apples racing across my palate.





The mouthfeel was thin and oily. Subsequent sips never thickened the viscosity. There was also nothing in terms of alcohol burn.  Flavors of almond and brown sugar started off, and as it moved mid-palate, I found a lovely combination of salted caramel and cocoa. On the back, it was a mixture of green apple and very sweet tobacco. 





A very long finish provided strong coffee flavor along with charred oak. While there was (again) no alcohol burn, it didn't stop my hard palate from numbing. 





Bottle, Bar or Bust:  As I started off saying, American Malts out of Colorado have been hit-or-miss with me. Henry Road Bonded Malt Whiskey had a very aromatic nose and complex, somewhat unusual palate. I really enjoyed this one and was a bit disappointed with how quickly I burned through my sample. But, I was also grateful for the experience. The cost is a bit shocking until you consider that single malt whiskey is typically more expensive than Bourbon or Rye. It is also a limited edition whiskey. I would prefer to see this priced about $10.00 less, but considering how much pleasure I received for Henry Road Bonded Malt Whiskey, I'd still rate it a Bottle. Cheers!





My Simple, Easy-to-Understand Rating System:

Bottle = Buy it
Bar = Try it first
Bust = Leave it