I've had a handful of opportunities to try Traverse City Whiskey's Barrel Proof Bourbons. All of these, with the exception of one, have been store picks. Each barrel, as expected, is different enough from one another to ensure each one is a new and different tasting experience. Today, I'm reviewing one for Niemuth's Southside Market of Appleton, Wisconsin which is called Birthday Bu'rl.
Full disclosure time - I have been involved in a few barrel picks with Niemuth's. I was not involved with Birthday Bu'rl. However, I was provided with a sample for a no-strings-attached review, and I thank them for the opportunity.
If you're unfamiliar with Traverse City Whiskey, it does have its own distillate, which is used in its American Cherry Edition and Port Finished whiskeys. In the meanwhile, their older whiskeys are sourced from MGP from Indiana, giving it a mash of 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% malted barley. All of their barrel proof whiskeys are aged at least four years. In the case of Birthday Bu'rl, it was Barrel #P421 and aged four years before being bottled at 117.6°. Niemuth's retails theirs for $68.99 and the yield was 210 bottles.
Is this one of the better Traverse City picks? The only way to find out is to #DrinkCurious, so here we go...
In my Glencairn glass, Birthday Bu'rl appeared as a definitive orange amber. It left a very thin rim on the wall, but created very heavy, wavy legs that crawled back to the pool of liquid sunshine.
Oak was very forward on the nose. But, that was joined with bright berry fruit. Further exploration brought cinnamon and vanilla bean. When I inhaled through my lips, it was a berry blast.
The mouthfeel was thin and coating. However, this definitely did not drink at its proof. Or, at least I didn't think so. My hard palate numbed up well enough, but there was no real burn to it, and as such, I didn't notice the tingling until my fourth or fifth sip. At the front were cedar and chocolate. Then, at mid-palate, I found pecan and coconut, making for a very interesting combination. The back was spicy with clove, coffee, and dry oak.
Birthday Bu'rl's medium to long finish gave a warming hug. It started as toasted oak (versus the dry from the back of the palate), tart cherry, and cocoa. The more I sipped, the longer the finish grew.
Bottle, Bar or Bust: First and foremost, I enjoyed the heck out of Birthday Bu'rl. But, I've faith in Niemuth's selection process, based upon a number of different experiences. Secondly, I've yet to have a bad Traverse City pick, and Birthday Bu'rl is no different. I happen to love barrel proof whiskeys that drink under their stated proof. While there are certainly lower-priced barrel proof Bourbons in the market, $69 isn't obnoxious and it is difficult to put a price on personal enjoyment. I'm happy to have this one in my whiskey library, and as such, offer my coveted Bottle rating. Cheers!
Distill America XII is history. This is the fifth time I've attended Distill America and, without a doubt, it gets better and more interesting year after year. As usual, it was held at The Edgewater in downtown Madison and hosted by the Madison Malt Society.
For me, whiskey tasting events are less about drinking and more about knowledge and meeting with friends.
My imbibing at an event is so secondary that, by the time the evening is over, I've maybe had four ounces of whiskey total. And, if you think that's crazy, let's talk this through. Your palate can only handle so much alcohol before any semblance of notes from anything is lost. Proof of this is seated in the fact that over the years, I've tasted whiskeys I thought were truly delicious at an event only to discover at a later date that it was some of the worst stuff to ever pass my lips. Or, conversely, I taste something, I get nothing from it that night (because my palate is dead) and I write it off, only to discover how great it is down the road.
Distill America celebrates exactly what its name implies: American distilled spirits. You won't find anything being poured at the main event that wasn't distilled in the United States. But, it isn't limited to whiskey - there's gin, vodka, rum and a host of other spirits - all 100% American.
One of the major aspects of Distill America is knowledge. As such, my goals and theirs are cohesive. The knowledge aspect begins with the ticket level you purchase. If you choose VIP+, it includes a special educational tasting event before the floor is even open. This was the third year of the VIP+ program and the first where whiskey was not in the spotlight. Instead, this year's special topic was tequila and was presented by Jorge Raptis, Diageo's National Latin Spirits Educator.
It was an intimate class, giving everyone a chance to ask questions without being overwhelmed or feeling rushed.
I found the discussion fascinating, and as many of you know already, I hate tequila. Jorge not only gave a history of tequila and explained how it was made but also detailed how Don Julio, a then 17-year old kid who, in 1942, convinced a businessman to lend him the money to start the La Primavera Distillery (later to be renamed after its founder). We also discovered how Don Julio changed the way agave was planted and harvested. We also learned about agave itself, and how it is much closer to hemp in its many uses than I would have ever imagined.
The tasting portion included samples of Don Julio Blanco, Reposado, Añejo, 1942, 70th, and finally, Reposado Double Cask Finished in Lagavulin Casks.
From there, VIP+ guests went down to the main floor for the festivities and were joined by those holding VIP tickets. The benefit of the VIP ticket was to get through the doors an hour early before General Admission, as well as taking advantage of some VIP-only special pours, such as Four Roses 2019 Small Batch Limited Edition, Twisted Path's Barrel Proof Bourbon, J. Henry & Sons 10th Anniversary Bourbon, MGP's Volstead Reserve, Michter's 10-Year Bourbon, and others.
Sampling some of these limited-release whiskeys was a real treat and an opportunity not many people are exposed to. However, there was still learning to be done! Once the doors were open for everyone and folks had a chance to mosey around, a Blending Whiskey seminar hosted by David Carpenter, the Master Blender of Redemption commenced.
I have never been on a distillery tour or in a whiskey seminar where I didn't walk away with some new knowledge, and I've been keen on this industry for many years. To say that I learned something would be an understatement. I found the class fascinating and I gleaned several things I never knew (or if I did, I forgot). And then, to cap it off, we were able to try two different Redemption Barrel Selects that are not yet available in Wisconsin.
Another learning opportunity was Gin Deconstruction, hosted by Lindy Wyss of Aviation, Jamie Duffy of St. George, Chris Byles of Death's Door (now part of Dancing Goat Distillery), John Mlezica of State Line, and Guy Rehorst of Great Lakes. While I didn't attend this seminar, they took the opportunity to share what makes gins different from one another, from the botanicals to how they're used in cocktails and everything in between.
In all, there were 90 different booths featuring hundreds of different spirits, including my 2019 Whiskey of the Year: Blaum Bros. Straight Rye.
Each year, there are "rookies" that are new to the event, this year included Balcones, Blue Ice Vodka of Idaho, Carbliss Hard Seltzer of Wisconsin, Doundrins Distilling of Wisconsin, Drink Wisconsinbly, Joseph A. Magnus & Co., Kentucky Owl, Ledge Rock Distillery of Wisconsin, Old Elk Distillery of Colorado, Rockhouse Beverage of New York, The Dampfwerk Distillery of Minnesota, and Uncle Nearest.
In all, it was an amazing evening. I thank all the vendors and ambassadors that came to share their spirits, skills, and expertise.
If you missed out on Distill America, make it a point to attend Distill America 13 in February 2021. Tickets normally go on sale in October. Cheers!
I lived in Colorado for over 20 years. I have a lot of good memories from there. I loved the weather. I loved the scenery. And, best of all, I met Mrs. Whiskeyfellow there. I return at least once a year to see my family. Colorado has a special place in my heart.
One thing that Colorado can be iffy on is whiskey. I've had excellent whiskeys and I've had very mediocre ones. But, what I didn't know until very recently was Vail, where I used to ski quite a bit, has its own distillery: 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Company.
Vail isn't the 10th mountain in Colorado. 10th Mountain refers to a storied Army Light Infantry division activated back in 1943. It was set up specifically for mountain terrain and arctic warfare. After World War II, it had been deactivated and reactivated a number of times before relocating to Fort Drum. And, since 2001, it has been the most deployed unit in the Army.
The actual distillery sits at an elevation of 6,312 feet in Gypsum. The tasting room is located in Vail at 8,150 feet. They curate their ingredients from the local area. They also actively support a few veteran charities.
Today's review is 10th Mountain Rye Whiskey. It is distilled from a mash of 75% Rye, 21% Corn, and 4% Malted Barley. According to Founder Ryan Thompson, they aged it for a year in new, #4 charred oak, using 5, 10, 30 and 53-gallon barrels, most of which are 53-gallon barrels sourced from Barrel 53. Bottled at 86°, it retails for $45.00. I'd like to thank 10th Mountain for providing me a sample of their Rye in exchange for a no-strings-attached, honest review. And now, time to #DrinkCurious.
In my Glencairn glass, the whiskey presented as a soft caramel in color. It left a thin rim that created fat, wavy legs to drop back to the pool of liquid sunshine.
Despite the fact that there is only 4% malt, you'd never know it from the nose, because that's the first thing that hit the olfactory senses. The malt was followed by peaches and oak. But, additional exploration yielded floral rye and cinnamon. When I inhaled through my lips, it was all floral rye.
The mouth had a medium feel that was oily and coated my entire mouth. If this was aged in smaller barrels, there are no telltale signs of it. Moreover, despite the young age, there was nothing harsh. At the front, that 4% barley became the headliner with milk chocolate. Immediately behind that, but still on the front, was plum. As the liquid worked to the middle, a blend of toffee, oak, and mint offered an interesting sensation of flavor. Then, on the back, it was an expected rye spice and a smidge of barrel char.
A medium-short finish consisted of rye spice, very dry oak, and black pepper. The closing note was definitely the pepper.
Bottle, Bar or Bust: When this whiskey was sent to me, I had to have a friend at a local liquor store facilitate the transaction due to shipping restrictions. As a token of appreciation, since he had never tried anything from 10th Mountain, we cracked open the bottle there for an introductory pour. We were shocked by how much of the malt dominated the nose and front considering its relatively low content. We also agreed this was proofed correctly. When you toss in a very affordable $45 price tag, 10th Mountain Rye Whiskey becomes an easy Bottle recommendation. Cheers!
I’m used to criticism and catching flak. That's all part of the life of a whiskey reviewer. Some people enjoy what I write. Others don’t. My feelings don’t get hurt if someone doesn’t like my reviews. I encourage whiskey drinkers to find reviewers whose palates their own best matches. If that's not me, so be it. In the end, it is your whiskey experience that matters.
Earlier this week, a reader informed me I was "doing a half-assed job of being a whiskey reviewer." Naturally, that piqued my interest. His beef with me was that I have not been including information on justifying the price being charged on the shelf. Not Would you buy this at $X? Rather, it was more Is $X reflective of the cost to make this whiskey? At first, I thought this guy was pranking me because, as the smartass that I am, I tend to recognize a fellow smartass. But, this reader was serious.
What I didn't realize until he schooled me on it is there exists an overlooked (but apparently wildly in-demand) need for including forensic accounting in a whiskey review. He (very literally) instructed me to research and discuss a distiller's or producer's profit margin and to ensure they were not gouging and making an unfair profit at the expense of consumers. He made me aware there is a duty for a blogger to insert these things in our reviews because we should be doing everything we can to hold distilleries accountable for rising prices on the shelf.
My frank response to him was that I have zero interest in exploring anyone’s books or marketing plans. Not only am I not a stakeholder in any distiller's or producer's business, but I also possess neither the training nor the skills to do forensic accounting. I tried to explain to him that I don't write a financial blog, and made it clear I would not start including a marketing analysis in any of my reviews. He then suggested that I'm on the take and the only thing Icare about is how many bottles are sold based upon my reviews. While I understand that his expectation is an anomaly, what he accused me of is still concerning. I have always been as transparent as possible when penning my reviews as to how I acquired the bottle, if I was involved in picking a barrel being reviewed, etc. His allegation prompted me to write this next part:
My integrity is my #1 priority in everything I do, from my marriage (Mrs. Whiskeyfellow knows she can trust me) to my whiskey reviewing (my audience knows it can trust me). There is a reason you don't see any advertising or click-to-buy links anywhere on this blog. That was a very purposeful, personal decision. I could be making money off this blog, but I don't.
Likewise, I receive no income for my reviews. I don't get paid to compose them and I don't charge you a Patreon fee to read them. I write about whiskey because it is a passion. I review every whiskey I can no matter how it gets to my palate. If a distillery or store or friend is kind enough to send me a sample, that whiskey is treated exactly the same as if I spent my own money procuring it. There is no incentive for me to inflate any whiskey’s rating. Consider this: If a distillery puts out a bad product, and I’m honest in my assessment and the distiller takes offense, what's the worst thing that will happen? They won't send me any more bad whiskey, right? For the record, most distillers and producers I've come across appreciate an honest yet critical review because it gives them insight as to how they can improve. It is taken as constructive criticism.
Finally, if I’m rating bad whiskeys as anything other than a Bust, what does that do to my reputation? The short answer is, it causes me to lose all credibility and I might as well hang this whiskey reviewing thing up. I have way too much fun doing this to risk that. And, because I have so much fun, it is a very serious endeavor for me.
For the record, I do have a paid aspect to my whiskey consulting business. But it has never and will never creep into my reviews. I stake my entire reputation on that.
I don't even have to say anything. I already know what some of you are thinking after just seeing the photo: This Whiskeyfellow character is off his rocker! or Who the heck cares about a whiskey alternative? For that matter, What is a whiskey alternative?
The very short answer to the final question is it is a non-alcoholic beverage meant to mimic whiskey. There's a rhyme to the reason of my reviewing a synthetic whiskey. First of all, there's the whole #DrinkCurious lifestyle. Second of all, some of us partake in Dry Januarys or Dry Weeks. Or, maybe we're on some medication and can't drink, or we're a designated driver but we want to enjoy a "drink" without impairment. Or, if the horrible thing happens, something comes up where we have to give up alcohol. Egad, that last thought just gave me the heebie-jeebies!
Ritual Zero Proof Whiskey Alternative is what I'm working with today, and this review is going to be different than others. I've already been warned by Ritual that a whiskey connoisseur won't be fooled into thinking it was real whiskey. If you look at the label, it also states Ritual Zero Proof is meant to be mixed in cocktails. The packaging even suggests cocktail recipes. And, that's exactly what I'm going to do - make one of their suggested cocktails - after I do a small neat pour.
But, I won't end the trial there. I'm going to put that cocktail up head-to-head with the exact same recipe, just substituting real whiskey for the whiskey alternative.
Before I get started, I need to provide you with some background on the Ritual whiskey alternative. It is made with some pretty simple ingredients: filtered water, invert sugar, natural flavors, xanthan gum, citric acid, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate. That's it. A 1.5oz pour costs you an entire ten calories. It is also gluten-free. One caveat is that once opened, you have six months to finish the bottle or it needs to be disposed of. Retail is about $25 and you can even buy it off Amazon. Finally, there's no math to do when figuring things out. Ritual suggests a 1:1 swap-out on the real thing.
I'd like to thank Ritual for providing me with a sample of the Zero Alcohol Whiskey Alternative in exchange for a no-holds-barred, honest review.
For the first part of this review, I'm going the standard route and will sip this from my trusty Glencairn glass.
In my glass, Ritual Zero Proof appears as a cloudy amber, almost like a common beer. It didn't leave any sort of rim on the wall but did leave behind some globby droplets on the side of the glass.
Barrel char and wintergreen fragrances smacked me in the face. There was also a definitive medicinal aroma along with green pepper. When I inhaled through my lips, it was all green pepper.
It had a very watery mouthfeel. I'm going to stop this right now for a segway. I do not like green peppers. I pick them out of anything I ever find them in. Well, if green peppers are your thing, you're going to be in absolute heaven. Once I got past the palate shock, I was able to discern other things. I found green peppercorn (not to be confused with green peppers), and then a sour flavor I couldn't nail down.
The finish was long-lasting green peppercorn and char. By long-lasting, I mean it just sat there, it didn't build, it didn't fade, but it went on for many minutes.
For the next part, I'm going to make two Old Fashioneds: One with Ritual whiskey alternative and the other with JW Dant Bottled in Bond Bourbon. They will be otherwise identical in every way, including using the same kind and design of glass. To make this simple Old Fashioned with Fee Brothers West Indian Orange Bitters, Stirrings Simple Syrup, and Traverse City Whiskey Company's Premium Cocktail Cherries. On a side note, those cherries happen to be the best of any cocktail cherries I've ever had. Ever.
The recipe is easy: 2oz Ritual whiskey alternative, 1oz simple syrup, 2 dashes orange bitters, and garnish with a cherry. I may modify this with several cherries - they're so fantastic.
Because I do not want to give an unfair advantage to either cocktail, I'm even using identical cocktail glasses. I went as far as to use the same cocktail stirrers, one in each, so as to not contaminate one with the other.
So, how did these Old Fashioneds taste? I could absolutely tell the difference between the two. But, in all honesty, that was expected. The Ritual wasn't bad at all and was, in fact, completely drinkable. I would have guessed it to be an Old Fashioned made with something from a bar's well draw. I've had similar in my life many times over.
Bottle, Bar or Bust: As a whiskey drinker expecting whiskey, this is an easy Bust. Drinking it neat, again, an easy Bust. However, this isn't whiskey and it wasn't meant to be drunk neat, this is supposed to give some semblance of whiskey for folks who aren't drinking whiskey. For my Pseudo-Old Fashioned, I think this passes the test. In a highly unusual move, I'm giving it a Bottle rating for performing as advertised. Cheers!
Microdistilleries are interesting because you never quite know what to expect. Some micro distillers are very talented and know what they're doing. Others have, well, unique spirits that their family and friends "enjoy" because they know the distiller and don't want to be rude.
In 2019 Mrs. Whiskeyfellow and I took one of our random road trips and we found ourselves in Monroe, Wisconsin. If you're not familiar with Monroe, it is known as the Swiss Cheese Capital of the United States. One of the businesses in Monroe is the Minhas Craft Brewery, which is home to the brewery, a restaurant, a gift shop, and a microdistillery. The brewery is actually the second oldest in the nation. and has a sister operation in Calgary, Canada where the owners, Ravinder and Manjit Minhas reside. The distillery was established in 2006 and utilizes a 1000-gallon, 45-foot column still to make various spirits. For what it is worth, the tasting room is a fun experience, presenting an opportunity to try a wide variety of liqueurs and spirits.
Today I'm reviewing Punjabi Club, which is a Canadian Rye whisky. What you can make from that is it was not distilled in Monroe. The rules for Canadian Rye are fast and loose things but one of the few requirements is that at least 91% of the whisky must be a product of Canada.
The age and mash bill are undisclosed. While Canadian whisky must be aged at least three years, one thing to keep in mind that just because the word rye appears on the label of Canadian whisky, there is no requirement for even a single grain of rye to be in the mash. In the case of Punjabi Club, from my sipping experience, there is likely a significant amount of rye content.
Punjabi Club is bottled at 86° and can be purchased both at the distillery and online from a few outlets. Retail for a 750ml is about $24.99. How does this one taste? Time to #DrinkCurious and find out.
In my Glencairn glass, Punjabi Club appeared as the color of straw and was clear and bright. It left a medium-thick rim that created a thick, heavy curtain. Once the curtain dissipated, fat, slow legs were left behind.
The initial nosing was aromas of heavy oak and floral rye spice. Beneath those, I found orange citrus and mint. There was also a certain musty quality of wet wood. When I inhaled through my lips, flavors of ginger and oak started off and then became sweet red pepper.
A light but oily mouthfeel greeted my palate. Rye spice and oak dominated the front. At mid-palate, it smoothed out to a nice mix of pineapple, citrus, and spearmint. On the back, rye spice returned, this time with white pepper and tobacco.
The finish was initially short, but that turned out to only be a hiccup. Just as it fell off, it suddenly built and lasted for almost a minute. A blend of very dry oak and white pepper started both initially and returned for the comeback. Then, it got very sour. I can't say I've ever experienced a sour note with whiskey before. It was both unexpected, unpleasant and overshadowed the entire drinking experience.
Bottle, Bar or Bust: The $24.99 price tag is very enticing. I tell people all the time that price doesn't dictate quality. After all, I am Mr. #RespectTheBottomShelf. Unfortunately, Punjabi Club is not a bottom-shelf gem. Aside from the very sour finish, I was turned off by the musty nose. This is one that I would just avoid, and as such, I have no qualms rating it a Bust. Cheers!
Last night I hosted a massive whiskey event at Cask & Ale in Madison. When I say massive, I'm not fooling around: 48 different whiskeys were poured!
Now, I know what you're thinking... how could I be that irresponsible? Well, it isn't quite what you may be thinking. The 48 whiskeys were broken down into four flights of twelve half-ounce pours. Guests chose which of the four that appealed to them the most, both by what was offered and how it affected their wallets.
This was set up as a World Whiskey Tasting. I love doing these in particular because, even for experienced whiskey drinkers, it offers guests an opportunity to stumble across something different and to #DrinkCurious. We had selections of Irish whiskey, Bourbon, American Rye, American whiskey, Japanese, French, and Indian whiskies, and then, to wrap things up, Scotch. The four flights went along the same lines to keep things logical and have various people at the same table relate to what someone else was enjoying.
As guests were enjoying their pours, I provided some historical trivia as well as background information on the various categories. There were a ton of questions for me to answer, which is one of my favorite aspects of these events. I love sharing knowledge and watching folks have an ah-ha! moment as they figure things out on their own.
The three most-talked-about pours were Jack Daniel's Heritage Single Barrel, Brenne 10, and Stranahan's Diamond Peak. Folks who had Old No. 7 stuck in their minds were blown away by the Heritage Single Barrel and its night-and-day difference. The Brenne 10 was unusual as most guests never even knew French whisky was a thing. Finally, Diamond Peak opened up the eyes of those who had no idea how diverse American whiskey could be.
When all was said and done, everyone suggested they had a great time and many were asking about future whiskey tastings.
To everyone who came out and braved the weather, thank you so much for attending! Thank you, Cask & Ale, for partnering with me. And, for those of you who are curious, be on the lookout for future events so you can learn, laugh and enjoy great whiskey. Cheers!