Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Very Olde St. Nick Summer Rye

Distillery:Olde St. Nick
Age:"Many Summers Old" (NAS)
Proof:80 (40% ABV)
Price:JPY 5000

Olde St. Nick Distillery is an assumed name of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers. Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, despite the name, is a non-distiller producer, meaning that the company does not actually produce the bourbon that it bottles. It is also a export-only bottling for the Japanese market. For those interested, I have written more extensively about the brand elsewhere.

In addition to various bourbons, Olde St. Nick Distillery also bottles two ryes - a summery rye and a winter rye. As is normally the case with non-distiller producers, the origin of the rye is unknown.

"Winter rye" is a general term to refer to any type of rye that is planted during the winter. Because rye is more resilient, it can be grown in climates and at temperatures where other grains would perish. Some Canadian whiskeys are marketed as being made from winter rye and, therefore, more flavorful. While it is true that better wine normally comes from seemingly inhospitable soil, I am not sure where this is true when it comes to rye. "Summer rye," on the other hand, has no accepted meaning.

Although the distiller is unknown, I tasted it side-by-side with Rittenhouse Rye 80 proof and they tasted dramatically different. This leads me to believe that the producer is Midwestern Grain Products instead of Heaven Hill.

The nose has very strong notes of lychee and other citrus fruits as well as hints of mint and pineapple. The flavor delivers on the nose, starting out peppery and moving to sweet with lychee continuing throughout. The mouth feel is rather thin, but this is something that I find to be a characteristic of ryes. The finish is dry and smooth with very little heat.

I note that there are other bottlings that are higher proof and some that are age stated. As stated above, this was a non-age stated 80 proof bottling.

Verdict: Interesting if you like ryes or Japanese-export bottlings, but no need to seek this one out.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Blanton's Silver

Distillery:Buffalo Trace
Age:8-9 Years
Proof:98 (49% ABV)
Price:JPY 6000

Blanton's Silver was originally produced for the duty free market only, but has since been discontinued. Because it been discontinued, its is very rare to see it available for sale. I'm not sure how exactly this bottle made it to Japan, but I do see duty-free releases on store shelves from time to time.

As the color may suggest, Blanton's Silver is positioned between Blanton's Original Single Barrel and Blanton's Gold. Both the original retail price and the proof fall between these two bottles.

The bottle was dumped March 24, 2000 and is 98 proof. Like all Blanton's it comes from Warehouse H. The bottle was in OK condition when purchased. The wax was a little dried out and the box was somewhat damaged. I bought it anyway as a gamble, hoping that the bourbon inside the bottle would have survived the damage to packaging. 

The bourbon starts out well with a the normal caramel and vanilla as well notes of citrus and figs. The taste is less sweet than many bourbons, with hints of maraschino cherries. It's a little hot with a dry woody finish. 

This is not nearly as good as Blanton's Straight from the Barrel. The silver is much closer to the flavor of the Blanton's Single Barrel. Given the choice, I would choose Blanton's Straight from the Barrel every time.

This bottle is somewhat interesting because it was distilled during the tenure of Gary Garheart, the previous master distiller at Buffalo Trace. It does taste a little different than the current offerings (i.e., the notes of maraschino cherry), but isn't objectively any better. 

Verdict: If you see it, buy it - it may be your only chance.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Dating Old Bourbon

Recently, I've started "dusty hunting" (looking for old or "dusty" bottles of bourbon) in Tokyo. The reasons for looking for dusty bottles is two fold. First, bourbon distillation and customer preferences have changed over the years and tasting bourbon from an old bottle can give you an idea of bourbon history. Second, sometimes old bourbon is just better than current production. This is especially true for: (i) Wild Turkey, (ii) Old Granddad, and (iii) Old Fitzgerald.

With Wild Turkey, the barrel entry proof has been raised a couple of times over the years meaning that older Wild Turkey will have a fuller, richer flavor. Old Granddad used to be produced by National Distillers before the brand was acquired by Beam in 1987, and older bottles will have a thicker mouth feel and more of a butterscotch flavor. Old Fitzgerald was previously produced by the legendary Stitzel-Weller before being sold to Heaven Hill in 1992, making it very desirable.

While identifying desirable dusty bottles is often brand specific (e.g., Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye), dusty bottles of all brands can be dated by the markings on the bottle, the label and the tax stamp (if any). The table below summarizes the key dates and markings.

1945The word "Series" and the number "111" are added to the left and right of the eagle's feet, respectively, on the Federal Tax Strip
1945Bottles made by Owens-Illinois Glass begin to use date codes and a simple "I" inside of an "O" mark
1964The phrase "Federal Law Forbids the Sale or Re-use of this Bottle" is no longer inscribed into bottles
September 1, 1977The phrase "Less than 1/2 Pint," the word "Series" and the number "111" are removed from Federal Tax Strips.
September 1, 1977The words "Bureau of ATF," "Tax Paid" and "Distilled Spirits" are added to Federal Tax Strips
1978UPC Codes began to appear on labels
1979Labels begin to display metric measurements
December 1, 1982Green and blue Bottled-in-Bond Federal Tax Strips are discontinued
July 1, 1985All Federal Tax Strips are discontinued
October 10, 1988Labels are required to show "% Alcohol"
November 18, 1989Labels are required to show government health warnings

For dusty bottles in Japan, one additional item of information can be helpful. From the mid-1970s until 1990 all whisky in Japan had to display its "class" on the label. Prior to the mid-1970s and after 1990, no class designation was required. These classes were based on ABV as follows:

Class NameDescription
Class S>40% ABV
Class 140% ABV
Class 2<40% ABV

Importantly, the class designation will be in Japanese and not in English. The following table provides the Japanese class designation and an English translation.

Class S Whiskyウイスキー特級
Class 1 Whiskyウイスキー1級 or ウイスキー一級
Class 2 Whiskyウイスキー2級 or ウイスキー二級

As noted above, bottles from before or after this period are not required to display a class designation. These bottles will only state that they are  "ウイスキー" (whisky), without any mention of a specific class.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye

Distillery:Medley, Cream of Kentucky
Age:13-19 Years
Proof:98 (49% ABV)

Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye is age stated as 13 years old, but is in fact between 13 and 19 years old depending on the date of the bottle. It's the Pappy of ryes, or so the story goes. In fact, Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye was not actually distilled at Stitzel-Weller or even by the Van Winkle family.  No matter the origin, it's one good rye.

As I said before, this rye, depending on the year of bottling, is 13-19 years old. When first bottled in 1999, it was 13 years old. The age increased with each successive bottling until 2004 when the rye was taken out of the barrel and put in a steel tank to arrest the aging process. From 2004 onward, all of the bottlings were 19 years old.

The distillery from which the rye comes also depends on the year of bottling. From 1998-2003 this rye was 100% from the Medley distillery in Owensboro. In 2004, when the rye was moved to stainless steel tanks, it was blended with rye distilled at Cream of Kentucky (Old Bernheim). There is some rumor that Buffalo Trace distilled rye was added to the blend in 2012, but this rumor is unsubstantiated.

Determining Bottling Year

As you can tell, determining the specific year of bottling is essential to figuring out exactly what's in the bottle. The year of bottling can be determined with the following information: (i) bottle number, (ii) place of bottling.

Bottle Number

At the top of each label is a handwritten bottle number that is normally preceded by a letter (A-I). For the very first bottling, however, the bottle number was not preceded by a letter. This bottling was only available in the Japanese market.

Original Bottling for Japanese Market (un-Lettered)

The next bottling (the first US bottling) was in 1999. In this release the bottle number was preceded by the letter "A." For subsequent yearly US releases, the letter code continued through the alphabet, ending with "I" in 2007.

In late 2008, the letter code again changed. For this bottling, the letter code started back at "A" and, unlike in the previous system, the lettering did not increase each year. Instead, the lettering was increased approximately every two years (i.e., "B" labeled bottles began in 2010).

Place of Bottling

Because the numbering started over with "A" in 2008, it is also necessary to check the place of bottling in order to determine the age of the bottle. From 1998 - 2002, this rye was bottled in Lawrenceburg. Sometime in 2002, the bottling was moved to Buffalo Trace in Frankfort. The front of the bottle will state the place of bottling. Therefore, the newer "A," "B" and "C" bottlings will state that they are from Lawrenceburg. For "D" bottlings that were bottled in Frankfort, the best way to disambiguate is to check whether a date code is printed on the bottle. Only the second "D" bottling had a date code.

For a collection of posts by Julian Van Winkle confirming most of this information click here.

The table below summarizes the above information.

YearLetter CodeAgeNotes
1998None13Japan Only; 100% Medley
1999A14First US Release
2002D17Bottling moved from Lawrenceburg to Frankfort
2004F19Moved into stainless steel tanks; Cream of Kentucky blended with Medley
2008A19Letter code starts over with "A"
2012C19Rumored that Buffalo Trace distilled rye was added to the blend

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Willett Family Estate 6 Year

Age:6 Years
Proof:121.8 (60.9% ABV)
Price:JPY 5000

 There is a lot of controversy when it comes to Willett Family Estate. The bourbons are rather expensive for the age statement and normally no information as to the provenance of what is inside the bottle, aside from that it is "distilled in Kentucky," is provided. OK, so we know it's not Jack Daniels in the bottle.

Willett Family Estate is actually a label used for a barrel selection program where groups or individuals can purchase full barrels of bourbon that will then be bottled by Willett using the Willett Family Estate label. Naturally, what's in the bottle will vary from bottle to bottle.

This particular bottle is one that I have seen for sale in many stores around Tokyo. My guess is that a distributor commissioned the bottling and then distributed it to various stores. The label states that this bottle comes from barrel number 64 and is bottle number 5 of 200. The bourbon is bottled at barrel proof. In this case, that is 121.8 proof.

The bottle does have a very nice shape - it is a little taller and thinner than most bourbon bottles. The cork is dipped in purple wax. All in all a very nice package. 

The nose is sweet, think hay, vanilla and nutmeg. It's reminiscent of the Blanton's Straight from the Barrel that I previously reviewed. 

Surprisingly, the sweetness in the nose is lacking in the flavor. Instead, you get standard issue "oakiness" and "wood." Almost savory. On the finish I detect a little bit of the mintiness that is common in Heaven Hill distilled bourbon. 

The high proof on the bourbon overwhelms the flavor, but it develops a little more with the addition of water. 

If I were to guess, I would say the bourbon is Heaven Hill distillate, but this is pretty safe bet considering that most of the NDP bottles are. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Liquors Hasegawa

You've found it; you're quest is over.  Liquors Hasegawa has one of the best selections of bourbons and Scotch in Tokyo and you can sample most of the bottles for a nominal fee.

Hasegawa is located in the Yaesu Underground near Tokyo Station. The easiest way to get their though is to ride to either Nihonbashi or Kyobashi (both on the Ginza line) and then use entrance #23 or 24 to enter Yaesu Underground.  Hasegawa is down the corridor from these entrances (there is only one way to go).  It is possible to navigate to Hasegawa from Tokyo station, but it is a very long walk and there are many twists and turns that are difficult to navigate on your first visit. More information can be found on their website.

Hasegawa has an approximately eight shelves of bourbon that go from the floor to the ceiling. The most expensive items are located on the top shelf and hard to see, but it is fairly easy to visually browse the rest of the stock. There is a stock list printed in katakana available, but the stock list on the website is kept up to date and includes a picture with each entry.   Hasegawa has every widely available Japan-only bourbon as well as many bottles imported from the United States. The best part of the store, however, is that most of the bottles are available for tasting.

Each bottle that is available for tasting will have a special sticker listing the price for a taste (approx. .5 oz./15mL). These prices start at JPY 100 and top out at JPY 200. All in all a pretty good deal. When you do decide to taste, one of the clerks will pull out a shelf from shelving unit on the opposite side of the aisle and pour a small amount of bourbon into a stemmed spirits glass. Hasegawa limits the number of concurrent tastings to two, but there is no hard limit to the number of bourbons you may try. There are, however, signs that state that Hasegawa is not a bar, so don't get disorderly.

The only downside of Hasegawa is the store itself is small and most of the space is taken up by shelves full of bourbon, Scotch, calvados, gin, etc.. There is only one very small aisle and this can get crowded on weekends, so I recommend visits on weekdays.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Evan Williams 12 Year

Distillery:Heaven Hill
Age:12 Years
Proof:101 (50.5% ABV)
Price:JPY 2500

Evan Williams is a brand distilled and bottled by Heaven Hill that comes in many different expression (e.g., black label, green label, single barrel, 1783).

For the Japanese market (and the Heaven Hill gift shop), there is also Evan Williams red label - a 12 year age-stated expression. Aside from the color, the packaging is substantially similar to the black and green labels.

The upper label boasts that its has been "charcoal filtered." This is not the Lincoln County Process for which Jack Daniels is famous. Instead, the bottle is just advertising a fact that is true of almost all bourbon. Recently, however, it has become more common for bourbon labels to advertise the fact that they have not been filtered (i.e., non-chill filtered).

Evan Williams 12 year has the caramelly sweetness that is some common in Heaven Hill with most of the rough edges shaved off. The hints of mint at in the finish that is common with Heaven Hill products is still present, but takes a back seat to the woody vanilla. Compared to the Elijah Craig 12 (also a Heaven Hill product) it doesn't have the same level of oakiness and spice.

Verdict: Evan Williams 12 is a very good example of the kind of Heaven Hill products that you find in Japan. Because Heaven Hill has such large stocks of aging bourbon, it bottles it under many different brands. If you see a brand that you're not familiar with on the shelves, its probably Heaven Hill distillate.