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.

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 soon in the US as well), 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 (which themselves are very similar to Jack Daniels).

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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wild Turkey 8 Year

Distillery: Wild Turkey
Age: 8 Years
Proof: 101 (50.5% ABV)
Price: JPY 2500

This is the youngest Wild Turkey bottling to bear an age statement. In terms of age, it sits between Wild Turkey 101 and Wild Turkey 12 Year. Wild Turkey 101, though it doesn't bear an age statement, is a blend of 6-8 year whiskey. This means that the Wild Turkey 8-year shouldn't be substantially different from the 101.

In the past, Wild Turkey 8 year was available in the US. Over time, however, the age statement disappeared. At first, it was replaced with the phrase "No. 8," but this phase eventually disappeared as well. Japanese consumers place a strong emphasis on age statements, however, so this expression has remained available in Japan even after disappearing from shelves in the US.

At half the price of the Wild Turkey 12 Year, however, you would expect that it won't be quite as good (and you'd be right). It's got all the flavors that make the 12 Year great, but those extra four years really calm down these flavors so that they're working in unison and not fighting for your attention. That's not to say that the 8 Year is bad. It's a pretty good whiskey for a pretty good price, it's just somewhat of a let down considering how amazing the 12 Year is.

Looking at the glass, the color is a tawny brown. Enough light shines through to betray the fact that flavors will not be particularly decadent. About what you would expect from an 8 year bourbon.

Right off the bat there is a lot of wood flavor vying for your attention along with the 50.5% of the bourbon that consists of alcohol. Once those two settle in you get those classic caramel and vanilla flavors of the Wild Turkey taste profile that you know and love with a little bit more wood. All in all, it is more similar Wild Turkey 101 than the 12 Year, which is to be expected given that similarity in both age and price point.

Verdict: A good bourbon, but there are much better exclusives to the Japanese market. If you are a Wild Turkey fan, consider picking one of these up if you can't find the 12 year (now that it is out of production).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wild Turkey 13 Year Distiller's Reserve

Distillery: Wild Turkey
Age: 13 Years
Proof: 91 (45.5% ABV)
Price: JPY 6000

Filling out the age statement Wild Turkey produced for the Japanese market is the Wild Turkey 13 year. Even though its the oldest member of the bunch, its doesn't really taste that way.

According to the explanation on the side of the box, the 13 Year is specially selected from barrels that aged on the lower levels of the rickhouse. This drives the alcohol content down and also makes the barrels age more slowly than those higher in the rickhouse. Accordingly, all 13 years that this bourbon has spent in the barrel are not borne out in the taste profile.

Wild Turkey used to distill at a lower proof than other distillers, allowing the company to add less water to the finished product and, according to the company, achieve a richer flavor. It stands to reason that a lower proof going into the barrel means there is less margin for error in the aging process. I have a suspicion that the 13 year was in part created in part to allow Wild Turkey to sell aged bourbons that had fallen below 101 proof mark at a premium price. This makes a lot of sense in Japan where age statements sell bottles.

The bottom line is that even though this bourbon is one year older than the Wild Turkey 12 Year, it tastes younger and has more in common with the Wild Turkey 8 Year.

This bourbon also seems to be geared toward the Japanese pallet (e.g., I.W. Harper 12 Year, Four Roses Platinum) which makes it a milder experience overall than the Wild Turkey 12 Year, but overall the flavors are more balanced. This bourbon would work very well in a highball, which is unfortunately how a lot of high end whiskey is consumed in Japan.

The nose is somewhat deceiving. It has the beautifully developed nose of the Wild Turkey 12 year that is not backed up by the flavor.

Upon tasting, you can immediately tell this is related to the 8 and 12 year. A little more spice and a little more balance than the 8 year overall. The dark caramel flavors that predominated the 12 year are missing, but there is not as much vying for the attention of your pallet as there was with the 8 year.

Honestly, this bourbon seems like it was made to be given as a gift, probably to someone who doesn't know much about bourbon. The packaging includes a box, it has a nice 13-year age statement and is marked as "distiller's reserve." Unfortunately, your paying for what's on the outside of the bottle as much as you are paying for what's inside.

Verdict: Save your money for something else like Blanton's Straight from the Barrel.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wild Turkey 12 Year

Distillery: Wild Turkey
Age: 12 Years
Proof: 101 (50.5% ABV)
Price: JPY 5500 (Historical)

Wild Turkey 12 Year didn't used to be export only. In the past, Wild Turkey would release limited edition bottling. The older of these had a gold label, while later editions had a "split-label" where the age statement appeared on a separate smaller label lower down on the body of the bottle. I tasted the gold label variety at Cask Strength and it was very good. One of the best bourbons I have ever tasted.

Does this bottle measure up? No, but it's still very good.

The 12 Year sits in the middle of the age-stated Wild Turkey offerings - at four years older than the 8 Year and 1 Year younger than the 13 Year. Those four extra years in the barrel compared 8 Year have really made a difference.

Pictured to the above is old-label Wild Turkey 12. The label changed to the newer label (below) in about 2003.

The nose has a lot of dark fruit and brown sugar. It smells very similar to the Blanton's Straight From the Barrel.

The taste really lives up to the nose. Its sweet at first with caramel and moving to lots of wood. It tastes the way bourbon should, which is not surprising given that Wild Turkey uses a standard (13% rye) mash bill.

Wild Turkey 12 is very good but went out of production in 2014. While this bourbon can still be found on shelves with some diligence, it is only getting very hard to find. Some online sites are now asking around JPY 15,000 per bottle. If you happen to come across one of these bottles, buy it.

Verdict: Highly recommended. One of the best Japanese-only bourbons.