Saturday, July 28, 2018

Blanton's Label History

Blanton's, named for Col. Albert Bacon Blanton, was launched in 1984 as an export only single-barrel bourbon. Even in Japan, bottles from 1984-1987 are very rare. Bottles from 88 and 89 are more attainable and bottles from the 1990s are somewhat common.

Normally, dating a bottle of Blanton's is easy. Simply look for the "dump date" that is hand written on each bottle. Sometimes, however, the label is missing a dump date or, the case of an auction, the available pictures of the bottle do not show the date. In order to allow approximate dating in these types of cases, I've tracked down the year when certain aspects of the bottle changed. The following information applies to Blanton's Original Single Barrel. It may apply to other bottlings, but I haven't verified that it does.

Hang Tag

Hang Tag (1984-1990)
The first key change pertains to the hang tag. From 1984 until 1990, the phrase "Why this may be the finest bottle of whiskey ever produced." (see rights) was printed on the front of the hang tag in a scripted font. No other text or pictures appear on the front of hang tags from this era.

In 1990, the hang tag was changed. From this point forward, the phrase "The Finest Bourbon in the World Comes from a Single Barrel" was printed in all caps on the top half of the front of the hang tag. A picture of a horse and rider was printed below. This type of hang tag continues to this day.

Neck Label

The second key change pertains to the neck label. From 1984 until 1993, the phrase "Blanton Distilling Company" was printed in a scripted font on the neck label (see below). All of the words were printed at the same size.

In late 1993, the neck label was changed. From this point forward, the phrase "Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon ウイスキー" was printed on the neck label in Japan and the phrase "Blanton's the Original Single Barrel Bourbon" was printed on the neck label elsewhere. This type of neck label continues to this day.

Neck Label (1984-1993)

Horse Stopper

The final key change pertains to the bottle stopper. From 1984 until 1998, the stopper depicted a running horse (see below). The casting of the horse is generally rougher in bottles from the 1980s and early 1990s. For example, sometimes there is some metal left between the body of the horse and the horses legs.

Sometime in 1999, the horse stopper was changed. From this point forward, one of the letters in the word "Blanton's" was added near the legs of the horse. If the stoppers are arranged to spell "Blanton's" the various stages of the race with align as well. Because there are two "n"s in "Blanton's," the second "n" is marked with two dots to the right of the letter.

Horse Stopper (1984-1999)

The key dates for Blanton's Original Single Barrel are summarized in the table below.

YearItemDescription of Change
1990Hang TagHang tag changes from "Why this may be the finest bottle of whiskey every produced." to "The Finest Bourbon in the World Comes from a Single Barrel."
1993Neck LabelThe neck label changed from "Blanton Distilling Co." to "Blanton's Single Barrel Bourbon ウイスキー" in Japan and "Blanton's the Original Single Barrel Bourbon" elsewhere.
1999StopperA letter is added to the horse stopper near the feet of the horse.

Price at Auction

Bottles of Blanton's from the 1990s or 2000s generally go for about the same price as a current bottle of Blanton's. Bottles of Blanton's from 1988 or 1989 generally go for about twice the price of a current bottle of Blanton's. Blanton's from 1984-1987 generally goes for three times the price of a current bottle of Blanton's.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Evan Williams 23 Year

Distillery:Heaven Hill
Age:23 Years
Proof:107 (53.5% ABV)
Price:JPY 25000

Evan Williams 23 Year is not exclusive to the Japanese market, but it was created for the Japanese market in the late 1980s. Like Evan Williams 12 Year, it is possible to purchase this bottle at the Heaven Hill gift shop.

The earliest Evan Williams 23 Year of which I am aware was barreled in 1966 and bottled in 1989. Early bottles of Evan Williams listed the distillation year on the front of the bottle below the neck. I am not sure how long this practice continued, but I have seen bottles labeled 1968 and 1969. 

This bourbon is unique because of its high proof. Most extra-aged bourbon have to be watered down to <100 proof in order to be palatable - otherwise the oaky flavors overwhelm the palate - or are bottled from barrels that have lost proof over time. 

For example, Elijah Craig 18 is only 90 proof. Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year are only 90.4 and 95.6 proof, respectively. Wild Turkey Master's Keep 17 is only 86.8 proof. Greater than 100 proof bourbons that are over 15 years old are quite rare. 

So, how does this one taste? 

First off, it's very dark. Not unexpected for a 23-year-old bourbon., Moving on, the nose if very sweet and rich with notes of grape soda, honey, brown sugar, dark cherries and, you guessed it, wood. 

The palate begins sweet, with notes of honey and dry, slightly tannic, oak before resolving into dark fruits. The finish is long, dry and very hot - it is dominated by wood. 

While I really like this bourbon, this doesn't mean you should go to the Heaven Hill gift shop and buy it. First, this is an older bottling that was likely selected when Heaven Hill had an abundance of older stocks. Second, there is some speculation that the gift shop bottles of EW23 are inferior to the export bottlings. 

Verdict:  EW23 is a unique bourbon, but you should probably buy it in Japan instead of the Heaven Hill gift shop. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Japanese Bourbon Retail Market

The retail selection in the American bourbon market puts the retail selection in the Japanese bourbon market to shame. I sometimes encounter the opinion that "all the best bourbon is shipped to Japan" or that a certain craft distiller doesn't have to worry about the American market because the Japanese will buy the product in droves. This is simply not true.

1990s: Peak Market

In the 1990s, the situation was very different. With a depressed market in America, lots of bourbon, especially extra-aged bourbon, was shipped to Japan where it could command a higher price. For example, the early A.H. Hirsch bottlings, Very Old St. Nick, Society of Bourbon Connoisseurs, Martin Mills and certain Van Winkle bottlings targeted the Japanese market.

Outside of these super-premium releases, Heaven Hill released many bourbons under "cats & dogs" labels such as Anderson Club, Country Aged and King Kamehameha.

2000s: Dwindling Interest

By the 2000s, the focus had shifted away from the Japanese market and there were far fewer limited bottlings. Most of these limited bottlings were bottled by KBD, who, in addition to creating its own brands such as Rare Perfection, took over many of the brands that Julian Van Winkle had been supplying such as Very Old St. Nick and Society of Bourbon Connoisseurs.

There were many standard expressions, however, that were exclusive to the Japanese market such as I.W. Harper and Four Roses. Export only expression such as Wild Turkey 8, Wild Turkey 12, Four Roses Super Premium, Blanton's Gold and Blanton's SFTB were also widely available.

Heaven Hill continued bottling bourbon under various "cats & dogs" labels, but using different brands, such as Clementine, Rebecca, Black Death and Yellow Rose of Texas.    

2010s: American Bourbon Craze

By the 2010s, the American bourbon market had started to heat up in America and special bottlings for Japan had dried up. There are, however, a few Willett Family Estate bottlings from this era. Japan, however, would still receive an allocation of limited bottlings from Four Roses, KBD, BT, Jefferson's and Van Winkle.

Currently, with the bourbon craze in America was in full swing, the Japan bourbon market has suffered. Buffalo Trace products (aside from Blanton's) have become hard to find and have seen large price increases. For example, Eagle Rare is priced at about $50 and Stagg Jr. is priced at about $100. Elmer T. Lee and Weller 12 have not been on shelves in a couple of years.

Most of the limited bottlings from the late 2000s and early 2010s that had previously languished on shelves have been purchased. New limited editions or allocated releases do not make it to Japan unless they sold poorly in America (e.g., Wild Turkey Diamond Anniversary or Michter's Toasted Barrel).

Very few of the American micro-distillers are exporting to Japan. Koval, Balcones and Stranahans are some of the first. Smooth Ambler, High West, King County Distillery and Westland began to be imported in 2016.

Blanton's is the sole bright spot. Because the Blanton's brand is owned by a Japanese company, the various expressions of Blanton's have remained on shelves and are much cheaper than in America.

Right now, the retail bourbon market in America is much better than the market in Japan. Prices in Japan continue to increase even as selection dwindles. The most interesting products are debuting in America first and rarely make it to Japan. Until the bourbon market in America cools off, I don't see this changing.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Four Roses Spicy & Fruity

Distillery:Four Roses
Proof:113 (56.5% ABV)
Price:JPY 300

In the mid 2000s, Four Roses released a set of mini-bottles to demonstrate the versatility of the its different recipes. Each bottle contained one of Four Roses' ten recipes. Instead of listing the recipe (e.g., OBSK) each bottle was give a descriptor such as "spicy," "fruity" or "floral."

I asked Four Roses for more information about the specific recipes contained in these bottles. I received a response from Brent Elliot in which he said that he didn't know the mash bill of these bottles, but that his guess was that the "spicy" was the "K" yeast and the "fruity" was the "O" yeast.

I have only encountered bottles with the descriptors "spicy," "fruity" and "floral." I believe these were the only bottles released, but I cannot be sure.

Four Roses Spicy

The color is amber, a little lighter than the Fruity (see below). There are notes of apple, wet cardboard, vanilla and honey on the nose. The flavor is a departure from the nose. The bourbon is slightly salty with a little bit of peanut butter sweetness and caramel. There are also interesting vegetal flavors, like asparagus. The mouthfeel is thick and satisfying. The finish is short, with notes of vanilla, caramel and Sichuan pepper.

Four Roses Fruity

The color is copper - noticeably dark. The nose has notes of lemon, apple, wet cardboard (again) and cola. There is also something slightly metallic. This bourbon is very very hot on the tongue. There are again vegetal asparagus notes, but this time these notes are complemented by notes of black cherry, leather, vanilla and a little bit of pepper. The finish, in contrast to the "spicy" is long and lingering with notes of plum and black cherry. It remains very hot on the finish.

Conclusion: All in all, these are essentially early versions of the Four Roses Private Selections.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Old Grommes

This is the story of Old Grommes Very Very Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

Old Grommes was a brand used for a series of Japan-market bottlings from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. This brand is well known among whiskey enthusiasts in Japan, but is almost unknown in the United States.

In all, there were eight bottlings of Old Grommes. The 12 year 101 proof  is by far the most common.
NameAgeProofBottler Listed on Label
Old Grommes Very Very Rare10 Years90Original Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Very Very Rare12 Years101Original Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Barrel Proof12 Years121Original Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Very Very Rare12 Years125Unknown
Old Grommes Very Very Rare16 Years101Old Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Very Very Rare17 Years101Original Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Very Very Rare19 Years80Original Grommes Co.
Old Grommes Very Very Rare20 Years80Original Grommes Co.

Who made Old Grommes? This turns out to be a very difficult question with many answers.

Old Grommes 16 Year
I'll address the easiest bottle first. Old Grommes Very Very Rare 16 Year is different from the other bottlings. It lists a different bottler on the label than the other releases - "Old Grommes Co." instead of "Original Grommes Co." - and the label design and bottle shape are different.

Old Grommes 16 Year is a Julian Van Winkle bottling of the same whiskey that went into A.H. Hirsch. "Old Grommes Co.," the bottler listed on the label, is a trade name registered by Julian Van Winkle. Chuck Cowdery confirms in his book on A.H. Hirsch, and this forum post, that Julian Van Winkle bottled some of the A.H. Hirsch whiskey using the name Old Grommes.  In addition, Shot Bar Bourbon, a now-shuttered bourbon bar in Ginza, also confirms that Old Grommes 12 Year and Old Grommes 16 Year are different bourbon.

Now for the remaining bottlings.

The bottler name listed on the other bottlings is "Original Grommes Co." of Chicago, Illinois. At first, this suggests an association with the firm Grommes & Ulrich, a pre-prohibition grocer and liquor wholesaler in Chicago. The brand Grommes & Ulrich continued in use after prohibition by various companies with no connection to original brand. From 1963 to 2004, the name "Grommes & Ulrich" was trademarked by Consolidated Distilled Products.

A search of the Illinois Secretary of State's business name database for "Original Grommes Co." does not return any results. This means that Original Grommes Co. was not the actual name of the bottler and, instead, was a trade name. Normally, trade names would also have to be registered with the Illinois Secretary of State, but I have found that trade names used for export bottlings are often not registered.

Old Grommes 12y
The first solid lead on the source of Old Grommes comes from a blogger who mentions that Old Grommes was distilled by Jim Beam and aged in Chicago by Consolidated Rectifying. Given that this is an unsourced assertion by a blogger, I think a little more research is necessary.

I'll start with the claim that Old Grommes 12 Year is bottled by Consolidated Rectifying. A search of the TTB's public COLA registry reveals that the holder of DSP-IL-26 registered several COLAs for Old Grommes. Based on other COLA filings, I can determine that Consolidated Rectifying is the holder of DSP-IL-26. Unfortunately, pre-2003 COLAs are not available online. I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for these COLAs, but was told that the records were no longer legible.

This, of course, leads to the question "Who is Consolidated Rectifying?"

Consolidated Rectifying was a subsidiary of Consolidated Distilled Products, the former owner of the Grommes & Ulrich trademark, until it was sold to National Wine and Spirits in 1991.  At that time, National Wine and Spirits also purchased Union Liquor Company (now Union Beverage Company), another subsidiary of Consolidated Distilled Products. Consolidated Distilled Products specialized in liquors, cordials, winevodkagin and (non-bourbon) whiskey.

According to the public COLA registry, Consolidated Rectifying (Vendor ID 001951) was responsible for about 20 other bourbon bottlings, including G&U, Hannah & Hogg and Charter & Oak. I've never heard of any of these other bottlings.

Now, Consolidated Rectifying didn't distill the bourbon in Old Grommes. This is clear both from the company's name (i.e., rectifiers don't distill) and from the fact that there is no evidence that Consolidated Rectifying owned a distillery. Further, Consolidated Distilled Products, the parent company, began as a beer distributor after prohibition and later expanded to distributing other types of alcohol, most notably fine wine. If Consolidated Rectifying didn't make the bourbon, then who did?

This where things become even more complicated. There are two batches of Old Grommes. One was released sometime in the 1990s and is Stizel-Weller bourbon. The other, was released sometime in the 2000s and is Beam bourbon. I don't know which bottlings were part of each batch, but I do know that Old Grommes 12 (the most common Old Grommes) was released as part of both batches. For Old Grommes 12, there is no way to tell the difference between these batches based on the front label, but the back label will be different.

Old Grommes that is Stizel-Weller bourbon will have a similar back label to other Japan-only Van Winkle bottlings. It will look something like the picture to the right. I have tasted this batch of Old Grommes 12 101 and barrel proof side by side with Stizel-Weller bottlings from the early 1990s and the taste was nearly identical.  In addition, the owner of the bar with one of the largest bourbon collections in Japan has he stated that he believes Old Grommes to be from Stitzel-Weller.

For the other batch, the back label will be as pictured to the left. This one states that it was distilled in Frankfort, KY and aged in Chicago, just like most descriptions I have found. Beam is the most likely candidate for the distiller and, based on the flavor of the bourbon, I think this is a good bet.

There isn't a satisfying conclusion to this post. Some Old Grommes is A.H. Hirsch, some Old Gromes is Stizel-Weller and some is Beam.

Old Grommes 10y; Old Grommes 12y 120 proof; Old Grommes 12y 125 proof; Old Grommes 20y

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Wild Turkey 1855 Reserve

Age:Blend of 6, 8 and 12-year-old whiskies

1855 Reserve Batch. No. W-T-10-92 
Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a blend of 6, 8 and 12 year-old whiskies that was launched in 1991 with
batch W-T-01-91. Why am I talking about Rare Breed when this is a post about 1855 Reserve? 1855 Reserve is simply an export label for Rare Breed and so these are, for the most part, identical bourbons. The name "1855 Reserve" refers to the year that the Austin Nichols was founded. 

Nevertheless, there is not a complete overlap between Rare Breed and 1855 Reserve. The first batch of 1855 Reserve had no corresponding batch of Rare Breed and only certain of the subsequent batches of Rare Breed became batches of 1855 Reserve. 

The first batch of 1855 Reserve was released in 1992 with the batch number W-T-10-92 and at 110.0 proof. No batch of Rare Breed shares this batch number and, further, no batch of Rare Breed was released in 1992. Given that Rare Breed batch W-T-02-91 and 1855 Reserve batch W-T-10-92 share the same proof, it is possible that these are the same bourbons, but, as batches W-T-01-95 and W-T-02-95 of Rare Breed share the same proof even though they are different bourbons, the case is far from settled. 

Interestingly, the batch number for the first release of 1855 Reserve doesn't follow the pattern of Rare Breed batch numbers. Rare Breed batch numbers are composed of the letters "W" and "T" followed two sets of  two digit numbers (e.g., W-T-01-91). The second set of digits corresponds to the year the bourbon was batched and the first set of digits correspond to the batch number for that year (starting over at 01 each year). For example, batch W-T-01-91 was the first batch of 1991. The first batch number for 1855 Reserve, however, started with batch 10 even though it was the first batch of 1992.

In the subsequent years, 1855 Reserve was released only occasionally. Batches were released in 1994, 1995 and 1996.

The following is a complete list of Rare Breed and 1855 Reserve batch numbers. Batch numbers were discontinued in 2014. 

YearLabelBatch NumberProof
1991Rare BreedW-T-01-91109.6
1991Rare BreedW-T-02-91110
19921855 ReserveW-T-10-92110.0
1993Rare BreedW-T-01-93110.8
1993Rare BreedW-T-02-93Unknown
1993Rare BreedW-T-03-93111.4
1994Rare BreedW-T-01-94112.2
19941855 ReserveW-T-01-94112.2
1994Rare BreedW-T-02-94109.6
19941855 ReserveW-T-02-94109.6
1995Rare BreedW-T-01-95109
19951855 ReserveW-T-01-95109
1995Rare BreedW-T-02-95109
1996Rare BreedW-T-01-96108.8
19961855 ReserveW-T-01-96108.8
1997Rare BreedW-T-01-97108.6
1999Rare BreedW-T-01-99108.4
2003Rare BreedWT 03RB108.2

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Early Times Yellow Label

Proof:80 (40% ABV)
Price:JPY 1000

There are two types of Early Times available in Japan - the Brown Label and the Yellow Label. I've Brown Label, but I was curious about how the Yellow Label might be different.
previously reviewed the

Asahi describes the Yellow Label as "a classic bourbon that continues to uphold tradition" with a "light flavor, sweet aroma and nice finish." Asahi also plays up the "charcoal filtered" aspect, but, as all bourbon is charcoal filtered, this isn't a real selling point.

Asahi describes the Brown Label as having a "profoundly complex flavor and a round finish suited to the Japanese palate." It is also described as a full-bodied bourbon with an oaky nose that still retains a florid and delicate flavor. 

As I said in my review of the Brown Label, Early Times in Japan is different from Early Times in the U.S. Early Times in Japan is bourbon while Early Times in the U.S. is merely whiskey. For more information please see my review of the Brown Label. 

The bottles do not yield any clues as to how these two bourbons might be different. The text and design of both of the labels is identical, except, of course, for the color. Similarly, both are 80 proof. The price is usually identical.

The Japanese website for Early Times used to state that the Yellow Label is the Early Times mashbill (72/11/10) and that the Brown Label is the Old Forester masbhill (72/18/10). I don't know if this is still true, but, based on tasting both, I would believe it.  

The nose is thin with notes of apple juice and shortbread. The taste is fruity (think fruit punch) followed by fig newton and vanilla. The finish has a nutty character, with notes of peanuts and walnuts.     

I tasted the Yellow Label side-by-side with the Brown Label and I like the Brown Label a little bit more. The Brown Label has a little more depth - more banana bread and less apples and shortbread. I think Asahi's descriptions of the two bourbons (see above) are accurate.

Verdict: If you're buying one bottle of Early Times, buy the Brown Label.