Age Statements: Not Always Worth the Paper They’re Printed On?

A friend recently asked me for a recommendation for a decent quality Islay whisky. Hitting an online site to see what’s available locally, I came up with Laphroaig 10, Bowmore 12, and Ardbeg 10–all good candidates and priced within a few dollars of each other. Sending him the list, I braced for the inevitable question: “All things being equal, why wouldn’t I get the twelve year? It’s better than a ten year, right?”

While it’s true that the time a spirit spends aging has a huge impact on the resulting flavor, an attempt to reduce the complicated factors and interactions that go on inside a barrel to a single number is a hopeless oversimplification that confuses consumers. Spirit production and the resulting flavor is complicated and messy, and not readily quantifiable in every dimension. Sure, you can compare the alcohol by volume (ABV) content across two whiskies, but ten years of aging from Producer X may be vastly different than ten years of aging done by Producer Y.  Unfortunately, this fixation on aging as reduced to digits leads some producers to play a numbers game, putting big numbers on their label to draw the eye of an unsuspecting consumer.

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The Cocktail Wonk Top Ten Stories of 2015

2015 was a banner year for this boozy, wonky corner of the web. From in-depth coverage of the Lost Spirits game-changing aging reactor and the cane fields of Nicaragua to tons of reviews and recipes, it’s been a jam-packed year that wowed us when we took in its full breadth.  Here are the top ten stories on the blog this year:

Lost Spirits THEA reactor
The equivalent of twenty years of barrel aging in six days –these are the claims of California’s Bryan Davis. While his Lost Spirits rums had previously grabbed the attention of the rum world in 2014, the announcement that he would license his technology to other distilleries was big news in 2015, especially for the small startup shops looking to compete against established players. I covered the story extensively in 2015 and was the first to cover the initial announcement of the licensing, as well as the first with pictures and background on THEA One reactor. And as part of the coverage, I wrote a lengthy piece about the science and analysis of spirits flavors.

Flor de Caña sugar worker controversy
An article in Vice magazine about unusually high levels of kidney-disease related deaths of Nicaraguan sugar cane harvesters caught the attention of the rum and bartending worlds. Rum was dumped and boycotts announced. Here at the Cocktail Wonk blog, we covered the initial controversy and added key additional perspectives to the discussion. The problem is wider than just one rum brand, and a scientific study points to other possible causes beside too much work and not enough hydration for workers.

Minimalist Tiki
We love Tiki and rum drinks at Casa Cocktail Wonk. However, Tiki can be intimidating for the home bartender, as recipes often contain many highly specific ingredients. In the Minimalist Tiki post, I rounded up a solid set of classic Tiki drinks, methodically analyzed them, and create a prioritized list of ingredients and appropriate rum substitutions. Additional Tiki love and recipes are found in my post about Seattle bartenders and their Iron TikiTender recipes.

Great Cocktail Bar Photos with Your Camera Phone
Lots of cocktail wonks enjoy sharing their latest tipple on social media – I’m more guilty than most. However, there’s way too many dimly lit –or worse, overly lit–cocktail photos out there in the wild. And too many close up snaps of coupes with no bar ambience. Seeking to rectify these atrocities, I wrote a post with tons of tips and tricks for creating great looking bar photos with just your camera phone, rather than a professional photographer’s gear.

Suitcase Booze
Building an internationally sourced spirits collection that’s the envy of your friends is fun! There’s no need to limit yourself to a single bottle you picked up at the duty free. But what should you buy, and is it a good price? There are opportunities and pitfalls galore here–take it from someone who routinely returns from abroad with fifteen or more bottles in their luggage. There’s a ton of hard-won wisdom in my post about buying spirits on the road.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail
Having toured the western half of the Kentucky Bourbon trail in 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned in 2015 to knock off the eastern half. In forty-eight hours we hit up Willett (again), Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, and Four Roses. Each write-up has tons of photos and what to expect.

Using the TTB to find unannounced spirits
New releases of spirits make my heart go pitter-patter. But waiting for distilleries, importers, distributors, or your local liquor stores to tell you about them takes far too long. Why not go straight to the source and find out about them months before anyone else? In my post on how to decipher the TTB web site, I explain how every spirit sold in the U.S. must get government approval, and point toward their searchable database with label images. The site may be tricky to navigate without my tips, but once you know how to use it, it’s easy to find things like upcoming rum releases.

Tales of the Cocktail
Oooh, boy–2015 was my first year at the Tales of the Cocktail, and what an insane experience it was! From the parties and general mayhem and tons of rummy events to specialized sessions on Peruvian pisco and rare Plantation rums, it was chock full of wonky goodness. And so many great bars as well!

Rum Renaissance
The annual Miami Run Renaissance is where most of the U.S. rum nerds and overseas rum celebrities come to bask in the all the sugar cane goodness. In addition to my overall coverage of the event, I also covered the Plantation breakfast event where we learned in detail about how Stiggins’ Fancy is made, and other Plantation news.

Berry Brothers  & Rudd
Among my personal favorite highlights of the year was a private tour of London’s Berry Brothers & Rudd establishment with their spirits manager, Doug McIvor. Truly one of the greatest spirits collections in the world and with tons of history – the store and company dates back to 1698, and they’ve supplied the British Crown since 1760. Their cellars and back rooms are chock full of fabulous stories.

What’s next for the blog? While 2015 was out of control, I can’t wait for 2016! Mrs. Wonk and I depart for Scotland in January to blaze a trail through Scotch whisky distilleries in Islay and Speyside – with full coverage here, of course. We’re also planning to jump again into the fray of Tales of the Cocktail, Rum Renaissance, Midwest Rum Fest, and hopefully a few more events as well. Plus a steady stream of spirits reviews and other wonky, spirited stories as they unfold!

Run for the (Four) Roses – A distillery visit

CocktailWonk Rating: 6/10 ($5)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Four Roses distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, is a town with much to tell about whiskey redemption and renewal. Situated a thirty-minute drive west of Lexington, the town is bordered by the Kentucky and Salt Rivers, both supplying precious water to two iconic American bourbon brands. Wild Turkey went through a few decades where its namesake bourbon was associated with rough living lowlifes and considered bottom shelf. But that story pales compared to the rise, fall, and rebirth of Four Roses.

Four Roses
Four Roses

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Hunting American Whiskey Heritage at the Wild Turkey Distillery

CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10 ($10)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Wild Turkey distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

“Wild Turkey? Are we really going there?” Such was the response from Mrs. Wonk when I outlined this year’s march through Kentucky Bourbon distilleries. If you’re old enough, you may have an impression of Wild Turkey as being inexpensive, less-than-stellar bourbon consumed in mass quantity by hard living folks like Hunter S. Thompson. That said, when those impressions were forming, bourbon and rye were less exalted than they are now, in the midst of the current whiskey craze, where folks pay exorbitant premiums for bottles labeled as the current “hot ticket.”  The upside to the current enthusiasm is that Wild Turkey’s reputation, helped in part by the Russell’s Reserve lineup, has shot up again. Thus I was able to construct a convincing argument to Mrs. Wonk that a visit was essential.  (Not that there was much discussion, she notes.

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Checking Out Woodford Reserve’s Distillery

CocktailWonk Rating: 7.5/10 ($10)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Woodford Reserve distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

Kentucky Horse Fields near Woodford Reserve.
Kentucky Horse (& Deer) Fields near Woodford Reserve.

It’s a rainy second day of our Great 2015 Bourbon Crawl. Having blazed out of the Buffalo Trace parking lot, we make a quick sprint south through Frankfort, KY, via Route 60.  Eventually turning off the highway, we find ourselves in over-the-top beautiful horse country, like in the movies or that one time of year that you watch horse racing on Derby Day. Kentucky horse breeder estates, rolling green grass, wooden fences, barns larger and nicer than most houses in our Seattle neighborhood, a private training track, and the occasional (no doubt irrationally expensive) thoroughbred horse. If we weren’t rushing to make the noon tour at Woodford Reserve, we’d have pulled over and gawked. But bourbon and copper pot stills beckon us toward the distillery. In the Cocktail Wonk book, a pot still trumps rolling hills any day.

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Roaming through the Buffalo Trace Distillery

CocktailWonk Rating: 8/10 (Hard Hat Tour – free)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Buffalo Trace Distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

Located on the banks of the Kentucky River on the outskirts of Frankfort, the Buffalo Trace distillery is the birthplace of numerous beloved bourbon and rye brands, including of course Buffalo Trace. But check out some of the other brands beloved brands distilled there:

  • Blanton’s
  • Colonel E.H. Taylor
  • Elmer T. Lee
  • George T. Stagg
  • (Pappy) Van Winkle
  • W.L. Weller
  • Sazerac

Surprisingly, Sazerac also produces vodka, but let’s just pretend I didn’t mention that.

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Touring the Jim Beam American Stillhouse

useCocktailWonk Rating: 8/10 ($10 tour)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements of these tours in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Jim Beam American Stillhouse. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

Jim Beam is the flagship brand of Beam Suntory, a vast conglomerate of spirts makers with a focus on whisk(e)y. In addition to Jim Beam, other Beam Suntory labels include Maker’s Mark, Laphroaig, Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Canadian Club, Alberta Premium, Connemara, Hibiki, Hukushu, and Yamazaki. In the non-whiskey category it owns producers like Sauza Tequila, Courvoisier cognac, Cruzan rum, and Gilbey’s gin. To say Beam Suntory is huge is an understatement; deep pockets mean lot of money available to promote its brands. So what’s the Jim Beam American Stillhouse experience, given all this corporate backing?

Like many Kentucky distilleries, the American Stillhouse pops up seemingly out of nowhere alongside a rural two-lane highway about a half hour drive south of Louisville, in Clermont, KY. Driving up the half mile winding lane to the visitor’s center, you pass a small cemetery, dating back to the early 1800s. Although it’s not affiliated with the Jim Beam distillery, it provides a context to the bourbon making you’ll soon see.

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Touring Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery in Nashville

CocktailWonk Rating: 6.5/10 ($10 tour)

Following an epic expedition through eight Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries in October 2014, Mrs. Wonk and I returned a year later, visiting six more major players and completing our regional Tour de Bourbon. While every distillery is unique and interesting in its own way, there are certain common elements such as fermentation tanks and rick houses that you’ll see on just about any tour. In a prior post, I described these common elements of these tours in detail, allowing me to focus this post on my observations about the Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, I’d suggest starting with that post.

2015-11-02 iPhone6 Download 494

Situated in a renovated warehouse building in west Nashville, Nelson’s Greenbrier is just a few blocks down the street from Corsair Artisan Distillery, forming the beginnings of a distillery row. Nelson’s is quite new, only open for a year at the time of this writing. Despite that, their distillery DSP code is DSP-TN-5, indicating it’s one of Tennessee’s first registered distilleries. What gives? A pretty great family story, actually. Back in the late 1800s, a gentleman named Charles Nelson founded the original Green Brier distillery, which soon became the state’s largest distiller, handily out-producing those little guys, Jack Daniels.

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Checking out Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, A Most Unusual Canadian Rye

As a cocktail wonk, I’m constantly expanding my spirits library, building an essential set of specimens representing the major spirits categories. My whisk(e)y collection has grown steadily, with dozens of bourbon, American rye, scotch, and Irish whiskey expressions. Inexplicably however, no bottles from Canada, our neighbor to the north and a whisky powerhouse on the world stage. I’ll confess that this was partially the result of my perception (widespread it seems) that Canadian whisky is composed of mostly spirits distilled to a very high alcohol percentage (thus stripping out most of the flavor), along with a bit of caramel and artificial flavoring

After seeing an announcement for the Seattle launch event of Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, along with a host of well-respected Seattle bartenders participating, I decided that it was time to educate myself; the evening turned out to be highly educational, as I discovered a dark, complex rye with an unusual story (more on this below). I was also fortunate to meet Dan Tullio, Canadian Whisky Master Ambassador at Beam Suntory (who reminds me of a young Tony Bennett), and came home with a bottle of the Dark Batch to review here.

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Into the Colossus – A visit to Heaven Hill in Bardstown

Cistern room at Heaven Hill
In October, 2014 Mrs. Wonk and I toured eight whiskey distilleries in the vicinity of Louisville, KY, and Nashville, TN. In a prior post, I described the common elements of these tours in detail, while this post focuses on the unique parts of our Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center visit. If you’re not familiar with the whiskey-making process, it’s a good idea to read that post first.

CocktailWonk Rating: 7/10 (Behind the Scenes $35 tour)

Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc., based in Bardstown, KY, is a study in contradictions. And at their gigantic facility here you’ll find just about every aspect of whiskey production–except a distillery. And while the company bills themselves as “America’s largest independent family-owned producer of Bourbon,” they own roughly 1,200 different brands, the vast majority of which aren’t whiskey. Don’t dismiss them as whiskey wannabes though – they have roughly one million barrels of bourbon aging in their warehouses, ranking them as the second largest bourbon inventory in the world behind Beam Suntory. Fun fact: Kentucky has more bourbon barrels undergoing aging than citizens

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