Category Archives: 3 – Try it

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – batch 92 (47%)

Stranahan's Colorado WhiskyBefore the distillery was officially founded, George Stranahan let Jess Graber use his barn to experiment distilling his whisky. At the time, Stranahan was not only a bootlegging accomplice, but owner of Flying Dog Brewery, so Graber began distilling leftover kegs and any odds and ends he could get Stranahan to give him. Eventually, Graber “crafted his own recipe from barley” and tasked Flying Dog to brew it for them, essentially outsourcing the mash he would use for his whisky.

The official distillery was founded in 2004 by Graber and Stranahan. Graber quickly brought amateur distiller Jake Norris into the fold to help with production as a minority partner. In 2007, Flying Dog moved to Maryland so Stranahan’s switched to Oskar Blues for their wash. Two years after that, they bought a new space and started making their own wash. Finally, in 2010, Graber sold the whole thing to Proximo spirits. Norris was the last of the trio left working the floor when he departed in 2011. He’s hinted in interviews that he has a side project he’s planning, but nothing has surfaced yet. Thus concludes the journey of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey from craft to corporate in six short years.

Knowing the genesis of this brand, I suspect there are some hops in the mash. Flying Dog makes a lot of very hoppy brews. Proximo is notorious for its reluctance to comment, though the official reply I received from Stranahan’s very plainly denied the addition. The website claims it’s “straight Colorado whisky”. If it were straight whisky, that would rule out any adjuncts like hops, but the only declaration on this bottle uses the word straight to describe where it came from, “straight from the Rocky’s,” and I have a suspicion that the word Colorado in between straight and whisky on the website may provide them disingenuous cover, as well.

Nose: White wine, dry cave and hops over a malty base. Given lots of air there’s evidence of a beautiful single malt in here. Sliced almonds and raspberries. Woody like a Bourbon. Slightly under-dried apple chips. Socks and boiled egg whites waft in between milk chocolate.

Palate: Hops dominate all for the first few moments before retreating to offer a little footing for traces of other flavors. IPA on the middle of the tongue and stout in back. Bright with bitter grapefruit, cola and heaps of ripe apples. Numbing. A little of the chocolate in the finish implies there may be some darker roasted malt in the mix.

Rating: Try itI love the nose but find myself less enamored with the palate. The roar of its cult status is hard to muffle, though. It doesn’t suffer from lack of character but I’ve had much better bottles. I do find it strange that WhistlePig receives so much criticism for being 10 years old and costing upwards of $60, while Stranahan’s rolls in with no age statement and a verbally marketed age of 2-5 years for the same price without commotion from the peanut gallery.

Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection – Made with Rice (45%)

Buffalo Trace Rice MashThis is a Bourbon mash padded with rice instead of rye or wheat. Like all of Buffalo Trace’s Experimental Collection, the label lays out lots of details about the spirit’s creation, including stave drying time, evaporation rate, and barrel entry proof. Very cool.

The official tasting notes on this one’s label are a little puzzling to me, though. The very first line which states “Very clean aroma,” loses me right away. Anyone who’s smelled rice spirit knows it’s anything but clean. Rice is a funky grain that often distills out to become a vinegary sewer of a spirit. This Bourbon is rather light overall, but that rice funk is here in spades. Anyone nosing this next to a classic Buffalo Trace bottling would know right away what rice offers to the spirit… which is precisely where this whisky starts to shine.

This is one of the few “experimental” whiskies that I didn’t immediately regret buying when I opened it. It’s probably not going to quench your Bourbon thirst if that’s what ails you; it’s a little alien, but if you’re looking for some cerebral drinking then this might just scratch that itch. Judging by the exorbitant price, I would say that’s the market they were probably going after when they released this one. It’s definitely not meant to be a day-to-day whisky. This is a bottle that you open once and then wait for your nerdiest whisky friends to come over and sample.

Nose: At first, it’s bright and sweet with bubblegum and pop rocks. Carrots and medicated vanillin start to take the aroma in a different direction. Then it becomes porkish, like the pig-fart smell a chemically treated pork shoulder from an industrial scale farm gives off when you boil it, with other weirdly funky undertones, like bamboo salt.

Palate: First sip is like sucking on the tape from a cassette. Eventually, the palate settles down into something sweeter and slightly more classical but it stays slightly bitter and woody. Loads of caramel. Light orange candy in the finish.

Rating: Try itAgain, this is not an everyday whisky. The word Bourbon on the label will lead you down an alleyway booby trapped with expectations. You need to ignore those little voices telling you what to want from the spirit and let the drink tell you what it is, instead. If you can manage that, then this $60 350mL half-bottle may just make an interesting addition to your whisky shelf.

Stagg Jr. – 2013 (67.2%)

Stagg JrIf the George T. Stagg is Charlie Sheen’s Twitter account, then the Stagg Jr. is Justin Beiber: that’s direction I wanted to take this review, but while the Stagg Jr. is certainly younger and doesn’t seem so traumatized up close, it’s not quite as out of control, so I’m going to have to abandon the metaphor.

The initial public reception seemed lackluster. The way that the George seems to have had a hard time making the public dislike it despite the rising cost and falling abv, I think the Jr. is living in its shadow and will never get the acclaim it ought to. In a George T. Stagg vs Stagg Jr. throwdown, it seems like it’s difficult for people to not compare the younger version to their love for the older one that made the name famous.

Personally, after comparing the two side by side, I’m not sure exactly where I sit, but it’s probably closer to the original. Both have moments when I like them and moments when I don’t. Both are over-priced, in my opinion. The younger version is better in some ways and worse in a few more. Most importantly, the psychotic resin-pepper is toned down in the younger incarnation. The Jr. doesn’t try so hard, and is certainly less complex, but I don’t feel like it just stripped all the fleshy bits off my throat after a sip. The next big difference is that there’s more vanilla in the original and much less here, which is tragic for the Jr. because the vanilla is my favorite part of both.

Another pleasant surprise, water is nicer to the Stagg Jr. The addition squashes some of the musty woody notes in the palate. The 2013 George T. Stagg is like a gremlin when it gets wet. It multiplies the resin and sour. The 2013 Jr. is… um… well, it (probably) won’t kill your science teacher. I wouldn’t drink either after midnight, though. Despite the more reserved demeanor, the proof of 2013’s Jr. is actually higher than the corresponding George T. Stagg.

Nose: Musty cedar and suntan lotion. Malty caramel cut with Vitamin B and loam. The umami is more like figs marinated in watered down fish sauce, now. Teaberry chewing gum and stale vanilla beans. Maple syrup over buttery Eggo waffles. Sweaty, bamboo-lined karate dojo. Plasticy, like the inside of a brand new Chevy Nova; no, not the cool third gen ones. I mean the 1985 hatchback piece-of-shit version.

Palate: This Jr. is definitely woodier right away and the vanilla beans, while still present, are smaller. The cocoa notes are also farther away now. Farmy and cooling, without the sour capsaicin of the original, also not as sweet. A touch more bitter with drying cedar that gets a little bit sweeter as it wraps up. Luden’s cherry cough drops with a long, numbing finish.

Rating: Try itThis one sells for around $50 and is “nearly a decade” old, so it’s on the pricey side, owing to the fame and hype of its predecessor; trend is the number one enemy of the whisky drinker. It’s supposed to be a tiny bit easier to find, though, and still strong enough that you could, quite effectively, mace an attacker with it. After it’s tepid reception, I would predict we may not see this as frequently as Buffalo Trace originally let on. If this were a $25 bottle I think consumers would have been more excited to see it.

George T. Stagg – 2013 (64.1%)

George-T-Stagg-2013Along with the rest of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, George T. Stagg hasn’t quite reached Pappy Van Winkle status, but it’s quickly gaining ground and is just about as hard to get. They only release it once or twice a year, so you may need to develop a relationship with your local liquor store to procure a bottle. The truth is, if you haven’t found a bottle of this yet, then you’re most likely out of luck for a few months, stuck looking for it at bars, or resigned to playing victim to some hopeful opportunist who bought their entire local supply as an investment so they could sell it for triple what it’s worth.

At first, I wasn’t even going to review this one. It’s so difficult to find that I feel like reviews of it are practically useless. I always imagined people reading this blog were looking for advice on how to spend their money, and rarity considered, a review doesn’t seem like it would serve very many.

Also, it seems like many (not all) of the people who review this kind of stuff are the type of elitist drinkers who like to brag about their collections and all the pricey finds they paid out the nose for. Oh hi, Twitter. I didn’t see you standing there. What’s this, you say? Oh, it’s just a Stitzel-Weller bottling of Old Dickwad 15. It’s suuuuper rare. Woh.

So why bother writing about it? Well okay, maybe I’m a bit of a braggart. (Look what I got, suckas!) That aside, it’s a common sentiment that older whisky is better than younger whisky, though the truth isn’t quite so simple. There’s a finite lifetime on how long whisky can spend in a virgin cask before it becomes undrinkable and this one may be approaching the point of no return. Despite the suspicious lack of an age statement on the bottle, Buffalo Trace’s webpage claims that this whisky is “no less than 15 years old”. If you ask me, after I bought this, I think buying a second bottle would have been a colossal waste of money for me. In that spirit of dissent, I figured a review was prudent, after all.

charlie sheenThis whisky is out of control and I don’t mean the fun “out of control,” like your buddy with the bald tires who goes e-braking around the parking lot the first time it snows each year. This is Charlie Sheen’s Twitter account, out of control. The kind of reckless tweeting that needs a second service so it can operate at full, ludicrous capacity (TwitLonger). This whisky is the kind that angrily capitalizes random WORDS for extra EMPHASIS in between delusions of coke-fueled grandeur, all while arbitrarily bashing the enter key between prepositions. This is the whisky equivalent of that guy we all wish we could have hung out with for a few weeks when we were sixteen, broke and dumb as hell. Sure it’s fun, but I definitely wouldn’t want to live with it, and earnestly trying to understand its musings for more than five minutes at a time is a masochist’s errand.

Ironically, I think the George T. Stagg earns such high praise because of its long history of ridiculousness. Previous releases have boasted proofs that hovered around 140. Trust me when I say you don’t want to know what’ll happen if you accidentally inhale some of that while sipping. I can’t say the 2013 is better or worse than previous releases, but I do feel like it’s probably riding on the coattails of shenanigans past.

Nose: Figs marinated in soy sauce. Deeply roasted pecans over green bananas. Caramel popcorn from a tin. Oak, oak, and oak beside a plate of marzipan dusted with stale, smoked maple sugar. Corn starch dusted carnations and pine resin. It’s sour, rubbery, slightly medicinal and has an almost peaty, phenolic quality to it. If there is a Satan, I would wager that this is what his tears smell like. 

Palate: Predictably HOT and drying at full strength (duh!) followed quickly by a touch of uncured composite tooth filling. Though even with water, the hotness persists, so it’s not just a product of the high abv. It has a strong cooling character that paints your tonsils and makes me feel like I’m drinking a first aid kit full of dry, black licorice, chocolate and pecan skins. Vanilla beans! Candy cinnamon, raw capsaicin and clover buds sprinkled over a plate of the eternally malevolent’s tears.

Rating: Try itThis is a legendary whisky and absolutely worth trying it if you can find it. Old Bourbon isn’t for everyone though, so keep that in mind. One last word of advice: this should only retail for $80-90 in the US. If someone’s trying to sell you a bottle for $250 it’s because they think or hope that you’re an idiot.

High West – American Prairie Reserve (46%) batch 13J02

High West American Prairie ReserveWell, I took a little more time off after the holidays than I anticipated. It was nice to just sit back and drink whisky for the sake of drinking it without neurotically taking notes and mulling over every sip. The time-off was refreshing but I obsessively take notes for a reason; it’s not a chore, and I’m definitely ready to get back into the swing of things!

I’ve said it a bunch of times on the blog, but I’m a sucker for svelte packaging. High West’s hefty wooden bottle stoppers and wanted-poster style labels set a gritty Western tone. The walls of the bottle are flecked with tiny air bubbles and lit with the slightest blue tinge. The bases are all lop sided, some steeply sloped, others with shallow ripples, but all clearly the work of a single worker manually filling the molds. They’re manufactured in a small town in Mexico that also makes Tequila bottles. Very cool!

On the other hand, caramel coloring is a legitimate “blending material” for anything labelled as a blend, even blends of straight Bourbons. Other than the unaged, OMG Pure rye spirit, all of High West’s stuff I’ve seen is exactly the same rusty pigment. (EDIT 1/17/14: Owner David Perkins left a comment below confirming there is no caramel coloring in High West’s line-up but that the color is pretty uniform. Taking a second look myself, I can see the Double Rye is an iota lighter, probably from the 2 year old spirit. We’re all wrong sometimes. Cheers, David!) Is spirit caramel really a big deal? Probably not, but the adjunct uniformity makes me feel like it’s suddenly a little less “artisanal”. I’m not quite sure what the image evokes in me more: creepy clone army or homogeneous forest of blandness. It’s a strange departure from the vintage looking bottles. I think with a little more variety in color, this could be America’s sexiest looking whisky line-up.

On the other-other hand, it’s not chillfiltered (yay!) and who really cares what the bottle looks like so long as it’s warm and inviting in the glass. These folks do some really cool stuff with their sourced stocks, probably the coolest stuff out of all the sourced releases I’ve tasted to date.

Nose: It has a minerally/dusty feel at first. Eucalyptus. Sweetly artificial for moments, like Mad Scientist Monster Lab Monster Flesh Compound. It can seem lightly floral, too, but it always comes back to sweet. Stale Bazooka Joe, golden syrup, Cow Tales candy, canned vanilla frosting, and some roasted marshmallow. Light wafts of cracked fennel seed over strawberries and a drop of reduced red wine.

Palate: Popcorn and oak turns over to banana nail polish remover and then on to a simple sweetness. Peppered caramel, blackened marshmallow, and modest amounts of roasted grain. The bubblegum leaves a faint trace along with some celery salt in the relatively short, woody finish. This could use some more richness to round it out. The after-sip leaves me feeling a little flat, though the unique profile keeps me coming back to double check.

Rating: Try itThis “blend of straight Bourbons” is a mix of 6 year MGPI (LDI) stocks and 10 year old Four Roses. Mixing in some Four Roses is a very creative way to add some extra dimension to a product that’s currently saturating the market (MGPI). I wish the palate were more robust and that the price were a little bit lower, but this is still great stuff worth a shot if you’re looking for something new to try.

Thank you Katie Flanagan of High West for the bottle!

High West – Son of Bourye (46%) batch 13G11

Son of BouryeI’d like to start off this next wave of reviews about High West with my least favorite of the bunch: the Son of Bourye. The Son is the sequel to the original Bourye. As the name suggests, it’s a younger incarnation, but still a blend of straight Bourbon and Rye whiskies, this time from Four Roses and LDI respectively.

A lot of people want to attribute the Bourbon/Rye blending concept to High West. Both Wild Turkey and Jefferson’s recently released new Bourbon/Rye blends after the Bourye, so the obvious thing to say would be that High West was the first to come up with the idea and inspired a new genre. While High West may be the first in recent times to visibly market such a product, I still can’t help but think of another prominent school of whisky thought that may have arrived at that idea before them.

While Rye is the colloquial term for whisky there, Canadian distillers actually began their distilling history with wheat. Wheat makes a very mild, subtle whisky, so when they discovered that adding a splash of rye gave it more of a kick, the practice took off and the term became the Canadian status quo. Incidentally, corn replaced wheat as the new grain of choice up north, and this mixing of corn-based and rye-based whisky is just one of the reasons why most Canadian whisky bears the term “blended” on its label when it arrives in the US.

Of course, there’s a little more to it. Bourbon is an American product, and the whisky being “blended” in Canada is usually a mix of bold straight whisky much like our rye, blended into a mild base whisky which is very unlike our Bourbon. The two parts are very different, so adding one to the other provides complexity. In that respect, the Canadian style makes more sense to me than what High West did right here.

Mutant Baby

Lots of Bourbons use rye in the mashbill already, and conversely, lots of Ryes also use corn. There’s a grey area where the two can be very similar. For instance, in the US, a Bourbon can use a mash that’s 51% corn and 49% rye, and a Rye can use a mash with reversed proportions, 51% rye and 49% corn. There’s only two percent difference in the ratio, but they are legally two different products. Why mix them if they can be so similar already?

For me, this whole thing is like mixing Coke and Diet Coke. Either you want a bold, sweet Coca-Cola or you want a low calorie soda. While it seems possible that some people might want a few less calories than Coke Classic and a little more taste than Diet Coke, that crossover market isn’t actually as big as some might think it is. People reaching for a low calorie drink don’t want the extra sugar, much like how people who hate the taste of Diet Coke won’t find a Diet Coke blend any more appealing. Coca-Cola did try to market a middle-ground soft drink before. It was called C2. You don’t remember seeing it on shelves? Well, I imagine that in a few years we’ll see the Bourye novelty move in the same forgettable direction.

Nose: At first it’s like a bag of rocks but then it opens up to honey. There’s a vegetal, flinty note. Its sweetness is reserved and only opens up for moments. An old graphite smudged pencil box filled with custard and garnished with a sprig of huacatay. Extremely distant raspberries and pear with a pinch of cumin salt.

Palate: Drier and woodier than expected, like I took a spoonful of the custard from the nose but it was pencil box flavored custard made with wooden eggs. The fruit is more of an after-thought behind the first sip but builds up as it goes. After a few sips the raspberries come out. Medium, short finish with some numbing.

Rating: Try itThere may actually be a reason for mixing the two spirits, though. A good whisky is a good whisky, no matter what it’s made of. If the two stocks they chose made sense mixed together then it’s a win no matter how the government forces the company to label it. Unfortunately, I just wasn’t impressed with this particular result. I do, however, think the way they marketed this whisky was smart and helped the product reach further than it would have as a simple blend of straight whiskies. It gave bloggers and marketing guys a romantic theme to write about, an easy target, but for me, the novelty is just that; novelty.

Thank you Katie Flanagan of High West for the bottle. Cheers!