Tag Archives: Bourbon

Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon Cask

A staple of the Solist series from Taiwanese producer Kavalan, I’ve been looking forward to trying this single cask malt whisky for a while now.

Late last year, I reviewed Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak – the vatted version of this whisky, reduced to 46% ABV. Like its Sherry Oak sibling, this is a good way to try a variant of the relatively expensive (and hard to find) Solist bottlings.  Although I’ve seen the Solist ex-Bourbon in my travels, it remains relatively steep here in Canada (if you can find it). I still regret not picking up a bottle when I had the chance passing through Taiwan a couple of years ago (for ~$100 CAD at that time, sigh).

Unlike the vatted ex-Bourbon Oak bottling, this is a true single cask whisky, bottled at cask strength. It was one of the first Solist bottlings to make a big splash on the international scene, garnering a Gold Medal at both the ISC 2010 and the IWSC 2011 competitions. As the name suggests, it is aged exclusively in first-fill ex-bourbon barrels.

My sample came courtesy of redditor Throzen. Cask number was B101126003A, bottle number was 069 out of 182. Bottled at 57.8% ABV.

Let’s see how the various Kavalan expressions do in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Kavalan Concertmaster: 8.30 ± 0.55 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak: 8.93 ± 0.25 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan King Car Conductor: 8.43 ± 0.35 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Sherry Oak: 8.62 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Podium: 8.73 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Single Malt: 8.40 ± 0.50 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist ex-Bourbon: 8.86 ± 0.21 on 20 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask: 8.99 ± 0.31 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Port Cask: 8.79 ± 0.39 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist PX Cask: 9.07 ± 0.65 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.07 ± 0.33 on 18 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique: 8.99 ± 0.33 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Overwhelming vanilla and caramel to start. Fruits are definitely tropical, with papaya, banana and pineapple. Tons of coconut – makes me think of a pina colada. Orange citrus (juice and peels). Boston cream pie. Black pepper. Has a vague musty smell, along with some acetone, which are the only off-notes for me. Significant nose hair singe from the high alcohol content – this does better with some water to tame to raw ethanol. With water, some candied fruit notes appear, and butterscotch adds to the caramel.

Palate: Wow, that’s a hot one at cask-strength! More honeyed in the mouth, but still with lots of caramel. Milk chocolate. Fruits are subdued, more green bananas and pineapple juice now. Pepper and classic oak spices pick up, with some woody bitterness. Sticky, oily residue on the lips and gums after swallowing, which is nice. Again, you need some water to really open this up. Water brings in a lovely silky quality, like a melted caramilk bar, and turns it even sweeter in the mouth.

Finish: Long. The coconut returns on the finish, with some lingering tropical fruits. Not particularly sweet on the way out, as these are nicely balanced by the woody notes. Vaguely nutty. A grassy element also picks up now. This is a well-integrated finish, with that classic Kavalan astringency coming up at the very end.

My advice is to not be shy with the water here – it can handle a good amount. And it nicely tames the heat while keeping all the core elements intact (although it does make it even sweeter).

Fans of ex-bourbon oak maturation (and pina coladas!) will find a lot to like here. For me, this is a definite dessert whisky. It is so evocative of a tropical vacation, it almost doesn’t seem like whisky. I would score it higher than the ex-Bourbon Oak – largely because of the higher strength, which gives you more flexibility to customize the experience. I would also score it slightly higher than the Meta-Critic average, closer to ~9.0 in my view.

Among reviewers, the most positive (like me) are of Dominic and John of Whisky Advocate, Thomas of Whisky Saga, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and Jake of Whiskey Reviewer. Moderately positive reviews come from Serge of Whisky Fun, Jan of Best Shot Whisky, and Josh the Whiskey Jug. The lowest scores I’ve seen come from Andre of Quebec Whisky, Ruben of Whisky Notes, and Sinjun86 of Reddit – but these are still around the overall score for all whiskies reviewed. Clearly, this is one that is hard to go wrong with.

 

Kavalan Podium

Podium is another single malt expression from Taiwanese producer Kavalan. It is matured in a combination of new American oak (virgin oak) and the distillery’s refill casks, making it an interesting blend of new and old.

I don’t see this expression around very often, so I was happy to come across a 50ml mini bottle at a BIC Camera in Tokyo last month. I was not as happy about the $19 CAD list price. It seems virtually all Japanese and Taiwanese whisky in Japan has reached unbelievable price levels. That’s supply and demand for you.

Bottled at 46% ABV. My mini bottle had a bottling code of 2015.12.19 08:06.

Let’s see how it compares to other Kavalan expressions in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:

Kavalan Concertmaster: 8.30 ± 0.55 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak: 8.93 ± 0.25 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan King Car Conductor: 8.43 ± 0.35 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Podium: 8.73 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Sherry Oak: 8.62 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Single Malt Whisky: 8.40 ± 0.50 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Ex-Bourbon: 8.85 ± 0.21 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask: 8.99 ± ± 0.31 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Port Cask: 8.79 ± 0.39 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist PX Cask: 9.07 ± 0.65 on 6 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.07 ± 0.33 on 18 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique: 8.99 ± 0.33 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)

That’s a very good score for a non-Solist expression.

And now what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, with honey and tropical fruits – mango, papaya, banana and pineapple. Vanilla and caramel. Something reminiscent of a brandy or rum cask finish, unusually sweet.  Coconut and toasted oak. Cereal. A bit of earthy funk. All in all quite an interesting nose, with a good amount of character. No real off notes.

Palate: Sweet notes dominate initially – caramel and honey – followed by the same tropical fruit notes. There is also something floral now, but artificial (i.e. perfumy). Oak spices, cinnamon and all spice, plus pepper and anise. Also ginger. Somewhat woody – this definitely seems like a combination of refill and virgin oak. Warming as you swallow, with some raw ethanol lingering (even after multiple sips). This is unfortunately a little too raw and hot on the palate, compared to the lovely nose and initial taste.

Finish: Medium length. The artificial note persists, alongside the honey. Cinnamon and oaky spices. Dried apple shows up now. Leather. A bit of bitterness comes in at very end – and that trademark Kavalan astringency.

With water, caramel really picks up in mouth. Astringency on the finish is unaffected. I definitely recommend you try it with a little water.

Based on the nose, I had high hopes for this whisky. But it just seems a bit too hot and young on the palate, which detracts from the otherwise nice balance of refill casks and virgin wood. While it has some distinctive elements, at the end of the day I would only give this a slightly above average score. Although I’m in the minority here, I would probably even recommend Concertmaster over this one.

Among reviewers, it gets very high scores from Dominic of Whisky Advocate, Jim Murray, and washeewashee of Reddit. It gets more moderately positive (though average scores) from Serge of Whisky Fun, Jason of In Search of Elegance, Patrick of Quebec Whisky and Ruben of Whisky Notes. It gets a lower score from of Krishna of Malt Maniacs.  Personally, I would tend toward the mid-range of this panel.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Following up on my Wild Turkey 101 review, here is the true barrel-proof (cask-strength) member of this family – Wild Turkey Rare Breed.

First thing you will notice is that the proof of each batch varies a little bit, consistent with a true barrel proof product. It is also not that much higher than WT 101 – most Rare Breeds are in the 108-117 proof range (or ~54-58% ABV). The reason for this relatively low final strength is that WT enters the barrel at a lower proof than most of its competitors (in order to keep more of the base distillate character).

Wild Turkey uses a common mashbill for all its bourbons, which I would classify as a “standard rye bourbon” (R2), based on 13% rye in the mashbill. Rare Breed is reported to be a barrel-proof blend of 6, 8 and 12-year-old stocks (in contrast, regular WT 101 is believed to be the younger 6/8 year olds).

Rare Breed sells for $60 CAD at the LCBO, when they have it in stock. My sample was provided by TOModera of Reddit, and was batch WT-03RB from 2011, which was 54.1% ABV.

Let’s see how it compares to other bourbons in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database – especially other cask-strength bourbons:

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength: 8.84 ± 0.43 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Baker’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon 7yo: 8.78 ± 0.29 on 21 reviews ($$$)
Barton 1792 Full Proof: 8.69 ± 0.52 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Blanton’s Straight from the Barrel: 8.93 ± 0.23 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.84 ± 0.24 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength: 8.55 ± 0.28 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Colonel EH Taylor Barrel Proof: 8.89 ± 0.20 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof: 8.90 ± 0.22 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.80 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews ($$)
Henry McKenna 10yo Single Barrel BiB: 8.75 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 100 BiB: 8.39 ± 0.49 on on 11 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 114: 8.63 ± 0.24 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.71 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10yo: 8.57 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel: 8.83 ± 0.39 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Stagg Jr (all batches): 8.53 ± 0.41 on 19 reviews ($$$$)
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon: 8.43 ± 0.36 on 21 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: 8.71 ± 0.31 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Forgiven: 8.46 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Decades: 9.01 ± 0.19 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)

WT Rare Breed gets a good score for the price, among this class of cask-strength bourbons.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: I get a fairly standard level of rye, as expected for WT. Lots of caramel. Cherries and some dark fruit (dried, not fresh). Cinnamon and all-spice. Lots of nose hair pickle from the high alcohol level, as expected. Acetone and some off-note that I can’t quite identify (both detract for me personally). Not really getting a lot of subtlety here, it’s a full-force bourbon nose.

Palate: A fair amount of rye zing, joining the standard corn notes. Caramel. Some citrus (orange). Has a higher rye taste than I expected from the mashbill, cinnamon and all-spice in particular. Oaky and spicy, with black pepper and a little anise. The higher ABV is noticeable here, and a bit overwhelming. Some bitterness on the swallow.

Finish: Long. Lighter sweetness slips in now, with some honey and light vanilla. Pear. Finish of lighter rye notes, nutmeg included. Fairly astringent though (i.e., drying). Touch of spearmint comes in at very end, which is nice.

With water, ethanol burn on the nose is lightened. More caramel in the mouth now, but still plenty of rye spice. Definitely better with a bit of water, becomes even more syrupy. Fair amount of astringency remains on finish though, which water doesn’t seem to affect.

Overall, I like the finish of this bourbon the best – I find it too strong and wood-focused on nose and palate, especially neat. Only on the finish does it open up and more subtle flavours emerge. This is a rare example where I actually prefer a standard bottling of this whisky over the cask-strength (i.e. the relatively high proof Wild Turkey 101).

Among reviewers, it is again very popular with Jim Murray, Serge of Whisky Fun and the guys at Quebec Whisky – all scoring it higher than WT 101. Josh the Whiskey Jug likes it (gives it the same score as WT 101). Similarly, Nick of Breaking Bourbon gives it the same score as Eric gave WT 101. Still with a relatively lower score – but higher than WT 101 – is Richard of Whiskey Reviewer. Jason of In Search of Elegance gives it a fairly low score – and prefers WT 101, as I do.

Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon

Wild Turkey is a popular Kentucky-based bourbon, currently owned by Campari group. Distilling has been under the dynastic control of the Russell family for many years now. It has the image of a no-nonsense, uncompromising style of bourbon, lacking in pretentiousness. The name apparently stems from the early days of production, when a wholesaler took a bunch of warehouse samples on a turkey hunt. The whisky proved so popular with his compatriots, that they kept asking him for that “wild turkey bourbon” – and thus a marketing angle was born.

Wild Turkey occupies an interesting position in the range of bourbon styles. On paper, it has a fairly standard bourbon profile, with a historically “typical” level of rye in the mashbill – 13%. This qualifies it as a “standard” rye in my bourbon classification scheme (i.e.,  R2 in the database). However, this is one of the few bourbons out there that doesn’t easily fit into that mashbill-based classification – many drinkers find a more substantial rye-like presence to the whisky, and would consider as a “high rye” bourbon. Indeed, for those who forgo the low/standard/high rye bourbon classification for a simpler low/high one, there is no doubt that you would consider Wild Turkey as high rye (e.g., see the Reddit bourbon guide). This bold flavour in WT may be due to the relatively high char levels of the barrels, as well as the relatively low proof coming off the stills.

There are several variants of this bird out there. Wild Turkey 101 is so-named because it is bottled at 101 proof (50.5% ABV). This is higher proof than their standard entry-level bottling (WT 81).

In late 2016, I picked up a 1L travel retail bottle (i.e., duty-free) of WT 101 for $22 USD, on sale at a US airport. The LCBO started stocking it in early 2017, but at higher cost (currently $38 CAD for 750mL).  But it still seems the best value among the various Wild Turkey bottlings available at the LCBO (i.e., it is $33 CAD for the WT 81, and $60 CAD for the Rare Breed barrel-proof).

Here is how WT compares to other similarly-priced bourbons in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database – especially Bottled in Bond (BiB) expressions, given the similar strength (100 proof):

Barton 1792 Small Batch: 8.53 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews ($$)
Buffalo Trace: 8.57 ± 0.38 on 23 reviews ($$)
Bulleit Bourbon: 8.37 ± 0.35 on 24 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig Small Batch: 8.28 ± 0.28 on 4 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams BiB: 8.32 ± 0.49 on 11 reviews ($)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.67 ± 0.23 on 18 reviews ($$)
Four Roses (Yellow Label): 8.19 ± 0.34 on 12 reviews ($)
Four Roses Small Batch: 8.49 ± 0.40 on 16 reviews ($$)
Heaven Hill 6yo BiB: 8.36 ± 0.24 on 8 reviews ($)
Henry McKenna 10yo Single Barrel BiB: 8.75 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$)
Jim Beam Bonded: 8.47 ± 0.42 on 11 reviews ($$)
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.60 ± 0.39 on 23 reviews ($$)
Old Forester: 8.12 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews ($$)
Old Fitzgerald BiB: 7.93 ± 0.45 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 100 BiB: 8.39 ± 0.49 on 11 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10yo: 8.57 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey 81 Bourbon: 8.09 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews ($)
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon: 8.43 ± 0.36 on 21 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.29 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed: 8.71 ± 0.31 on 20 reviews ($$$)
Wild Turkey Forgiven: 8.46 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select: 8.38 ± 0.32 on 22 reviews ($$)

I know there are a lot of numbers up there, but WT101 gets a good score for this strength bourbon, at this price range.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Nose: Light and sweet initially, with strong caramel notes. Apple. Slightly burnt toffee (may be from barrel char). Caramel apples really come to mind. Light rye spice. Mint, and a touch of dill. No real off notes, it’s nice.

Palate: Caramel apple again. Honey. Vanilla. Cinnamon and touch of cloves. Dill again. Seems like a very well balanced and integrated bourbon. Bit of ethanol heat on back end. Burn on swallowing persists, even after multiple sips. Spicy overall.

Finish: Medium. Light, sweet cane sugar, with just a touch of artificial sweetener. Apple and pear. Vanilla. Very gentle fade out. Nutmeg. A bit drying (astringent), but not bad.

With water, I get some added Juicy Fruit gum flavour on the nose and finish. Mouthfeel lightens very quickly though, without affecting the burn. I recommend you drink it with only a small splash of water.

Pretty decent bourbon, easy to drink, but with some noticeable kick and persistent burn on the finish. Would work very well in cocktails, thanks to the high rye flavour and extra proof. Overall, it seems well balanced for flavour, age, and cost – a good value bourbon.

Among reviewers, Josh the Whiskey Jug is a big fan. The guys at Quebec Whisky are generally quite positive as well, as is Jim Murray. More moderately positive reviews (with below average scores) come from Serge of Whisky Fun, Nathan the Scotch Noob and Eric of Breaking Bourbon. A relatively lower score is given by Richard of Whiskey Reviewer although he still considers it quite under-rated for the class. Jason of In Search of Elegance shares my assessment that this is superior to Rare Breed.

 

Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak

As I’ve previously reported, Kavalan offers two of their most popular Solist expressions – Bourbon Cask and Sherry Cask – in a vatted format, known as the Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak and Sherry Oak, respectively.  In Asia, these batch versions of the Solists are available at both cask-strength (typically ~54-59%, just like the single casks Solists) and at a reduced 46% ABV. Here in the Western hemisphere, I’ve only seen the 46% ABV versions.

Supposedly, these two “Oak” series are vatted from the exact same type of casks used for the named Solist series. But it stands to reason that they probably cherry-pick the best casks for the single cask offerings, and vat the rest. Still, it is a good chance to sample what the distillery character is like (in a more consistent fashion), without having shell out for the more expensive (and rare) Solist single cask versions.

These Oak-series whiskies are typically available as both full 700 mL bottles and 50 mL miniature glass bottles. As with my Sherry Oak review, my sample here is of the 46% ABV, 50 mL ex-Bourbon Oak version. Bottling code is 2015.05.08 16:15. The bottle came in a cardboard box, and so was protected from light.

Here is how the various Kavalan bottlings compare in my Whisky Database.

Kavalan Concertmaster: 8.29 ± 0.54 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan ex-Bourbon Oak: 8.93 ± 0.25 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan King Car Conductor: 8.43 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Sherry Oak: 8.63 ± 0.33 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Podium: 8.77 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Single Malt: 8.40 ± 0.50 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Bourbon: 8.85 ± 0.22 on 19 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Fino Sherry Cask: 8.98 ± 0.33 on 15 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Port Cask: 8.78 ± 0.38 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist PX Cask: 9.01 ± 0.72 on 5 reviews ($$$$$+)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.08 ± 0.35 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique: 8.94 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)

There aren’t a lot of reviews to go by, but the 46% ABV vatted version of the ex-Bourbon Oak seems to be doing quite well.

Let’s see what I find in the glass:

Colour: Light apple juice – frankly, one of the palest Kavalans I’ve seen yet.

Nose: Fruity, with lush tropical fruits like papaya, mango, pineapple, and banana (including green banana). Touch of citrus. Light honey and vanilla. Not creamy per se, more of a buttery note. Grassy, with some hay (fresh cut for both, not dry). Sweet. No off notes, which is impressive. Water dampens all of the above, and may bring up a touch of solvent (oddly), so I would skip water for nosing.

Palate: Not quite as sweet as the nose, but there’s no mistaking that time in bourbon casks. Tons of vanilla and caramel. Rich oak without the typical spice or bitterness, doesn’t seem to have been aged too long. Noticeable coconut, and a bit nutty in general. But again, not very spicy, with maybe just a touch of nutmeg. Buttery texture. Fair amount of tongue tingle, but not offensive. Sweeter with water, which also helps with tingle (but doesn’t fully extinguish it).

Finish: Caramel continues, with some of the light spices coming up now (nutmeg).  A touch astringent, but not really bitter. Some of tropical and green fruit also show a resurgence. Very nice and even. With water, some bitterness does enter in.

I recommend you go sparingly with water on the 46% ABV version – it certainly needs no more than few drops at most.

All in all, a very pleasant ex-bourbon expression, very good for the presumed young age. Much better than the standard Kavalan single malt expression. As an aside, my wife – who is not a big scotch drinker – really liked this one.

Among reviewers, Dominic of Whisky Advocate is very positive, followed by washeewashee of Reddit (for the cask-strength version), Jim Murray, and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. Worth picking up if you come across a sample bottle in your travels.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is just that – a higher-strength version of this classic Kentucky “wheated” bourbon. Check out my review of standard Maker’s Mark for more info on this bourbon producer (or my review of Maker’s Mark 46 for a competing higher-end product).

Each batch is bottled somewhere in the range of 108-114 proof (i.e., 54-57% ABV). My sample came from a batch that was toward the high end, at 56.7% ABV. You don’t tend to see a lot cask-strength wheaters, but this should really amp up the flavour profile.

Here is how it compares to various competing wheaters in my Meta-Critic database:

Maker’s Mark: 8.24 ± 0.40 on 25 reviews ($$)
Maker’s Mark 46: 8.70 ± 0.32 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.80 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Old Fitzgerald BiB: 7.99 ± 0.35 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon: 8.40 ± 0.49 on 6 reviews ($$)
Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo: 8.90 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.69 ± 0.34 on 14 reviews ($$)
Larceny Bourbon: 8.35 ± 0.24 on 101 reviews ($$)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 15yo: 9.24 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 20yo: 9.26 ± 0.34 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 23yo: 8.78 ± 0.49 on 5 reviews ($$$$$+)
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo Lot B: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
W.L. Weller 12yo: 8.82 ± 0.17 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
W.L. Weller Special Reserve: 8.40 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($)
William Larue Weller: 9.23 ± 0.25 on 15 reviews ($$$$$+)

My sample came from Redditor Jolarbear. Here is what I find in the glass:

Colour: Dark amber. Can definitely see some darker and richer tones here.

Nose: Some similarity to standard Maker’s Mark, but amped up with more spice (cinnamon and cloves especially), and with added mint now. Ripe dark fruits take over from the more candied experience of standard Maker’s. Citrus, as always. Caramel and vanilla, of course. Nuts. There is still that acetone undertone, unfortunately. More mature than regular Maker’s, but not quite as interesting as the Maker’s 46.

Palate: Not as sweet as regular Maker’s Mark on the initial palate, with new notes of chocolate added to the caramel. More molasses than honey now. Sour cherry added to the fruit cocktail. Mixed nuts (getting some Brazil nuts in particular). Malty. You can taste the higher ABV, it packs more of punch now (although oddly not as creamy as Maker’s Mark 46 – I would describe the texture as buttery here). Those enhanced wood spices from the nose show up here as well.

Finish: Medium long. The sweetness lingers, with additional oaky elements. Not as bitter as standard Maker’s Mark. Cloves and cinnamon red hots – definitely lingers on those spicy notes as well.

With a few drops of water, the fruits pick up on the nose, and I get an almost floral note. In the mouth, the cinnamon spice picks up, and the texture become more fudge-like. A couple more drops brings up even more fruit on the palate, but can also start to accentuate the off-notes. If you bring it down all the way to standard Makers Mark’s 45% ABV, the sweetness increases and an astringent dryness develops – but its still better than regular Maker’s Mark. This is one you are going to want to experiment with the right level of water for your personal taste.

Certainly a much better choice than regular Maker’s Mark – but I still prefer the Maker’s Mark 46 with its heavy cinnamon spiciness and extra mature woodiness. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is probably best suited to those looking to find more fruit and earth tones. But you will need to experiment with the water level here, as it quickly brings up some of the less pleasant notes as you dilute.

Personally, I would give this a slightly lower score than the Meta-Critic average. Among reviewers, John of Whisky Advocate is a huge fan, followed by Josh the Whiskey Jug,  Eric of Breaking Bourbon, Jason of In Search of Elegance and Andre and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. But it gets an average score from My Annoying Opinions, and a below-average one from Thomas of Whisky Saga.

Maker’s Mark 46

Following on my review of regular Maker’s Mark – a standard-bearer in the “wheated” bourbon class – allow me to introduce one of their premium products: Maker’s Mark 46.

Maker’s Mark 46 is distinctive in that they age it longer than standard Maker’s (10 weeks longer, reported) and inside barrels containing pieces of seared French oak staves. The use of these staves creates more complex flavors, by helping to “season” the whisky further. Maker’s Mark claims this also helps eliminate the bitterness that usually comes with whiskies that are aged longer in virgin oak casks. The name apparently relates to the stave profile use for the inserted chips (“number 46”).

Maker’s Mark 46 is bottled at 47% ABV, which is just a touch higher than standard Maker’s. Note there is a cask strength version of 46 as well, but I haven’t tried it.

Here is how it compares to competing wheaters, in my Meta-Critic database:

Maker’s Mark: 8.24 ± 0.40 on 25 reviews ($$)
Maker’s Mark 46: 8.70 ± 0.32 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.80 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Old Fitzgerald BiB: 7.99 ± 0.35 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon: 8.40 ± 0.49 on 6 reviews ($$)
Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo: 8.90 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.69 ± 0.34 on 14 reviews ($$)
Larceny Bourbon: 8.35 ± 0.24 on 101 reviews ($$)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 15yo: 9.24 ± 0.24 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 20yo: 9.26 ± 0.34 on 13 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 23yo: 8.78 ± 0.49 on 5 reviews ($$$$$+)
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo Lot B: 8.68 ± 0.23 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
W.L. Weller 12yo: 8.82 ± 0.17 on 16 reviews ($$$$$)
W.L. Weller Special Reserve: 8.40 ± 0.35 on 13 reviews ($)
William Larue Weller: 9.23 ± 0.25 on 15 reviews ($$$$$+)

My sample came from Redditor 89Justin. Here’s what I find in the glass:

Colour: Medium amber, maybe a touch darker than regular Maker’s Mark – but you could only tell if you closely scrutinized them side-by-side.

Nose: While still sweet, less sharp than the regular Maker’s, with a lot more wood notes (including sawdust). Toasted oak. Seems older, more mature. Caramel and vanilla, with less honey now. Slightly spicier nose too, with a touch of pepper joining the cinnamon. Not as fruity as regular Maker’s, but similar fruit cocktail and orange peels dominate. Less off notes, but the main one now is glue (i.e., it’s not as overwhelming sweet as regular Maker’s).

Palate: More balanced presentation. An almost earthy mix of caramel, vanilla and toasted wood spice. Anise and allspice join the cinnamon and cloves. Warming, with a thicker mouthfeel that regular Maker’s Mark – very creamy now (vanilla frosting comes to mind). The wheat is definitely more prominent, but with greater complexity than the simple sweetness of regular Maker’s. I like the more substantial (and spicier) taste – and lack of off notes.

Finish:  Medium-long. I’m not getting the bitterness or the astringency that I noticed on regular Maker’s. Just like how the sweetness is tamed and rendered more complex, you are getting a much more balanced presentation here across the board. A bit malty. Cinnamon red hots and creamy corn linger to the end.

With water, the creaminess of the mouth turns more syrupy (which some many actually prefer). The cinnamon is again enhanced. As always, adjust to your taste – but I think a few drops enhance this whisky.

I’ve always been a fan of hot cinnamon candies (i.e., cinnamon red hots, cinnamon hearts, Swedish fish, etc). So it is no surprise that I greatly prefer this version of Maker’s Mark over the standard version. But beyond the spice, there’s also a more elegant wood presentation – subdued, layered, and mature. An above average bourbon for me, the Meta-Critic average score seems reasonable. A bourbon I’d recommend for scotch drinkers.

Among reviewers, Jim Murray is a big fan, as is Josh the Whiskey Jug and John of Whisky Advocate. Similarly positive are the whole gang at Quebec Whisky, Jan of Best Shot Whisky, and Jason of In Search of Elegance. More moderate is Jordan of Breaking Boubon. Nathan the Scotch Noob is not a fan at all.

 

Maker’s Mark Bourbon

Maker’s Mark is an iconic Kentucky “wheated” bourbon whisky, produced by Beam Suntory.

Maker’s Mark is unusual in that no rye is used in the mash. Instead, “soft red winter wheat” is used for flavouring, along with corn (the predominant grain) and malted barley. According to this fun Maker’s Mark infographic, the mashbill is 70% corn, 16% wheat and 14% barley. There is no age statement, but standard Maker’s is reportedly aged for around six years.

Wheated bourbons are relatively uncommon, as most makers focus on rye flavouring (with Weller/Van Winkle, Larceny, Old Fitzgerald and Rebel Yell being the notable wheated competition to Maker’s). Wheated bourbons are considered sweeter, fruitier and “softer” in style, with more syrupy/creamy notes and less spicy cinnamon/cloves rye flavours (although they can still contain considerable wood spice, of course).

Maker’s Mark is bottled at 45% ABV and sold in distinctive squarish bottles sealed with red wax. Apparently, it was the wife of Maker’s founder Bill Samuels Sr. – Margie Samuels – who gave the whiskey its name, drew its label, and thought up the wax dipping that gives the bottle its distinctive look.

Production began in 1954, and ownership has changed hands many times over the years (it was even owned by Hiram Walker here in Canada at one point). It has been part of the Beam family since 2011.

Here is how Maker’s compares to competing wheaters, in my Meta-Critic database:

Maker’s Mark: 8.24 ± 0.43 on 22 reviews ($$)
Maker’s Mark 46: 8.75 ± 0.31 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength: 8.72 ± 0.30 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Old Fitzgerald BiB: 7.99 ± 0.35 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Old Fitzgerald Kentucky Straight Bourbon: 8.39 ± 0.50 on 6 reviews ($$)
Old Rip Van Winkle 10yo: 8.95 ± 0.19 on 9 reviews ($$$$$+)
Old Weller Antique 107: 8.67 ± 0.39 on 10 reviews ($$)
Larceny Bourbon: 8.36 ± 0.24 on 10 reviews ($$)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 15yo: 9.24 ± 0.24 on 10 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 20yo: 9.26 ± 0.35 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon 23yo: 8.74 ± 0.54 on 4 reviews ($$$$$+)
Rebel Yell: 7.60 ± 0.57 on 11 reviews ($)
Van Winkle Special Reserve 12yo Lot B: 8.69 ± 0.18 on 7 reviews ($$$$$+)
W.L. Weller 12yo: 8.82 ± 0.15 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
W.L. Weller Special Reserve: 8.41 ± 0.37 on 11 reviews ($)
William Larue Weller: 9.17 ± 0.25 on 11 reviews ($$$$$+)

My sample came from Redditor 89Justin. Here is what I find in the glass:

Colour: Medium amber.

Nose: Heavy sweetness, honestly a bit overwhelming if you aren’t used to it. Honey and caramel mainly, plus vanilla. Candied fruit cocktail. Red (strawberry) licorice. Orange peel. Moderately spicy, with classic oak spices. Vaguely nutty. Wheaters are often described as “creamy”, and that word certainly fits here. Acetone off-notes, mingled with artificial sweetener. Yes, this really is that sweet.

Palate: Heavy caramel/honey sweetness up-front – and that acetone note really comes across too, unfortunately. Fair amount of wood spice. Fruits are mainly cherry and apple – plus that citrus (more lemon than orange now). Getting some barley malt now too, which I didn’t notice on the nose. Still a bit nutty. Not as ethanol hot as I expected for 45% – decent mouthfeel, and quite sippable neat (but try it with some water, see below). Settles down to a drier finish after a few sips.

Finish: Medium. Vanilla, caramel and oaky wood spices persist the longest. Despite the sweetness, there is a lingering woody bitterness and dryness underneath it all that I don’t enjoy. Bitterness builds with time.

With water, a simple syrup sweetness increases on the nose (although the off-notes are unaffected). Water lightens the mouthfeel, and brings up more cinnamon. I actually think it is better with a bit of water – or dare I say it, an ice cube.

I first had this years ago in a bar and wasn’t impressed. I’m afraid the controlled environment at home hasn’t helped it much. Although it doesn’t strike me quite as artificially sweet this time around, that characteristic is still there. Personally a bottom-shelf wheater for me, I would score it a few steps lower than the Meta-Critic average. I would also recommend the Weller range over this, if you can find them.

The most positive review I’ve ever seen is Fred of Whisky Advocate. But Jim Murray, Thomas of Whisky Saga and Josh the Whiskey Jug are similarly fairly positive. Jan of Best Shot Whisky gives it about the Meta-Critic average. Oliver of Dramming, Nathan the Scotch Noob, Richard of Whiskey Reviewer, My Annoying Opinions and Michael of Diving for Pearls all give it lower scores (which are more consistent with my own rating).

Bulleit Bourbon

Bulleit (pronounced like the projectile) is a Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, owned by the international drinks conglomerate Diageo.

Self-identified as a “high-rye” whiskey, it has a relatively higher rye content in the mash bill compared to most bourbons (about twice the typical level). This gives it a spicier and earthier flavour profile. I don’t see an official age statement, but there are reports online of it being aged for at least six years. Note there is also an older age-statement version available, the Bulleit 10 year old bourbon.

The standard no-age-statement Bulleit seems to be something of a staple in bars for the high-rye class of bourbons (just like Buffalo Trace for a low-rye bourbon, Rittenhouse for a straight rye, and Maker’s Mark for a wheater). Its low cost and high rye content – both particularly well-suited to cocktails – are likely a good part of the reason.

Note that despite the “Frontier Whiskey” moniker, Bulleit is a rather new operation. Until just recently, they didn’t even have their own distillery – this bourbon is made under contract by Four Roses Distillery (edit: that may no longer be the case, see discussion here). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Four Roses has a good reputation. Bulleit also publishes the full mash bill specs for this bourbon (68% corn, 28% rye, 4% malted barley). It is bottled at a decent 45% ABV.

Here is how it compares to other bourbons of similar price in my Meta-Critic Database (and the other Bulleit products):

1792 Small Batch Bourbon: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews ($$)
Buffalo Trace Bourbon: 8.58 ± 0.41 on 19 reviews ($$)
Bulleit Rye: 8.29 ± 0.63 on 16 reviews ($$)
Bulleit 10yo Bourbon: 8.56 ± 0.39 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Bulleit Bourbon: 8.38 ± 0.37 on 21 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare 10yo: 8.55 ± 0.32 on 20 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.67 ± 0.28 on 21 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.71 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews ($$)
Four Roses Bourbon (Yellow Label): 8.21 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews ($)
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon: 8.70 ± 0.32 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon: 8.48 ± 0.42 on 13 reviews ($$)
George Dickel No.12: 8.26 ± 0.45 on 15 reviews ($$)
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo Bourbon: 8.61 ± 0.40 on 21 reviews ($$)
Old Forester: 8.11 ± 0.43 on 11 reviews ($$)
Old Forester Signature (100 Proof): 8.36 ± 0.40 on 8 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon (80/86 Proof): 8.04 ± 0.51 on 10 reviews ($$)
Old Grand-Dad Bourbon 100 BiB: 8.37 ± 0.54 on 9 reviews ($$)
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch 10yo Bourbon: 8.54 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews ($$)
Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon: 8.46 ± 0.43 on 18 reviews ($$)
Woodford Reserve bourbon: 8.40 ± 0.35 on 18 reviews ($$)

As you can see, standard Bulleit bourbon does reasonably well for this class and price point. As an aside, the bourbon drinkers on Reddit have put up a good beginners and intermediate guide to understanding bourbon styles – I recommend you check it out, to see how the various bourbon options above compare.

I recently picked up a sample bottle of standard Bulleit during my travels in the U.S (shown on the right). As a nice touch, the glass bottle actually has the same type of raised lettering as the full-size bottles, with a lot code printed on the back. A nice touch!

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet, and no mistaking this is a high rye bourbon, with all the baking spices. Lots of caramel, brown sugar and vanilla up front. Relatively fruity for a bourbon, with orange (citrus) but also banana, apple, and plums (different mix than usual). This fruitiness reminds me a bit of a Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel I once tried, reinforcing that rye whisky connection. Oak barrel char. Some acetone mars the finish (acetone often goes hand-in-hand with excessive fruitiness, I find). Better than I expected overall.

Palate: Caramel and vanilla again. Woodier than the nose would have suggested. Same general fruitiness as the nose. The spices pick up a little bit – but more in terms of pepper and light spices (e.g. nutmeg), not the typical heavy rye spices. Ok mouthfeel, not too watery. A bit of mouth pucker once you swallow (i.e., astringent). Some oaky bitterness creeps in at the end – or is that citrus again?

Finish: Shortish. Dry bitterness is the main characteristic that holds the longest, along with the light spices and some initial light sweetness.  This is its weakest feature, honestly.

Bulleit.BourbonThis is a decent high rye bourbon. It was doing particularly well on the nose and initial palate, but couldn’t really hold it together very well on the way out. As such, I would personally give it a score very much in keeping with the Meta-Critic average presented above (i.e., slightly below average for the class). But that still represents good value for money at this price point. I can see why it is a popular pour.

For reviews of this standard expression, there are some fairly positive reviews by Josh the Whiskey Jug, Serge of Whisky Fun and John of Whisky Advocate. Rather luke-warm or negative are Nathan the Scotch Noob, Oliver of Dramming, Thomas of Whisky Saga and Richard of Whiskey Reviewer.  Not really a lot of scores in-between (except for my own).

 

Knob Creek 9 Year Old Small Batch Bourbon

Knob Creek is one of the premium bourbon brands put out by American whisky maker Jim Beam.  It is aged longer than most bourbons (currently stated as 9 years on the label), and is bottled at a higher proof (50% ABV).

Supposedly, the spirit for Knob Creek comes off the stills at a lower proof than standard Jim Beam, thus retaining a little bit more spirit character (i.e., the esters and congeners that give whisky its core characteristics). See my Source of Whisky’s Flavour page for a detailed discussion of how wood barrel aging turns this into finished whisky.

It is also an example of a typical “low rye” bourbon – although there is no universally-agreed level for what proportion of rye in a mashbill qualifies as such (and most makers don’t publish exact levels anyway). Nevertheless, most enthusiasts would place Knob Creek in same relatively low-rye category as the other Jim Beam brands, Elijah Craig, Evan Williams and the main mashbill used by Buffalo Trace/Eagle Rare/Stagg, etc. This is in contrast to bourbons which have a higher amount of rye flavouring, like Four Roses, Wild Turkey, Bulleit, Woodford, 1792, etc.

Let’s see how Knob Creek compares to other low-rye mashbill bourbons in my Meta-Critic database:

Baker’s: 7yo 8.79 ± 0.29 on 19 reviews ($$$)
Basil Hayden’s: 8.38 ± 0.26 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.88 ± 0.29 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Buffalo Trace: 8.57 ± 0.42 on 19 reviews ($$)
Eagle Rare 10yo: 8.55 ± 0.32 on 20 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof: 8.86 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.69 ± 0.28 on 20 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.71 ± 0.23 on 15 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams BiB (White label): 8.32 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews ($)
Evan Williams (Black Label): 8.18 ± 0.40 on 14 reviews ($)
Henry McKenna: 8.07 ± 0.07 on 3 reviews ($)
Henry McKenna 10yo Single Barrel BiB: 8.89 ± 0.23 on 8 reviews ($$)
Jim Beam Black Label: 8.21 ± 0.42 on 15 reviews ($)
Jim Beam Devil’s Cut: 8.05 ± 0.51 on 16 reviews ($)
Knob Creek Small Batch 9yo: 8.61 ± 0.40 on 21 reviews ($$)
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: 8.80 ± 0.27 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Stagg Jr (all batches): 8.57 ± 0.40 on 16 reviews ($$$$)

Knob.Creek.MiniatureStandard Knob Creek gets a good score for the price in this class of bourbons.

I recently sampled this from a 50mL sample bottle while on my travels in the US (glass bottle, shown on the right). A nice miniature scale reproduction of the larger bottle, right down to the engraved lot code on the back (which are rare to see on miniatures).

Colour: Red delicious apple juice

Nose: Classic bourbon nose, though not too strong. Woody (oaky), with caramel and vanilla notes, plus pancake syrup. Earthy. A bit of cherry (which I often get on bourbons). Light rye spices (nutmeg mainly). Melted butter. Touch of acetone at the end, but subtle. A sweeter and fuller-body version of Basil Hayden’s comes to mind.

Palate: Classic bourbon presentation again, with caramel and vanilla to the fore. No real fruits to speak of. Nutty (peanuts in particular, which I gather is a Jim Beam hallmark). Tobacco leaf and a touch of dark chocolate. Pepper joins the nutmeg (plus some cinnamon too now). Chewy texture, with a bit more kick than typical (thanks to 50% ABV). Pretty decent bourbon, with a good range of straightforward flavours.

Finish: Medium. Toasty, with wood spice and some vanilla. There’s a slight sourness here – its also dry, with a mild mouth-puckering astringency at the end.

Knob.CreekSurprisingly easy to drink neat, despite the slightly sour/dry aspect.  Quite a respectable bourbon, especially for the price. I would put it on par with Elijah Craig in terms of quality, although it is perhaps a touch less flavourful. Personally, I still prefer the Buffalo Trace/Eagle Rare/Stagg juice (the latter two  are under-rated in the Meta-Critic database, in my view).

Given its quality – and bonafides described earlier – Knob Creek is a good choice for both sipping neat and in mixed drinks.

For further reviews of this bourbon, Lew of Whisky Advocate is very keen on it, as is Jim Murray. More moderately positive are Nathan the Scotchnoob, Josh the Whiskey Jug, and Richard of the Whiskey Reviewer. Ralfy is less of a fan of this one.

1 2