The Kaedrin Infinity Bottle

There’s a whiskey nerd concept that’s been popularized over the last decade or so called the “Infinity Bottle” (also known as “Solera Bottle” or perhaps “Living Bottle”). The idea is that instead of finishing off the last couple of pours from a whiskey bottle, you pour several different whiskeys together into your own Voltron-esque proprietary blend. It thus becomes something like a document of your whiskey drinking history. It’s unique to your tastes and purchases and most importantly, it never ends. Plus, as you add new components, it’s always changing… but only fractionally. Some of the people who’ve been starting these bottles envision it as becoming a family heirloom, passed down across generations. In thousands of years, mechanocyte-based metahuman successor life forms will probably still be aging distilled hooch in oak barrels on Omicron Persei 8 and blending the remnants into the same infinity bottles their puny, flesh-based ancestors started.

Um, anyway, as a puny, flesh-based beer nerd whose eyes are bigger than his liver, I tend to amass whiskey bottles because it basically takes forever to drink through one. I like whiskey, but I don’t drink it every day or even every week, so those bottles tend to linger on my shelves for a while. As such, when this concept appeared on my radar a few years ago, I thought it was a neat opportunity to clear out my booze shelf and put together my first iteration of an infinity bottle.

Naturally, I made a spreadsheet of all the components (it’s on Google Sheets and publicly viewable if you’re interested). The first iteration was pretty heavy on barrel strength bruisers and Four Roses single barrel picks (no slouches themselves on the ABV front). There were 5 components to that first blend, and 4 were bottles I finished off completely (the only remaining bottle was the TalkBeer Four Roses pick, which I finished not long after that first blending session). This was back in 2017, and since then I’ve drank a little less than half of the bottle (as I said, I tend to go through whiskey slowly).

Components of the B2 Blend

Not to give it away, but that first batch was a little on the “hot” side and while age is often overemphasized, I think it could have used some more age. Last week, I added 5 more components to the blend and… only managed to make small improvements to the ABV and age. The new components were once again pretty heavy on the barrel strength picks, including moar Four Roses, a couple of Barrell bourbons, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and High West American Prairie Bourbon (the age of which is vaguely mysterious, though it sez it’s a “blend of whiskeys aged 2-13 years”, so I just entered it as 5 years old in my spreadsheet. So that didn’t help with my age issue, but on the other hand, it was the lowest ABV component ever added, by far, so while there’s not a lot of this in the mix, it’s a welcome addition).

Blending Batch 2 of my Infinity Bottle

This has obviously been an interesting experience and will only get moreso over time. Some additional, assorted thoughts in no particular order:

  • One interesting thing about this most recent addition is that it had the effect of really livening up the blend. The additions really stood out and I could even pick out the Barrell bourbons impact. After a week, this specific influence isn’t as noticeable, but spoiler alert: it’s still better than the original blend. I do wonder if this “livening” effect had to do with the quality of the additions or if anything decent would have a similar impact. Aged alcohol sometimes goes in waves and the notion of reviving old stock with something fresh is a pretty well established practice (though not usually in whiskey, I guess).
  • As you might be able to tell from the above pictures, I didn’t actually finish off any of the bottles in this session (the only goner was the High West). This is probably not ideal, but I did it for the sake of this post. The things I do for my (3) readers!
  • Every whiskey in this blend (10 different varieties at this point) is a bourbon. I’m not ruling out other spirits, but there are some things that I definitely won’t be adding, notably peated Scotch. The smokey peat character tends to dominate everything it touches, so I’m not playing with that fire here. That being said, I could see myself adding some rye, scotch, brandy, or maybe even rum to this bottle at some point. If, uh, I had any of those things to add (which, at the moment, I do not). The notion of a separate peated scotch infinity bottle is intriguing, but I don’t drink nearly enough to really do that.
  • The bottle I’m using for this formerly held one of my favorite whiskies of all time: Balvenie 15. Mildly ironic that I’m using a Scotch bottle to blend bourbons, but as mentioned above, I’m sure some Scotch will make its way into the blend at some point (and come to think of it, Balvenie would make a nice addition!)
  • Some people recommend not to “hoard your darlings”, by which they mean that just because you’re in love with a particular bottle doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add the final portion to your infinity bottle. It’s probably solid advice, and that Barrell #9 that I added in this current iteration has emerged as one of my favorite drams, but I added some anyway. That said, who knows what I’ll do when I get towards the end of my Pappy 23 bottle. The argument is that I’ll get to drink it anyway, it’ll probably make the blend better, and it’s only sacrificing a small amount in the grand scheme of things. But the puny, flesh-based lifeform I current exist as is vulnerable to certain romantic notions about specific bottles. I’m not immune to hype, much as I might pretend to be.
  • Given my level of consumption, I don’t think I’ll manage to graduate to the vaunted Infinity Barrel. Josh Peters of The Whiskey Jug has been playing around with the concept for a while, but then, he’s got quite the collection of whiskey over there (downright comprehensive compared to my meager digs). The one thing that might tip me in this direction, though, is the notion of using the barrel to age some homebrewed beer. (He says, as if he’s brewed recently.)

Alrighty, let’s get into these suckers. Thoughts on both batches below:

Infinity Bottle V1 – Pours your standard golden orange bourbon color. Smells nice, some spice, oak, caramel, and boozy af, maybe a hint of fusel character, singing nose hairs a bit, y’know. Taste follows the nose, pretty standard high-test bourbon, a dusting of spice, oak, caramel, and tons of alcohol. As I drink, it opens up a bit more, and that Four Roses bubblegum character peeks through, as well as a very nice cinnamon note. Mouthfeel is hot and boozy, not great to my baby beer palate, but not as bruising as some of the components by themselves. Adding water helps open it up a bit, tamps down the hot booze, and some of the other flavors present themselves.

Overall, this is pretty good stuff, actually, but it’s a little too boozy and “hot” (and maybe some higher aged components could help with this). What this needs is a heaping helping of Orphan Barrel juice, which, alas we no longer have at Kaedrin HQ (and more recent releases are priced pretty rough). In theory, the Pappy 23 would work wonders here, but I suspect we’ll only be putting minimal Pappy juice in this here infinity bottle (now, the Lot “B” on the other hand…).

Bourbon Nerd Details: 122.7 proof, 61.35% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/28/20. Estimated Average Age: 9.14 years

A pour from my Infinity Bottle

Infinity Bottle V2 – Minor improvements to age and ABV, but not quite enough of what this bottle actually needs. We’re certainly moving in the right direction, and we can try to gear future purchases towards high age/low abv offerings, I guess. That being said, this V2 represents a notable improvement over V1. Not sure if that’s just the “livening up” effect of adding new components, or if the composition of the components really did bring about significant change (probably both!) As mentioned above, I feel like I can definitely detect the impact of the Barrell bourbons, which have a distinct, dusty, minerally character (apparently old Dickel) and plenty of oak. Speaking of which, the Elijah Craig may also contribute to that oakiness. It’s still a little hot, but not as rough as the first batch, so we’re definitely making progress. I can’t wait to see how this will progress.

Bourbon Nerd Details: 118.68 proof, 59.34% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 4/2/20. Estimated Average Age: 9.59 years

Beer Nerd Musings: So beer rather famously doesn’t age well and once you’ve opened a bottle, forget about it. The concept of an “infinity beer bottle”, as practiced here, would never work. That being said, blending of barrel aged beers is most certainly a thing. Gueuzes are blends of 3, 2, and 1 year old lambic. The Bruery’s Anniversary Beers actually utilize a Solera-like process, blending some of each batch into the next batch (and they’re going on a dozen years of doing so). That’s kinda infinity-like, though who knows how long they’ll manage. Blending a bunch of different beers/barrels can have mixed results. Firestone Walker’s Anniversary series has been pretty fantastic over the years. A recent blend of a wide variety of Medianoche barrel aged variants was fine, but nowhere near as good as much simpler treatments of their base beer. But I’m mostly digressing at this point. Brewers can do some interesting stuff with blending different offerings, but consumers who buy too much beer have limited options. During a share a while back, some friends and I created a sublime blend of 4 different sour beers, which we dubbed the Thirsty Camel Cuvée. It was one of those revelatory more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experiences that, sadly, will probably never exist again. At least two of the components were one-off brews, and the very nature of barrel-aged sour ales doesn’t generally lend itself to consistency, so… yeah, that’s a blend that existed for about 20 minutes and probably couldn’t be made again if we tried.

We’re in the homestretch of the annual quasi-hiatus from beer, so maybe one more non-beer post, then we return to beer (which, to be sure, I still have a backlog of reviews for).

Update: Forgot to mention which bottle I was using for this little project, so I added that above…

Van Winkle Special Reserve Lot “B”

The vaunted Van Winkle line of bourbons ranks as among the most hyped offerings ever offered by people who offer things. Once people who never used to care about bourbon started plunking down massive amounts of cash for bottles of the stuff, the intangibles of the entire bourbon market changed, triggering a bit of a backlash amongst the old guard bourbon nerds. This sort of mainstream appeal “ruining” the experience for former insiders can be witnessed all over the roadmap, from cult movies to comic books to musical acts; you name it, and there’s probably some small community on the internet bemoaning the intrusion of philistines. In the bourbon world, Van Winkle has become something of a scapegoat.

To be sure, there’s no way in a million years I’d ever pay secondary market prices for something like this1. Even as a beer nerd, I’m not above paying a small premium to try good bourbon, but the secondary prices for this stuff are just ludicrous. I’m fortunate enough to live in Pennsylvania, where the PLCB rules over liquor sales with an iron fist, and thus we get these statewide lotteries. I hesitate to say “fortunate” because the PLCB is so awful in so many other ways, but over past few years, the lottery has allowed me to secure a few bottles of premium hooch for basically MSRP. It’s the one good thing about the PLCB, though it doesn’t feel that way when you get shut out.

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Closeup

While anything with the name “Van Winkle” attached has succumbed to the black-hole-levels gravitational hype associated with it, the Special Reserve or Lot “B” offering seems to be the least prized. It is, of course, the offering with the most bottles available (and we all know that rarity makes bourbon taste better). There’s another bourbon called W. L. Weller 12 Year Old that is basically an identical bourbon with different labels (the only difference is that the Van Winkles are apparently picky about barrels and warehouse locations, and thus their picks are supposedly better). Bourbon nerds will take pains to explain that if it’s not the 15, 20, or 23 expression, it’s not officially a “Pappy” bourbon. Heck, they literally named it Lot “B”, presumably because their other offerings represent A levels. Even the label looks like it was an afterthought. The 10 Year Old Rip Van Winkle offering, which you might assume would be similarly stigmatized, has a higher proof and very sexy label.

Most of this is purely academic though, and it’s worth noting that 12 year old bourbon appears to be right in the sweet spot, balancing maturity and flavor in harmonious ways. I was fortunate enough to get my paws on Pappy 23 last year, and while I thought it was phenomenal, I can see what people mean when they say it’s a bit over-oaked and out of balance. What does the fabled Lot “B” hold in store? Only one way to find out:

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Years Old Lot B

Van Winkle Special Reserve Lot “B” 12 Years Old – Pours clear golden orange color with short legs (if any bourbon nerds are reading, please note that I come from the beer world which is currently dominated by turbid, murky looking hazy IPAs that look like chicken broth, so any alcoholic liquid that is clear is a sight to behold). Also, and this is a stupid observation, but it’s significantly lighter in color than the 23. I mean, yeah, duh, right? But still. Smells very nice, caramel, oak, and a little vanilla, with a slight dusting of spice lurking in the background. Of my nose? Sure, I guess, I’m not particularly great at bourbon tasting notes. Really nice balance and complexity in the nose though, and it really opens up after a few minutes; more vanilla and almost cake-like sweetness, I could sniff this glass all night. Taste hits a lot of those same notes, caramel, oak, and vanilla, with some spicy highlights. Mouthfeel is medium bodied and very easy going, obviously boozy to this beer drinker’s baby palate (like, I’m not used to drinking high test liquor, not like I eat babies or something, gah), but nowhere near the hazmat monsters I’ve been known to drink. Overall, this is really good bourbon, but I’m not entirely sure it justifies the hype or premium. The nose is really fantastic, but it’s writing checks the taste/palate can’t cash. B+ or A-

Bourbon Nerd Details: 90.4 proof, 45.2% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/27/20. Vintage: 2019

Beer Nerd Musings: Anything in Pappy’s orbit, even if it’s beer aged in a Pappy barrel, is subjected to that massive gravitational hype. But as mentioned above, this is technically not “Pappy”, and thus I don’t think I’ve (knowingly) had anything aged in one of these barrels. Kaedrin’s crack research team has managed to find one example though, so they exist (it’s a 17.5% ABV imperial stout, sounds delightful, though I’ve not heard of the brewery/beer and it appears to be rather limited). I mean, it’s good bourbon, so it’s bound to result in a good barrel for beer. Big shocker. The Weller’s bourbon barrels also show up sometimes, which this would be similar to, I guess. Beer barrel provenance can be a weird thing though. Some breweries are extremely clear about which barrels were used. Some use far too many different barrels to be that specific. Some just aren’t specific. Is it because they’re using some bottom shelf crap? Or is there some sort of weird legal liability issue? Whatever the case, I’m down for more Weller 12/Van Winkle 12 barrel aged beer.

Look, if you’re in a quasi-hiatus from beer and in quarantine and you haven’t even worn shoes in 6 days, a bourbon like this will brighten up your day. One more non-beer post before we return to beerland, and it will be bourbon related mad science.

1 – During my team’s extensive research process, we found some online stores that have this bourbon in stock… for $900. I feel pretty confident in saying that this is not worth that, which is more than 10 times as much as MSRP and what I paid for it.

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve – 23 Years Old

Hello, dear readers. You might not know this, but Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve is officially and irrevocably the best bourbon in the world. And the expression that’s been aged for 23 years is older, and therefore unquestionably better than all the other Pappy bourbons. If you don’t believe me, go and consult any of the approximately one million internet lists that definitively rank all the bourbons, or maybe you can check with a whole host of celebrity chefs or journalists on social media. I mean, come on, if it’s on Facebook and Twitter, what else do you need? It’s absolutely unquestionable, is what I’m saying.

As a result, anything with even a whiff of the Van Winkle brand is hyped to the gravitational levels of Sagittarius A* (the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy). Once the Pappy juice itself became scarce, some folks took to saying things like hey, Weller 12 is basically the same stuff, it’s just aged in a different part of the warehouse. Gravitation took hold, and now any bottles with the name Weller on it have gone missing. Pappy, the bourbon so famous that nothing, not even light, can escape it’s gravitational pull.

Here in PA, though, they do a statewide lottery for the Pappy release. This may be the one good thing about the PLCB, as they get a decent number of bottles and the lottery method is fair, if unpredictable. I’ve probably entered 15 lotteries and won 2 of them, but it’s hard to argue with snagging a bottle of Stagg or, most recently, the 23 Years Old expression of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve. This is pricey stuff, even at cost, and it regularly reaches $2000-$3000 on the secondary market. I suppose I could have just sold it, but my one and only taste of Pappy was the 15 a few years ago, and I’ll admit, it was phenomenal. Not sure it’s worth the insane black-hole-esque hype, but really fantastic stuff.

You may not have noticed (despite watching me like ravenous hawks) that I’ve recently entered my annual beer slowdown (at least partly because I haven’t said much about it, and also because I’m still working through a backlog of beer reviews), but if I’ve been avoiding beer of late, well, that gives me an excellent incentive to crack open something special like this.

23 Year Old Pappy Van Winkle ensconced in a black velvet bag

So what’s the big deal here? Well, Pappy Van Winkle was an actual guy, and at some point in the 70s, his son started making bourbon and slapping his Pappy’s picture on the label (that’s him on the bottle pictured). Bourbon is made primarily with corn, but while most bourbons use rye as a secondary grain, Pappy uses wheat. I’m told that people who know what they’re talking about call these bourbons “wheaters”, which sounds good to me. Bourbon went through some booms and busts, and the original distillery (Stitzel-Weller) closed in 1992. Pappy, like the rest of the Bourbon producers, struggled for a while, but 10-15 years ago, things started to turn around. The thing with the boom/bust cycle is that during the bust times, bourbon producers have all this bourbon just sitting around in barrels, aging. So you end up with really well aged stock, which ends up getting released at a relatively cheap pricepoint, which people love (both price and taste), which then lends itself to the next boom. Stuff gets scarce, prices go up. Is another bust looming? Maybe. It’s a hotly debated topic that I’m not really qualified to weigh in on… but “permanent boom” is a phrase I’d find suspicious.

One other contributing factor to the Pappy mystique is that a lot of this bourbon was made back in the 80s at what is now a closed distillery. Man, do whiskey dorks love them some closed distilleries. As recently as 2013, Pappy 23 was using that original Stitzel-Weller juice. Alas, that appears to have been the last of it. What I have here was produced at one of Buffalo Trace’s locations. Near as I can tell, it’s still pretty damn well regarded. All during this most recent boom, though, Pappy was regularly recognized as the best of the lot (again, it’s on the internet and that pretty-great TV show Justified, so it must be true), and the fact that they’re still producing a bourbon aged for 23 years is pretty unique these days (most distilleries have long since sold through their aged stock and are running on NAS fumes these days).

Closeup of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve - 23 Years Old

Of course, if you spend any time in the bourbon dork community, you’ll find a bit of backlash to the Pappy hype. It’s a pretty natural response, really, and it must be frustrating because there’s so much other bourbon out there that no one seems to care about at all (and the invasion of dilettantes and status-seekers certainly doesn’t help). That being said, it’s hard not to want to at least try some of this stuff, so winning the PA lottery was quite a welcome development for an amateur like myself (who has, at this point, been at it for a while). Let’s get to it:

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve - 23 Years Old

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve – 23 Years Old – Pours a nice shade in the copper amber spectrum, not much in the way of legs, but pretty enough. Smells intensely of oak, vanilla, oak, caramel, oak, dusty spice, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but also lots of oak. In case the nose didn’t tip you off, the taste features that oak quite prominently, but the traditional caramel and vanilla notes come through in good enough proportions as well as a dusting of spice (I know this is a wheater, but I associate this sort of spice with rye – maybe that’s just because I’m a fraud and am bad at describing bourbon) and an almost bitter oak note (I’m sure whiskey nerds see bitterness as a terrible thing, but as a beer dork who came up in the West Coast IPA days of breweries reaching theoretical limits of bitterness, the connotation is not meant negatively here) . Mouthfeel is medium bodied and for lack of a better term, it’s kinda dry. Overall, it’s delicious, but I can see why someone would call it over-oaked. I’ve had some bourbons that I’d consider over-oaked, but this one fares better than those. Plus, I rather enjoy oak. However, it’s far from the best bourbon I’ve had and I’m not sure it’s worth all the hype… A-

Bourbon Nerd Details: 95.6 proof, 47.8% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/30/19. Bottle #J3356. Vintage: 2018.

Beer Nerd Musings: As mentioned above, anything in Pappy’s orbit gets pulled into the supermassive black hole of hype, and that includes beers aged in Pappy barrels. Notable examples include Voodoo’s Pappy Black Magick (one of my favorite beers that I’ll probably never get to try again) and the infamous original vintage of Bourbon County Rare (which I’ve never had; I did really enjoy the follow up release, which was aged in 35 year old Heaven Hill barrels). Lots of other notable examples, and usually just the implication that Van Winkle barrels are involved is enough to make the beer scarce. However, it’s worth noting that not every beer aged can be aged in a Pappy barrel and come out perfect. Stillwater aged one of their Belgian Strong Dark Ales in Pappy 20 barrels and the result wasn’t especially accomplished (though it was still rare and expensive)… This was more an issue with the base beer not being able to stand up to the barrel treatment than the fault of barrel (i.e. it probably wouldn’t matter which barrel was used, it would still overwhelm the base). So the hype is real, but like the bourbon itself, there’s a nugget of truth at the center of the hype – a lot of these beers are genuinely great. Is it worth the hoop-jumping and cost? That’s the ultimate question…

All in all, I’m really glad I got the chance to drink this bourbon. I’m still not entirely sure it justifies the hype and concomitant price, but as a one-time splurge, I think it could be justified (note: I’m talking about the price at retail, not the secondary price, which is only worth it if you’re filthy rich, and even then…) I will probably continue to enter the Pappy lottery, but I will not be putting in for the 23 year again… I suspect the 15 and 20 year expressions are the sweet spot (and even though I only had a small pour of the 15 a few years ago, I think it was probably better than the 23).

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

As a probable whisky dilettante and professed novelty whore, I don’t have what you’d call a “house bourbon”, that sort of thing that you always have on hand in case you want a belt of the ol’ comfort. But if I did? It would probably be the standard Elijah Craig offering. It’s lost its age statement (it formerly was a 12 years old), but it’s still a pretty great, approachable, affordable, highly available bourbon that hits all the right notes that I’d want in a bourbon.

So naturally, when I finally spied a bottle of the cask-strength version of same, I jumped on the opportunity. As I understand it, this is one of the more readily available of the highly-regarded cask-strength offerings, but in PA, it was very hard to come by (there have been very limited releases and I think even a lottery at one point), so naturally I wound up getting it in MD during one of my periodic pilgrimages to State Line Liquors.

The idea is very high proof (not quite haz-mat levels of Stagg, though some batches have gotten there) and still age stated at 12 years, it’s basically regular Elijah Craig, only more so. This particular batch is apparently one of the lower proof (lowest?), but then, it’s still pretty high for me… Let’s dive in:

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof – Pours a deep, dark coppery orange color with plenty of legs. Smells great, lots of oak, some caramel, spicebox, cinnamon, dark fruit, vanilla. Taste follows the nose, lots of oak, moar spicebox, cinnamon and the like, a little dark fruit, more oak, and vanilla. Like the regular Elijah Craig, it’s very oaky, but this time, it feels more balanced with the rest, which is interesting. Mouthfeel is rich, full bodied, and quite hot. I mean, yeah, keep in mind my baby beer palate, and this isn’t the hottest thing I’ve drank, but it’s clearly there. Overall, a nice improvement over the base offering, and one of the better barrel strength offerings I’ve had (noticeably better than the younger offerings, like Booker’s or Stagg Jr.). A-

Whiskey Nerd Details: 124.2 Proof, 62.1% ABV bottled. Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/24/18. Batch No. B517

Beer Nerd Musings: As previously mentioned, EC12 barrels seem to be prized amongst beer brewers. It historically played a role in BCBS (though their barrel program is so large at this point that who knows anymore). Interestingly, one of the most reliable EC12 barrel aged beers, FiftyFifty’s purple waxed Eclipse variant, seemed to be rarer in the most recent release. I’m unsure if that’s due to lack of barrels, some result of the loss of age statement, or probably most likely, just FiftyFifty’s desire to shake things up a bit (this year’s lineup featured a lot of adjuncts like maple, coffee, and vanilla, as well as more diverse barrels from apple brandy, rye, and even mead). Whatever the case, if a beer specifies that it’s aged in Elijah Craig barrels, it’s usually a good indication. The barrel proof offering is probably too expensive to use for homebrew (something the standard expression would be great for), but will make a great addition to my infinity bottle someday (this… is a topic for another post, though).

Fellow Travelers: Obviously lots of other folks have tried various batches of this out:

Signe Drinks has reviewed the same batch I have, and puts it squarely in the middle tier of Elijah Craig Cask Strength releases. Not the best, but not the worst, he sez. Josh Peters has had many different batches as well (though I don’t think this specific one was in his list). The sadly defunct Sku also reviewed early batches and came away impressed. Finally, I suppose I should mention fellow beer dork DDB, who also seems to enjoy these offerings.

This more or less completes my beer hibernation for the year. Actual beer posts will be returning shortly, though I expect the pace of posting here to continue its slow, inexorable decline.

Stagg Jr.

As its name would imply, Stagg Jr. is a younger version of Buffalo Trace’s prized barrel-proof monster, George T. Stagg. It has no official age statement, but is rumored to be around 8 or 9 years old (while Stagg senior is more in the 16-17 year timeframe). It’s also barrel proof in that same hazmat range of 60-70% ABV.

When it was first released in 2013, it ran aground amidst huge anticipation and hype. Perhaps nothing could live up to the expectations, but all accounts of that initial batch indicate a rough, overly-hot mess (as one review put it, it’s “like drinking warm pepper spray”). Naming it Stagg Jr. probably didn’t help. George T. Stagg is second only to Pappy in terms of bourbon obsession and hype, so that alone raised expectations to unrealistic levels.

Perhaps as a result of this lackluster reception, the next few batches seemed to linger on shelves longer than you’d expect. Around batch 3, its reputation started to turn around. Reviews started to wonder if Buffalo Trace had righted the ship and dialed in their newest product, but even I was able to snag a bottle of Batch 4 juice way back when, and I’m not exactly an expert whiskey hunter. I gather that subsequent releases have started to disappear more quickly, so I don’t think people are sleeping on this anymore, but it’ll still be a lot easier to get than Stagg senior.

I originally bought this bottle because I thought I’d never get the chance to try George T. Stagg… only to unexpectedly win the PLCB lottery a few weeks later. That Stagg is among the top 2 or 3 whiskeys I’ve ever had in my life, so Stagg Jr. did have a lot to live up to, but I tried to temper expectations. It helps that I’m still making my way through a lot of the more standard, boring offerings out there, so this still feels special to novice whiskey dorks like myself. It was nice to try this right next to Booker’s to get a feel for how different these two bourbons can be:

Stagg Jr.

Stagg Jr. – Pours a dark amber orange color, long legs. Smells nice, typial oak, caramel, vanilla notes, some spice, cinnamon, molasses, brown sugar, booze not as nose-singing as Booker’s despite the higher proof. Taste again hits those oaky notes pretty hard, some vanilla and caramel, plenty of spicebox, and ah, there’s that booze. Mouthfeel is full bodied, thick, and yes, very boozy. Again, somehow not as harsh as Booker’s, but still pretty hot (as per usual, take my baby beer palate into consideration here). Overall, this is quite nice, maybe a step up from Booker’s but comparable. B+

Whiskey Nerd Details: 132.2 Proof, 66.1% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 4/8/17. Batch #4. Vintage 2015.

Beer Nerd Musings: I’m not aware of any beers specifically aged in Stagg Jr. barrels, but then, as I understand it, Stagg Jr. is just barrel proof Buffalo Trace or Eagle Rare, both of which are frequently cited barrel provenances. As you might expect, I think these barrels would do quite well with beer, and indeed, Buffalo Trace won the FiftyFifty Eclipse horizontal tasting I held a few years back. The concept of a sorta baby version of a more prized beer is something that does happen from time to time, though the differentiator is more about the amount of alcohol rather than the age. Some examples might include Great Divide Velvet Yeti (a lower alcohol version of their Yeti Imperial Stout that’s designed for nitro pours) or The Bruery So Happens It’s Tuesday, a slightly lower alcohol (and thus “more affable”) version of the monstrous Black Tuesday. There are probably tons of other examples.

Fellow Travelers: Obviously lots of other folks have tried various batches of this out:

So this was a pretty decent bourbon. I enjoyed it a little more than Booker’s, but I’m told it falls a little short of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (a bourbon I’ve never managed to get my hands on). Alas, this will probably be the last whiskey I review during this year’s Beer Recession. That being said, I’ve got another beer-adjacent bottle of booze that could use some reviewing, and even some things that don’t involve alcohol at all. The horror!

Booker’s Bourbon

Booker’s is one of Jim Beam’s four small batch products (the others being Knob Creek, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden) and it has a reputation of being the best thing Beam makes. That being said, it doesn’t seem to be the topic of much conversation (except for an ill-advised price increase that was walked back recently), perhaps because it’s been around for a while, perhaps because it’s actually available and you can find it on the shelf. We all know that rarity makes things taste better, so this is a truly black mark on Booker’s.

In the 1980s, the first bottles were hand-made Christmas Gifts from Beam master distiller Booker Noe and were so popular that it was made an official, publicly available brand in 1992. Upon his retirement, he left instructions with his son to not let anyone “mess with my Booker’s.” Indeed, little seems to have changed with his namesake Bourbon – it’s still 6-8 years old, unfiltered, and cask strength (usually pretty high-test stuff too).

This particular bottle clocks in at 128 proof, which is a nice flammability factor for sure. Each batch gets its own little pet name these days too. This one is named “Bluegill Creek Batch” because the bottling day was particularly hot and humid and Fred Noe (Booker’s son and successor to the master distiller role) was reminded of days spent fishing a creek for bluegill with his father. Sounds nice, so let’s dive in:

Bookers Bourbon

Booker’s Bourbon – Pours a clear golden orange color, nice legs. Smells intensely of oak with some caramel and vanilla pitching in, some earthy tobacco type notes too. With water, some cinnamon spice emerges. Taste is rich and sweet, lots of caramel, toffee, oak, and vanilla, some spice kicking in too, maybe cinnamon? And booze, tons of booze. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and yes, boozy af. I mean, yeah, I have a baby beer palate, but this is pretty tough. But tasty, and not the worst heat I’ve experienced. A little dry in the finish as well. Overall, a little hot, but it’s a really good bourbon. Worth the current pricetag, but maybe not if they pump it up to $100… B+

Whiskey Nerd Details: 128 Proof, 64% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 4/1/17. Batch #2016-04 “Bluegill Creek Batch”. Age: 6 Yrs 5 Mo 28 Days.

Beer Nerd Musings: I haven’t had anything specifically marked as a Booker’s Bourbon barrel aged beer and I don’t see many out there either. Allagash apparently made a Booker’s aged variant of their Curieux, but I must admit, the tripel style is not my favorite way to showcase a bourbon barrel treatment. Still, I’d assume this would make for a pretty good barrel for beer aging… but then, what wouldn’t?

Fellow Travelers: Some other folks who’ve grappled with Bookers:

Another cask strength monster bourbon review coming tomorrow, so stay tuned!

Barrell Bourbon Batch 009

Barrell Bourbon is a NDP that’s nevertheless gained a following amongst whiskey dorks. It’s also got an extra “L” on the end of their name there, which means… well, owner Joe Beatrice has declined to explain. My guess? It’s a branding gambit. Searching for “Barrel Bourbon” will produce millions of irrelevant results, whilst “Barrell” (with the extra “l”) will get you the right stuff.

We’ve covered NDP (non-distiller producer) before, so I won’t harp on it, but it is the sort of thing that normally arouses suspicion in whiskey nerds. That being said, Barrell puts a few interesting spins on their philosophy. First, they’re all bottled at cask strength, which is like catnip to whiskey dorks. Second, each batch is unique and will never be seen again. Exclusivity and rarity is always a draw. Third, while the sourcing is usually vague, most other details about the bourbon are often available (i.e. state of origin, mashbill, age statements, etc…) Fourth, they appear to be doing a good job of picking their barrels, so while they may not be as transparent as everyone would like, they have cultivated a reputation for quality.

What we have here is Batch 009, a 13 year old bourbon sourced from Tennessee with a mashbill of 75% corn, 18% rye, 7% malted barley. Again, Barrell does not specify the exact provenance, but reading around, I see that well-aged bourbon sourced from Tennessee is usually code for “George Dickel”, so there is that. Let’s dive in:

Barrell Bourbon Batch 009

Barrell Bourbon Batch 009 – Pours a clear golden orange color with big legs. Smells quite oaky, lots of wood, vanilla, coconut, caramel, rye spice, something a little bready too. Taste has a nice rich caramel and molasses sort of thing going on, a little spicebox in the middle and finish. Oaky without being overly so, which is certainly in my wheelhouse. Mouthfeel is rich and coating, lots of alcohol heat, but in a pleasant, mellow way, with a finish that lasts a while. Overall, this is fabulous stuff, complex and balanced, great. Compares favorably to my favorite bourbons. A-

Whiskey Nerd Details: 112.10 proof, 56.05% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/14/16. Aged: 13 years. Vintage: 2016. Mash bill: 75% corn, 18% rye, 7% malted barley.

Beer Nerd Musings: I’ve already talked about the NDP parallels with contract brewing and gypsy brewers. Barrell’s approach seems more reminiscent of Scotch’s independent bottlers (except, of course, for the lack of transparency around the original distillery). The notion of each batch being unique (and not just from a “each single barrel is unique” sort of situation) is interesting and certainly speaks to the explosion of craft beer offerings. I mean, it’s not Tired Hands with their ~900 different named beers in 3 years, but there’s something to be said for the experience of drinking something you know you’ll probably never get again. I have not ever had a beer aged in a George Dickel barrel, but they do exist, even if they don’t seem particularly common. There are some beers that only specify being aged in a Tennessee whiskey barrel, which I suppose could also mean Dickel. If this bourbon is any indication, I think these barrels would work pretty well with beer (though this is perhaps too good to waste on homebrew!)

Fellow Travelers: As mentioned above, these bourbons have gained something of a following, so if you don’t feel like taking a beer nerd’s word for it, here’s some other folks who’ve reviewed it:

  • signde drinks gives it a B/B+ and calls it “this is the best by far” of Barrell batches he’s had…
  • The Bourbon Buddy gives it a 90-91 (A-) and also mentions that it’s the best Barrell batch he’s had…

So yes, I’m going to be keeping my eyes peeled for more Barrell batches, as this is a new favorite. I’ve got two more bourbons in the pipeline, and who knows what I’ll find in the meantime. Up next this week, though, we move to wine. I might even have a beer review or two, even during my current beer hiatus. Or quasi-hiatus, as it were. Stay tuned!

George T. Stagg

Amongst whiskey nerds, George T. Stagg appears to rival the vaunted Pappy Van Winkle line as the most lauded bourbon around. Stagg is basically standard Buffalo Trace that is aged extra long and then bottled at cask strength (usually with eye-popping, hazmat range proofs). It hasn’t quite captured the mainstream as much as Pappy (I don’t think I saw it on Justified, for instance), and thank goodness for that, but it’s usually mentioned in the same breath as Pappy and as such, it’s apparently just as difficult to land as any other whiskey out there.

I managed to get a bottle purely by luck. I complain a lot about the PLCB, but last year they instituted a lottery system for limited release spirits like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (which Stagg is part of), and I was lucky enough to win a bottle. The stats for the full BTAC lottery are pretty interesting, as not a single bar got a bottle of Stagg because it was picked last in the lottery and thus all of the bars had already won something else. More for us consumers, I guess. There were about 3,500 eligible entries for Stagg, and 186 winners (of which I was one). Also of note? The bottles were priced at $59.99 (As I understand this, the bottle normally retails for $79.99 and will go for 10 times that on the secondary market, easily). Hard not to be pretty pleased with the PLCB in this scenario, I must admit, and when I got my grubby hands on the bottle, I immediately went into the Gollum pose and started referring to it as “my precious”. Seemed appropriate.

The 2015 iteration of Stagg was distilled in the spring of 2000 and released in the fall of 2015, making it about 15 years, 1 month old. It is comprised of 128 different barrels (#4 char), which sounds like a lot of whiskey considering a barrel is 53 gallons, but according to Buffalo Trace, 84.46% of the original whiskey was lost due to evaporation. Those angels were mighty thirsty! And it appears they soaked up mostly water in the process too, raising it to a nice and flammable level of 138.2 proof. Let’s take a closer look:

George T. Stagg

George T. Stagg – Pours a deep, dark golden amber, almost brown color, nice legs. Smells fabulous, rich caramel, vanilla, oak, notes of spice but this is clearly the low rye recipe. Not that it matters, as this nose just keeps opening up, the sort of bourbon that you can savor for hours on end. After a little water, the caramel softens a bit, feels more molassesey or something, still amazing. Taste hits the rich caramel, oak, and vanilla up front, some spicy, earthy notes too, lots of booze. Water mellows it out some, brings out some sweet notes. Mouthfeel is rich and full bodied, coats your mouth with a long finish, is naturally very boozy, but somehow not as harsh as some bourbons that are much lower in ABV. A little watter smooths it out some, at the cost of a little intensity (though you kinda have to at some point, and it’s still pretty amazing). Overall, this is pretty spectacular stuff, definitely in the running for best whiskey I’ve ever had and probably takes that crown. A

Whiskey Nerd Details: 138.2 Proof, 69.1% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/11/16. Vintage: 2015.

George T. Stagg label

Beer Nerd Musings: For all the hype about Pappy barrel aged beer, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Stagg barrel aged beer. They exist, of course, but they seem few and far between. Evil Twin made a Stagg barrel aged Belgian Pale Ale, which seems like a tremendous waste. In fact, I can’t seem to find any of the more prized BA styles like stout or barleywine, but it does seem like a ripe market for the taking. I guess you could say these are just “Buffalo Trace” barrels, which might work. These are definitely used a lot with beer, and usually turn out quite good, as evidenced by the win in the FiftyFifty Eclipse horizontal tasting. Also pretty tough to beat Buffalo Trace Barrel Aged Black Magick (though the Pappy Black Magick did, I think). Personally, I don’t think I’d use this for homebrew. Seems like a crime to do anything but drink this whole bottle, neat (and, you know, with a little water).

Fellow Travelers: As a highly sought after bourbon, lots of folks more qualified than myself have written about this, so here’s a few other opinions:

Well, that was an impressive bit of bourbon. Someday, I may even try some of the other BTAC bourbons. I’m particularly interested in William Larue Weller, but I’m betting that this will not happen anytime soon. I got lucky in the lottery last year, I’m doubting it will work out again (it certainly didn’t in the Pappy lottery!) I’ll probably take a flier on Stagg Jr. someday too, and will be sure to post about that when I get a chance. But for now, I think that wraps up the Bourbon reviews for this hiatus. However, we still have one whisky to go, a very nice, well aged Islay single malt. Look for that sometime next week…

Four Roses Private Selections from TalkBeer and White Horse

I’ve often noted my fondness for the openness Four Roses displays with their recipes. It makes the homebrewer inside of me all squishy. That being said, I’ve only ever had one recipe on hand. I was able to sample a regular single barrel (OBSV) with a cask strength private selection of the same recipe and that difference blew me away. This time around, I sought out something different, then lucked into another bottle that I’m guessing is as different as possible.

First up is a Private Selection from TalkBeer.com. Yes, you read that right, apparently a community of beer nerds can purchase their own barrel. In fact, this is the third time a group of beer nerds got together, traveled to Louisville, KY, met with Jim Rutledge, and sampled from about 10 barrels. You can get the background at the TalkBeer thread (needless to say, somebody chose their best man well!), but here’s the barrel they chose:

TalkBeer Four Roses Barrel

(Click to Embiggen)

It’s an OBSK, which is the high rye recipe with yeast that produces a light spiciness, light caramel, and full body bourbon. It’s 10 years, 8 months, and 19 days old, and bottled at 113.2 proof (not quite the boozy monster that my OBSV pick was, but certainly enough to pack a punch). Sploosh.

Then last fall, during a trip to the Garden State, I decided to stop in at a liquor store to see if they had any Carton beer, and what did I stumble upon? Another Four Roses Private Selection, this one from White Horse Wine & Spirits in Absecon, NJ. I don’t think it’s possible for this bottle to be more different than the TalkBeer pick. It’s an OESF, so it’s lower rye with a yeast that trends towards herbal character (I kept calling it floral though, go figure). Oddly, it was also 10 years and 8 months old (doesn’t list the days), but it’s only 107.8 proof. Nothing to sneeze at, to be sure, but it’s awfully close to the regularly available single barrel. While not my favorite bourbon, this did make for a truly fascinating double feature because these two bourbons are very different. Really happy I got both of these bottles though, and will certainly be looking to expand my collection in the future. Let’s take a closer look at each:

Four Roses Private Selection for TalkBeer

Four Roses Private Selection Single Barrel BourbonTalkBeer OBSK – Pours a reddish orange brown (leather bound books and rich mahogany). Smells very nice, spicy rye, cinnamon candy, oak, caramel, and a beautiful wallop of vanilla, and that fruity bubblegum character that seems to wind its way through all the Four Roses expressions I’ve had (thanks to Kaedrin beverage compatriot Padraic’s observation long ago, I can’t not notice it now). Taste starts off with that spicebox character, cinnamon and the like, with a nice caramel, oak, and vanilla middle, then the spices strike back in force towards the finish. Very complex and layered, I’m picking up different pieces with each sip, and after some time, that caramel and vanilla character really opens up. Mouthfeel is full bodied, not quite syrupy, but it’s got a nice coating factor, and the boozy heat is quite approachable (even to my baby-like beer palate). Overall, this is a fantastic, well rounded Bourbon, among my favorites ever. A-

Four Roses TalkBeer Label

Whiskey Nerd Details: 113.2 Proof, 56.6% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 2/26/16. Selected by TalkBeer. Four Roses Recipe Selected: OBSK. Aged 10 Years 8 Months 19 Days. Warehouse No.: QS. Barrel No.: 87-20.

Four Roses Private Selection for White Horse Wine and Spirits

Four Roses Private Selection Single Barrel BourbonWhite Horse Wine & Spirits OESF – Pours a bit lighter than the TalkBeer, a golden orange brown color (less Anchormany). Smells quite different, more sweet corn, less spice, more in the way of floral, vegetal, herbal aromas, actually even less of that fruity bubblegum (though it’s still there). Taste follows the nose, sweeter, much less spice, much more of the floral, herbal character. Mouthfeel is lighter, less spicy, less hot. Overall, by itself, I find this a bit disappointing, but still quite nice. It is, however, fascinating to drink this beside other Four Roses recipes, as it’s quite distinct. Personally, I tend to prefer the spicier, more caramelly recipes, but this is worth trying. I do wonder about the low-ish ABV though, and if it were higher, would that intensity win me over? I’ll have to keep an eye out. In fact, a while ago, I might have had the 2014 Limited Edition Single Barrel at a bar, which was also an OESF, but I can’t find the picture to confirm this, and I remember that sample to have a distinct minty character that was awesome. Alas, no such minty goodness here. B

Four Roses White Horse Label

Whiskey Nerd Details: 107.8 Proof, 53.9% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 2/26/16. Selected by White Horse Wine & Spirits. Four Roses Recipe Selected: OESF. Aged 10 Years 8 Months. Warehouse No.: GW. Barrel No.: 48-1U.

Beer Nerd Musings: Plenty of beer has been aged in Four Roses barrels, but you know what? To my knowledge, no one has ever specified which Four Roses recipe they were using. Next level beer nerdery: a series of imperial stouts aged in all ten recipe barrels of Four Roses. FiftyFifty, you’re up! Somehow, I doubt this will ever happen. However, I hold out hope that someday, I’ll visit a really small brewery and they’ll show me the barrel the beer is aging in, and I’ll be able to see the stenciled recipe on the barrel. A man can dream. Or, um, not. This is getting pretty wonky. I’ll stop now.

Fellow Travelers: Lots of people more knowledgeable than myself have tackled the different Four Roses recipes, often in a much more complete and detailed fashion:

  • Josh at Red, White, & Bourbon has helped select a barrel (“unquestionably the best barrel of Four Roses every picked”, an OBSO) and he’s managed to collect samples of all 10 recipes. He’s posted about the the OE set, as well as the Limited Edition Single Barrel 2013 (an OBSK, but with higher proof and more age than my bottle) and 2014 (an OESF that seemed very similar to the above in terms of stats). He seemed to like the OESF much more than me, but then, they were different barrels:P
  • Sku also reviewed the 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel and seemed to love it. He also reviewed the 2014 pick, and noted that it “doesn’t jump out at me as particularly special”, which goes along with my experience here (in your face, josh!)
  • Josh at The Whiskey Jug has a review of an OBSK pick as well as a post about all 10 recipes. There, the OESF did better than the OBSK, go figure.
  • Josh at Sipology (why are all you Bourbon drinkers named Josh?) has also partaken of the 2013 LESB and also had a similar experience comparing an OBSK with an OBSF (not quite what I did, but hey, close enough).

We’ve got at least one more doozy of a bourbon to go before this little beer quasi-hiatus concludes, so stay frosty folks, we’ll be back to beer in no time (or, uh, a few weeks from now).

Old Grand-Dad 114

Continuing my tour through the realms of unsexy staples brings me to the Old Grand-Dad line of bourbons (a subset of Beam Suntory’s lineup). There are several expressions (most of which are packaged in industrial grade neon orange labels), but they all use the same high-rye recipe (30% rye compared to Beam’s normal 15%), with the main difference being the proof. There’s also Basil Hayden’s, which uses the same recipe and is apparently named after the “Grand-Dad” in question (it used to be an 8 year old bourbon, but they dropped the age statement a while back). That one is also quite disappointing. I’ve seen the fancy bottle with the moderately high price tag in the liquor store and considered it, but I’m glad I opted to get a pour at a bar one night, as it didn’t make much of an impression. I later found out that it’s bottled at 80 proof, which might explain the underwhelming reaction.

What we’ve got here, though, is Old Grand-Dad 114, which is a significantly higher proof than Basil Hayden’s at half the price. I snagged this one last summer during one of my pilgrimages to State Line Liquors, as the name sounded familiar (it turns out that I had been looking at this list Sku posted long ago and this particular recommendation stuck out I guess). Not long after, Josh at the Whiskey Jug reviewed all the Old Grand-Dad expressions (including Basil Hayden’s) and concluded that OGD 114 is “everything that Basil Hayden’s should be but isn’t.” Let’s take a closer look at the OG…D bourbon:

Old Grand-Dad 114

Old Grand Dad 114 – Pours a golden orange, copper color, thin legs. Smells quite nice, caramel, spicy rye, lots of cinnamon, oak and vanilla, maybe something earthy in there too. Cinnamon seems to be the standout here, and every time I pour a glass I love the cinnamon blast (it seems to fade a bit as I drink). Taste follows the nose, but with different emphasis. Some earthy leather, less cinnamon, though it’s still there. Caramel is certainly present as well, but the earthy nature really comes out in the taste. Mouthfeel is rich and a little on the hot side (keep in mind my baby-like beer palate, but I had some higher proof stuff this weekend that felt less harsh than this), coats the tongue and lingers for a bit. Overall, this is really nice. It’s not a mind blowing affair, but it makes for a hefty daily sipper, something I could see hitting often as a reliable go-to when the sub 100 proof stuff wouldn’t get the job done. Certainly blows Basil Hayden’s out of the water, and the low-ish price ($25-30) certainly makes it attractive. B+

Whiskey Nerd Details: 114 proof (57% ABV) bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 2/12/16. Bottle sez: Lot No. 1.

Beer Nerd Musings – There are plenty of beers aged in Jim Beam barrels (Allagash apparently favors those barrels), but ones that specifically call out Old Grand-Dad are few and far between. The only one I could really find was from Rock Bottom, ugh (I mean, I haven’t had it so I shouldn’t judge, but a 5.5% ABV stout aged in OGD barrels for 2 weeks doesn’t inspire confidence). As per usual, I’m sure some of the bigger barrel aging programs use these barrels as part of a larger blend, not to mention the large amount of folks who don’t specify which brand of barrels they used (perhaps the notion of OGD being a “budget” bourbon doesn’t lend itself to such marketing efforts). I could see OGD working well though, so maybe someone should give it a shot (looking at you, Fifty Fifty – how have you not used any Beam products in your Eclipse series? Unless you count Maker’s, I guess.). If I didn’t already have my oak cubes soaking in Four Roses, I might have used this for my next BBA homebrew. It seems like it could work well.

Fellow Travelers: Reviews of OGD 114 from folks more knowledgeable than myself…

So that’s the boring bourbon we’ll be covering, stay tuned for some more exciting bottles, including some single barrel Four Roses selections and, why not, George T. Stagg. We’ll also be hitting up some Scotch soon enough. In the meantime, I’ve got a couple of wines to discuss this week…