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Like the fire of 1,000 suns, it's a very hot Stagg Jr. Mmmmm...tasty, tasty suns.

Posted on by Eric Burke

I walked into the liquor store to get a bottle of wine for the pizza sauce I was making that night. 

“Hi Eric.” I heard from behind the counter. I looked over startled. I didn’t ever talk to anyone here, how did they know my name? 

When I looked over, I noticed that it was the former manager of one of the liquor stores I used to frequent all the time, but that I hadn’t been to since their bourbon selection sort of fell off. 

“Oh, hi!” I barely got out before heading down to the wine section. I knew I needed to get that before I got distracted by bourbon. This guy had a tendency to do that to me.

After getting up to the counter, we made small talk for a bit before he let me know “I have a bottle of Stagg Jr. in the office. It’s not going to hit the shelf, if you’re interested.” 

…blink…

Well, this was unexpected. Did I want it? Good question. I was having some well documented personal difficulties with Sazerac’s labeling. But this wasn’t an offending product. And I’d heard good things.

“How much?” I asked expecting a fairly outrageous price.

“About $48”

“Yes.” I answered, barely letting him finish.

This, kids, is why it pays to build relationships that span the course of several years with your local liquor store. 

And so a trip for a $9 bottle of wine turned into a $63 stop after taxes. Honestly, I don’t even know why my wife lets me go to stores by myself anymore. I do have a history of randomly walking out having spent 700-1000% of what my plan was. In any case, I plan to start frequenting this store a little more.

Stagg Jr.

Purchase info: $47.99 for a 750 mL at Marketplace Liquors, Savage, MN

Details: 64.35% ABV

Nose: Lots of ethanol on this. Floral, red berries, mint, bubblegum, sourdough and a faint odor of old barn.

Mouth: Very hot and sweet. Caramel, mint, leather, tobacco, cayenne pepper. 

Finish: Warm, long and drying. Leather and black pepper. 

Thoughts: This is way too hot for me to enjoy neat. I don’t like my bourbon to cause pain. Let’s add some water to bring this down to about 100° proof.

Nose: Really tames the ethanol. Brown sugar is abundant, caramel and vanilla too. Floral notes are still there along with the bubble gum. There is now a bready note as well.

Mouth: The fire has been muted, though not extinguished. There is a nice tingle now. It’s still sweet with caramel but the lack of fire allows a fruity note to appear. Mint and cayenne are still there. Tobacco and leather have been replaced by a nice oak flavor.

Finish: nice and warm with lingering oak.

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Thoughts: Wow. Now that I can taste something other than fire, I really like this. It’s sweet and fruity but nicely balanced with spice and oak. If you can find it for less than 1.5 times the price of regular Buffalo Trace, pounce on it. It’s worth the slight premium to gain the ability to dilute it to your preferred strength.

A Case for Flavored Whiskey

Posted on by Eric Burke

In the whiskey community, flavored whiskey has a bad reputation. And if you are only looking at it through the lens of a bourbon purist, you may feel it’s deserved. More than once I’ve heard someone say something along the lines of: “there’s a whiskey shortage and they go use some of that precious liquid for [insert name of your most hated brand here, Fireball, PieHole, Jim Beam Maple, etc].” 

I believe this is a misplaced view. In fact, I have a theory that in today’s whiskey environment, the existence of flavored whiskey might even make the bourbon you drink neat taste better. Let me propose a simplistic thought experiment (since admittedly blending is much more complex than this).

To keep it simple, let’s say you fill 100 barrels. Due to the nature of barrels and aging, each of those barrels taste a little different. Some are amazing, a couple are downright funky. Once upon a time you may only have had a couple of brands. You took the barrels that hit a certain flavor profile and blended them to make that brand. The rest might go into a different brand or be sold off to another producer. Today though everyone (both producer and consumer) wants a premium single barrel or small batch bourbon. And while it is possible that about 25-30 years ago everyone got really good at making bourbon at the same time, it’s more likely that they started pulling out the really good barrels that they’d previously been putting into the regular releases.

So back to that thought experiment. You’ve got 100 barrels of fully matured bourbon. You have three products that you put out. You have a single barrel premium expression at a high proof, a “small batch” expression at a lower proof and an entry level expression that’s right at 80 proof to make it as affordable as possible. So let’s look at how you might select barrels for each of these three expressions. 

First the single barrel. This is going to get the tastiest barrels. They have to each be able to stand on their own. So if you have amazing barrels, they should probably go here. And out of 100 barrels you’ll get what? Maybe 10 that are that amazing? (Yes, I pulled that number out of my ass and yes, I think that 10% is extremely generous.) 

Next is your “small batch” expression. You plan to use a smallish number of barrels to create this rather just dumping everything together. So let’s say you are holding back 25 barrels to make this. These are barrels of varying quality. Each adding just what you need to make it taste just right. Some will be light and fruity, some spicy and rich, maybe even a couple that are basically wood extract. Blending is hard. Even in the small scale experiments I do here at home, using only amazing whiskey, some come out damn near undrinkable. So you are going to have to chose just the right ones. 

Finally, the entry level expression. This is whatever is left, right? I really hope not, you took out all the really good ones. Plus, you’re still trying to hit a flavor profile. If you just dumped everything else in there, the funky ones mentioned above are now a higher percentage of what’s left than they were of the original. For simplicity’s sake let’s go with 10% funky barrels to match our 10% honey barrels. 10 funky barrels in the 65 remaining barrels is about 15% funk instead of 10%. 

So if you can’t blend funk away as easily, what can you do? Sell them to another producer, of course. But who’d buy them? What if, maybe, there is an in-house market for that. Maybe you dump a bunch of flavor in there, cover up the funk, call it Cinnamon Whiskey and sell it to frat boys.

And so even though neither you nor I drink it, that’s why I like flavored whiskey. But, you are going to say “that’s just a simplistic thought experiment.” Yep, in real life you also make apple pie, honey, maple and black cherry whiskey too.

UPDATE: I mistakenly forgot to mention that Josh Wright of SipologyBlog was kind enough to read this one over before I published it to make sure I didn't say anything too stupid. Any mistakes are mine. Josh, you have my deepest thanks!

W.L. Weller 12 year old

Posted on by Eric Burke

Looking for a good, easy-to-find bourbon that won’t cost you an arm and a leg? 

Oh, you are? Shit. Well this isn’t it. 

Once upon a time you could get a bottle of W.L. Weller 12 year old bourbon easily and for a decent price. Not in Minnesota, I’ve never seen it here. But in areas where it was distributed, it was just…there. Sitting on the shelf. Historically, running somewhere between $20 and $30. 

Anecdotally it seems this is no longer the case. Weller 12 has fallen victim to the frenzy over it’s higher-priced corporate cousin and is out of stock basically everywhere I look online. Looking on wine-searcher.com (which lists historical price averages going back to 2007), I see they are claiming the current average price to be $59. In fact, five of the seven listings they show are $89 or over.

I have some advice. Don’t pay this much for this bourbon. Settle down, take a breath and realize that while this is decent, it isn’t earth-shatteringly so. If you want a wheated bourbon, get a different Weller, a Larceny or even a Maker’s Mark. If you want a 12 year old bourbon go with Elijah Craig. If you are only looking at this because it is supposed to be like (that other bourbon that will not be named)?

Well, there’s no hope for you. You, I give permission to go pay $90+ because you’re going to do it anyway. Just remember if this is the only reason you want Weller 12, your reasoning is flawed. This is not that. It’s failed at that already. Didn’t make the cut. Tasted different enough to not be chosen.

So now that the rant is over, is the bourbon any good?

W.L. Weller 12 Year Old bourbon

Purchase info: $29.99 for a 750 mL at Dorignac’s Food Center, Metairie, LA

Details: 45% ABV, Aged 12 years

Nose: Cherry preserves, oak, clove, ginger, cotton candy

Mouth: Hot. Bubble gum, clove, black pepper, mint

Finish: Nice and warm with a decent length. Nutty, mint oak, baking spices.

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Thoughts: This is a decent bourbon. I don’t prefer wheated bourbons so I normally choose something else when this is on my shelf. But if you are a fan of wheaters and run across it and the price is somewhere in the ballpark of MSRP, it’s a good one to pick up. I normally do. And provided the price is right I’ll probably continue to do so.

Highwood Ninety 20 Year Old

Posted on by Eric Burke

Due north of Glacier National Park (and basically due south of Calgary) sits High River, Alberta. Wikipedia tells me that it’s a town of about 13,000 people. So roughly six times the size of the town I grew up in. In the whisky world it’s best known for being the home of Highwood Distillers. Who, outside of Canada is best know for losing some of their bottled whisky when the Highwood River (and other area rivers) flooded and the town was evacuated. 

Before tonight I only dimly remembered all of that. What I did remember was that my friend Rick thought enough of this whisky to send it to me as an alternative to the Canadian Club Rye in that massive whisky box he sent me. 

My research tells me this is 100% corn and the bottle tells me that it is aged for 20 years.

Highwood Ninety 20 year old

Purchase Info: Another gift from a friend. (Available at LCBO for $50 Canadian for 750 mL) 

Details: 45% ABV. 20 years old.

Nose: Thick, rich butterscotch. Corn silage, dried orange peal, maple

Mouth: Werther’s Original candy, cloves, orange and a nice peppery tingle.

Finish: Long and warm with lingering sweetness and cloves.

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Thoughts: This is a very sweet whisky. But it has a really nice tingle to go along with it. And it’s a tingle, not a burn. This feels sophisticated. It knows what it is and doesn’t need to punch you in the mouth. It’s just darn good.

Angel's Envy Head-to-Head-to-Head review

Posted on by Eric Burke

I used to have this impression of Angel’s Envy that it was a non-bourbon drinker’s bourbon. I’m not sure where that came from. Maybe it was the exquisitely designed bottle with angel wings on the back and on the bottom of the cork. Maybe it was the angel-winged ladies I saw working in an Angel’s Envy popup bar at BourbonFest. Maybe it was that the first time I had it, it was so light and sweet that it didn’t really taste like bourbon.

Of course, I’d tried it after a full plate of barbecue so…yeah.

In the intervening time since my first taste of the product, I’ve come to respect the company more than my first impressions would have hinted at. The Hendersons are active on forums and blogs and seem like stand-up guys. Never claiming to have made the whiskey just letting you know that they finished it in other barrels and blended it. On top of that I’ve had a few more glasses of the whisky and ended up with a different impression than that first one with the burned out palate.

Now you might ask why I would go back to try again when I was a bit turned off by it to begin with. I’d like to say that it was due to fairness and such. But to be honest, in an indirect way it was that oh-so-pretty bottle that brought it back into my life. My mother-in-law likes to buy me bourbon. But she doesn’t know anything about bourbon so she grabs the prettiest bottle she can find. Twice that has been Angel’s Envy. The first bottle she gave us wasn’t to my tastes. My wife liked it well enough that when I saw that a store just across the Wisconsin border from us had a private selection, I picked it up for her.

I liked that one. A lot. So when mom-in-law got us another bottle this year, I was kind of excited. Then I tasted it…suddenly less excited. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I looked and it turns out to be the exact same batch as the first one she got us. That got me to thinking. I needed to find another batch and see what’s up here. And that brings us to today. 

Angel’s Envy Head-to-Head-to-Head Review

These are listed in the order I was exposed to them.

Batch 7N

Purchase Info: A gift from my mother-in-law.

Details: 43.3% ABV. Batch 7N, bottle 2331. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Barrels. 

Nose: Banana Bread, oak, caramel, faint nutmeg.

Mouth: Sweet. Oak, mint, cinnamon, green pea pods.

Finish: Gentle. Lingering bitterness, mint and more pea pods.

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Thoughts: Not a ton of flavor, delicate. I’m not a huge fan of this one. The pea pod thing just isn’t for me. If this were my only exposure to the brand my main thought would be vegetal and not good.

Batch C1

Purchase Info: $41.99 for a 750 mL from Chicone’s Liquor Mart, Hudson, WI

Details: 43.3% ABV. Batch C1 (Chicone’s Private Selection). Bottle 86. Blend Percentages 20% A, 50% B, 30% C. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Barrels. 

Nose: Sweet apple, anise, cinnamon, oak

Mouth: Mint, cinnamon, baked apple, nutmeg.

Finish: Warm. Long. Lingering baking spices and bitterness.

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Thoughts: This is nice. It’s fruity warm and spicy. I’d buy a second bottle if I went back and they still had one.

Batch 8S

Purchase Info: $44.99 for a 750 mL at Viking Liquor Barrel, Prior Lake, MN

Details: 43.3% ABV. Batch 8S, bottle 1071. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Port Wine Barrels. 

Nose: Floral, caramel, red berries, clove, spearmint leaves.

Mouth: Nice tingle, peppery. Cloves, cayenne, whole grain bread, mint and a touch of caramel.

Finish: Mint, black pepper, cloves and more floral notes which transition to a lingering bitterness.

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Thoughts: Nice full flavor. Good balance between spice and mint with neither being dominant. Just a hint of sweetness. This is a good batch. I like it.

Comparison Thoughts: The store pick (C1) is my favorite of the bunch with Batch 8S coming in a close second. C1 has a fuller mouth feel and a baking spice focus. 8S continues on the spice train but has a bit more mint. 7N is kind of a train wreck. It tastes vegetal. Not a flavor I care for. 

Batch variation aside, I think I like Angel’s Envy more than other wine-finished whiskies. The port influence is subtler and better integrated into the bourbon than the others I’ve had.