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The latest addition to my bourbon book stack: Bourbon, Strange by Chuck Cowdery

Posted on by Eric Burke

Bourbon is a drink. Obviously. But for a certain subset of bourbon geeks, it’s more than that. Bourbon grew up with our country. It’s history is our history. It’s stories are our stories. And though a lot of those stories have been lost, there are still bits here and there for historians to comb through. 

One of the first books I bought as I got interested in this subject as more than just a drink was 2004’s Bourbon, Straight by Chuck Cowdery. It’s a damn good history. And one I go back to as a reference all the time. Mr. Cowdery is an authority on bourbon and has one of the most consistently informative blogs on the subject on the internet.

This year, ten years after releasing Bourbon, Straight Mr. Cowdery released the sequel. Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Strories of American Whiskey is a second collection of the stories of American whiskey. And like it’s predecessor, it is both immensly enjoying to read and highly informative. As the title suggests, these stories tend toward the more unusual stories that the author has uncovered in the decades he has been researching bourbon and American whiskey.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s earned a spot on the whiskey book shelf right next to it’s older brother and I’m sure I will go back and reference it just as often. If you are looking for a non-alcoholic gift for the bourbon drinker in your life, you could do far worse than picking this up for them.

Review: MB Roland Bourbon, Batch 16

Posted on by Eric Burke

Disclaimer: I consider Paul and Merry Beth of MB Roland to be my friends and in my statement of ethics I promised to disclose when I am reviewing one of my friend’s products and to only review them when it was truly somethiing I really liked. This is one of those times.

One of the things I like best about Kentucky are the people I meet when I visit. I think that every single time I’ve stopped there, I’ve left with newfound friends. Every time. And that includes the first time I stopped. 

I wasn’t in Kentucky very long that first time. I was driving to Savannah, Georgia for vacation. It was just my wife and I. One of the first vacations we’d taken on our own since our daughter had grown up and discovered she had her own life. We were not sure what we were going to do, but we knew that this trip was going to be just us, doing the things that we wanted to do, when we wanted to do them.

We had a genereal idea of what we wanted to stop and see, but didn’t really have anything planned for the leg of the trip between St. Louis and our overnight stop near the Great Smoky Mountains. So I did a little research. I was just starting to get into spirits and didn’t know much about it at that point. I have no idea what made me type the word distillery into the search bar of google maps as I was looking for something to see during that day. But it got a hit. Just off of the I-24 freeway. Something told me I had to stop.

When we got there, Paul Tomaszewski greeted us and offered us a tour. I took him up on it and proceded to have my eyes opened up to the facinating world of the process of making spirits. As we got back to the gift shop, I offered the opinion to anyone that would listen that they should also take the tour. We did the tasting, bought some products and continued our journey. 

If you want to know what happens next, read the About Me page to the left. Needless to say, I liked what I bought. And because I felt it was the right thing to do, I emailed Paul to let him know just how much I was enjoying what he made. From there, we kept in touch. He letting me know some of the behind the scenes bits of whiskey making knowledge and I letting him know some of the opportunities he might want to look out for as he plays in the world of marketing. He and his wife Merry Beth are now good friends and I try to stop in to see them whenever I’m in the area.

MB Roland Distillery originally kept the lights on making shine. Perfectly legal, it’s made from a mash of both corn and sugar. They flavor it in a wide variety of ways and it is quite tasty. But even right from the start, they were also making whiskey. Malt whiskey was the first aged product of theirs that I had. It was good enough to make me forget clear spirits and turn most of my attention to whiskey. Over the years, I tried a few experiments of theirs and was always intrigued even when they weren’t necesarily successful experiments.

Somehow, I had never been able to try their bourbon. It always sold out too fast for me to be able to grab a bottle (especially from 15 hours away). This last time I was in Kentucky though, I got lucky. When I visited Liquor World in Bardstown, I happened to see a couple bottles sitting there on the shelf. I couldn’t pass it up. I had to buy it.

MB Roland Bourbon

Purchase Info: $51.89 for a 750mL at Liquor World of Bardstown, Bardstown, KY

Details: (all of this is disclosed on the label) 51.96% ABV. Batch 16. Bottle 35 of 129. Barrel #4 Char. Mash AA. Unfiltered and undiluted after distillation. “Mashed, Distilled and Bottled by MB Roland Distillery, Pembroke, Christian Co., KY”

Nose: Vinous. Reminds me of a brandy. Raisins, toffee, dark chocolate, dried corn.

Mouth: Hot and sweet with a hint of smoke. Bread dough, chocolate, caramel and leather.

Finish: Long and warm. The raisins are back along with the smoke.

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Thoughts: I normally dislike smoky whiskeys. Even a hint is enough to put me off. But not here. Here it’s just barely a hint and it works. This is a tasty and complex bourbon. it is warm without being overpowering. The raisin notes remind me of a nice brandy, but the leather, chocolate and caramel bring me right back to bourbon. I love this one. 

Paul, Merry Beth and crew: nice job on this one. I wish I’d thought to buy two.

Head-to-head: Two bourbons named after one man: Basil Hayden’s vs Old Grand-Dad 114

Posted on by Eric Burke

In the world of the bourbon geek, there are few premium-priced bourbons that receive more derision than Basil Hayden’s. And it can be boiled down to a few main reasons. For some, it’s the proof. At 40% ABV it isn’t the monster that most of us seem to prefer. For some it’s the complexity. Or more accurately, the lack of it. For some it’s the price. It isn’t unusual to see Basil Hayden hovering near the $40 mark. And seeing as it shares a mashbill with the lower priced (and higher proofed) Old Grand-Dad line, it can be hard for some folks to take. 

Basil Hayden’s was one of the first bourbons that my wife really liked. It was one that she bought on special occasions back when paying $40 for a bottle of bourbon seemed unusual. It was with a little glee that I discovered that it was made from the same stuff as Old Grand-Dad, a bourbon that was really much more in line with my desired price point. Coincidentally, Old Grand-Dad was one of the first bourbons I bought that I ever disliked. It was the 100 proof Bottled-in-bond version. On the first sip, I really didn’t care for it. But by the time I finished the bottle, I’d changed my tune. At the time it was a “have it in a glass if it’s handed to you, but probably don’t buy it.”

Oh, what a difference a few years can make. Old Grand-Dad 114 is now a staple at my house (or at least, as close as anything can come when you’re me). And I haven’t purchased a bottle of Basil Hayden’s in a few years now. And since we’ve talked about the rest of the Small Batch Collection over the last couple weeks, it made a good excuse to go back and revisit a former favorite and see how it stacks up next to it’s younger, cheaper, and higher proof brother.

Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Purchase info: $26.99 for 750 mL at Total Wine and Spirits, Burnsville, MN

Details: 40% ABV. No age statement so technically at least 4 years old, but previous bottlings were stated 8 years so it’s probably safe to assume that it at least trends that same direction.

Nose: Spearmint, cherries and honey with a hint of oak underneath.

Mouth: Gentle, uncomplicated. Sweet bubblegum and grain.

Finish: Lingering sweetness that slowly fades to bitterness. Spices and a minty-heat stay with you.

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Thoughts: This is the most approachable bourbon in Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection. Pair that with an elaborate label and it is no wonder that it is a favorite of many people just making a step up from Jack Daniels. This is all about the nose and the finish. I find the nose very nice, and it has a better finish than any 80° proof bourbon has a right to. Overall maybe not a great value at the list price, but it is easy enough to find on-sale that it shouldn’t be hard to pick it up for less. If you’re like me and like a lighter bourbon on occasion, this might be for you.

Old Grand-Dad 114

Purchase info: $20.95 for a 750 mL at Zipp’s Liquor, Minneapolis, MN (on-sale)

Details: 57% ABV. Straight bourbon with no age statement so at least 4 years old.

Nose: Buttered popcorn right off the bat. After that dissipates, buttered toffee sweetness predominates. Then the yeasty smell of rising bread dough and some baking spices. This one changes as you go along with it.

Mouth: Hot. Sweet toffee. Corn. A spicy tingle on the sides of your tongue. 

Finish: Long lingering warmth. Nice and Dry. 

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Thoughts: Hands down one of my favorite sub-$25 bourbons. Sweet and spicy is a good combo in my book and the dry finish adds some nice complexity. Plus, did I mention sub-$25?

Comparison thoughts: As I mentioned above, one of the knocks against Basil Hayden’s has always been its price. Whiskey geeks tend to scoff at paying up to $40 for “watered-down Old Grad-Dad.” But to me these bourbons, though they start out the same, are completely different animals. The Basil Hayden’s seems to be geared more toward the Jack Daniels drinker looking for something “special.” It’s got a similar light taste, but has much more going on in the finish. The Old Grand-Dad 114 seems almost positioned to be a geek favorite. It’s high proof, a bit challenging and has an amazing price. It really is a testament to the skill that people have in choosing barrels to fit a particular flavor profile. I can easily recommend both of these depending on mood. Especially if you can find ol’ Basil on sale somewhere.

Fun Fact: Old Grand-Dad's name was Basil Hayden. Old Grand-Dad was named after the founder's grandfather, Basil Hayden. Beam decided to honor that heritage when they released Basil Hayden.

It's not my job to support your small business, it's your job to make me want to.

Posted on by Eric Burke

I love supporting small businesses. Small independent bookstores? Love them. Local antique stores? Wonderful. A small, hometown restaurant? Perfect. Craft brewers and craft distillers? So much fun. It makes me feel good to help support someone's dream. I was oddly devastated when the local True-Value hardware store and the independent grocery store in the town I live in went out of business and sold out to chains within a month of one another. 

Running a business is hard work. I found that out when I tried to live off of freelance work when I was laid off from a design job about a decade ago. I was passionate. I was good at what I did. I was also back working in an office a couple weeks after the severance package ran out. It didn't matter. I still needed to eat. I never blamed anyone but myself for giving up my business. I was good at designing things, but not good at selling myself. In three months I didn't sign up a single client. That was my failing. 

When I was in college there was a small independent bookstore in town. I once saw some kids come in to ask if he had Harry Potter. He angrily said no, he only carried literature. The next time I walked by I saw a hastily written sign taped to the door that said the same thing. Before I graduated from college, I saw another sign taped to the door blaming Amazon for him going out of business. He was expensive, he didn't offer a product that people wanted and he wasn't nice. So it was Amazon's fault he failed.

I'd say that 80% of the time I visit a craft distillery, I walk away amazed. There are people that built their own stills. People that built the buildings they are doing business in. People that are making an amazing product. They can't compete with the big guys on price, but they make up for that in providing a good experience to go along with a good product.

But sometimes when I visit a craft distillery, I run across people who remind me of that bookstore owner from when I was in college. Sometimes they are convinced that their gimmick holds the secret to aging whiskey in days and claim that the dumb big guys are producing crap in years. Sometimes they build a tiny distillery in a dry county and then get upset if someone doesn't want to pay for a five minute tour. Sometimes they are snobby or rude. And sometimes the product just isn't any good.

I love supporting passion. I love supporting people who are willing to go that extra mile to deliver something a little special. I'm normally willing to pay a little extra to do, so as long as I feel it's an honest trade. My extra money for your superior customer service. Or attention to detail. Or quality. Or experimentation. Or unique recipes. But when the sole benefit you can offer for the extra money is that you are not big? I'm not sure I see a benefit to me there. 

Jim Beam Small Batch Collection: Knob Creek

Posted on by Eric Burke

A few weeks ago I attended a whiskey tasting that was put on by a local municipal liquor store and sponsored by Beam Suntory. It was fun. I had my first taste of a Laphroaig scotch. (no…only give me this if you hate me). I had my first taste of a Yamazaki Japanese whiskey. (I liked this quite a bit). We tasted an Irish whiskey that I don’t remember and what was probably my favorite of the night: Knob Creek. 

This weekend I attended a bourbon tasting at a friend’s house. The theme was store brands and their corporate cousins. We had Trader Joe’s bourbon, Very Old Barton, Costco’s Kirkland bourbon and Knob Creek. Knob Creek was my favorite of the night here too.

Common thread here? I tend to be a fan of Knob Creek. As members of Beam’s Small Batch collection go, it’s not expensive. It’s a decent proof. And even though it’s a tad hotter than I normally like, I add an ice cube and it settles right in. It’s one of those that I try to have in my stash and honestly one I assumed that I must have reviewed a long time ago. As it turns out I hadn’t.

Knob Creek bourbon

Purchase info: On sale for $19.99 for a 750 mL at Blue Max, Burnsville, MN

Details: 50% ABV, 9 years old. 

Nose: Oak, maple sugar, cayenne pepper, popcorn and faint smoke.

Mouth: Hot. Oak dryness with a touch of brown sugar sweetness. Popcorn.

Finish: Warmth that lingers in the center of your chest. Lingering oak bitterness that makes you want another sip.

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Thoughts: Though I’ve gone on record as stating that I’m not typically a fan of the Jim Beam branded bourbons that Beam produces, I’ve liked all of the Small Batch Collection. This is no exception. And unlike most of it’s stable-mates, this can be found cheap enough that it’s an easy go to on those days when you want a spicy bourbon. As I said earlier, I’m a fan.