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Observations on old liquor marketing and a 1979 Ezra Brooks

Posted on by Eric Burke

Ezra Brooks from 1979 aged 101 months.

I’m a big fan of old liquor bottles. We’ve talked about this. I tend to go to antique stores, estate sales and bottle shows to look at and occasionally buy old bottles. Most of these are empty and I almost always get the comment: “too bad this isn’t full, huh?” But sometimes they are full. And when they are, I like to check the contents and the seal. If it’s bourbon, it hasn’t been opened and isn’t very expensive, I’ll bring it home with me. 

When I search through old bottles, I also see a lot of decanters. Collectable decanters were a way for a struggling bourbon industry to try to stay afloat while tastes changed. And it must have worked because we have bourbon today, and there are a lot of old decanters for sale out there. 

At some point in the mid-Twentieth Century, whiskey making changed. In the United States, the uncertainty of war coupled with changing fashions led whiskey makers to lobby for an increase in the bonding period of aging whiskey. In other words, they wanted to be able to sit on their aging stocks a bit longer before needing to pay taxes on it. It was granted and whiskey making and marketing started to focus on longer aging times. Larger age statements begins to appear and age became associated with quality. Around the same time proofs started dropping as well. Where 100 (and 101) proof were once fairly standard 86 proof was becoming more and more common. 

With an increasing focus on age and decreasing proofs, it isn’t terribly surprising that the largest number on many of the old decanters you find is the age. What is surprising is that the age is stated in months not years. Unlike many of today’s whiskeys who use months for their age statements, it isn’t because the whiskey is young though. 100 months is the most common age I’ve seen on Jim Beam decanters (though I’ve also seen 155 on a few occasions). And I’ve seen numerous 101 month Ezra Brooks decanters. 

I can think of a couple of reasons why 100 months might have been used. Much like the producers who put out three year old whiskey today and label it 36 months, 100 just sounds bigger than 8. The other reason I can think of is that 100 and 101 months bear a striking resemblance to the 100 and 101 proof that consumers had been used to seeing before proofs started dropping. Kind of an early version of the Very Old Barton “6” that Sazerac uses today. I don’t know if the actual answer is one, the other, or both. In any case, 35 years later, it is fun to ponder. 

1979 Ezra Brooks Bengal Tiger decanter

Ezra Brooks - Bengal Tiger, 1979

Purchase info: $15 at a bottle and advertising show

Details: From the Ezra Brooks Wildlife Collector Series. 101 months old (8.417 years). 80 proof.

Nose: Green apples, baking spices and a faint earthiness to go along with some oak. After some time it transitions to a strong butterscotch bomb.

Mouth: Not as sweet as I was expecting. Baking spices, brown sugar, oak and earthiness. 

Finish: On the longer side of medium. Sweet with lingering baking spices and green apple. 

With Water: The mouth gets a bit livelier and the green apple comes through more. The nose gets spicier with a touch of anise. Water kills the finish. 

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Thoughts: As Ezra Brooks has always been a sourced whiskey, it was really interesting to see what was being sourced in 1979. With it’s apple and spice notes, it reminds me a bit of a Brown-Forman bourbon. (Though I doubt that it is since Ezra Brooks debuted by impersonating their biggest brand and were sued by them). Based on this bottle, it is the equivalent of an ok $30-45 bottle today. But that said, I don’t know that I’d seek out another bottle of it. It’s pretty good, but not the best I’ve ever had.

A word on lead: There is a forum thread on straightbourbon.com that details the story of a man getting the whiskey from one of his decanters tested for lead and finding very high levels of it. I do not have the equipment to test this myself. I did however allow the bourbon from this decanter to evaporate and then drip the contents of a lead paint tester into the residue (saving a drop or two for the conformation strip) and there was no "red for lead." I won’t say this bourbon doesn’t contain lead or that any of the bourbon from old decanters you find will or will not contain lead. But this test satisfied my curiosity enough to allow me to do the small tasting I did for this post.

For more information on lead poisoning visit: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002473.htm


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Crown Royal Black

Posted on by Eric Burke

Crown Royal Black

Every so often, I'll be in a liquor store and I'll feel the need to buy something...else. I'm buying bourbon and maybe beer. But then something will catch my eye that I just have to have. One time it was a miniature bottle of Phillips Gin-Ka, a gin-vodka blend that I have no intention of drinking, but whose packaging was too hilariously cute to pass up. Once it was brandy in a bag that was on clearance because...brandy in a bag. (Come to think of it, those might have been the same time...). Hell, one time it was even be a bottle of "individually barreled" bourbon (see the previous post).

But occasionally when this happens, it is something perfectly normal that catches my eye. Something so normal and so ubiquitous that I just never bothered to try it before. Something like Crown Royal Black. I saw this sitting in a bucket near the register at a local liquor store and bought it on a whim. It's been sitting on the shelf for a couple months now, as I keep turning to other products that are new and exciting. But since I finally noticed it on the shelf, let's get down to it.

Crown Royal Black is available almost everywhere. And although I've had some very good products with the Crown Royal name on them, I've also had some real snoozers. The Black version is their run at bourbon drinkers. On their website, they claim it has deeper oak notes on the nose and bourbon notes on the finish. It is bottled at a higher proof then the original release. 

 Crown Royal Black

Purchase Info: I really have no idea what store it was at, but it was probably a buck or two for each 50 mL bottle.

Details: Canadian Whiskey, 45% ABV

Nose: Brown sugar, cedar, baking spices.

Mouth: Peppery without being too hot. Black pepper, dried fruit, brown sugar, baking spices and oak.

Finish: Medium length. Cinnamon spice candy which transitions into mint.

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Thoughts: If anything can be said to "taste Canadian" it would be this. But unlike your stereotypical Canadian whiskey, this has enough spice to keep you interested and enough sweetness to make you want another sip. And it's fine. Nothing special, but I like it. If your choices are between this and the regular Crown, this is an upgrade. Other than that though, this would probably almost never be my first choice of pour. I mean, don't get me wrong, if someone was nice enough to pour me a glass, I'd be happy enough to drink it. I just doubt that I'll be picking up a full bottle anytime soon.


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Black Eagle Bourbon

Posted on by Eric Burke

You’re sitting in a meeting. You’ve run out of things to say. Everyone is looking at you. You know you have to say something, but you’re not sure what. It’s awkward. You just sit there looking around. Thinking to yourself that eventually maybe someone else will say something.

The silence get longer. It gets more awkward. You’re starting to fidget now. People around you are looking out the window, trying not to stare as you just sit there. 

Finally you squeak: “Individually barreled?” 

This is how I picture the label meeting going for Total Wine’s Black Eagle Bourbon. I mean when you describe your bourbon as “Old-style, individual barreled bourbon whiskey, distilled from only the finest ingredients for a genuine full-bourbon character” you know someone somewhere was wracking their brain trying to come up with something nice to say on the spot.

I find this label to be hilarious. So much so that I had to buy this bottle immediately. I mean, no matter the size of the barrel, it is going to be an individual. And what the hell is full-bourbon character?

I guess we’ll find out.

Black Eagle Bourbon Whiskey

Purchase Info: $11.99 for a 750 mL bottle at Total Wine, Burnsville, MN.

Details: 40% ABV. 3 years old.

Nose: Lightly fruity with delicate floral and mint notes

Mouth: Grain forward with light notes of baking spice and mint.

Finish: Short and grain forward.

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Thoughts: When I saw this I expected something pretty bad. I mean the marketing people literally couldn’t say anything nice about it. When even marketing people can’t find a superlative that feels right to describe something you know that there’s nothing to say about a product. And though there isn’t much going on here, what is going on isn’t bad. It’s just sort of meh. To be honest this reminds me a lot of Old Crow. An ok well bourbon should you need one, but otherwise something to avoid. 

I’ll probably use the rest of mine in the Cherry Bounce recipe from Michael Dietsch’s cocktail book Whiskey that I reviewed a while back. After three months soaking up cherry juice, it probably won’t matter what I used to begin with.

Head to Head Review: Eagle Rare, Store Pick vs Regular Release

Posted on by Eric Burke

Store picks versus regular releases. It’s a topic I find myself thinking about more and more often as I realize that I’ve examined a lot of bourbon for the blog and tasted a lot more outside of it. As my local liquor stores realize that they need to do something in order to differentiate themselves from the competition, I run across more and more store picks of things like Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, Russell’s Reserve, 1792 and others. Plus, the price is normally either the same as the regular release or even a little cheaper. As such I’ve found myself picking them more often on my shopping trips. 

I’ve had mixed results with store picks, some are amazing and some are…well…not. But I tend to buy them anyway. While I always like a good familiar bourbon, sometimes I like a slightly different take on that familiar flavor. I say slightly very purposefully. It is rare that a store pick will fall too far outside the accepted flavor profile for a given brand. It may be the the producer didn’t offer samples that strayed too far (it is their name on the bottle too after all) or it may be that the retailer didn’t want to surprise customers with something that didn’t match their expectations. So I tend to buy them when I see them. Not because they are totally different, but that sometimes I find it interesting how fairly slight differences can extremely noticeable when you taste things side by side. Of course sometimes I just buy it because it is on sale too.

Eagle Rare is a bourbon produced by Buffalo Trace. It is dumped out of barrels that were filled with distillate made from Buffalo Trace’s Rye Bourbon Mash Bill Number 1 (though I have been told that very occasionally a mash bill number 2 barrel will hit the flavor profile and become Eagle Rare). This same distillate is also used to fill barrels that will become Old Charter, George T Stagg, Buffalo Trace and Benchmark. It is also a bourbon that I was positive that I had reviewed before. I buy it every so often when I go home to visit my family because it is readily available and tends to be pretty cheap in relation to the price I sometimes find it for in Minnesota, where it’s a different story completely. Here it is neither readily available or as cheap. I will often find it for almost $10 more per bottle. 

A local retailer peaked my interest when they sent out an email hinting that they’d solved the allocation problem by picking their own barrel. Even though I had a bottle open and on the shelf from my last trip home, I decided that the ability to taste these side by side was too tempting to pass up. 

So now I have two open bottles of Eagle Rare on the shelf.

Eagle Rare: Regular Release vs Store Pick

Regular Release:

Purchase Info: ~$27 for a 750 mL at Marketplace Foods, Hayward, WI.

Details: Single Barrel. 10 Year Age Stated, 45% ABV.

Nose: Oak, mint and a slight smokiness

Mouth: A nice viscous mouthfeel. Sweet caramel, herbal mint and anise, oak.

Finish: Of medium length with sweet and oak notes.

Ace Spirits Store Pick: 

Purchase Info: $34.99 for a 750 mL bottle at Ace Spirits, Hopkins, MN

Details: Single Barrel. 10 Year Age Stated, 45% ABV. Barrel # 170.

Nose: Oak, mint and a slight smokiness with the addition of baking spices and a light fruitiness.

Mouth: Butterscotch, oak, anise and a light fruitless.

Finish: Nice and spicy and of medium to long length.

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Thoughts: Both of these are very good. Let’s just start there. I’m a big fan of both when I have them on their own. Together though, there is a definite standout. The regular release feels almost tired compared to the Ace Spirits pick. The addition of a light fruitiness to the oak and sweetness really livens up the pour. That isn’t to say that these are miles apart from a flavor standpoint. They both taste like Eagle Rare. One just tastes like a better version of Eagle Rare.


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A Whiskey Vatting Experiment

Posted on by Eric Burke

I try to never dump out whiskey. Not even when it is really bad. I always figure that there is something I can use it for. Even if I don’t want to drink it neat, I might use it in a cocktail. If it isn’t able to stand up in a cocktail, maybe I’ll use it for cooking. If I don’t even want to cook with it I try to see if I can blend it with something. 

Which is the thought that inspired my latest experiment. 

I had a lot of whiskey on hand after the Bottom Shelf Bourbon Brackets. A lot of whiskey that was ok but not great. As the bottles were reaching their conclusion I was struck by a little inspiration. Why not start a giant vatting of American whiskey and see what I got after I filled a liter bottle? I mean I wasn’t starting with anything crazy. I think Jim Beam white and Johnny Drum 80 proof were the first two in the bottle. 

After a while I decided that if this was ever going to be anything worth drinking that I would need to dip into the better tasting, and higher proof, whiskies as well. So I decided to put one ounce of everything I had opened (or would open in the future) into the bottle no matter if it was a Willett Single Barrel or a Mellow Corn. If it was American Whiskey, it could contribute to the final vatting. It took a couple months but I finally filled the bottle. And after I let it sit for a few weeks to mingle, I decided to see what I had created.

Here is a list of what ended up in the bottle (and it’s proof). One ounce of each.

  • Jim Beam White (80°)
  • Johnny Drum (80°)
  • Dad’s Hat Vermouth Finished (94°)
  • 1783 Evan Williams (86°)
  • Blue State (80°)
  • Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye (94°)
  • Old Weller Antique (107°)
  • Very Old Barton (86°)
  • Maker’s Mark (90°)
  • Old Grand Dad 114 (114°)
  • Booker’s (128.7°)
  • Willett Single Barrel Rye (115.6°)
  • Willett Single Barrel Bourbon (118.4°)
  • Wild Turkey 101 (101°)
  • Woodford Reserve (90.4°)
  • Four Roses Small Batch (90°)
  • MB Roland Single Barrel Bourbon (106.5°)
  • Hochstadter’s Vatted Rye (100°)
  • Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye (108.8°)
  • Parker’s Heritage Collection: Promise of Hope (96°)
  • 1792 Single Barrel: Ace Spirits (93.7°)
  • Rendezvous Rye-finished in Bourbon Barrels (104.8°)
  • Rowan’s Creek (100.1°)
  • Mellow Corn (100°)
  • Four Roses Single Barrel OESF (112.6°)
  • Knob Creek 2001 (100°)
  • 1792 Single Barrel: Ace Spirits (93.7°) - accidental repeat
  • 1792 Port Finish (88.9°)
  • Russell’s Reserve Rye Single Barrel (104°)
  • Old Scout Rye (99°)
  • Larceny (92°)
  • Elijah Craig 12 Year (94°)
  • IW Harper 15 Year (86°)
  • Maker’s 46 Cask Strength (108.8°)

So the final make up was 34 ounces of 33 different whiskies. It ended up being 95.54° proof. But how did it taste?

Arok’s Vatted Whiskey

Purchase Info: Too many to list or remember…see above.

Details: 47.77% ABV

Nose: Caramel, vanilla, spearmint, baking spices and oak

Mouth: Warm and spicy with vanilla/caramel, cloves, mint, bubble gum and oak

Finish: Warm and of decent length. Lingering bubble gum and rye spices.

Thoughts: More than anything this reminds me of some of the higher end Four Roses bourbons I’ve had. It shows a lot of rye character which isn’t terribly surprising since there are a lot of straight ryes in there. This is quite tasty. Overall, I’d say this was a successful experiment.

Now you might be wondering what comes next. Well, I like this experiment and I think I might keep going. I poured off 500 mL and am drinking that. The other 500 mL will be the starter for the next vatting. I’m thinking of doing it sort of solara style where nothing in the blend is truly ever gone, it’s just there in diminishing proportions. Eventually I’ll get bored, but if I keep at it (and make sure I put in the good stuff too) I shouldn’t run out of something that is decent enough to have as an everyday bourbon as long as I am running this site (needless to say I go through a lot of whiskey).