Merrimack Valley Whiskey Review (homepage)
Prohibition and the American Jewish community
The Prohibition, in the United States, was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, from 1920 to 1933. But there were a variety of legal loopholes that allowed religious communities to use wine. See Jews and whiskey during prohibition
Chemistry of Whiskey
Whisky is one of the world’s most popular spirits, and comes in many different classes and types. The character and flavour of these differing types vary widely; this, of course, comes down to their varying chemical composition. Here, chemistry teacher Andy Brunning looks at where these compounds come from, and what they contribute: Phenols, the whisky lactones, aldehydes, esters, and other organic compounds.
Many people notice that adding some water improves the taste; adding water is said to “open up” the whiskey. But what is the science behind this? When one mixes alcohol and water, a minor exothermic reaction occurs, releasing a tiny amount of heat. This could allow more volatile aromatic compounds to escape. Adam Whisnant writes:
What other heat sources besides enthalpy of mixture are at play in the mixture, given the following: solutions of equal temperature to the environment, minimal transfer of heat from your hand to the glass in the seconds after pouring, and relatively small concentrations of other compounds including aromatics and methanol (as is required to be potable)?
The heat release is actually quite significant when diluting alcohol with water. Assuming an 80 proof whisky, 40% ethanol in water would be a molar fraction of roughly 0.21. Diluting the just surface with a splash of water, or the entire dram with a lot of water to say 20% ethanol, would give a molar fraction of roughly 0.077 (remember pure room-temperature water is roughly 55.6M). Ignoring -which I admit is improper- the changes in entropy, the enthalpy change alone is on the scale of kJ/mol.
Raoult’s law refers to vapor pressures of a mixture equaling the molar fractions of the solution, but of course ethanol/water solutions are known to not be ideal mixtures due to the nature of inter-molecular interactions. Henry’s law is much more relevant given the small concentrations of compounds we actually sense – but both laws follow the same principles. In regards to the relevant volatile organic compounds that are more hydrophobic, reducing the ethanol concentration would indeed make them less soluble, but forcing compounds from liquid to gaseous states in the short timescale after dilution cannot be explained without an input of heat minimally equal to the respective enthalpies of vaporization. Otherwise they would precipitate or form another liquid phase separated by density.
As water has a considerable heat capacity, the overall temperature increase isn’t going to seem large to your 37°C hands without a calorimeter. However, our olfactory and gustatory neurons can detect some compounds at just a few parts per billion. I welcome correction or clarification.
At an amazing Scotch Whisky tasting event from the Bruichladdich Distillery, from the isle of Islay in Scotland. Hosted by Darren & George of the North Shore Whisky Club, with Thomas Carrara from SoHo Experiential.
We all had an amazing array set up for us:
Bruichladdich – Islay Barley – Rockside Farm 2007 – Heavy, peaty, salty. Notes of leather, some at the tasting called it medicinal – and to my surprise, the Scotch drinkers in attendance considered it desirable for whiskey to be leathery, medicinal and smoky. I’ve been trying Scotches for a couple of years now, and to be honest, I don’t get it. I think that Scotch drinkers are convincing themselves that whiskey is better when the grain mash is dried over burning peat – but history shows us that the Scots didn’t do this in order to make better whiskey. They did it because peat was simply the cheapest thing to burn, and over centuries they got used to that flavor.
Port Charlotte – Scottish Barley – Open up with a few drops of water. Right off the bat, we’re not in Kansas anymore – this is nothing like bourbon. A bit of dark caramel, slight fruit sensation – pear? – and a ton of spiciness when it hit my back palate. Non-chill filtered. All the barley comes from mainland Scotland. This is a multi-vintage blend. Contains a blend of 8-12 year old malts.
Port Charlotte – Islay Barley – Very peaty, 40 ppm. Non-chill filtered. There is a gentle, alluring nose – not warning me of what’s to come. Tasting it, and me not used to non-peated whiskies, all I am getting is the peat. I’m reminded why Americans create whiskey our way instead of buy burning old peat moss. Eventually I detected a subtle sweet background, but the smoke overpowers it.
2009 Islay Barley – Islay Barley – 2009 – The barley comes from 4 farms Quite a fruity nose. A hint of heather, birch. A bit earthy.
Octomore 07.1 Cask strength. The smoke and peat are overwhelming. A brush fire must have gone through the distillery while they were making this batch? The only way to taste any whiskey flavor was to add enough water to bring the proof down by 20%.
Octomore 07.3 Islay Barley Peated single malt. Finally – a hint of butterscotch. Less peated than the previous Octomore. More floral. Their website notes that “25% of it was aged entirely in virgin oak casks, while 75% of it spent 3 years in first fill bourbon casks, followed by 2 years in virgin oak casks and then 2 more years in first fill bourbon casks.” Yup – and that’s why it was good. I would have been willing to buy a bottle, but not at $160!
Octomore 7.4 Virgin Oak. Not much is available here, most is sold to Germany. It’s a bit more like a cognac. The nose is fruity yet also medicinal. Very sweet on the front palate.
Bruichladdich – The Botanist Gin – Made from a mix of 22 botanicals. Not aged, this is the only gin made on Islay. Limited production, as the still for this is only run twice a year. Gin isn’t my thing – at all – and since I find gin repulsive, I’m not going to review it. But perhaps gin lovers would give it a go.
Quite a display of Bruichladdich – heritage on display!
From our friends at the North Shore Whisky Club
Working on my first infinity bottle!
It currently has 2 parts Larceny 92 proof
1 part Baker’s Aged 7 Years, 107 proof and 1 part Old Forester Signature 100 proof.
I haven’t let it mix for long, just a few minutes – and am trying it out now.
Surprisingly not bad – and better than the Larceny on it’s own!
My family owns a couple of beautiful crystal decanters from the 1970’s, but I don’t trust that they are lead-free. Tests show that older decanters leach significant amounts of lead into their contents if stored for more than a month, so using those older decanters is a no go. Instead, I’m using the Larceny bottle itself.
Given the ingredients, it is a bit strong for my tastes (wine is just 12-14% alcohol, while whiskey is generally 80% – but this mix is higher proof!) so I added an ice cube and a splash of water.
Update: I added another ounce from a different whiskey…let it set for a week, but I hated the result. That’s Ok. So I then added yet another ounce from yet another different whiskey, but a week later it was still pretty bad. Continued this for 2 more attempts, but nothing really great developed. At best the result was tolerable, but nothing was as good as a straight bottle of whiskey. I ended up giving up on this.
Aaron Goldfarb writes about Infinity Bottles:
“…Whenever I had a few ounces left in a bottle and wanted to clear shelf space, I’d pour it into the decanter. I was, it turns out, inadvertently creating my very own “infinity bottle”—a personal history blend that’s become all the rage among whiskey nerds. The infinity bottle seems to have first entered prominence courtesy of a 2012 video by popular whiskey YouTuber Ralfy Mitchell. He asks “How can you create something which is 100 percent uniquely yours? That is part of your whiskey or spirit drinking history? That becomes, in fact, a family heirloom in time?” His answer is what he calls a “solera bottle,” likening his experiment to the world of sherry, in which casks are fractionally blended over time via the solera system in order to create consistency. Using an empty bottle from WhiskyBlender, Mitchell affixed a label to the back in order to keep a running tally of each new whiskey he added, and when. An infinity bottle, he says, can create “a taste that you just can’t buy,” one worth far more than what he paid for the component whiskeys.”
Old Grand Dad, Bottled-in-bond
It’s no secret that the bottom shelf Old Grand-Dad 80 proof has become one of my favorite bourbons. It just goes to show that there’s little relationship between price and one’s favorite flavor profile. I also enjoy Basil Hayden’s, which is simply an extra aged version of Old Grand-Dad. What we have here to compare it with is Old Grand-Dad bonded, a 100 Proof, bottled in bond version of Old Grand-dad. It’s aged for at least two more years than the standard version, but perhaps somewhat less than the Basil Hayden’s. Also the bonded version is 100 Proof, which packs a much more powerful punch.
People studying the distillery report that both Basil Hayden, Old Grand Dad, and Old Grand Dad Bonded, all share the same yeast, same mash bill, same barrels, and the same warehouse.
I’m enjoying both, and I find the bonded version to be deeper and richer in flavor. Unlike a lot of other serious whiskey drinkers however, I haven’t acquired a taste for the extremely high proof alcohol. So I find a better comparison is to add a splash of water, to compare the whiskies at equal proof. When the ice cube in the bonded melted, I could detect more of the flavors, and I do find it a bit more flavorful. This is definitely a winner. And much more affordable per liter than Basil Hayden’s. Highly recommended.
There’s a great history of Basil Hayden’s and Old Grand Dad here, discussing the difference between Hayden’s and OGD. Old Grand Dad 80 proof vs. Basil Hayden’s: From The Whisk(e)y Room
Cheers from New England! (Blizzard of February ’17)
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve
15 yr, 107 proof, $99.99 msrp
107 proof. Distilled and bottled by the Sazerac Company, Buffalo Trace Distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky
Went into Boston, and enjoyed my first taste of one of the most sought after bourbons in the world, Pappy Van Winkle. And did so in the elegant and historical The Last Hurrah, a bar in the historic Omni Parker House, Boston.
My understanding is that the contents of Pappy were originally the same as the contents of Weller 12, made in huge amounts and stored in a vast warehouse. Only those particular barrels which developed in a certain way we’re set aside to become Pappy. The rest had a slightly different flavor, and became perfectly good in other Weller products.
Van Winkle has a mash bill of corn, wheat, and malted barley, aged in charred new oak barrels. As such, this is a “wheater.”
Normally I disregard the distiller’s own remarks (found on their website and advertisements), but in this rare case I’d have to actually agree:
“See a hazy, copper color. Taste a rich, supple entry, leading to a decadent, huge, full-bodied palate with intense caramel, toffee and peppery brown spice flavors. Then, enjoy a finish with an extreme, long, complex, evolving fade of spice and wood notes. Experts deem it a seductive, exotic and virtually flawless bourbon.”
Any Van Winkle is hard enough to find as it is; this line of bourbons has become one of the most sought after whiskies in the world. One can’t even normally buy it in a store, as stores generally only get a handful of bottles which sell out almost instantly. One needs to win a chance to buy it in a lottery, or otherwise obtain it on the secondary market, where the 15 year sells for over $1000. This year, though, the new release is even harder to find, as explained in their press release:
The long anticipated annual release of the Van Winkle bourbons is nearly here, but unfortunately some of the angels were extra greedy over the past two decades, leaving us less bourbon than in previous years. “When bourbon ages over 15 years, much is lost to the angel’s share. Many of the 53 gallon oak barrels often yield less than 20 gallons,” said Kris Comstock, bourbon marketing director. “Unfortunately this year we experienced poor yields on the older Van Winkle whiskeys. Furthermore, we have strict quality standards here at Buffalo Trace and several of the older Van Winkle barrels did not meet those standards. This makes a drastic difference in volume, considering we have very few barrels as it is. The result is less 15 year-old Pappy Van Winkle than usual, and far less 20 year-old and 23 year-old. Frankly, about half as much as last year.”
From Jim Beam (Beam Suntory), Small Batch Bourbon Collection. Beam describes this as a line of “of ultra-premium bourbon whiskies handcrafted in limited quantities from unique recipes, some dating back two centuries. They are carefully matured for exceptional quality.” Ultra-premium is, of course, a salesperson’s purely nonsensical justification for selling a particular line of whiskey at a much higher than average cost. No true whiskey aficionado would ever allow themselves to be swayed by ad copy. We only care about the product, not the hype. So let’s discover Baker’s Bourbon!
107 Proof. Aged 7 years. Mash bill: corn, and a high rye content. 77% Corn, 13% Rye, 10% Malted barley. Gorgeous deep red color. Very gentle nose, not as intense as I would have hoped. But the flavor on the front palate is much more intense.
When taken straight, the alcohol burn is a bit much (80 proof being standard, this 107 proof); I much prefer this with ice and splash of water, which actually helps bring out the flavors.
On the front palate Baker’s is obviously a Jim Beam whiskey, with some of that characteristic taste. Reminds me a bit of Knob Creek. A bit of a toasted nut tone, peppery bite, and on the rear palate one can taste the corn and characteristic yeast tones.
Very silky mouth feel. I see this being sold for $40 to 55, but it’s not better than the $30 whiskies that I would regularly drink, so I wouldn’t spend too much extra for this, unless you find it a favorite.
Had a great time at a whiskey tasting from Buffalo Trace Distillery. We tried four whiskies and two ryes at Redstone Liquors, in Stoneham, MA.
Buffalo Trace Bourbon
90 proof, No age statement (pegged at between 8 to 10 years.)
Nose: Nothing fun or exciting. Some other reviewer claimed that they smelled “caramel, honey, orange, and vanilla” – really? I honestly got none of that. Sometimes I think that reviewers write reviews to agree with each other, and based on expectations. I’ve developed some skill in this area, and all I can say is that although I have detected those aromas in other whiskeys, I got nothing much enjoyable here.
Palate: Sharp, tangy, but not as enjoyable as some of the others. I’ve seen others claim to taste “brown sugar, vanilla, and toffee” – but although I often find those in other bourbons (hello Woodford Reserve or Michter’s Bourbon!) I again found none of that here. The taste of Buffalo Trace – from 2 different bottles I tried – was dry, peppery, a bit of a flavor I can only call “buzzing”, and perhaps slightly oaky. The Master-of-Malt website claims that it tastes like”espresso beans, a touch of chocolate-covered raisins and toasty wood,” which I find complete nonsense. That’s the most unrealistic bourbon review I have ever read yet. Overall – Hey, if you like this, that’s great. Everyone has a different palate but this wouldn’t work for me except as a bottom shelf mixer.
Old Weller Antique, 107 proof, Bourbon.
Reviewed here on my blog previously, this is simply my favorite! Always buy a bottle when I can find one. Almost fruity, perhaps a hint of vanilla. You can taste the oak. Smooth & easy to drink, with very little burn. And I am sensing a sweetness that I don’t get with a lot of whiskeys, which I am attributing this to being a wheater.
Now this bourbon is quite nice on the front palate, yet I’m not much enjoying the back palate. A bit disappointing, but perhaps this just isn’t for me.
Wow, this has a nice rye flavor. Similar tastes on the front and back palate – THIS is something that I can see myself buying! This is generally six years old, although there is no age statement.
Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon
I’ve reviewed this previously, and I stand by my assessment that this is one of the best whiskies out there! Sweet, smooth, delicious. Color: Reddish amber. Palate: Full and smooth, sweet, with tones of caramel and orange. Mash bill: Corn, rye and malted barley. Aged approximately 9 years, no age statement, in American white oak barrels, #4 char.
And now for the Colonel E. H. Taylor Straight Rye, Bottled in Bond. What a terrible disappointment – an overpowering alcohol nose, and very sharp. I much preferred the Sazerac Rye, or from an earlier evening, Knob Creek Rye. Not just my opinion, a few other people at the tasting also didn’t like this at all.
Here is an amazing find – one of the few whiskies legally sold for medicinal purposes during the prohibition. Spiritus frumenti (spirits of grain), commonly known as whiskey. No – we didn’t get to try it, we just got to hand it around 🙂
A close up of the back of the bottle: from the parent company of Buffalo Trace.
Two Stars Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Available from Total Wine, Clear Springs Distilling Company, 86 proof, $17
I always enjoy Total Wine; they have an amazing array of spirits and any other alcoholic beverages that you can think of, and it’s on my home to see family & friends on Boston’s North Shore.
The last time I was there I picked up a bottle of Old Weller Antique, and chatted with a few people. One of the things that I like about them is that they have staff on the floor to answer questions: one must appreciate a store that is still properly staffed – such a rarity in this day and age. He led me to a manager who a had a shopping cart full of open spirits available for tastings. Fantastic!
Two Stars is one of the house brands at Total Wine. On their website, it averaged 4/5 stars, with 29 reviews, so on that basis one would imagine that it’s a solid bet. Another reason for confidence is that the Clear Springs Distilling Company is a part of Buffalo Trace, owned by the Sazerac Company!
Unfortunately, I was disappointed: I wasn’t expecting much for $17, but this not good. Amber hue. Young, harsh, and with a noticeable ethanol taste. No nose to speak of. What really bothered me wasn’t the low quality, but the questionable reviews on the Total Wine website: There were a suspicious number of 4 or 5 star reviews for this terrible whiskey, including a 5 star review which read
“On the nose vanilla and honey, on the tounge apricots and vanilla, and finishes smooth with lasting vanilla and a hint of oak. Lots of mystery, definitely low or no rye. Taste a little young until the finish. Very similar to W.L. Weller.”
Really? This is the most unbelievable review that I’ve come across. It’s almost like someone was trying to drum up business for one of their house brands. As such, I might caution people to take the reviews there with a grain of salt.
Larceny is basically the next level up from Heaven Hill’s Old Fitzgerald. From Heaven Hill, Kentucky (they acquired the classic Old Fitzgerald franchise in 1999.) Mash Bill: Details unknown, but it’s more than 51% Corn, and the next most common grain is wheat, then perhaps rye. 46% ABV/92 Proof. No age statement: Other reviewers who have spoken to people at Heaven Hill hold that it is between 6 to 12 years old.
How was it? When I first tried Larceny, I wasn’t overly impressed, but that may be because I tried it soon after two of my favorites: Blanton’s, and Old Weller Antique. So I have been trying Larceny a couple more times over the last two weeks. Now my opinion of it has increased.
Color: Deep caramel. Nose – perhaps a hint of brown sugar, cherry and oak. Very pleasant, just the right strength. Palate: Just a hint of oak, corn and citrus. This is really quite good for an inexpensive whiskey!
I did want to try an experiment. On rare occasion I’ve had a bourbon with cocoa notes, but that’s rather rare to find. So I wanted to see if I could recreate the experience. I took 50 ml of Larceny, and added just a drop of Creme de Cacao (Arrow), then let it sit for a couple of days. I certainly didn’t add much – I’m not a fan of flavored/sweetened whiskies. Just wanted to see if a hint of cocoa would develop. Upon trying I discovered that the infused bourbon lost Larceny’s crisp, clean palate. It didn’t, at all, deliver the cocoa notes that I had been hoping for. Rather, the infusion simply muddled the original flavors, without adding much worthy of note.
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