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Oh Taste & See: Aberlour A'Bunadh Single Malt Scotch

Just in time for Christmas, I bring you a tasting of one of the best Scotches I've ever had. A friend of mine brought a bottle of Aberlour A'Bunadh to a whisky tasting that I hosted a few weeks ago, and it turned out to be everyone's favorite. After having a few more glasses since then I can say it wasn't just a favorite because it came near the end of many whisky samples, it really is a distinctive, rich, and delicious Scotch perfectly suited to give as a gift, or to horde to yourself for enjoying by the fire on a cold winter's night. This Speyside single malt is aged exclusively in ex-Oloroso sherry casks and is bottled without chill filtering at cash strength.

*Note: The bottle I sampled was from Batch #10 and bottled at 59.8% alcohol. Since A'Bunadh is bottled at cask strength, uncut and unfiltered, there may be some variation from batch to batch.

Color: Aberlour A'Bunadh is very dark for a Scotch with a rich mahogany hue with hints of amber.

Nose: The nose on this whisky is wonderfully rich and sweet. It almost seems like a bourbon nose which is surprising since A'Bunadh is aged exclusively in ex-sherry barrels. I think the bourbon character is due to the higher proof and lack of filtering which allows the oak notes to come through at full strength. Along with oak aromas there are notes of vanilla, toasted marshmallows, and after adding some water, crisp fall leaves. A perfect fall camp-out Scotch?

Flavor: The flavor continues where aroma leaves off - it's full, hearty, and very smooth for almost 120 proof. There are sweet honey flavors, along with oak and dark chocolates. With a splash of water tastes of clay, warm earth, and roasted nuts are revealed.

Finish: The finish is super long and warm without being harsh at all. It has notes of a toasty wood fireplace, and more earthy, nutty notes as it opens up.

This is not the easiest whisky to find, but if you see it I encourage you to jump on it. At $50/bottle it's a great deal for a slam dunk of a single malt.

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2011 List of Philadelphia's 50 Top Bars

The website Foobooz.com, which covers all things food and drink in Philadelphia, recently released its 2011 list of Philadelphia's top 50 bars. I posted about last year's list here, and thankfully a lot of my favorites still made the list along with some notable newcomers.

My nearest neighborhood joint, the South Philly Taproom jumped up to #2 this year (from #5 in 2010), and the newly revamped Khyber Pass Pub took the top spot after missing last year's list altogether - it has been totally re-conceptualized after all. As far as the bars on the list with a real focus on whisk(e)y, there are quite a few. Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. (#4) makes some mean rye and bourbon cocktails, as does The Farmer's Cabinet (#9), another newcomer to the Philly bar scene. If you're looking for a massive and diverse whisk(e)y list check out Southwark (#13), Village Whiskey (#17), or Fiume (#40). Finally, if you want to try the bar that I think will make a big jump up this list by next year check out Kennett (#47). They have a soli selection of whiskey, beer, and cocktails along with some really great pizzas, friendly people, and there's always a seat at the bar...for now.

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Oh Taste & See: Jura Superstition Single Malt Scotch

I had a sample of Jura Superstition sent to me a while back, and I finally got around to having a taste of this no-age-statement Scotch from Isle of Jura Distillery. This 90 proof whisky is a good compromise for those times when you want something tough with a bit of smoky or peaty flavor, but you don't want to be overwhelmed with the funky flavors that can come from an Islay malt like Lagavulin or Caol Ila. It's also a good stepping stone to work your way up from non-peated whiskies to those crazy peat monsters that everyone seems to love these days.

Color: Jura Superstition has a rich, creamy caramel color that looks unusually thick and hearty for a Scotch. I'm guessing they either add caramel coloring, or there are some very hearty older whiskies in here (or both).

Nose: The dominant aromas of this whisky are smoke, leather, toast, and salty peat. They're all very well balanced and give a nice warm welcome. After adding a bit of water I also picked out a burnt grain or corn-like smell.

Flavor: The first flavor to hit you is a spiciness that's more expected in rye whiskeys as opposed to Scotch. There are notes of cinnamon and nutmeg. As the whiskey moved through my mouth I tasted hints of toffee and caramel, but overall it has a well below-average level of sweetness. This whisky has a sharp burn, but without being harsh, and after adding water I picked up a dry, smoky, ashy taste like the air just after putting out a camp fire.

Finish: The finish fades slowly from spicy to earthy/peaty and ends with a hint of smoked bacon.

Overall this is a balanced whisky with peat for those who want it, but not too much for those who don't. It's nice and dry with a gentle bite to warm you up on a cold night.

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Oh Taste & See: Clynelish 14 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

I've been sitting on this bottle of Clynelish 14 Year Old for a few months, but I'm glad I finally got around to popping it open as it quickly jumped to the top of my list of favorite single malts. It's not a common single malt - I picked up this bottle at a duty-free shop, but if you see it it's worth every penny of the $45-$50 price tag.

Clynelish distillery is owned by Diageo and is billed as a Coastal Highland malt. It is located in the seaside town of Brora, and is across the road from the much older Brora Distillery which is owned by the same company. The vast majority of the whisky produced at Clynelish is used in Johnnie Walker blends, with the 14 Year Old being their most widely available single-malt bottling. It's bottled at 92 proof, and is a lovely example of a well-balanced Scotch fit for any occasion.

Color: Clynelish 14 Year Old is the color of a golden wheat field - quite light and very natural looking, with a bright pop to it.

Nose: This whisky has a delicate but interesting nose with light aromas in the sweet fruit and floral categories. I picked up hints of honey, lavender, apples, and prunes. The most striking thing about it is how well everything is balanced together, creating a very pleasant aroma that pulls you right in for that first sip.

Flavor: The flavors in Clynelish are equally well balanced and it has a nice rich, thick mouth-feel. There are notes of honey, oatmeal, cloves, vanilla, and just a tiny hint of smokiness and leather.

Finish: The finish is full-bodied with oak flavors that fade to pepper and cinnamon, again with just a hint of lingering smoke and leather to keep you warm until the next sip.

Overall, it's a winner!

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Oh Taste & See: Old Forester Bourbon

Old Forester is one of the oldest names in the world of bourbon, but until recently it wasn't widely available here in Pennsylvania. Recently though I started seeing it on shelves at the state stores, and at $18.99 it seemed like it might be a good deal so I picked up a bottle. It's a rye-heavy bourbon, probably 4 to 5 years old, and bottled at 86 proof. Unfortunately when I started drinking it I was a bit disappointed. I can certainly recommend bourbons that I like better in the same price range - Four Roses and Buffalo Trace for example.

Old Forester is made in Louisville by Brown Forman, and I have to say I like their other value-price bourbon - Early Times 354 - a lot better, although it still isn't widely available nationwide. I have met people who swear by Old Forester, and it seems to work fine as a mixer, so maybe I'm being too hard on it. I will also say that I tried the latest Old Forester Birthday Bourbon a few weeks ago at Time and it was very nice - rich, fruity, and packing a nice punch without being too boozy, but that's a true premium bourbon at double the price. In any case, my notes on Old Forester are below.

Color: Old Forester is standard young-bourbon color - medium-to-dark golden brown with a light, thin look as you swirl it in the glass.

Nose: The main element on the nose is ethanol - a boozy character that doesn't fade away at all until you add ice or water. It's an overall clean nose with just a hint of grain silo dust and charcoal. Adding ice cools down the ethanol, but also hides the other aromas leaving a flat nose.

Flavor: The main flavor element is heat and spice, both the burn of harsh alcohols and the peppery spice of rye, showing up mainly in the back of the mouth. Up front this bourbon is flat and lacks any distinct flavors. Adding ice brings out a bit of earthy funk that I didn't really like.

Finish: The finish has some hope with a medium-length, spicy fade-out with a just a bit of burn in the throat. While some 100 proof bourbons can be easy sippers, this one manages to be harsh and overly boozy at just 86 proof.

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Oh Taste & See: The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

I've been working on this bottle of The Balvenie DoubleWood for a while, but realized that I had never posted a tasting, and since it's a perfect drink as summer cools into fall I figure now is the time. The Balvenie is one of the larger small Scotch distilleries, or one of the smaller large Scotch distilleries. The distillery was built in 1892, by William Grant. The company he founded, William Grant & Sons, is now a major producer of Scotch and other spirits, but Balvenie remains one of their prize products. Balvenie single-malts tend to be excellent, well-balanced whiskies that are widely available, so what's not to like?

The 12 year old DoubleWood is The Balvenie's entry level whisky, and it's a great, crowd-pleasing Scotch since it doesn't lean too heavily on any particular style or flavor. It's aged in both ex-bourbon barrels and ex-sherry barrels, giving it a very well-rounded character.

Color: The Balvenie has a rich honey-caramel color that's quite dark for a 12 year old Scotch.

Nose: The nose is rich, sweet, and warm with hints of honey and toffee. There are fruity undertones of ripe  apples, dried cherries, and milk chocolate. As it sits, a brown sugar aroma develops that makes it very inviting.

Flavor: This Scotch is extremely smooth with sweet flavors of oak, vanilla, and honey up front. The mouth-feel is thick and rich with a bit of buttered toast flavor. After a while more brown sugar and nutty flavors start to come out.

Finish: The finish is long, warm, and sweet. There are hints of raisins and figs and more sweet vanilla. At the tail end there's a hint of tar which isn't a bad way for such a sweet and smooth Scotch to finish off.

Overall, The Balvenie Double Wood is a great "everyday" single malt that hits a lot of key flavors without being overly aggressive with any of them. It's also one of the few whiskies that I strongly prefer to drink totally neat without a splash of water or ice cube. It's not weak, but it doesn't need any mellowing out at all...spot on.

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Ken Burns' Prohibition - A Great Excuse to Enjoy a Drink!

If you're reading this be thankful that it's 2011 and not 1911. In 2011 you can legally and comfortably sit back, enjoy a glass of whiskey, and watch TV while reading this blog on the internet. In 1911 you could have had the whiskey, but you would have felt the cloudy days of Prohibition approaching quickly, and the TV and internet things would have sounded like absolute crazy talk.

Anyway, I recommend you enjoy a bit of all three. First pour yourself a glass of whiskey - a nice Canadian whiskey, such as Forty Creek, is probably the most appropriate if you're trying to be period-correct and drink something that would have been common during Prohibition. Second, use the internet watch the first episode of Ken Burns' latest PBS documentary entitled Prohibition. Third, use your TV to watch the rest of the series as it airs this week. Nobody tells a story like Ken Burns, so this should be a great way to learn a bit more about one of the strangest times in America's history.


Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.

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Oh Taste & See: Wild Turkey 81 Bourbon

Wild Turkey, long known for its signature 101 proof bourbon, recently launched a new bourbon known as Wild Turkey 81. They've also launched a big ad campaign featuring the catchphrase "Give 'em the bird," and if you haven't seen the TV ads yet you should because they're kinda clever - I've linked to them at the bottom of this post. Wild Turkey 81 was crafted by Eddie Russell (son of long time Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell) to be a highly mixable bourbon that will appeal to more bartenders and mixed-drink drinkers than to the 'straight and on-the-rocks' crowds.

I tend to enjoy all the Wild Turkey products that I try, and I'm especially fond of the 10 year old Russell's Reserve. I wasn't disappointed by Wild Turkey 81 which turns out to be a perfectly acceptable bourbon for drinking straight or on the rocks, although I can see where its bright and poppy flavor profile would make it a good match for mixed drinks. The 81 proof also makes it less dangerous than the 'just for big boys' 101, that can quickly get you in trouble if you have more than one or two.

Color: Wild Turkey 81 has a classic, caramel to amber-brown bourbon color to it. It looks clean and light when compared to some older bourbons.

Nose: The nose is fruity and light, but still 100% classic bourbon with hints of vanilla, oak, sweet grains, and oranges.

Flavor: This is a smooth, crisp bourbon with sweet, fruity notes of bananas, apples, and oranges. There's also a decent spiciness with pepper, cinnamon, and black tea flavors that give a nod to the signature rye-heavy flavor profile of Wild Turkey's products. The most dominant flavor is a light, sweet honey taste that makes this a very easy sipper and would certainly lend that classic bourbon-sweetness to any cocktail.

Finish:The finish lingers for a long while and gets warmer and warmer before fading away. You're left with long-lingering caramel, honey, and spices.



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Oh Taste & See: Wasmund's Single Malt Whisky

A few weeks ago I wrote about my recent visit to Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, VA, and today I'll taste their Wasmund's Single Malt Whisky as the third and final installment in my series of three American, craft, malt whisk(e)y's. The first two I reviewed were Edgefield Distillery's Hogshead Whiskey from Oregon and MB Roland's Malt Whiskey from Kentucky. Wasmund's is the outcast of this trio since it drops the 'e' from whiskey, but that's not the only thing that makes it different.

For one thing, this is a soup-to-nuts, produced-in-house whiskey. Copper Fox's Rick Wasmund malts his own barley in-house, sourced from nearby farms, and dries it in a kiln fired by apple and cherry wood. As far as I know he's the only distillery in the world doing that. He also brings some non-traditional wood into the aging process, and in only 14 months of barrel-time turns out a very classy and unique whisky.

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Oh Taste & See: MB Roland Malt Whiskey

This is the second of my three-part American craft-distilled malt whiskey tasting. My first was Edgefield Distillery's Hogshead Whiskey from Oregon, and today I'm tasting MB Roland's Malt Whiskey from Kentucky. The MB Roland distillery is just outside my hometown, and you can read about my visit there by clicking here. Their malt whiskey is a very small batch product, and is totally unique in that the mash bill is not 100% malted barley, but a blend of malt, rye, and corn with malt being the majority grain. It is also aged in new, charred oak barrels like a bourbon which is unusual for malt whiskeys.

This unique recipe leads to one of the most singular whiskeys that I have tasted. It is unlike anything else; charting its own little path down the whiskey road. This is precisely the type of innovation that small distillers like MB Roland can bring to market, and I applaud them for trying something so innovative.

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Oh Taste & See: Edgefield Distillery Hogshead Whiskey

I noticed recently that I had accumulated a few bottles of small-batch, craft-distilled malt whiskeys, so I thought I'd taste them all, three posts in a row, and offer you a comparison. First up is Hogshead Whiskey from Oregon's Edgefield Distillery. Edgefield Distillery is part of the McMenamins empire which operates hotels, pubs, breweries, wineries, and theaters throughout Oregon and Washington. Hogshead Whiskey is made in a small, dark, barn-like distillery at the Edgefield resort property that McMenamins operates in Troutdale, OR.

Hogshead Whiskey is a very small batch product distilled from the same barley malt used in some of McMenamins' beers, and aged 'to-taste' in used barrels. It is available at any of McMenamins' pubs or restaurants or at a couple of the hotel gift shops, but that's it...so don't get your hopes up about finding a bottle at your corner liquor shop. Here's what I think about it:

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Northern Virginia Distillery Double-Dip: Catoctin Creek & Copper Fox

A couple weeks ago I was in Northern Virginia and I had the chance to stop in for a visit at two very cool micro-distilleries that are turning out some very tasty and unique whiskies. While in the area I did some camping and hiking in Shenandoah National Park which felt like real 'mountain moonshiner' territory, so I think it's appropriate that good, legal whisky is being made in the hills just outside the nation's capital.

The first distillery I visited was Catoctin Creek Distillery in Purcellville, VA, a tiny town about twenty miles northwest of Dulles International Airport and a stone's throw from the West Virginia line. Catoctin Creek was founded in 2009 by a husband and wife team, and from what I could tell, she seems to be the head distiller, which is cool to see.They're located in a small warehouse space in an unassuming industrial park, a lot like Philadelphia Distilling Company which I visited last year. While the space might be small they make the most of it. Up front is a tasting room and gift shop, and in back there's a shiny, German-made copper still of about 100 gallon capacity, a corner full of aging 30 gallon barrels, and a temperature-controlled tent used for fermentation.

All of Catoctin Creek's currently-available products are made from organic rye from Kansas, but through some very creative distilling tricks they are able to make the most of this one simple ingredient. They produce both aged and unaged rye whiskies as well as a really crisp and tasty rye-based gin. They also make some fruit brandies and liquors which I heard great things about, but they didn't have any available when I visited. There was a big crowd in the tasting room on the Saturday that I stopped by, with folks visiting from as far away as Germany. Everyone got a taste of the Mosby's Spirit unaged rye, the signature Roundstone Rye (aged in 30 gallon white oak barrels), and the Watershed Gin. All three were very good, and I brought home a bottle of the Roundstone Rye which I will review for you soon. For more on Catoctin Creek check out there website, or just pop in for a visit like I did.

The second distillery I visited was a real treat for me since it was pretty much exactly how I would design a distillery given unlimited cash. Copper Fox Distillery is located a bit off-the-beaten-path in the small, artsy town of Sperryville, VA, but it's not difficult to find. It's not far from Shenandoah National Park, so it's a nice stop-off when heading to or from that area. Beyond making good whisky, Copper Fox is a cool place to visit. The distillery has been in operation for a little over five years, and occupies an old, barn-style building in a secluded compound of three or four similar buildings - one of which houses an antiques store. The tasting room is small, but very cute and not only sells whisky, but also miniature models of the Copper Fox delivery truck that sits outside the distillery. Outside the tasting room there's a really nice sitting area with a true man-cave vibe that makes you want to hang out for hours. Copper Fox is also one of the only distilleries in America (maybe the only?) where you can see a small-scale malting operation, just like you might see in Scotland.

Copper Fox takes a soup-to-nuts approach to making its distinctive whiskies, from malting it's own barley which is grown by a nearby farmer to aging its whiskeys in a unique process using apple and cherry wood alongside traditional oak. Copper Fox's products include both aged and unaged versions of Wasmund's Single Malt Whisky and Copper Fox Rye, and they have a bourbon coming soon which I can't wait to try. I encourage you to check their website for more info on tours and tastings, and check back here for a review of the bottle of Wasmund's Single Malt Whisky that I brought home.

I guess it's true what they say...Virginia is for (whisky) Lovers.

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Whisk(e)y Event Season is Approaching

As fall approaches so do the annual series of whisk(e)y festivals, events, and celebrations. I'm not sure why they all seem to fall during the same few months every year - at least in the Northeast - but it makes for a fun time!

First up is the Whisky on the Hudson dinner cruise in New York City on September 8th. What could be better than whisky and dinner on a boat, and early September is usually perfect weather-wise or this type of thing. For more info go to http://www.whiskyguild.com/newyork.html

As November approaches, it gets cooler and the events move indoors. First up on November 1st is the big one, Malt Advocate's annual Whisky Fest New York. This year's Whisky Fest is the 14th annual, and if you can only make it to one of these events, this one is the biggest and baddest. More info can be had here: http://www.maltadvocate.com/whiskyfest.asp

Finally, on November 15th, right here in the City of Brotherly Love, is the 2011 Philadelphia Whisky Festival. You can read my rundown of last year's Philly festival here, and I'm sure this year's fest will be even bigger and better. For more info on this year's Philly festival go to http://www.phillymag.com/whiskeyfest/index.html.

Hope to see you out at the tasting tables this fall!


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Oh Taste & See: Caol Ila 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

If you read this blog frequently you know that I drink a lot more American whiskey than I do Scotch whisky, but when the stars align there's nothing that compares to a big, peaty Islay single malt. On a cold night by a smoky campfire or in celebration of any major milestone serious Scotch like Caol Ila's 12 Year Old single malt is the natural way to go.

The original Caol Ila distillery was built in 1846, but the current distillery has only been around since the 1970's. It overlooks the sound between Islay and Jura, and is currently owned by global spirits-giant Diageo. Although not the most widely known Islay single malt, Caol Ila is highly regarded by critics and connoisseurs and is actually a decent value at around $60 per bottle.

Color: Caol Ila is a relatively light whisky in terms of flavor, proof (86), and color, and you're clued-in to this right away by the pale, yellow-straw hue as you pour it into the glass. Based on color you'd guess that it is younger than its 12 Year age statement, but nosing and tasting it will renew your faith in its age.

Nose: The nose on Caol Ila is very powerful, but not quite as dominating as some other Islay malts - it's still\ a serious Islay whisky, but turned down just one notch so that you can hear what's going on behind the peat. There are notes of damp, muddy grass, hints of honey, leather and springtime rain. The peat is out front, but plays well with the other aromas, especially as the drink sits for a bit.

Flavor: Caol Ila is a light, clean tasting single-malt. The flavors are mostly peaty and smoky, but I also taste buttered corn, honey, some oaky-tannins, and a bit of sweet malt. It's a relatively simple-tasting whiskey, but it's very well balanced and enjoyable, even a bit refreshing which isn't what you expect in an Islay whisky.

Finish: The peat flavors linger for a while along with cinnamon and spice later in the finish. Overall the finish is very long and this whisky is at its best towards the final fade-away, encouraging you to take that next sip and start the process all over again.

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Oh Taste & See: Wathen's Single Barrel Bourbon

Wathen's Kentucky Bourbon is one of those whiskeys that is a bit hard to figure out, at least in terms of exactly where, how, and by whom it was made. The bottle says that it was distilled in Kentucky, but it also says "Bottled By Charles Medley Distillery, San Jose, CA". To add further confusion, Wathen's website claims that the Charles Medley Distillery is in Owensboro, KY. That distillery is definitely there, and is owned by the Angostura company (of bitters fame) but I can't find any evidence that it has actually produced Bourbon in the recent past.

To add to the confusion, the bottle gives no age statement, so there's no way to work backwards to when this bourbon was made. So, I'll assume that Wathen's, in its current form, is made by one of the major distilleries and that the California-based company is merely the owner of the brand. If I had to bet on which distillery it comes from I would go with Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, but I'd love to hear a more definitive answer to this question. For now check this out for more on this part of the story.

All that mystery aside, there's no mystery as to the quality of the bourbon inside my Wathen's bottle - it is excellent. In fact this is one of the best bourbon's I've tried in a long time, and I wouldn't hesitate to pick up another bottle the next time I see one since it's fairly priced for a single-barrel bourbon at $37.99.

Note: This is a single barrel bourbon, so it could vary greatly from one batch to another. My bottle is listed as being from Barrel Number 304, bottled on 3/7/11.

Color: Wathen's has a classic, deep orange color reminiscent of polished maple furniture. Not too dark or too light, but a just right middle-ground.

Nose: The nose is a classic essence of sweet bourbon. There are hints of citrus, orange marmalade, vanilla, and oak. It's a clean, fresh aroma.

Flavor: Wathen's has a rich flavor that starts out sweet with raisins, vanilla, cherries, and oranges and then opens up to nice hot peppers and spice. A very smooth and pleasant bourbon to sip, and all the flavors hold up well to a couple cubes of ice for a hot summer day. Overall it's sweet without feeling sticky or heavy.

Finish: There's a nice bit of spicy burn on the tongue as the taste fades. The finish is smooth with long-lingering spice and grape flavors.

Overall this bourbon reminds me of another of my favorites, 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, because it provides plenty of complexity in a very smooth, easy-drinking bourbon that still has some bite to it. Hopefully one day they'll tell us the full story on this delightful bourbon.

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Whiskey Book Review: The Social History of Bourbon

The Social History of BourbonDisclaimer: this book took me a long while to get through, so I apologize to the author if I forget anything from the first half. Given that The Social History of Bourbon by Gerald Carson was published in 1963, I thought it would be acceptable to take my time with it since nothing in there could be late-breaking news. Like many a well-aged bourbon, this book went down just fine as a slow and easy sipper.

The Social History of Bourbon attempts to tell the story of bourbon from its humble beginnings as unaged corn whiskey on the American frontier to its revered place in the society of the early 1960's (when the book was originally published). It's interesting to read about bourbon from the perspective of a time when it was not at the peak of its popularity. I would say that bourbon is much more popular today that it was when this book was written, making the book itself an interesting historical artifact.

Nothing in this book is new to a reader with a basic understanding of American whiskey history, but the author does use numerous detailed anecdotes and examples to make the general outline of history come to life. Some of these anecdotes veer into the overly mundane and boring, but some of the whiskey-fueled stories are downright hilarious, and paint a vivid picture of whiskey's role in early America. The author also does a good job of remaining neutral on such touchy questions as who invented bourbon, and how exactly bourbon is best defined. He tells all sides of the story fairly and does a good job of telling all of the stories that are tangentially related to bourbon without veering to far out of bounds.

My overall take-away is that this is an entertaining book if you're a whiskey history buff, and a must have reference if you're doing serious research on bourbon's place in history. It can also be fun if you're willing to jump around from one entertaining anecdote to the next. However, as a straight-through read it's a bit overly academic and quite lengthy, perhaps best enjoyed slowly, one sip at a time, just like a fine bourbon.

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Whiskey Book Review: Boozehound

Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in SpiritsOver the course of a quick summer vacation I was able to breeze through a very entertaining and educational book called Boozehound by Jason Wilson. The subtitle of the book is On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, which sums things up very nicely and really reels you in if you're the type of person who reads blogs like mine. The author is the Spirits Columnist for the Washington Post, a great job title if ever there was one, and he also has some local Philadelphia connections - former Philadelphia Magazine writer, teacher at Drexel University, and resident of South Jersey, just over the river. The dry wit and snide humor that I've read in Wilson's columns comes through perfectly in book form, and makes for a breezy, fun read even for non-spirits-snobs.

In Boozehound the author weaves together historical and personal anecdotes centered on spirits ranging from obscure Italian bitters to politically charged Caribbean rums. He reminds his American readers that in many parts of the world spirits are consumed very differently than we are used to, and he tempts us to go out and buy-and-try all sorts of foreign elixirs. Thankfully, if you do end up making a trip to the liquor store after each chapter, the book also includes many excellent cocktail recipes so that you can recreate the drinking experiences it describes at home in your kitchen.

Since this is a whiskey blog I have to give the disclaimer that Boozehound is not particularly focused on whiskey. This doesn't make it any less interesting to the whiskey drinker though because many of the spirits that Boozehound discusses are currently in a state of obscurity, at least in the U.S., much as whiskey has been at different points in time. Tracing the ebbs and flows of different spirits' popularity and their relationships to popular culture is, to me, what this book does so well. Wilson gives praise where it is due - usually but not always to the rare and obscure - and he calls out the overrated whenever appropriate. His editorializing adds a big dash of fun to a very educational book which makes it perfect for summer beach reading.

My only complaint about this book is that it is too short. It's nine brief chapters only allow Wilson to scratch the surface of the world's rare, obscure, and overrated booze. I'm sure he has plenty more stories to tell, and I look forward to a sequel.

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Back to Blogging

After taking a few weeks vacation from blogging, with an actual vacation thrown in, I'm back to writing about whiskey, and I've got some fun things to discuss and taste over the next few days. First up I'll review a couple of books that I read over my vacation, then I'll review a few whiskeys that I picked up at the duty free shops...sounds like fun for me, hope you enjoy!

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Oh Taste & See: Early Times 354 Bourbon

You may have heard the buzz surrounding the release of Early Times 354 Bourbon a few months back. It's the first time since 1983 that the storied Early Times name has appeared on a bourbon available in the U.S. Early Time's only domestic-market product for the past 28 years has been labeled "Kentucky Whiskey" - a bourbon-like whiskey aged in some used barrels instead of all new ones, a minor distinction that meant it couldn't be legally called bourbon. I never thought much of Early Times Kentucky Whiskey, but the 354 bourbon isn't bad at all, and even earned a starring role in my Derby Day mint julep this year.

This new bourbon is a value-priced whiskey (about $16) that packs a decent punch for the price. It also has a very cool bottle that gives it an old-time, small-batch look. It's definitely one of the best-looking bourbons in the under-$20 price bracket, so not a bad option if you're looking for an affordable bourbon to take to a party or to give your whiskey shelf a little color.But it's always what's inside the bottle that counts.

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It's Mint Julep Time Again

Tomorrow is Kentucky Derby Day, the one day a year when you just must drink bourbon, most likely in the form of a mint julep. Last year I gave you my go-to mint julep recipe which you can check out here. That recipe makes an awesome drink, but it's also a bit complicated, especially if you're trying to make juleps for a whole party full of people who are all drinking like racehorses.

So this year, I offer a simple, more scalable recipe for a quick, easy, and awesomely refreshing Mint Julep. You can use this same recipe to make one mint julep or fifty, and it should be quick and easy either way so have fun with it.

You'll need:
1. Bourbon. I'm going to use the new Early Times 354 Bourbon this year. Early Times Kentucky Whiskey is what they use at Churchill Downs for their standard mint juleps, but now that ET is selling an honest to goodness bourbon in the U.S. why not use that? It's affordable and pretty tasty to boot!
2. Ice - lots of it.
3. Mint - leaves, fresh, cleaned...picked from your garden if possible.
4. Simple syrup - boil 1 cup sugar in 1 cup water until dissolved, refrigerate until you need it.

Put the mint and the ice in a blender, blend until it has a nice snow-cone consistency. Fill your glasses (6-8 oz. old fashioned glasses are perfect) about 2/3 full with the blended ice/mint mixture. Pour in a couple ounces of bourbon and a dash of simple syrup. If you have a few mint sprigs left over use them for garnish. Enjoy while watching the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports!

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Oh Taste & See: Pendleton Blended Canadian Whisky

What makes a whisky Canadian? Well I guess if you ask the folks at Hood River Distillers, the Oregon-based bottlers of Pendleton Blended Canadian Whisky, the only requirement is for the liquid in the bottle to have been distilled and aged in Canada. Given how much I like their product, I won't argue with them at all.

Pendleton is named after Oregon's Pendleton Round-Up, one of the worlds longest-running rodeos. The bottle features the Round-Up's bucking bronco logo, and all of the marketing seeks to tie this whisky to the romance and intrigue of cowboys and rodeo culture. In fact a portion of the proceeds from each bottle is donated to the Pendleton Round-Up. That's all great, but it does even more to make this seem like a distinctly American (Oregonian?) whisky, even if the liquid itself was made in Canada and the bottle says Canadian Whisky. Oh well, enough nitpickin' about Pendleton's provenance, how does it drink?

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Canadian Whisky Getting Some Respect

This recent article from the New York Times gives Canadian whisky a bit of attention that it isn't used to getting. Always the backbone of cheap whisky cocktails and a go-to for old-timers everywhere, Canadian whisky is now aspiring to rival its flashier Scotch and Bourbon competitors with unique, higher-end bottlings. Some of these more sophisticated Canadian whiskys are coming from the major international spirits conglomerates (such as Collingwood Canadian whisky from Brown Forman), while others come from smaller distillers trying their hand at innovative new techniques (such as Forty Creek).

One Canadian whisky that the NYTimes article doesn't discuss, perhaps because it's actually blended and bottled in Hood River, Oregon, is Pendleton, which I will be reviewing in my next blog post.

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Oh Taste & See: Angel's Envy Bourbon

Angel's Envy Bourbon has been generating buzz in the bourbon world for a while now, and it's finally starting to become readily available in many areas nationwide. I had a chance to taste it a while back at the Philadelphia Whiskey Festival. At the time it made a great impression, and now I've had the chance to taste a bit more and I still really like it.

The short back-story behind Angel's Envy is that it is the pet-project of bourbon-industry legend Lincoln Henderson, formerly Master Distiller at Woodford Reserve. By finishing Angel's Envy in used Port casks he brings a new flavor profile to Kentucky bourbon, and the result is a whiskey that can claim a deep-rooted link to bourbon heritage as well as a refreshingly daring modern twist. Each bottling of Angel's Envy will be unique, and therefore uniquely labeled with a batch number on the cork. While this first batch (Expression 10/10) is good, I expect the product to evolve into a truly classic bourbon as Mr. Henderson fine-tunes this ground-breaking style of bourbon.

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Whiskey Dinner at Percy Street Barbecue

Last night I had a chance to attend an American Whiskey Dinner at Percy Street Barbecue here in Philadelphia. I had heard great reviews about this relatively new restaurant, and the whiskey dinner featured five courses paired with five different whiskeys so what better time to try it for myself! It even featured some very entertaining and educational commentary by whiskey and beer writer Lew Bryson.

The food at the dinner was awesome, but unfortunately it is not on Percy Street's everyday menu. Their regular menu does feature a wide variety of barbecued meats and down-home sides, and their bar was well stocked with a variety of whiskeys so I don't think I'd be disappointed in a visit on any 'ol night.

On the subject of the food, the country ham trio that started off the dinner was amazing. I grew up on country ham down in Kentucky, but we never sliced it prosciutto thin like they did at this dinner, which really brings out the taste and prevents you from filling up to quickly. We also tended to fry it in a skillet, which is delicious but hides a lot of the meat's natural flavors. If you've never paired country ham with bourbon go do it now...you back? It was great right?

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Bar Hopping: Longman & Eagle, Chicago

The window at Longman & Eagle, the hip whiskey bar in Chicago's up-and-coming Logan Square neighborhood, says simply: "Eat Sleep Whiskey." That seems like a pretty simple slogan, but it concisely captures most of what's going on at this watering hole where I had dinner last weekend.

Let's start with the drinking. Longman & Eagle has an epic selection of whiskeys behind the bar. There are so many bottles that many of them have been turned sideways so that you can't even identify the labels. Thankfully there's a well-organized list to choose from so that you don't have to rely solely on your eyes scanning the bar shelves. The drinks menu lists numerous craft beers, wines, and cocktails - both whiskey-based and other - along with a complete list of the whiskey selections available. The whiskeys are categorized by type (bourbon, scotch, etc.), but there's also a great menu section entitled "Whiskey For Drinking" where all the 'affordable' whiskeys are listed again - each one available for only $3 per shot. Each whiskey on the menu is offered in 1.25 oz or 2 oz pours, and the prices seem to be fairly reasonable across the board. One thing I didn't care for was the glassware that the whiskeys are served in - basically a straight-up-and-down shot glass. It's fine if you're doing shots of Jack or Jim, but for some of the higher-end tipples on the list a nicer glass would have made me feel better about dropping the big bucks.

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St. Patty's Day Tasting: Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! I'm not Irish, and I don't like artificially colored beer, but I do enjoy the occasional glass of Irish Whiskey, so I thought I'd review Tullamore Dew's 12 Year Old Special Reserve bottling in honor of the holiday. Tullamore Dew's standard bottling is the world's second best selling Irish whiskey (behind Jamison), and the brand is owned by William Grant & Sons and produced at Pernod Ricard's Midleton Distillery alongside Jamison, Powers, and other brands. While the standard Tullamore Dew is heavily advertised and can stand up to any other mainstream Irish whiskey, I hadn't heard much buzz about their 12 Year Old expression, so I thought I'd give it a try.

At $35.99 per 750 mL bottle in Pennsylvania, Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve isn't a cheap Irish whiskey. Along with being aged 12 years, this whiskey also has the distinction of being aged in used bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso sherry barrels. It also claims to have a higher malt whiskey content (and therefore lower grain whiskey content) than other Irish whiskeys which should give it a fuller flavor. To me Irish whiskeys are meant to be smooth, easy-drinking, and very approachable, and achieving that in a 12 year old whiskey that will also appeal to those looking for more distinctive flavors is quite a challenge. Tullamore Dew does a good job of meeting this challenge, and my overall impression is good, although I'd like to try their 10 Year Reserve as well to see how much difference there is in the two.

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Oh Taste & See: Buffalo Trace Bourbon

Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, KY flies bit under the radar compared to some of the other bourbon distillers, but it always seems to be highly regarded by folks who know their bourbon. I rarely see it stocked at bars and restaurants around Philadelphia, and it's certainly not a household name like Maker's or Jim Beam but it is sold in some Pennsylvania state stores around here. I somehow managed to make it to this past weekend without ever trying Buffalo Trace, but after a few tastes I'm starting to understand what all the subdued buzz is about. It's a very solid, low-key bourbon that's an outstanding value compared to some of the more highly marketed and higher priced bourbons on the shelves.

Buffalo Trace has only been around as a brand since 1999, but it's produced at the Buffalo Trace distillery which has been around in one form or another for about a century and half. It was formerly known as the George T. Stagg distillery and produces the George T. Stagg line of high-end bourbons as well as the Blanton's, W.L. Weller, and Eagle Rare labels. All of these bourbons also follow the 'substance before style' path of Buffalo Trace, winning awards and accolades, but avoiding being over-hyped. So, enough hype how does BT drink?

Color: Buffalo Trace has a very nice golden amber hue and appears thick and sticky when swirled around in the glass (in a good way that implies a certain richness).

Nose: When I opened the bottle a bouquet of rich, fruity dark berry aromas jumped out at me right away. After pouring a glass the nose was more ethanol and honey, but the fruity blackberry aromas came back as the glass sat a bit and opened up. There were also hints of vanilla and grain in the nose.

Flavor: Buffalo Trace feels nice and creamy in the mouth, not watered down or weak, and it's immensely smooth for a 90 proof whiskey without even a hint of burn. The dominant flavors are of oak: vanilla, honey, and caramel. There are also some peppery spice flavors and a hint of the blackberries that come through so nicely in the nose.

Finish: This is where BT really surprised me for a $20 bourbon. The finish is long and much more interesting than the actual taste. All the same flavors are present, but the peppery spice really hangs on for a long time, and there are hints of corn and more vanilla. Again there's no alcohol burn, making this a great one to sip slowly and really savor.

Overall I have to agree with all bourbon-heads who have told me that Buffalo Trace is one of the best deals in bourbon. A great bottle to keep around as an everyday whiskey that will never disappoint.

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Jim Beam Devil's Cut

If you read this blog frequently you may have picked up on the fact that I'm a bit of a traditionalist. I'm usually not a fan of new or modern techniques when it comes to making whiskey. If it ain't broke don't fix it right? Well Jim Beam is introducing a new product that I might be a little more friendly too, but I'll have to taste some before I give my final approval.

The new 90-proof Beam product is called Devil's Cut (the opposite of Angel's Share), and it is essentially the bourbon that's left soaked into the barrel after the barrel is emptied. They've come up with a way to extract this extremely-woody bourbon and bottle it for our drinking pleasure. Although I'd like to have a taste of the straight 'devil's cut' right from the wood, the commercial product is mixed with regular Jim Beam in unspecified proportions. I'm sure it's an interesting twist on the world's best-selling bourbon, and I look forward to giving it a try. In the meantime you can read a review of it from Cigar Aficionado here.

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Oh Taste & See: Four Roses Small Batch

A few months back I took a trip to the Four Roses Distillery in Kentucky. While there I picked up a bottle of Four Roses Small Batch in the gift shop - mostly because it came packaged with a really nice rocks glass and muddler. Well I finally got around to opening up the bottle a few days ago, and given how much respect I have for Four Roses Yellow Label, I was a bit disappointed at my first few drams of the Small Batch. However, now that I'm sitting down to really taste and review it I have to say it has grown on me and it's not a bad bourbon at all.

Like all Four Roses expressions, the Small Batch is very smooth, so if you drink bourbon for the 'bite and burn' this one might not appeal to you. But if you like a nice smooth, relaxed whiskey you'll probably like it, although I'm not sure if the Small Batch (about $36) is worth the premium over the Yellow Label (about $18). My initial reaction to it was that it was medicinal and watery, but I'm coming around after a few subsequent drinks, so maybe I just need to give it some time. In any case, my impression from my current glass is below.

Color: Honey brown with orange shades here and there. A perfectly middle-of-the-road bourbon color, neither light or dark.

Nose: Light and thin in aroma, not much at all to the nose. What is there is a hint of orange and some light vanilla and caramel notes.

Flavor: The Four Roses Small Batch is smooth and easy-sipping, especially for a 90 proof, 'higher-rye' recipe. It does have some peppery notes, but I wouldn't call it spicy. There are also some vanilla, leather, and grain flavors. I am impressed that it manages to be so smooth without being overly sweet, since many bourbons use excessive sweetness to smooth out their rough edges.

Finish: This is where the Small Batch sets itself apart from the standard Four Roses Yellow Label. The finish is long and slow with all the flavors bouncing around for a good while, especially the peppery and grainy tastes. There's even a hint of pine flavor that gives it a really clean-feeling finish. Unlike some other 90+ proof bourbons the long-finish is not just alcohol burn, but is really full of nice flavors.

Overall Four Roses Small Batch is a nice bourbon, especially if you're looking for something super smooth, but still interesting to sip. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's worth double the cost of Four Roses Yellow Label which I consider a top-notch value, but it's worth a try if you get a chance.

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Seriously? Jack D. in a Can?

Not to offend anyone who's into this kind of thing, but I was a bit shocked, and saddened when I learned that Jack Daniels is releasing a line of pre-mixed cocktails in aluminum bottles, and in some states aluminum cans. I know the liquor business is driven by marketing, but I hate to see an American icon cheapened and literally watered down - these things clock in at a mighty 5% ABV.

If you can't mix your own Jack and Coke then I personally feel like you shouldn't be drinking at all - you haven't earned the right. For the price-conscious among us,  750mL bottle of Jack costs under $20 and a two liter of coke about $2. My rough calculations say that for about $24 you could make at least fifteen twelve-ounce Jack and Cokes, so unless these things sell for under $2 per bottle they're ripping you off.

I guess the world's best selling whiskey has to do something to keep growing the brand though, and now that Four Loko is off the market I guess college students need a new, disposable, easy to chug option for getting wasted. I can assure you this is one product you won't see reviewed on this blog.

Rant Over :)

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New Products and New Rankings

First, in a follow-up to my post from last week there is yet another new whiskey on the market from one of the biggest of the big boys. Jim Beam's premium Knob Creek line has introduced its first single-barrel expression. The new bottling will be called Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, and will be priced around $40 per bottle. Knob Creek is a nice sippin' bourbon, and one I think has a nice sharp bite to it. At 120 proof, this new single-barrel version should bring even more of that bite, and I look forward to sampling a bit.

While new whiskeys keep coming out, some classics are racking up awards from Malt Advocate Magazine. It was good to see a nice range of highly attainable (Evan Williams) and highly unattainable (Glenfarclas 40 Year Old) whiskeys on the list.

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Oh Taste & See: Old Ezra 7 Year Old Bourbon

Ezra Brooks is one of those bourbons that tries to look like Jack Daniels - square black bottle, mention of charcoal filtering, etc. The other is Evan Williams and both are decent, value-priced bourbons produced by Heaven Hill in Bardstown, KY. I think the standard-issue Ezra Brooks 90-proof is a solid bourbon for the price, if a bit rough around the edges. So when I picked up a bottle of its older cousin - Old Ezra 7 Year Old Bourbon - I expected it to hold its own in the $20-$25 price range in which it competes. I can say that I wasn't disappointed, and that it is actually a fairly unique and enjoyable bourbon, although it could still be mistaken for a bottle of Jack if you weren't paying attention. My instinct is to compare it with a similarly priced bourbon like Maker's Mark or Buffalo Trace, but at 101 proof the Old Ezra 7 Year is a totally different animal than those smooth whiskeys, and might better be compared to other higher-octane bourbons.

Color: Old Ezra 7 Year Old has a very rich, reddish brown color that makes it easy to believe it is at least seven years of age. A very warm looking whiskey, no hints of lightness or wateriness.

Nose: For 101 proof the nose isn't super boozy. The first thing I picked up was a nutty scent like hazelnuts and then some vanilla and banana notes.

Flavor: 7 Year Old Ezra drinks nice and smooth, especially for 101 proof. It has a nice oaky warmth and all the nutty flavors that I picked up in the nose. There's some nice vanilla flavor and a thick feel to this whiskey. It's not at all fruity or light - again a serious, power-punch of a bourbon.

Finish: The finish is long and peppery. The 101 proof gives a nice warming sensation without any harsh burn.

Overall this is a nice sippin' whiskey for when you need a serious spirit.

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Interesting Developments from the Big Boys of Whiskey

There have been a few interesting announcements from some of the big Kentucky-based distillers over the past few weeks. First came news that the Early Times name would be returning to the American bourbon bottles. For the past 30 years Brown Forman has produced Early Times Bourbon for overseas market, but limited the brand to the "Kentucky Whiskey" label in the U.S., the distinction being that the Kentucky Whiskey product spent some time in previously-used barrels, a no-no for bourbons. The new U.S. market Early Times Bourbon will be called Early Times 354 in reference to the Early Times distillery's original distilling license number. It is being launched first in select markets, and is competing in the $15-$20 price range. I'm not a huge fan of Early Times Kentucky Whiskey, but I'm hopeful that the bourbon will be an improvement and I look forward to sampling it.

The next piece of interesting news also comes from Brown Forman. The company is launching a new Canadian whisky to be called Collingwood. It's coming to market in four states (KY, FL, LA, and TX) in February with a target price of $26.99. After maturing in oak this whisky will be finished in maple wood, and Brown Forman claims it will be the only maple-finished Canadian whisky on the market. I think the increase in more distinctive Canadian whisky bottlings is a great development, and I look forward to comparing Collingwood with Forty Creek and Pendleton, two surprisingly good Canadian products that have come out in the past few years.


Finally, it's not a new product, but Old Pogue Bourbon is looking for a new home. To be more accurate the Pogue family is looking to move production back to its original home in Maysville, KY. Old Pogue, a Heaven Hill brand, is currently distilled in Bardstown, KY, but if everything goes according to plan Old Pogue could be made in Maysville starting in as little as one year. The town in Northeastern Kentucky is where the Pogue family originally began distilling in 1876.

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Whiskey Book Review: More Mountain Spirits

More Mountain Spirits: The Continuing Chronicle of Moonshine Life and Corn Whiskey, Wines, Ciders & Beers in America's AppalachiansLast month I reviewed the excellent book Mountain Spirits by Joseph Earl Dabney. It was such an entertaining book that I jumped right into reading its sequel, appropriately titled More Mountain Spirits. The lengthy and descriptive subtitle of More Mountain Spirits is "The Continuing Chronicle of Moonshine Life and Corn Whiskey, Wines, Ciders & Beers in America's Appalachians." That's a mouthful of a subtitle, but it does get you thinking that maybe there's more to drink in them thar hills than just 'clear corn likker.'

In his second volume of moonshine history, Dabney does tell tales of apple cider, elderberry wine, tomato beer, and pumpkin gin. His descriptions of these concoctions make for interesting tidbits, and prove the point that folks will make booze out of just about anything they can get their hands on. However, as you read through the book you can tell that the author's true interest is still with corn-based (and later sugar-based) moonshine. He spends most of the book going into detail about corn whiskey, its production process, the men and women who make it and sell it, and the 'revenooers' who hunt the moonshiners in a comical game of cat-and-mouse.

Many of the anecdotes in More Mountain Spirits are simply elaborations or retellings from Mountain Spirits, but there's enough fresh information to make it worth a quick read. Especially informative is the in-depth section on different types of stills and various production processes used by moonshiners. There's even a step-by-step plan for building your own mini-still from scratch. The pictures alone make this book a priceless addition to your 'whiskey library.'

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Oh Taste & See: Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey

Rye whiskey is certainly having a moment right now with growing popularity among cocktail enthusiasts, and new brands hitting the market constantly. Today I'm tasting an old classic of the rye whiskey category that has been around, at least in name, for close to 200 years. Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey is a four year old, 80 proof, straight rye whiskey that, in my opinion, sets the standard for other rye whiskeys to shoot for. Originally produced in Pennsylvania, the Old Overholt brand is now made in Kentucky by Jim Beam, but is still happily distinct from the many other bourbons and ryes made alongside it.

At around $18 per bottle it's also a great bargain compared to many of the newer, over-hyped rye whiskeys on the market. In fact, I recently tasted Old Overholt back-to-back with Jim Beam's premium rye whiskey, (ri)1, which sells for $50 per bottle and I definitely preferred the more assertive bite and distinctive character of Old Overholt.

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Cooking With Whiskey: Cinnamon Bourbon Chili

This time of year nothing is better than having a nice hot pot of chili on the stove. Not only does it provide a quick and filling meal, but the aroma fills up the whole house. In fact, I think I like the smell of good chili cooking almost as much as I like eating it.

Over the past few winters I've almost perfected my recipe for a super easy, and super delicious pot of chili. I make mine in a Crock Pot slow cooker which will keep it warm for hours and makes for easy storage, but I'm sure you could just as easily make this recipe in a stove-top pot.

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More Four Roses Info

This article from today's Philadelphia Inquirer goes a little deeper into the history and mystique of Four Roses Bourbon that I mentioned in my last blog entry.

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Four Roses Distillery Tour

This year for Christmas I made the long drive home from Philadelphia to beautiful Western Kentucky. On the ride back I broke up the monotonous drive with a stop at the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY. I have always been intrigued by Four Roses' history and mystique. Not only is there a romantic story behind the Four Roses name (read the official version here), but also a unique history of at least 120 behind the brand. Four Roses was one of America's most popular whiskeys before prohibition. Then it was unavailable for more than 40 years in the U.S. before returning in the last decade and gradually regaining its place among America's top bourbon brands. During that time the Four Roses name graced all sorts of different whiskeys, but now the distillery is back to focusing strictly on producing classic Kentucky Bourbon.