American Whiskey

Kings County Bourbon 43%

Reviewed by: Ted

Kings County Bourbon 43

This is about as hipster as I get. Leaning up against a rough-sawn wooden bar in a small craft beer joint in Kyoto and sipping some NYC bourbon poured from a 375ml bottle with a label that looks type-written. In fact, as I type these words, a number of Japanese gents wearing round steel-rimmed glasses and with beanies perched on their heads have just walked in. I am probably not cool enough for this place.

The bar is called Bungalow; the fact that it is separated from the busy street outside by only a clear plastic screen somehow makes it seem even more edgy. The vibe inside is very chill though, with friendly bar staff, a selection of Japanese craft beers and luscious funk tunes oozing from the speakers.

It also has precisely one whiskey, the Kings County Bourbon Whiskey. Apparently the owner is friends with the importer of the Kings County and is a fan, hence its presence as the only whiskey in a craft beer bar.

Kings County is apparently the oldest operating whiskey distillery in New York City… Est. 2010. It’s youth is due to the fact that it is the first whiskey maker in the Big Apple since prohibition ended. Based in the old Brooklyn Navy Yards, they craft spirit in their Scottish-made still using corn and barley grown on-site. It’s very much part of the dynamic and sustainable ethos that exists in Brooklyn today.

kings-county-bourbon.jpg

All the details…

The spirit itself is a very dark copper colour and is bottled at a pleasing 45%. Being a bourbon it has that heavy, corn-driven punch, but in this case it’s pleasantly not overpowering. There’s a sweet, savoury sharpness that evokes some of the flavours that I have come across in Japan. Soy sauce, mirin, that sticky stuff I had on that grilled meat in that yakitori joint, a hint of salt and tuna sashimi. Of course, these flavours are super-subjective seeing as this is a through-and-through American spirit. I’ve just been exposed to a lot of eastern flavours this past week.

The mouth-feel is solid. The usual big, sweet corn flavours are there, but they are well controlled and even-tempered. It has a crispness and acidity that evokes a glass of Sav Blanc or Pinot Grigio, leaving a nice juicyness to linger on the palate. There’s a buttery, saltiness too, like that scallop I had in Kuramon Ichiba Market that was grilled over coals in its own shell.

The Kings County is a damn fine whiskey, perhaps made even better by dint of my current geographical location. Kyoto is a beautiful city, Bungalow is just my kind of bar and the Kings County is an excellent finish to the day. If you’re going to drink a whiskey you’ve never heard of in a bar in Japan that you stumbled across by chance, consider making it a Kings County.

★★★★

Kings County Ted

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Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Reviewed by: Nick

buffalo-trace

Tastes like bourbon.

Ok, I freely admit, that statement alone does not do this dram justice. After all, this is whisky made at one of the oldest distilleries in the world! And yes, I do include Scotland in this claim.

Buffalo trace was founded in 1787 at a small settlement called Lee’s Town, a town presumably established by someone called Lee. The title ‘Buffalo Trace’ was given to it much later, but refers to the 18th century name for the distillery’s location: a trail forged by American bison as they crossed the Kentucky River. Buffalo Trace continued sending whiskey up the river across the ensuing centuries – even during prohibition when it was given a permit to produce medicinal whiskey. Unsurprisingly it was a very popular remedy.

But how does it taste?

Like bourbon.

No!

Well, yes.

But it’s good bourbon!

On the nose is, as you’d expect, sweet corn and vanilla, but also present are subtle notes of cinnamon and brown sugar. The palate is lightly spicy with grassy oak notes. The finish is medium in length with flavours of toffee and honey.

All in all, Buffalo Trace is a great example of a bourbon. It’s accessible and, all things considered, pretty darn smooth. Best of all, it’s a bourbon with a story. It allows you to cast your mind back to the late 1700s when settlers battled to survive – and make whiskey on the side!

And it tastes like bourbon.

★★★

Booker Noe’s Special Barrel Bourbon

Reviewed by: Ted

Booker Noe's

Ok people, tread carefully, we’re hunting a pretty dangerous lil’ beastie today and I wouldn’t like to see anyone lose a leg. It’s got a strong nose, a powerful kick and a bite worse than the biggest, meanest black bear you ever did see. What am I talking about? Why, Booker Noe’s Special Barrel Bourbon of course…. Look out! *crunch*

This big hitting bourbon takes it’s name from one of Kentucky’s most beloved sons, Booker Noe, grandson of the great Jim Beam himself. As master distiller at Jim Beam for many years, and a child of one of America’s greatest whiskey dynasties, Booker had an innate knowledge of the spirit he crafted. As a testament to his skill he selected barrels of special character to create an expression bearing his name and personal taste.

According to Booker’s note on the bottle label, his grandfather preferred his whiskey to be aged between 6-8yrs. My bottle, containing batch C04-A-28, hits that mark perfectly, being aged for 7yrs and 4months precisely. What really gives the Booker Noe its teeth is that fact that it’s bottled straight from the barrel. Therefore the bottle of dark, uncut Kentucky spirit sitting before me is a hefty 64.55% abv, or 129.1 proof in the American money.

I make no joke about the potency of this stuff, as it’s responsible for some of the few alcohol induced blank spots in my memory. Just to hammer the point home, our women folk are generally pretty indulgent and tolerant of our whisk(e)y drinking proclivities. Yet when the Booker comes out, or even if there’s vague hints of it, stern looks and muttering along the lines of ‘Oh God, you’re not drinking that stuff again are you? Remember what happened last time?’ occurs. Suffice to say, m’colleague and I have not been found in the best shape afterwards.

Yet, even after all that, there is something about the Booker Noe that keeps drawing us back. It’s the bold, gutsy, manly nature of it I think. Bourbon in the raw. The nose is solid, a big slab of dusty corn sweetness that drops down on you like a sack of, well, corn. Of course, because of the strength there’s an undertone of nail polish remover, but it blends well with the sweetness, only frying the occasional unsuspecting nose hair.

The taste is bold, taking a big, sharp, sweet, fruity swipe at your palate. The spirit fills the mouth, making your cheeks tingle and the blood rise. The finish is oaky and sour, and keeps you pinned down until it finishes punching you in the face.

Booker Noe’s Special Barrel bourbon is the American spirit at its brawniest. It’s creator was a larger-than-life figure and his bourbon certainly lives up to that legacy. Hunt the wild Kentucky beast if you dare, but be careful it doesn’t bite you too hard. But maybe it’s just like the note I stuck on the box says: “Because I like to live… dangerously.”

★★★

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year Old

Reviewed by: Ted

Pappy Van Winkle 20YO

Its pretty common for distillers to lay down Scotch for long periods of time, with age statements in the range of 18-25 years in relative abundance. Bourbons on the other hand are a whole different kettle of fish. Warmer storage temperatures and the use of virgin oak casks means that bourbon reaches maturity and develops character far more quickly than its Scottish counterparts. Therefore, if you come across a bourbon that says it’s 20 years old, you know you’re looking at something pretty special.

The Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year Old is an experience unto itself, a man amongst the boys. Now into its 4th generation, the dynasty began in the 1870s when Julian P ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle entered into the proud Kentuckian tradition of bourbon making. These days the Van Winkles make their spirit at the Buffalo Trace distillery, but they have not lost their dedication to crafting spirit of an exceptionally high standard.

Apart from the age, what makes Van Winkle bourbon special is that they use corn, barley and wheat instead of the more usual corn, barley and rye in their mash bill. They claim that the use of wheat creates a much softer, smoother spirit and helps with the aging process.

Compared to your standard ‘ol bourbon, the PvW Family Reserve 20yo is a far more delicate creature. You can still tell it’s bourbon when you take a sniff, but it doesn’t wave the fact in your face. Instead it gently strokes your nostrils with vanilla, ginger and Grand Marnier.

As you would expect for a spirit this age, it is superbly smooth with no alcoholic kick at all, which is interesting as it is still bottled at 45.2%. It feels very light and silky in the mouth, and if you draw some air through it goes all tingly, sending shivers down your tongue. Floral notes, particularly rose, mingle with sweet white grapes, maraschino cherries and alcohol-soaked cake. The finish is quite short and as smooth as a baby’s proverbial.

The PvW Family Reserve is the thinking man’s bourbon; gulping it down is simply not an option as it needs some time to respond in the mouth. At first glance it seems deceptively simple, however with some gentle probing it reveals more and more character. There are definitely interesting things going on, but you have to chase them down, work for the full flavour. The dedicated and thoughtful approach is worth it in the end though, as the reward is a spirit of epically elegant proportions.

★★★★

Hudson Single Malt

Reviewed by: Nick and Ted

Hudson Single Malt

Start spreading the news, old New York is back doing whiskey business baby! But wait, the Hudson ain’t even bourbon! What we have here is a genuine single malt whiskey, the first non-bootlegged whiskey to be distilled in New York State since the end of prohibition.

The love child of Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee, the duo made a brand new start of it in 2003, founding Tuthilltown Spirits on the site of the old Tuthilltown grist mill, about 100km north of the city that never sleeps. Business was slow to start after the company’s inception, but now they are the king of the hill of East Coast craft distillers.

Being 100% malted barley, you would expect the Hudson to be distinctly different in flavour to its fellow Americans. And yet, somehow right through the very heart of it there is still a bourbon streak. On the nose the Hudson Single Malt is lightly sweet, with notes of vanilla, oak, dried apricot and a flavour of grape that is more likely to be found in confectionery than growing on a vine.

On mouth the feel is dusty, akin to taking a book down off the shelf in an old library. The grapes make a return, this time in the form of a sweet Riesling. The palate is intriguing rather than smooth, with notes of bourbon competing with dried floral components. This little town dram melts rapidly away, leaving a hint of orange peel.

Nick Ted and Hudson

Corn or no corn, there is no doubting that this is American whiskey. There is more to this than your average bourbon, and it makes an admirable attempt to bridge the gap between America and Scotland. It also put the State of New York back on the whiskey map. After all, if it can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

★★★

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve 120 Proof

Reviewed by: Nick

Knob Creek 110 Proof

We at Whisky Waffle pride ourselves on our light-hearted, satirical and occasionally even entertaining take on whisky. So when sitting down to review a bottle entitled ‘Knob Creek’… well, it’s almost a little too easy. So I did my best to refrain from the obvious jokes on this topic and tried to keep things above the belt. But this task proved to be a bit of a hard one…

Knob Creek comes in many varieties, but mine is clearly the biggest: 60% ABV, or as they say in America, 120 proof. They also make a 100 proof and a rye, but this is the one that really sticks out. It is named for the area of Kentucky where Abraham Lincoln (AKA guest reviewer Stretch) grew up. It is said that the creek nearly claimed his life as a boy while swimming (Lincoln that is, not Stretch), coining the phrase ‘dead as a doorknob creek’.

Knob Creek is part of the Jim Beam toolbox, and forms a quarter of their small batch range alongside Bakers, Bookers and Basil Hayden. Unlike the other three, Knob Creek doesn’t start with a B. It is also aged for a period of nine years, which as we have learned is a long time for American whiskey (though a blink of an eye for the Scottish stuff). Nine years seems to be a good decision from the Knob Creek crew, as the finished product is quite the package.

Nick and Knob 1

Alongside the usual bourbon notes of caramel, honey and vanilla the Knob Creek also contains scents of stewed apricot, cinnamon and candied pop-corn, although surprisingly there is no trace of banana. It’s a nose with some power, though the first sip is even stronger. The warmth from the alcohol is immediately noticeable: this is a whiskey that is seriously ballsy. Flavours of golden syrup, cashews, pepper and multigrain bread flood the palate and are followed by a bucket load of spice which truly throbs across the tongue. The finish is surprisingly easygoing, without being inconsequential or flaccid. It lingers gently with notes of vanilla, apple… and of course a whole lot of wood.

Nick and Knob 2

Knob Creek claim to be the ‘number one super-premium bourbon in the world’. While I am not entirely sure what the term ‘super-premium’ means, I am not unhappy with this claim. This is a bourbon to sip and to savour. It is not a whiskey I would always have in my pocket, but one that I would always be pleased to see.

★★★

Eagle Rare 10 Year Old

Reviewed by: Ted

Eagle Rare

On a scale of one to freedom, how symbolic is the Eagle of the might, majesty and democratic way of the US of A? Let’s just say that if you gave Captain America a nuclear powered cheeseburger and stood him on top of a NASCAR on the deck of an aircraft carrier while an Ivy League college marching band played Star Spangled Banner and F-15’s, Apaches and Chuck Norris with bear arms flew overhead, then you would probably come close. Therefore, calling your bourbon, that most patriotic of spirits, ‘Eagle Rare’ and slapping a bald eagle and some stars on the front probably isn’t the worst idea ever conceived.

Ted and Eagle 2

To tell the truth, while I have portrayed the Eagle Rare in a rather bombastic, gun totin’ fashion, it is actually a drink of some sophistication and refinement. Think Atticus Finch rather than Redneck Rambo. Eagle Rare is owned by Buffalo Trace, based in Frankfort, Kentucky, where it is part of their stable of sub-brands (or should that be aviary? Eyrie? I give up). Recently the distillery has courted some concerns by dropping the phrase “Single Barrel” from the Eagle Rare label (mine still has it) and moving the age statement to the back. Management has assured fans that the changes are the result of moving the production line to a different location and running on new bottling equipment, and that the ageing and barrelling methods will be the same as ever. Watch this space.

Unlike Scotch, which is usually aged for at least 10-12yrs, bourbons are for the most part not aged more than 6-8yrs, and quite often less than that. This difference in aging cultures can be attributed to the use of virgin oak barrels and generally warmer storage temperatures, allowing bourbons to mature faster, therefore meaning that they can be happily released at a younger age. Sometimes though, particularly good barrels are allowed to continue for a longer period, which is where premium expressions such as the Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10 Year Old come into play.

On the nose the Eagle Rare is unctuous, with a smooth feel that slides like a well oiled machine part. It’s body is as warm, fat and fuzzy as a newly hibernating bear, and filled with baked caramelised apples covered in buttery pastry. The first sip is light and sharp, like a sweet, crisp apple. The copper liquid sits on your tongue like a gentle warm thermal, allowing the eagle spirit to soar up to the roof of your mouth and down your throat. For a bourbon represented by such a big bird, it feels surprisingly delicate, especially considering the fact that it is bottled at 45%. Must be the hollow bones.

Ted and Eagle 1

The Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10yo claims to hold itself to the ideals of ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. Not a bad mission really. This is the American Way at its best, not forceful and overpowering, but warm and welcoming, greeting you with grace and hospitality into the Land of the Free. As the great Steve Miller said: “I want to fly like an eagle, to the sea, fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me, I want to fly like an eagle, till I’m free…”

★★★

Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old

Reviewed by: Ted

Russell's Reserve

Amongst bourbon makers there seems to be an unwritten rule that as a mark of skill and dedication to the craft, a master distiller will fashion a unique spirit that reflects his own tastes and then slap his name on the front. Not that I’m complaining mind, as by and large this involves the distiller selecting the most exciting and tasty barrels to represent his eponym.

Case in point is the Russell’s Reserve. This premium small batch bourbon is a child of the well known Wild Turkey distillery, which in one form or another has been producing bourbon in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, since 1869. The man that we have to give thanks to is Jimmy Russell, who has worked at Wild Turkey since 1954, apparently making him the longest tenured active master distiller in the world. Well and away enough time to earn the right to his own expression.

Russells and Ted 2

As its name suggests, the Russell’s Reserve 10yo small batch Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey is selected from older aged barrels of Wild Turkey spirit (standard bourbons generally using younger stock), and then reduced to 45%. Interestingly this big bird likes to fly south for winter, for in addition to smooth gooey caramel and hot spicy oak, there are notes of bananas, cashews, cantaloupe and feijoas swirling around on the nose.

Once introduced to the mouth the Russell’s is hot, spicy and complex, rather like a latin dance (probably not the rumba though. Wrong drink). The feel is thin and supple, rather than oily and thick, and the finish is sharp and astringent, lingering across the tongue.

Russells and Ted 1

Jimmy should be proud to lend his name to this expression of the Kentucky craft, as in his wisdom he has created a bourbon that tastes of more than just bourbon, an emergent system of flavours that as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts. Rather than a scrawny corn-fed pot boiler, the Russell’s Reserve 10yo is a magnificent tom turkey wearing a Tom Selleck mo, a sharp Hawaiian shirt, Miami shades, and playing dirty 80’s sax as the sun rises across the skyline.

★★★

Makers Mark

Reviewed by: Nick

Makers Mark

Wearily, the Whisky Waffle boys trudged onwards through the corn-fields of Kentucky. They were on a quest to find the Holy Grail of American whiskey: a bourbon which tasted of more than just bourbon! There were those that called them foolish, others that declared them mad, others still that claimed it was just an excuse to drink whiskey (fair cop), but unperturbed they soldiered on. Finally, they stumbled upon a hooded figure, beckoning them into a distillery.

The dark wooden building with red colonnades looked nothing like its fellow American distilleries. Fire engines and statues of the Virgin Mary in bathtubs lined the path. Our heroes turned to each other thinking: could this be it?

They were handed a dram of the golden liquid, shimmering in the moonlight and wondered what complex and unique flavours they would discover. They drank. And the flavour! It tasted… rather familiar. In fact it tasted… like bourbon. The Whisky Waffle boys’ shoulders slumped. This was not the Holy Grail. Their quest was not at an end.

Nick and Makers 2

Makers Mark’s attempts at individuality – the wax dripping down the neck of the bottle, their use of wheat instead of rye alongside the corn and barley, even spelling their product ‘whisky’ despite American conventions – are all a cunning disguise to hide the fact that Makers Mark is, when it comes down to it, a Kentucky Straight Bourbon.

It’s by no means a bad one. The nose presents oak, cinnamon and vanilla which combine to suggest a nice dessert, perhaps a peach crumble – though possibly without the peach. Or the crumble…

The palate is even less like a peach crumble, instead elements of sweet caramel and cornflakes are present, combining to form something akin to Honey Joys. A less dessert-related tasting note is that this is actually a rather spicy drop; a much fuller bodied whisky than many of its fellow American whiskies, and being bottled at 45% surely helps this.

The finish is long and leaves a certain amount of lingering spice: like a half-hearted cinnamon challenge. There are also the more abstract and subjective notes of grass cuttings and saddle leather. You’ll have to take my word for this.

Nick and Makers 4

This bottle was intended by the makers of Makers Mark to be a whisky that appeals to people who don’t like bourbon. To that extent, it seems that they have failed. In fact, they have possibly achieved the exact opposite. This is a perfectly acceptable entry-level drop, and one that will keep bourbon drinkers perfectly content.

So if you see that hooded bartender beckoning you towards the Makers Mark on the top shelf, be warned. Look past the metaphorical wig and the fake moustache. Despite this wily disguise, the Makers Mark is not the Holy Grail – it is simply another bourbon.

★★

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Reviewed by: Nick and Ted

Jim Beam

When Jacob Beam first distilled some corn along the banks of Dicks River in Kentucky circa 1795, he probably cranked out some pretty rough and ready stuff. Well, it seems that over the years not much has changed. Jim Beam has its origins as a small family business plying their trade in the newly formed state of Kentucky, but since then the family has grown just a tad. In 2014 Jim Beam was involved in a shotgun wedding which resulted in it picking up the double-barrel name (geddit?) Beam-Suntory. And all this multi-national success only came at the low, low price of its soul. Well, it seemed like a good deal at the time.

Not that the brand was particularly struggling it must be said, as Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon is one of the most recognisable and consumed spirits on the face of the planet. Most often you can observe it in its natural environment being mixed with coke, or being shotted by teens trying to be tough (and then regretting it later).

The boys from Whisky Waffle are even tougher than that. They sipped it. Neat.

Ted and Beam

On the nose the Beam is surprisingly smooth. And sweet… you could be forgiven for the thinking that it’s a liqueur. Honey, pear and confectionery notes of red frog and fairy floss (“cotton candy” in Beam’s motherland) slide across the ol’ olfactory bulbs. Overall it’s not too bad actually.

But then like a Disneyland water-slide, things go down the tubes. On the palate the analogy is rather appropriate as the Beam is about as watery as the pool at the bottom of the aforementioned slide. It also tastes like quite a few people have been swimming in it before you. The quality is thin, with a hint of sour white grapes coated in a film of dish liquid. Once you’ve emerged from the murky waters, your mouth is left with the not altogether pleasant taste of ethanol, cheap Sav Blanc and tourists in Mickey Mouse swimmers.

In fact, drinking bog standard Beam is a lot like a trip to Disneyland in general. It’s exciting at the start, but at the end of the day you are left feeling hot, weary, annoyed, and like your personal space has been violated by hordes of Japanese tourists (Suntory joke). Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon is not a whiskey we would turn to regularly, but then again we’re not really doing it right. Coke anyone?