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American Whiskey Week draws to a close: what we’ve learned

Posted by: Nick and Ted

And so after seven days, the Whisky Waffle boys finally stumbled out of the endless Kentucky cornfields. Many interesting facts had gone in one ear and out the other (must have been something to do with the corn), and much sippin’ of spirits had been accomplished.

We scaled the (Brokeback) Mountain of American whiskies, and came out safely on the other side. So what did we learn?

Bourbon-Back Mountain Whisky Waffle

The story of forbidden love between two men… and bourbon.

  1. Not all cowboys drink bourbon. We met one in a bar the other night (right in the middle of bourbon week of all times. You couldn’t make this stuff up), and he preferred the moon to be shining hard on his liquor;
  2. We won’t be tracking down the Jack Daniels or the Jim Beam again any time soon. As with most things, you get what you pay for;
  3. We prefer a bit of character over easy drinking in our corn juice;
  4. It is possible for a bourbon to take a subtle approach;
  5. Sometimes it is ‘really hard’ not to create innuendo;
  6. You can take American whiskey out of Kentucky, but you can’t take Kentucky out of American whiskey; and finally:
  7. When it comes down to it, bourbon still tastes a lot like bourbon.
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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.

★★

Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey

Reviewed by: Nick and Ted

Jack Daniels Old no. 7

When you think of American whiskey, you probably think of Jack Daniels. That makes us a little sad. You’d be forgiven for such thinking of course, as it is the highest selling American whiskey in the world. This was not always the case.

Back in the mid 1800s a recently orphaned Jack Daniel found himself in need of a home. Fortunately he was taken in by a local lay-preacher who moonlighted as a moonshiner. Jack saw the light and so his path was set as a still man.

These days JD is famous for its blue-collar local hero vibe, placing itself as the everyman’s drink of choice. Unfortunately, while it may be heroic in terms of volumetric output and sales, there’s certainly nothing local about it any more.

While Jack Daniels is well within its rights to label itself as bourbon, it shuns this moniker, preferring to be known simply as Tennessee Whiskey. In reality, the name is really all that sets it apart: there’s certainly nothing special about the flavour, that’s for sure.

Nick and JD

Once you have steeled yourself enough to take a sip, you will be met with a concoction of molasses and cheap vanilla essence, as well as an undertone of raw spirits. It’s relatively broad and full-bodied, but with lots of harsh, jaggy edges.

After you have bravely taken a sip, you will find yourself amongst the vegetation. Unfortunately, rather than a meadow of flowers, it’s more like a pile of damp leaves blocking your gutters. It is pleasantly warm on your palate, although less so when you notice that someone has actually painted nail polish remover on your tongue. The finish is a combination of several elements that you don’t usually, or indeed ever, look for in a whiskey, including turps and blue heaven flavouring.

While there are many high alcohol percentage whiskies that give the illusion of being lower due to their smoothness, the JD deserves some credit for managing to achieve the opposite. While it’s only bottled at 40%, the rough and raw nature of this spirit gives it the impression of a distinctly unpleasant cask-strength.

While the stats may suggest that Jack Daniels is the most popular whiskey in America, the drink does not back it up. This is mass produced American whiskey at its best – or should that be worst?

Whisky Waffle Present: American Whiskey Week

Posted by Nick and Ted

Bourbon Week

Jim Beam: Hmm… Tastes like bourbon; Makers Mark: yup, that’s also bourbon; Woodfords Reserve: I’m detecting notes of… wait, what is that… bourbon?; Jack Daniels: technically they don’t even call it bourbon, but you know what, yeah it totally is.

In our admittedly (very) limited experience with the whiskies of the US, we both tend to agree that the overriding flavour is… well… bourbony. In Scotland a drive from one end of the town to the other can result in whiskies so different from each other that you would swear that they could not possibly be made with the same three ingredients. In contrast, across the 4500km from coast to coast in America, not much seems to change. Sure there are subtle nuances, but in the end it’s all just bourbon isn’t it?

Bourbon: The Facts You Probably Already Know But We’re Going To List Anyway: (Don’t Judge Us Ok?)

  1. Not all American whiskies are bourbon, but all bourbons are whiskies.
  2. Almost all bourbons are made in the state of Kentucky. Tennessee is too cool and narcissistic to use the term ‘bourbon’ and instead likes to go with the rather unoriginal ‘Tennessee Whiskey’.
  3. Bourbon is made using one of Nick’s favourite foods… Pizza!… no, wait, the other favourite… Corn! By law, bourbons must contain at least 51% corn, and no more than 80%. The remainder is usually made up of a mixture of rye, barley or wheat.
  4. By law, bourbon must be aged in brand new charred oak casks, thus keeping coopers in a job.
  5. They must all taste like bourbon.

Meme Ygritte

Ok, before you all go on the warpath, we fully admit that we don’t really have a leg to stand our lofty opinions on. We have inadequate, shall we say, ‘practical knowledge’ on the subject. Therefore, we will be embarking on a week long quest to explore the amber offerings of the U.S. of A and educate ourselves about the subtleties of Scotch’s redneck American cousin. And who knows, we may even discover a flavour in there that’s not bourbon.

#AmericanWhiskeyWeek