Holiday Gift Guide for Bourbon Drinkers (2015)

Bourbon Gift Guide 2015
Bourbon Gift Guide 2015

As a second annual tradition, I’ve updated my Bourbons for the holidays. My rules are first, each Bourbon has to be readily available or can be ordered from a respectable booze monger. Second, the prices can’t be stupid. This means I’m excluding special limited releases and distilleries that have limited geographic distribution. For pricing, I’ve offered three tiers to fit your budget. Pricing is based on suggested or near suggested retail pricing. Your pricing may vary a few bucks each way, and if you live in an area that permits discounts, you could find a good deal.

Since last year, prices have crept up, so a few bottles have been removed. I’m keeping the lowest price tier, but it’s a little tougher this year to recommend something I really like for less than $25. At the high end, however, I bumped up the upper tier $5 to $65. Also a couple bottles I think have become harder to find, so they’re also out.

Each section is ordered by my preference.

Under $25

  • Wild Turkey 101 – Wild Turkey has a distinct flavor that’s a little rough and tough, but quite lovable. A nice blend of different aged straight Bourbons give a range of flavors. Excellent value and a timeless classic.
  • Old Forester Signature – If you like Woodford Reserve or any of the Old Forester bottles, this is one to check out. Similar flavor profile to me as Woodford, but cheaper. Bottled at 100-proof and a nice value.
  • Old Grand Dad Bonded – OGD 114 got bumped up to the next tier, so I’ll just stick the cheaper sibling here. Similarly feisty as Wild Turkey and as good of a value.
  • Jim Beam Black – This used to carry an 8 year age statement, but we recently saw that go away. Still, Jim Beam Black is quality value.

Under $35

  • Four Roses Small Batch – I don’t think you can go wrong with either Four Roses Small Batch or Single Barrel, but Small Batch is about $10 cheaper. I think I like it better too. One of my overall favorites.
  • Maker’s Mark – Maker’s Mark is pretty mild and I think it has wide appeal, so something to consider if you’re shopping for someone who isn’t a regular Bourbon drinker. This is one of my favorites, especially in warmer months.
  • Elijah Craig Small Batch 12 Year – Generally I don’t like older Bourbons, but Elijah Craig 12 has some nice woody goodness for when I’m in the mood. This too saw a significant price increase this year, but still a great value.
  • Bowman Brothers – Last year I had Elmer T Lee in this group, but now it’s impossible to find. I think Bowman Brothers is a good substitute and nice price.
  • Old Grand-Dad 114 – Last year I thought OGD 114 was one of the better values out there. After a significant price hike, it’s still a good value, but no longer a hidden gem.

Under $65

  • Four Roses Private Selection – I would be happy drinking nothing but good private barrel picks from Four Roses. Basically stores pick their own barrel and sell 100+ bottles. You’ll have to hunt around a little to find a store in your area or perhaps search the Internet. This is the hardest to find because it’s not a standard item for ordering, but it’s worth a little searching.
  • Colonel EH Taylor Jr Small Batch – The EH Taylor Jr line I think might be my favorite from Buffalo Trace. The Small Batch is the better value vs Single Barrel, It think. It also comes in a fancy cardboard tube, which means it’s already gift wrapped.
  • Booker’s – Booker’s is a big barrel proof Bourbon. A little on the younger side and also generally aged higher up in the warehouses. It makes for a strong, fiesty glass.

Elijah Craig 18 Single Barrel – Review

 Elijah Craig 18 Background

Elijah Craig 18
Elijah Craig 18

A few short years ago there was enough supply of Elijah Craig 18 and low enough demand for it to be a regularly stocked item on shelves. As interest in Bourbon increased, particularly for older Bourbons, Elijah Craig 18 was temporarily discontinued to rebuild aging supplies. Heaven Hill says they didn’t have enough barrels stocked to do a sufficient release, so they spend the past three years reworking their barrel inventory. This fall, Elijah Craig 18 finally returned to shelves with a release of about 15,000 bottles. With that many bottles, Elijah Craig 18 should trickle a little farther than the typical limited edition Bourbon.

I missed out on getting one of the older bottles be by about a week. I was just getting into Bourbon and working my way through a list of stuff to try. I walked into my Bourbon monger and spotted a shelf tag, but no bottles of Elijah Craig 18. They said someone came in the previous week and cleared the shelf at $44.85. The new release of Elijah Craig 18 though will see a price adjustment for current Bourbon times. The new suggested retail price is $120.

Heaven Hill says that Elijah Craig 18 was selected by master distillers Craig Beam and Denny Potter from barrels stored on lower floors. Lower floors of warehouses generally provide slower and gentler aging, which would seem ideal for very old Bourbons like 18-years. This year’s Elijah Craig 18 release joins the standard Elijah Craig 12 Year, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, and a new batch of limited Elijah Craig 23 Year.

Details

18 Years Old. Barred on 9/24/97, Barrel #4156. Bottled at 90-proof. Though to be mash of 75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% barley. $120 MSRP

Aroma

Old oak, musty, mint, vanilla, menthol, chocolate. Chemical like rubber worm fish lures. A little medicinal bandaid. I guess it smells better than that probable sounds.

Flavor

Sweet caramel, vanilla, honey. Oak, light, Fruity strawberries. Roasted, charred wood, mint and mildly astringency in the finish.

Overall

So, I started writing my notes before doing research on this release. I was surprised this was an 18 year old version of Elijah Craig because it seems lighter, softer, and more delicate than what I’d expect from a super-aged Bourbon that was already fairly robust at 12 years. I was thinking it might have been aged on the bottom floor of the warehouse, and now smart = me I guess because that seems to be the case.

At least with my barrel, I would throw out the window preconceived ideas of super-aged Bourbons. I found Elijah Craig 18 to be surprisingly sweet and honey filled, and while the wood is present, it’s not overly assertive. While I get some weird stuff in the aroma, it doesn’t seem to translate to the sip. Some of that medicinal and musty stuff is there, but it seems to all come together and work. I think this is a very nice Bourbon. Keep in mind, this is coming from someone who generally doesn’t prefer older Bourbons.

I’m not going to hold a price hike against Elijah Craig 18. $45 would be a ridiculous price, but $120 seems silly to me regardless of age. Still, I fully expect it to quickly sell out. Also, keep in mind this is considered a limited edition, so it shouldn’t be surprising if a premium was added to that $120 price.

If you appreciate great Bourbon enough to pay for it, I think the price is worthy of at least one purchase, but for me it’s not a regular item.

Recommendation

Buy a Bottle / 3.5 out of 5.0

(My 5 point scale: Pass, Try a Glass, Buy a Bottle, Buy Again, Shut Up and Take My Money – Bottle price is taken into consideration for recommendations.)

Links and Other Reviews

Heaven Hill’s Website

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2015) – Review

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon Background

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2015)
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (2015)

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is a limited edition annual release from Brown-Forman. It’s released each year around the start of September to commemorate founder’s George Garvin-Brown’s birthday on September 2nd. The Old Forester Birthday Bourbon special releases date back to 2002. This year, 13,200 bottles were produced.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is a 100-proof, 12 year old Bourbon barreled from a single day’s production on June 13, 2003. So, that’s kind of interesting, but also unique to this batch is its aging. The barrels for 2015 were pulled from the same warehouse location rather than blended together from barrels of different locations. All the barrels here are said to have aged near a heating duct which results in higher temperatures during warehouse’s climate control cycles. Brown-Forman says this resulted in a “very robust, intense wood-derived characteristics.”

Details

12 Years Old. 100-proof. Thought to be standard Old Forester mash bill of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% barley. Paid $70

Aroma

Rich aromas reminiscent of Old Forester line and a lesser extent Woodford Reserve. Reminds me of toasted/burnt marshmallows. Lots of spices, sweet, fruity, apples, touch of latex. Really nice smelling glass

Flavor

Soft and sweet. Fruity cherries, charred wood with general deep roasted flavors, coffee. Some sharp bitterness and astringency towards the finish.

Overall

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon is sweet, caramel goodness with a firm wood presence. To me once Bourbons age to a certain point, they begin to turn towards more oxidized musty, medicinal phenolic flavors and also usually get extra woody. Old Forester Birthday Bourbon I think is heading down that path. While there is some woody-astringency in there, it’s not too heavy. If you like older and woody Bourbons, this may be more to your liking.

Old Forester Birthday Bourbon packs a punch of flavors. Minus a little chemical in the nose, the aroma is pretty outstanding. The flavors and even alcohol seems a little more reminiscent of a barrel proof than a still significant 100-proof. I think Old Forester Birthday Bourbon would be a good slow sipping Bourbon on a cold day.

In recent years, prices for Old Forester Birthday Bourbon have been climbing as it started to show up on the limited edition radars. With any limited edition, there’s a premium that more times than not to me fails to live up to what’s in the bottle. I think this is true of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, so really you’re probably looking to buy it for chance to try something that’s a once a year thing. Given my preferences for younger Bourbons, I’d probably suggest trying a glass first.

Recommendation

Try a Glass / 2.5 out of 5.0 Rating

(My 5 point scale: Pass, Try a Glass, Buy a Bottle, Buy Again, Shut Up and Take My Money – Bottle price is taken into consideration for recommendations.)

Links & Other Reviews

 

 

Old Grand Dad Bonded – Review

Old Grand Dad Bonded

Old Grand Dad Bonded
Old Grand Dad Bonded

Old Grand Dad Bonded is part of an Old Grand Dad brand that was launched by Raymond Haden in the 1840’s and named for his grandfather Basil Hayden. The Haden’s distilling days reach back to the 1790’s after the family moved from Maryland to Kentucky. Today, the brand resides with Beam-Suntory.

Old Grand Dad is unique in the Beam line with a high rye recipe. The current recipe for the line of Old Grand Dad Bourbons is thought to be similar to the original recipe back in the day. While the recipe is unique among Beam’s Bourbons, it seems to me it shares the standard Beam yeast.

The Old Grand Dad family consists of a standard 86-proof, a 100-proof bottled in bond (reviewed here) and a 114-proof barrel strength. Bottled-in-Bond is a certification requiring the Bourbon to be distilled during the same year and from the same distillery. It must also be aged in a bonded warehouse for at least four years. Lastly, the Bourbon is to be bottled at 100-proof. Bottled-in-Bond seems to be a bit of a relic these days, however, a lot of older labels retain the certification. These less trendy bottles with their amble 100-proof can make for a great value.

Details

No age statement 100-proof. High rye mash thought to be around 27% rye. Paid $20

Aroma

Caramel, roasted corn, oranges, toast, cinnamon

Flavor

Sweet caramel, Nutty. A little smokey, Burnt sugars. Minty. A little Red Hots

Overall

Old Grand Dad Bonded is a spicy and lively Bourbon. It dances in the mouth a bit and has a bite. It seems to have some properties of a younger Bourbon with roasted corn, but still picking up a bunch of barrel with sweetness, caramel, and charred wood.

I assume we have the standard Beam yeast here, which to me, is a  unique profile and I’m not always in the mood. That might keep this from being a regular bottle, or at least instead choose one of the more upscale Beam labels. Still, Old Grand Dad Bonded is a feisty Bourbon that works for a change of pace.

The pricing on Old Grand Dad Bonded is pretty great, although it seems a big price hike is on the way. Perhaps the word got out or it’s simply an overdue price correction on a generally overlooked bottle. Also, Old Grand Dad Bonded recently got a makeover label. The one pictured here is the retired branding, so likely Beam is polishing this one up and pricing it accordingly for the current market.

Recommendation

Buy a Bottle / 3.0 out of 5.0

(My 5 point scale: Pass, Try a Glass, Buy a Bottle, Buy Again, Shut Up and Take My Money – Bottle price is taken into consideration for recommendations.)

Buying Options and Further Research

Some other high rye Bourbons around the same price. I’d suggest looking into Four Roses Yellow Label, Redemption and Bulleit. You can also check out Old Grand Dad 114, which is high proof big brother and a also a pretty great value. Wild Turkey 101 I think has some similar feistiness and I think matches up well.

Links & Other Reviews

Buffalo Trace Distillery Tour

Buffalo Trace Distillery Overview

Buffalo Trace Distillery Warehouse C
Buffalo Trace Distillery Warehouse C
Buffalo Trace Distillery Warehouse W
Buffalo Trace Distillery Warehouse W
Buffalo Trace Distillery Experimental Col EH Taylor Jr Barrel
Buffalo Trace Distillery Experimental Col EH Taylor Jr Barrel
Buffalo Trace Distillery Blanton's Bottling Line
Buffalo Trace Distillery Blanton’s Bottling Line
Buffalo Trace Distillery Blanton's Bottling Line
Buffalo Trace Distillery Blanton’s Bottling Line
Buffalo Trace Distillery Warehouse H
Buffalo Trace Distillery Warehouse H

There are an assortment of tour types available at Buffalo Trace Distillery. The standard tour you’ll get if you walk up to the gift shop is what we experienced. We tried reserving the Hard Hat Tour three weeks out, but it was booked. The Hard Hat tour seems widely praised and sounds like you get the factory production tour that’s typical of most other distilleries.

Other tours are a historical landmark tour, a barrel aging tour, and lastly a ghost tour, which sounds kind of fun. All tours end with a tasting.

The company claims early settlers first distilled on the site in 1775 and whiskey has been produced there since 1787. The name Buffalo Trace is a reference to where buffalo once crossed the Kentucky River. Prior to called Buffalo Trace Distillery, it was the George T Stagg Distillery and before that Old Fire Copper Distillery. Across from the Visitor’s Center is Warehouse C, which has OFC branded in the brick.

Buffalo Trace Distillery has sort of a amusement park feel. We parked our car in a good-sized parking lot that was packed. Lots of people were walking around and there was a special kind of energy in the air. The tour is free and we waited a few moments out front for the group to form. We were then led into a small room off of Warehouse D, I believe. In the room there was makeshift seating of old church pews, park benches, and chairs. The room is decorated with various old-timey equipment. A short history/marketing video is viewed and then we’re led through a door hidden behind a shelf into the warehouse.

The warehouse is like any other warehouse, oddly cool on a hot day, packed with barrels, and that familiar smell of musty old wood, corn, and alcohol. Each barrel head is stamped with various brands, so it’s fun to spot stuff. There were a number labeled with red experimental stickers that was kind of neat to see.

After the warehouse, we were led to the Blanton’s bottling hall where they were bottling up Blanton’s. The room was an interesting low volume production. A handful of people by hand pulled bottles out of their boxes, filled them six at a time, hand corked them, then carefully applied wax to the seal the corks. The process here is they place a cardboard collar on the bottle to catch any dripped wax and apply the wax with sort of mounted pen applicator. Also interesting is, if you didn’t know, each bottle of Blanton’s has one of 8 different corks depicting a horse and jockey running in various poses. There’s no method to corking the bottles, the worker simply grabs one out of a box. From there the bottle continues down the line to be boxed up.

After the bottling room, we were led into the visitor center for our tasting. Offered was Buffalo Trace, White Dog, Eagle Rare, and Bourbon Cream. To cap it off you get a chilled Bourbon Ball. The wife loved the Bourbon Cream and Bourbon Ball.

The gift shop didn’t have anything special and basically offered what they had tasting. I think they said they normally carry Blanton’s but were out, which is a juxtaposition of the silliness of the three tier system with the bottling operation a few feet away. Also in the gift shop was various trinkets and branded merch. I was interested in getting a cool charred barrel stave for collecting those Blanton’s toppers, but they were out. (Wife ordered me one for the following Christmas. She’s a keeper). You can also cheat and buy the toppers in the gift shop.

Bottom Line

Buffalo Trace Distillery grounds are well groomed and it’s cool seeing some of famous warehouses. Such as that Warehouse C where the tornado took the roof off. That damage was turned into a marketing win for a limited run of EH Taylor Jr “Tornado Surviving” Bourbon. Towards the end of the parking lot you can see Warehouse H where Blanton’s is aged. H is metal clad and being metal it gets warmer, which should accelerate aging profiles. Warehouse H was constructed for this reason after prohibition to get some Bourbon aging quickly.

The tour isn’t anything particularly special or informative, but considering Buffalo Trace’s footprint in the Bourbon world, it’s eventually a must see. Plus, it’s hard to beat the price of free. The Buffalo Trace Distillery isn’t on the official Bourbon Trail, so perhaps they’re passing savings from membership fees to visitors. With all of the popular Bourbon brands made/bottled there and judging from the crowd, they don’t need much help attracting visitors.

The tour took about an hour, but it all depends on the group. If you want to hang around the tasting room, browse the gift shop and wander the grounds a bit, plan at least 90 minutes. Next time I want to check out the Hard Hat Tour and Ghost Tour.

Buffalo Trace Distillery
113 Great Buffalo Trace
Frankfort, KY 40601

Tour Date: September 2014