Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Wild Turkey 1855 Reserve

Distillery:Austin-Nichols
Age:Blend of 6, 8 and 12-year-old whiskies
Proof:Varies
Price:N/A

Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a blend of 6, 8 and 12 year-old whiskies that was launched in 1991 with batch W-T-01-91. Why am I talking about Rare Breed when this is a post about 1855 Reserve? 1855 Reserve is simply an export label for Rare Breed and so these are, for the most part, identical bourbons. The name "1855 Reserve" refers to the year that the Austin Nichols was founded. 

Nevertheless, there is not a complete overlap between Rare Breed and 1855 Reserve. The first batch of 1855 Reserve had no corresponding batch of Rare Breed and only certain of the subsequent batches of Rare Breed became batches of 1855 Reserve. 

The first batch of 1855 Reserve was released in 1992 with the batch number W-T-10-92 and at 110.0 proof. No batch of Rare Breed shares this batch number and, further, no batch of Rare Breed was released in 1992. Given that Rare Breed batch W-T-02-91 and 1855 Reserve batch W-T-10-92 share the same proof, it is possible that these are the same bourbons, but, as batches W-T-01-95 and W-T-02-95 of Rare Breed share the same proof even though they are different bourbons, the case is far from settled. 

Interestingly, the batch number for the first release of 1855 Reserve doesn't follow the pattern of Rare Breed batch numbers. Rare Breed batch numbers are composed of the letters "W" and "T" followed two sets of  two digit numbers (e.g., W-T-01-91). The second set of digits corresponds to the year the bourbon was batched and the first set of digits correspond to the batch number for that year (starting over at 01 each year). For example, batch W-T-01-91 was the first batch of 1991. The first batch number for 1855 Reserve, however, started with batch 10 even though it was the first batch of 1992.

In the subsequent years, 1855 Reserve was released only occasionally. Batches were released in 1994, 1995 and 1996. After 1996, the label of Rare Breed was changed and the 1855 Reserve label was discontinued.

The following is a complete list of Rare Breed and 1855 Reserve batch numbers. Batch numbers were discontinued in 2014. 

YearLabelBatch NumberProof
1991Rare BreedW-T-01-91109.6
1991Rare BreedW-T-02-91110
19921855 ReserveW-T-10-92110.0
1993Rare BreedW-T-01-93110.8
1993Rare BreedW-T-02-93Unknown
1993Rare BreedW-T-03-93111.4
1994Rare BreedW-T-01-94112.2
19941855 ReserveW-T-01-94112.2
1994Rare BreedW-T-02-94109.6
19941855 ReserveW-T-02-94109.6
1995Rare BreedW-T-01-95109
19951855 ReserveW-T-01-95109
1995Rare BreedW-T-02-95109
1996Rare BreedW-T-01-96108.8
19961855 ReserveW-T-01-96108.8
1997Rare BreedW-T-01-97108.6
1999Rare BreedW-T-01-99108.4
2003Rare BreedWT 03RB108.2


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Early Times Yellow Label

Distillery:Brown-Forman
Age:NAS
Proof:80 (40% ABV)
Price:JPY 1000

There are two types of Early Times available in Japan - the Brown Label and the Yellow Label. I've previously reviewed the Brown Label, but I was curious about how the Yellow Label might be different. 

Asahi describes the Yellow Label as "a classic bourbon that continues to uphold tradition" with a "light flavor, sweet aroma and nice finish." Asahi also plays up the "charcoal filtered" aspect, but, as all bourbon is charcoal filtered, this isn't a real selling point.

Asahi describes the Brown Label as having a "profoundly complex flavor and a round finish suited to the Japanese palate." It is also described as a full-bodied bourbon with an oaky nose that still retains a florid and delicate flavor. 

As I said in my review of the Brown Label, Early Times in Japan is different from Early Times in the U.S. Early Times in Japan is bourbon while Early Times in the U.S. is merely whiskey. For more information please see my review of the Brown Label. 

The bottles do not yield any clues as to how these two bourbons might be different. The text and design of both of the labels is identical, except, of course, for the color. Similarly, both are 80 proof. The price is usually identical.

The nose is thin with notes of apple juice and shortbread. The taste is fruity (think fruit punch) followed by fig newton and vanilla. The finish has a nutty character, with notes of peanuts and walnuts.     

I tasted the Yellow Label side-by-side with the Brown Label and I like the Brown Label a little bit more. The Brown Label has a little more depth - more banana bread and less apples and shortbread. I think Asahi's descriptions of the two bourbons (see above) are accurate.

Verdict: If you're buying one bottle of Early Times, buy the Brown Label.   

Monday, May 16, 2016

Fred Noe Select For Seijo Ishi

Distillery:Beam
Age:6 Years 10 Months
Proof:Varies
Price:JPY 6,000 - 12,000

Booker's Fred Noe Select for Seijo Ishi is essentially a store selection of Booker's with collectible packaging. There have been three releases of this bourbon (so far):

ReleaseAgeProof# of Bottles
1st6 Years 10 Months1251000
2nd6 Years 10 Months122700
3rd6 Years 10 Months122300

First, let's break down the name. "Booker's," of course, is the name of Jim Beams' cask-strength flagship bourbon. It is called "Fred Noe Select" because Fred Noe is supposed to have specially selected choice barrels of Booker's for this bottling. Finally, it says "for Seijo Ishi" because this is a special bottling for Seijo Ishi, a specialty import grocery store in Japan.

While these may seem to be simply a store bottlings of Booker's, the packaging is specially designed and dramatically different from regular Booker's. Each bottle is numbered and comes in what can best be described as a "mini-barrel." In addition, the label of each release has a different picture of Fred Noe with a glass of Booker's in his hand along with the text "Fred Noe, Master Distiller, bourbon legend and true friend. 1957 -."

While this is essentially a limited edition bottling of Booker's, it differs from normal editions because the number of bottles is so small. Because of the limited number of bottles, far fewer barrels that went into each batch of Fred Noe Select than go into a regular batch of Booker's. A regular batch of Booker's is made up of 360 barrels, while each batch of Fred Noe Select is made up of far fewer. 

There is no way to know exactly how many barrels are in each batch of Fred Noe Select, but a good estimate can be made with a few assumptions. Assuming that 5% of the whiskey in the barrel evaporates each year, there are about 187 bottles left in the barrel after 7 years. For comparison, Four Roses estimates that a barrel used for Four Roses Single Barrel will yield between 150 and 200 bottles. This makes the estimate of 187 bottles per barrel seem reasonable.

Assuming 187 bottles per barrel, the first (and largest) release of Fred Noe Select was made up of around 6 barrels, the second release was made up of about 4 barrels and the third release was made up of about 2 barrels. Even though the second and third release are of identical proof and age, tasting these side-by-side leads me to believe that these are distinct batches.

At six, four and two barrels per batch respectively, these releases are Booker's are apt to have more character and variability than the standard release which is made from a batch of 360 barrels (see above). That being said, each of these releases was made from barrels that fit the standard Booker's profile and don't depart dramatically from standard Booker's. Finally, I wouldn't put to much weight in the fact that these barrels were specially selected by Fred Noe. Fred Noe, along with a panel, selects every batch of Booker's. 

I'm not going to provide detailed tasting notes because, in short, it taste like Booker's. Nevertheless, I've tasted the second and third release side-by-side and would strongly recommend the second release over the third. You could, however, find the same variation when tasting any too batches of Booker's.

Verdict: If you're a Booker's collector, buy it. If you're faced with the choice of choosing between the second release and the third release, buy the second.  

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Whiskey Bar Etiquette

Specialty whiskey bars, along with coffee shops, are one of my favorite things about Tokyo. The collections (and the bartenders really do consider the bottles behind the bar to be collections) are incredible and the atmosphere intimate. Unfortunately, whiskey bars can seem inaccessible to short-term visitors to Japan.  A minimum level of cultural fluency, however, can make going to whiskey bars in Japan much more fun. It is with this in mind that I've written this short guide.

Party Size

Many of the best and most interesting whiskey bars in Tokyo are small, 12 seats-at-a-counter affairs. If there isn't room for the number of people in your party, the bartender will most likely indicate that the bar is full by crossing his arms or his left and right index fingers to make an "X." Often, waiting for a seat to become available is not permitted. Therefore, its best to keep your party size small. I've had the best luck with parties of two; it can sometimes be difficult with parties of four. 

Entering

When entering a whiskey bar, wait in the entryway until you are able to catch the bartenders eye and then indicate the number of people in your party by holding up your fingers. If there is room, you will shortly be directed to a seat. If there isn't, you will most likely be asked to leave (see above).

Selecting Your Whiskey

At most serious whiskey bars, there is not a menu. Bars will often have hundreds of whiskeys and keeping a menu up to date isn't deemed worthwhile. 

There are essentially two choices when it comes to selecting a whiskey: requesting a specific bottle or asking for a recommendation. Normally, bottles are stacked on the shelf two or three deep, and so only half or one-third of a collection is visible. This can make requesting a specific bottle difficult, especially considering that lots of the whiskey is likely to be decades-old bottlings with unfamiliar labels. 

Asking for a recommendation, however, can be similarly fraught since most bartenders do not speak English. If you are able to ask for a recommendation, it's best to describe the general characteristics of the types of whiskey you like (e.g., extra-aged whiskey, high-proof whiskey, etc.). The bartender will then place several bottles in front of you from which to choose, The easiest method is simply to point at the bottle you want.

When requesting a specific bottle or when selecting from the bottles recommended by the bartender, it is perfecting acceptable to inquire about the cost. Simply point to the bottle and ask "ikura?"

Another thing to keep in mind when selecting a whiskey is the fill level of the bottle and how long it is likely to have been open. Oxidation can make the flavor of whiskies that have been open a long time rather flat. 

Ordering

Once you've selected your whiskey, the bartender's next question will most likely be how you would like it served. There are essentially three possibilities: neat, on the rocks and with soda. 

If you would like the whiskey served neat, ask for it "straight." It will mostly likely be served to you in a shot glass, but it is not expected that you drink it as a shot. 

If you would like the whiskey served on the rocks, ask for "rocks." It will mostly likely be served in an old fashioned glass with a huge spherical or hand cut piece of ice. 

If you would like the whiskey mixed with soda water, ask for a "highball." Most of the whiskey consumed in Japan is consumed as a highball. If you are going to have a highball, I would recommend Suntory Kakubin or Hibiki. 

Servring MethodWord to OrderJapanese Transliteration
NeatStraightSutoreito
On the RocksRockRokku
With SodaHighballHaiboru

The bartender will then make your drink and place it in front of you along with the bottle. Don't worry, you haven't ordered the whole bottle. Feel free inspect the bottle or take a picture. The pour is likely to be very small, less than 1.5 oz. 

Paying Your Tab

When you're finished the easiest way to ask for the check is to get the bartenders attention and cross your left and right index fingers to make an "X." The bartender will then bring you a "receipt," which will mostly likely simply be an amount written on a small sheet of paper. It is unlikely to be itemized. Generally, you can pay the tab at your seat. Tipping is not required or encouraged. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Oxidation

Everyone knows that whiskey doesn't age in the bottle. That sealed bottle of 1964 Very Very Special Old Fitzgerald you "found in your grandfather's basement" should taste the same today as it would have 50 years ago. This is a good thing. It's what makes dusty hunting possible. Aging, however, is different from oxidation.

Once the bottle has been opened and the contents have been exposed to oxygen, the contents of the bottle do start to change. Normally, this isn't an issue. Most people don't have bottles that sit open for decades. In many cases, oxidation is in fact a good thing. It's the reason that a bourbon can improve on the second or third tasting.

In Japan, however, oxidation can be a problem. At whiskey bars, the price per pour is often very high and, as bourbon is less popular than it once was, open bottles tend to languish.

For example, I've tried the "cheesy" gold foil Wild Turkey 12 Year on several occasions with different results. I use  this as an example because I drink a lot Wild Turkey 12 Year bottled in the 2000s and so I am familiar with the general taste profile. The first time I tried the "cheesy" gold foil version, the bottle was relatively full and the bourbon was great.

On two other occasions, however, the bourbon came from almost empty bottles. This time, the bourbon was relatively flat and boring. It lacked the complexity and character that I had expected. I've experienced the same thing with Van Winkle Family Reserve Bourbon bottlings from the early 1990s and with the older bottlings of A.H. Hirsch. It's very likely that all of these bottles had been sitting open on the shelf for more than a decade.

This is all to say that when ordering rare older bottlings at a bar in Japan, consider how long the bottle has been open. If you're getting the last little bit of the bottle, you might not be getting a good example and may not get to experience why a bourbon is thought to be so great.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Early Times Brown Label

Distillery:Brown-Forman
Age:NAS
Proof:80 (40% ABV)
Price:JPY 1000

Aside from the shared name and distillery, Early Times in Japan is a different product from Early
Times in the U.S.

In the U.S., Early Times is not actually bourbon, it's "Kentucky Whiskey." To be a bourbon, whiskey must be aged for at least two years in new charred oak barrels. Because 20% of Early Times comes from used cooperage, it does not meet the requirements for bourbon, but can still be called "whiskey." Under the TTB regulations, "whiskey" is anything distilled from grain that comes off the still at less than 190 proof that is stored in oak barrels (new or used) for any amount of time.

Used cooperage is not inherently worse, it just doesn't produce bourbon. Scotch, for example, is aged in used cooperage. Recently, Early Times 354, named for the DSP number of Early Times distillery and which does meet the requirements for bourbon, has been released in the U.S.

While Wikipedia states that Early Times sold outside the United States is the same product as sold inside the United States, but that, because TTB regulations do not apply to exports, it is able to marketed as bourbon, this is not true of the Early Times sold in Japan. Many Japanese sources (including Asahi, the distributor of Early Times in Japan) specifically state that the Early Times sold in Japan comes from whiskey aged in new charred (rather than used) oak barrels.

There are two expressions of Early Times in Japan: Yellow Label and Brown Label.
Early Times Yellow Label is the traditional Early Times that used to be available in the United States. Early Times Brown Label is a bottling specifically for the Japanese market that was first released in 1996. I have reviewed Early Times Yellow Label here.

Asahi describes the Yellow Label as "a classic bourbon that continues to uphold tradition" with a "light flavor, sweet aroma and nice finish." Asahi also plays up the "charcoal filtered" aspect, but, as all bourbon is charcoal filtered, this isn't a real selling point.

Asahi describes the Brown Label as having a "profoundly complex flavor and a round finish suited to the Japanese palate." It is also described as a full-bodied bourbon with an oaky nose that still retains a florid and delicate flavor. Asahi also touts that the Brown Label is "double filtered," though it provides no additional information as to the type of filtering. My guess is that this "double filtering" is a reference to charcoal and chill filtering.  Again, all bourbon is charcoal filtered, and almost all bourbon is chill filtered, and so these are not selling points.

The nose is not complicated. It has notes of apples & honey, baked apple, caramel and a little banana. The flavor is rather sweet with notes of pancake syrup (not pure maple syrup) and banana. It has a thick syrupy mouth feel that is surprising for a young 80 proof bourbon. I think Asahi was right on with the "full bodied" description. The finish is dry and woody with some acetone toward the end.

Verdict:  It's a simple and straight forward bourbon with no serious flaws, but nothing outstanding either.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Old Forester 86 Proof

Distillery:Brown-Forman
Age:NAS
Proof:86 (43% ABV)
Price:JPY 3000

Old Forester, the first bourbon to be exclusively sold in a bottle, is distilled by Brown-Forman. This particular bottle, however, is a dusty version of Old Forester bottled in 1990 with a label that was particular to the Japanese market.

Dimples on Side of bottle
Continuing to look at the label (see below), the primary difference between the Japanese label and the U.S. label from this era is the addition of a picture of a tree behind the paragraph of text and the omission of the red "serial number" stamp and the blue "86 proof" stamp. It also says "whiskey" in Japanese at the bottom. No age statement appears on this bottle. The bottle, like all Old Forester from this era, has three circular dimples on each side.

Dating Late 1980s Early 1990s Old Forester

In 1979, Brown Forman moved the distillation of Old Forester from its Brown-Forman distillery in Louisville (DSP KY 414) to its Early Times distillery in Shively (DSP KY 354). Among Old Forester connoisseurs, the Louisville distilled Old Forester is thought to be far superior to the Shively distilled Old Forester.

With bottles of Old Forester Bottled-in-Bond (BIB), it is trivial to check the DSP number on the label to see whether it was distilled in Louisville or Shively. This method, however, is not foolproof,  as the TTB regulations permitted Brown-Forman to use up all existing labels listing the older DSP number before updating the label to reflect the new DSP number. Unfortunately, this particular bottle was not bottled in bond.

There are, however, a few other rules of thumb for identifying whether Old Forester was distilled in Louisville or Shively.

Seal

All bottles with a paper seal were distilled in Louisville; most, but not all, bottles with a plastic seal were distilled in Shively.

Distilling Company

Most bottles with "Brown-Forman Distilling Company" on the label are from Louisville and most bottles with "Old Forester Distilling Company" are from Shively. Therefore, there are examples with labels stating that the bourbon was distilled and bottled by Old Forester Distilling Company, but that list the distiller as DSP KY 414. The converse is also true, because the label reverted to listing the distiller as Brown-Forman in the mid-1990s. More on that below.

For most of Old Forester's history, the label listed Brown-Forman as the distiller. This changed sometime in the late 1980s, when the label started to list the distiller as "Old Forester Distilling Company." This change of label appears to have occured about the same time that Brown-Forman was switching over to Shively distillate.  Later, around 1995, the label reverted to the previous practice of listing Brown-Forman as the distiller.

"At Louisville in Kentucky"

A statement on the label that the bourbon was distilled and bottled by either Old Forester or Brown-Forman Distilling Company "at Louisville in Kentucky" does not mean that the bottle is Louisville distillate. This may seem to be a rather clear statement that a bottle is Louisville distillate, but there are examples of Old Forester BIB that contain this statement, but that list the DSP number of the Shively, Kentucky distiller (DSP KY 354).

My Particular Bottle of Old Forester

Japanese Label Old Forester 86 Proof
Based on the above information, my bottle is probably from Shively. The seal is plastic and the distilling company is listed as "Old Forester Distilling Company." Further, the bottle is from 1990 which is later than most of the bottles of Old Forester Bottled in Bond that list DSP KY 414. There is no age statement, however, to help determine about how old the whiskey is.

OK, on to what's in the bottle. The color is rather light in the glass, though not in the bottle - not a deep brown. The nose is sweet and mild with notes of vanilla. The bourbon has a nice distinctly creamy mouth feel with notes of caramel and vanilla. The flavor is round and balanced with no particular extremes. For me, the mouth feel stands out most of all and really makes this an excellent bourbon.

I'm not sure, but my guess is that mouth feel and over all character of this bourbon may come from urethane (also known as ethyl carbamate) a carcinogen that was apparent in high quantities in Old Forester in the 1980s.  Distillers agreed to limit the amount of urethane in bourbon distilled after 1989 and so recent bottlings of bourbon do not have high levels of urethane. This is, of course, all speculation, but this may be one reason that dusty bottles of bourbon have such a different character than more recent bottling. As an aside, Sazerac 18 (distilled around 1987) was at first banned from sale in Canada in 2015 due to high levels of urethane.

Verdict: If you see DSP KY 414 Old Forester BIB, buy it.