EZdrinking

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

Filtering by Category: Palate Workout

Blind Vertical Tasting of Johnnie Walker

Last year with the help of David T. Smith (Summer Fruit Cup) and Virginia Miller (The Perfect Spot) we arranged a blind vertical tasting of Johnnie Walker Whisky. A vertical tasting is typically when you drink several vintages  or expressions of the same wine, beer or whiskey. In our case we tasted 11 different bottlings of Johnnie Walker both from their core expressions as well as a couple of their more limited/less common expressions. We had Johnnie Walker Red Label, Red Label Export Blend (45.8% ABV), Explores' Club The Adventure, Black Label, Double Black, Green Label, Gold Label (pre-2013), Blue Label, Select Rye Cask Finish, Swing, and XR 21 Year Old. While Johnnie Walker has not been one of my favorite whiskies in the world I had strong opinions about a couple of them and I was excited to see if those beliefs held up when you strip away knowledge of price, age and bottle design.

The event's festivities were hosted by Virginia and her husband Dan, and while we had a good number of whiskies to taste, there were just five couples in attendance which made the event more intimate and relaxed. Now, while I suggested that we just bag the bottles and give them random markings like I'd done in my two previous blind tastings, David insisted that he would act as the steward for the evening and as usual he did an excellent job. David flighted the whiskies with the lighter character ones coming first and leading up to those with a heavier/smokier character at the end.

David and and my wife Tia brought out one whisky at at time which gave us the opportunity to taste, take notes and give it a score from 1-10. As much as possible, we refrained from talking about the whiskies until everyone marked their score  so as not to unduly influence each other's perception of the spirit in the glass. For the most part I didn't have any idea which whisky was which except for the Select Rye Cask Finish and the Double Black which are so distinct that they stood out from the rest.

After David tallied all of the scores the clear favorite among the whole group was Johnnie Walker XR 21 Blended Scotch Whiskey. According to Diageo (owner of Johnnie Walker) the XR 21 was created to commemorate when Alexander Walker II was knighted by King George V. XR 21 happened to be served fifth in our tasting and when I looked back on my notes I was in the minority only giving it a 5 out of 10. I was also very curious to see how I and the other tasters rated the Blue Label. My opinion of this whisky has changed significantly over the years from ecstatic to meh. Not too surprisingly Blue Label came right around the middle of the pack which matched my score of 6 out of 10. Since I have Blue Label so infrequently I don't know if the quality has declined over the past decade as it's popularity and prestige has grown or that I have consumed a lot more high quality whisky. Blue Label is a nice whisky but for the price, I can't justify a re-purchase. Rounding out the bottom of the tasting were The Adventurer, Red Label Export Blend and Johnnie Walker Swing.

Going into the tasting I thought I would score Green and Gold near the top followed by Black, and Double Black. I also thought that I would score Red Label near the bottom however that wasn't exactly the case which is why I love blind tastings.

Here is how I ranked the 11 expressions of Johnnie Walker:

  1. Select Rye Cask Finish Blended Scotch Whisky Aged 10 Years
    • The whisky picked up a lot of flavor for the Rye Cask and tastes sort of like a blend of American and Scotch Whisky.
  2. Double Black Blended Scotch Whisky (No Age Statement)
    • Extra smokey and has a very full mouthfeel for a blended Scotch plus it's easy on the wallet. 
  3. Red Label Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • This was big surprise for me, I really like the flavor of Red Label its got a medium body and best of all I can get it at K&L Wines on sale for $14!
  4. Gold Label (pre-2013) 18 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • A nice blended Scotch with a medium body and unfortunately much better than the current Gold Label Reserve being sold.
  5. Blue Label Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Lots of character in this blend and significant oak character from the long maturation which is partially why I gave it a lower score and some people love it.
  6. XR 21 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • This blend has well balanced flavors between the fruit, oak, sweet and dry but for me the finish dropped off quickly and didn't leave a lasting impression.
  7. Green Label Blended Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 15 Years
    • Lots of malt and a good balance of smoke and fruitiness though I marked it down for having a thinner mouthfeel and more heat on the palate. Unlike most other expressions of Johnnie Walker, the Green Label is a Blended Malt which means it does not contain any aged grain whiskies.
  8. Explorer's Club Collection - The Adventurer Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Main flavors are malt and smoke though this blend is very thin with a short finish.
  9. Black Label 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky
    • I didn't find the flavors to be very complex and it had thin mouthfeel and a long hot finish.
  10. Red Label Export Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • Had an odd menthol note in the nose, mouthfeel was thin and it had a lot of alcohol on the finish.
  11. Swing Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS)
    • My summary for this blend is light, thin and sharp. One of the best features of this whisky is its bottle, which has a rounded bottom which allows it to gently rock back and forth on a boat without tipping over.

Thank you to Virginia and Dan for hosting and supplying the Blue Label. Thanks also goes to David and Sara who supplied the XR 21 and Red Label Export Blend.

Blind Tasting Bourbon Less Than $50

A while ago I organized a blind tasting of bourbons that cost less than $50. I was inspired to put this together after a small group of friends and I did a blind tasting of whiskeys under $20. That tasting was both a lot of fun and introduced me to a couple of bourbons that I really love. Wanting to repeat this process I put together a game plan. First, I wanted to focus the tasting only on bourbons between $20 and $50. I picked this price point for two reasons: one, my expectation was the overall quality would be a little higher than the under $20 bracket; and two, because it falls in the range that I and many of my friends would feel comfortable spending on a bottle to drink at home from time to time without feeling like its so expensive or exceptional we'd have to save it for some sort of special occasion. Second,  I only wanted bourbons that I knew were sold by the distillery i.e. no Non-Distiller Producer bourbons like Bulleit or Black Maple Hill. Third, I didn't want any single barrel products because by nature their flavor profile can change from barrel to barrel and I wanted to help people find a bourbon that they would like and be able to return to and have it taste the same as it was at the party.  With these criteria in mind I went about finding bourbons that fit.

I found over dozen bourbons that matched my criteria however, 12 samples of bourbons even at 1/4 oz each starts to add up. I wanted to be sure that people could get home safely so I limited the field to nine. As I spread the word among my friends I was able to find about 25 people who committed to coming and who were willing to chip in to cover the costs of the whiskey.

Now, because I also wanted to participate in the tasting, the trick was figuring out how to set things up so the tasting was blind for me as well. The solution I settled on was I would mark nine brown paper lunch bags with the planetary symbols, Mars ♂, Venus ♀ etc. and then my wife bagged the bottles. For a couple of the bottles that were more easy to identify we decanted the bourbon into clean wine bottles.

The tasting was hosted at a friend's house and I placed three bottles of bourbon in the kitchen, the living room and a spare bedroom. The reason for this was that it forced people to move around and not just all congregate in one room of the house. I wasn't concerned about the order in which people tasted the bourbons so it worked fine. In a more formal tasting, flight order is important but for our purposes it was an easy sacrifice.

After a few hours or tasting and eating snacks, I collected the score sheets that I handed out the to tasters. They rated each bourbon from 1-10 based on what they liked. When I tallied the results, one of the first things that stood out was there were no bad bourbons in the batch.  While people liked some bourbons more than others there were no clear winners or losers. In the tasting under $20 it was very obvious that there were a couple of whiskeys that everyone liked and a couple that everyone didn't like, but not this time. This was an encouraging result because what it said to me was if you are going to buy a bourbon in the $20-$50 price range, you can be sure that it is a quality product though you can't guarantee the it will be your favorite.

After tallying the scores here were the results from our group of tasters:

  1. Russel's Reserve 10 Year Old 90 Proof (45% ABV) Distilled by the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY.

  2. Henry DuYore's Straight Bourbon 91.3 Proof (45.65% ABV) Distilled by Ransom Spirits in Sheridan, OR. (This was the only craft bourbon and the only bourbon not from Kentucky in the tasting.)

  3. John E. Fitzgerald Larceny 92 Proof (46% ABV) Distilled at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, KY and owned by Heaven Hill.

  4. Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled in Bond 100 Proof (50% ABV) Distilled at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY.

  5. Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select, 90.4 Proof (45.2% ABV) Distilled at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY and owned by Brown-Forman.

  6. Elijah Craig 12 Year Old 94 Proof (47% ABV) Distilled at the Bernheim distillery in Louisville, KY and owned by Heaven Hill.

  7. Four Roses Small Batch 90 Proof (45% ABV) Distilled at Four Roses in Lawrenceburg, KY.

  8. Basil Hayden 80 Proof (40% ABV) Distilled at Jim Beam's Clermont and Frankfort distilleries in KY.

  9. Maker's 46 94 Proof (47% ABV) Distilled at the Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, KY.

From my personal score sheet my highest rating went to Colonel Taylor which was something I had never tried before and I was happy to find a new bourbon  that I really enjoyed. The other interesting thing was I gave my lowest rating to Maker's 46 which didn't surprise me since I'm not a huge fan of Makers Mark. It was reassuring to see that my taste buds are pretty reliable both when I know what I'm drinking and when I tasting things blind. In the end, this was a really fun event to organize and it was a blast getting a house full of people drinking and discovering some really good bourbon.

What I Learned from the California Rum Festival

Image from TheRumLab.com

The other weekend I attended the 2nd Annual California Rum Festival hosted at the SOMArts Center in San Francisco. I found out about this event last year just after its inaugural festival came to a close. Now I really like rum and rum cocktails so I made sure to sign up for their newsletter because I didn't want to miss it again.

When the day of the event arrived I was excited to check out a couple of the breakout sessions though overall, I didn't know what to expect from the event. While the first speaker was setting up I decided to walk the floor and create a game plan for tasting. The event was hosted in a long open gallery space and as I walked the hall there were a couple of rum brands that I recognized but many of them I hadn't heard of. Going into the festival I knew that I generally like Jamaican rums (I'm a big fans of Appleton and Rum Fire) and that I'm not a fan of overly sweet rums. 

After scoping out the floor, I popped into a great seminar lead Forrest Cokley on Panamanian Rums.  Forrest presented Ron Abuelo 7 Year Old Rum, Panama-Pacific 9 Year Old Rum, and Ron Durán 12 Year Old Rum. Each of them were made on column stills and aged in ex-whiskey barrels and both Ron Abuelo and Ron Duran had some amount of sugar added post distillation so they were a little sweeter and a little easier on the palate. All three were nice rums  and while my favorite of the three was Ron Abuelo, I wasn't super excited by any of therm. However, I think they would really appeal to people who love Ron Zacapa or Flor de Cana.

After the session I returned to the floor and began tasting a lot of rums. I tried rums from Puerto Rico, Panama, Antigua, Jamaica, Guyana, Kauai, South Carolina and even the Philippines. And as I tasted them, I began to discern a pattern of what rums spoke to me. I noticed that I like rums that taste like rum. Not rum that tastes like oak, or rum trying to be whiskey, or rum so adulterated that it tastes more like vanilla extract. I got excited for unaged or lightly aged rums, high ester rums, rum made on pot stills and rum agricole. Now this doesn't mean I don't like any sweetness, oak, or spice in rum but rather that I those flavors in proportion so that the base distillate can show its character. Here were my favorites...

The Rum Society No. 40: The Rum Society is a company that buys single origin pot distilled rum and blends them together. No. 40 is an unaged rum distilled in Guyana on a wooden pot still. This rum comes from the same distillery that produces El Dorado. The rum is chalk full of beautiful fruity and floral esters and it is incredibly smooth. Drinking this rum was an ecstatic revelation.

Rhum JM Agricole Blanc 50%: Rhum JM is a historic producer of rum agricole, i.e. rum made from fresh pressed sugar cane, on the French island of Martinique. Like other rum agricole, the blanc has a wonderful bouquet of grassy and floral notes. And even at 50%ABV it wasn't overly hot or harsh.

Rhum JM VO: This rum takes the raw distillate from above and matures it in new American oak barrels and re-charred bourbon barrels. This short stint wood adds a layer of complexity however, the base rum still shines through. In my opinion the V.O. demonstrates how rum can be complemented by its time in oak without being overpowered.

Damoiseau Pure Cane Rum 110 Proof: Damoiseau is another rum agricole however, this one is distilled on the French island of Guadalupe. The rum has a wonderful earthy character complemented by an array tropical fruit notes. And at 110 proof this unaged rum is designed for cocktails.

Pusser's Rum Gunpowder Proof: Pusser's is a blend of five rums from Guyana and Trinidad aged for a minimum of 3 years. This blend was used for over 300 years by the British Royal Navy as a daily ration to its sailors. The original blend was stored at 54.5% ABV which saved space and was strong enough that gunpowder soaked in the rum would still ignite. Pusser's is a very rich and dense rum with lots of molasses, honey, and spice. For my taste the Gunpowder proof was the sweet spot. The lower proof Blue Label (42%) did not have the same intensity of flavor, and the overproof  (75%) was super hot and clearly meant to be used sparingly in cocktails.

Koloa Rum Company Kaua'i Coffee Liqueur: This Liqueur is made through a collaboration between the Kauai Coffee Company and Koloa Rum Company. Koloa takes their white rum which is twice distilled from raw sugar up to 90% ABV before being  proofed down.  A brewed coffee of Kauai grown aribica and robusto beans is added to the rum with a little sugar and vanilla. The combined flavors of rum and coffee is a fantastic combo and the vanilla, molasses, and dark chocolate flavors make this a tasty after dinner treat.

Conclusion

If you have a chance to attend an event like this I highly recommend it. When only one spirit is served, whether it is rum, gin, or whiskey, I think it presents a great opportunity to discover new brands and better understand your own personal preferences.

Exploring Bottled in Bond Whiskey

Not that long ago I read Bernie Lubbers' book Bourbon Whiskey - Our Native Spirit.  In the book he wrote fondly of bonded bourbon whiskey.  For those unfamiliar with the term bonded whiskey, also labeled as bottled in bond, refers to whiskey that has been: aged for at least 4 years, bottled at exactly 100 proof (50% alcohol), the product of one single distillery, and the product of one distilling season. To be honest, before reading his book, I hadn't thought much of bonded whiskeys. Most of what I saw seemed to occupy the bottom shelf in the liquor store or back bar of my local watering holes so I assumed they weren't as good as the whiskeys higher up on the shelf.  But, as I discovered in my blind tasting of inexpensive whiskies, price and enjoyment are not always correlated.

Inspired by Bernie's passion for bottled in bond whiskeys I've decided to search them out and allow myself to have an open mind.  According to Bernie's website there are now 17 commercially available bonded whiskeys, up from 13 just three years ago, and two others only available at the Jim Beam Visitor Center and the Heaven Hill Bourbon Heritage Center.

To the best of my knowledge all of these Bottled in Bond Whiskeys are available for retail purchase somewhere in the US. Updated: 7/3/16, 12/30/17

Heaven Hill Distilleries

  1. Old Heaven Hill B.I.B.
  2. Heaven Hill 6 Year Old B.I.B.
  3. Evan Williams B.I.B
  4. Rittenhouse Rye B.I.B.
  5. Mellow Corn B.I.B.
  6. Old Fitzgerald B.I.B. 
  7. J.W. Dant B.I.B.
  8. J.T.S. Brown B.I.B.
  9. T.W. Samuels B.I.B.
  10. Henry McKenna 10yr Single Barrel B.I.B.
  11. William Heavenhill B.I.B. (Bourbon Heritage Center Only)

Jim Beam

  1. Jim Beam Bonded B.I.B.
  2. Old Grand Dad B.I.B.
  3. Old Tub B.I.B (only at Beam Visitor Center)

Laws Whiskey House

  1. A.D. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon B.I.B.
  2. A.D. Laws Secale Straight Rye B.I.B.

Willett Distillery

  1. Old Bardstown B.I.B.

Brown-Forman

  1. Old Forester 1897 B.I.B.
  2. Early Times B.I.B

Sazerac Company: Buffalo Trace Distillery

  1. Very Old Barton 6 Year Old B.I.B.
  2. Colonel E. H. Taylor Small Batch B.I.B.
  3. Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye B.I.B.
  4. Colonel E.H. Taylor Single Barrel B.I.B.

Luxco (NDP)

  1. David Nicholson 1843 B.I.B.

Tom's Foolery Distillery

  1. Ohio Straight Bourbon B.I.B.

Kings County Distillery

  1. B.I.B Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Oregon Spirit Distillers

  1. B.I.B. Bourbon Whiskey
  2. B.I.B. Wheat Whiskey
  3. J. Becher Straight American Rye Whiskey B.I.B.

Touring and Tasting Spirit Works Distillery

Not long ago I drove up to Sebastopol to check out Spirit Works Distillery. The drive up from San Francisco was nice, especially along highway 116 which took me right into the heart of town. Spirit Works is in a newly developed business district called The Barlow that brings together local art, food and beverage producers. Spirit Works is in the same building as a coffee roaster and there are a couple of small breweries and wineries in the neighboring buildings. This made it really convenient to check out some great businesses I toured the distillery.

Spirit Works was founded by the husband and wife team, Timo and Ashby Marshall. Ashby is the head distiller and Timo takes care of many of the other logistics involved in running a distillery. The day I visited Ashby was striping a wheat wash, that would be distilled a second time and eventually become a wheat whiskey. Meanwhile, Timo was proofing their latest batch of gin and checking on their fermentation efficiency. If you don't know what any of that means, it's ok, take one of their tours because they do a really good job of explaining how they transform raw grain into spirits.

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