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.

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.

Review: George Dickel No. 12 Whisky

Owned by Diageo, George Dickel Superior No. 12 Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey is distilled and aged at the George Dickel Distillery in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

Price: $19-$25

A German born immigrant, George Dickel settled in Nashville and started a company to wholesale and distribute whiskey. In 1888, George A. Dickel and Company became the sole distributor for Cascade Whisky made outside Tullahoma, Tennessee, which was marketed as being "Mellow as Moonlight." But, in 1910, Tennessee enacted statewide prohibition of the manufacturing and sale of alcohol so Victor Emmanuel Shwab, the then owner of the Geo A. Dickel & Co. moved production of Cascade Whisky to the Stitzel Distillery in Louisville until Kentucky enacted prohibition in 1917.

After the repeal of national prohibition, Shwab sold the Cascade Whisky brand to the Schenley Distilling Company who made a version of the whiskey for over a decade marketed as Geo. A. Dickel's Cascade Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky. Looking to compete with Jack Daniel's, Schenley built the Cascade Hollow distillery about a mile from the original distillery site. Whiskey production at Cascade Hollow began on July 4, 1959, and George Dickel Tennessee Whisky was first bottled in 1964. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions Diageo became the owner of the Cascade Hollow Distillery and the George Dickel brand in 1997. 

A quick side note about spelling. Current marketing from Diageo claims that George Dickel spelled his whisky without an 'e' to relate it to the superior tasting whisky coming out of Scotland. There is no solid historical evidence to support this claim. What is historically verifiable is that both spellings of whiskey and whisky were used completely interchangeably throughout the 19th century and it wasn't until the 1960s that the US began to prefer the spelling with an e and associate the spelling without and e with Scotch. For more information see my series Whiskey vs. Whisky.

George Dickel Tennessee Whiskies have a mash bill of 84% corn, 8% rye, and 8% malted barley. This high corn mash bill gives the whiskeys a naturally sweeter flavor profile. Dickel is distilled on a 42 inch column still and according to Camper English the whiskey comes out around 135 proof.  The new make whiskey is cooled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and then added to vats of sugar maple charcoal which sits for about a week before being drained and barreled. Mellowing Tennessee whiskey with sugar maple charcoal before it enters a barrel is know as the "Lincoln County Process" and is believed to filter out harsh impurities. In May 13, 2013, Tennessee enacted a law that mandated the Lincoln County process  be used for all spirits labeled as Tennessee Whiskey except Prichard Distillery which received an exemption.

After being filtered through sugar maple, the unaged whiskey is proofed down to 57.5 and put into new American oak barrel with a #4 char. George Dickle No. 12 does not have an age statement of the bottle which tells us that the whiskey in the bottle is at least 4 years old. However, a couple of interviews with former master distillers for George Dickle place the aged of the barrels pulled for No. 12 at 6-12 years old.

Lastly, George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Whisky was one of six whiskeys I included in a blind tasting of whiskeys less than $20. In this very unscientific tasting with a small group of my friends, Dickel came in right in the middle and ranked 4th. 

Tasting Notes

Nose: The whiskey has a muted nose with light notes of apple cider juice and just a touch of alcohol.

Palate: This light bodied whiskey is sweet on the palate with a little bit of oak and a hit of fruitiness.

Finish: The finish is short and has notes of apple and oak and then it's done.

Conclusion: George Dickel No.12 is a simple and easy to drink whiskey. While it does not have a ton of character compared to Kentucky bourbons, this is meant to be a different animal. Dickel No. 12 works neet, on the rocks, in your favorite tall drink or even a Manhattan. For the price I think Dickel No. 12 is a nice whiskey though not my first choice. 

Review: Jim Beam Pre-prohibition Style Rye

Owned by Beam Suntory, Jim Beam Pre-prohibition Style Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey is distilled at the one of the Jim Beam distilleries in Kentucky and bottled at 45% ABV.

Price: $16-$25

In early 2015, Jim Beam launched a reformation of their straight rye whiskey. But, as far as anyone can tell, the only difference between the old Jim Beam Rye (with a yellow label) and the new Pre-Prohibition Style Rye is that the label is now green and the whiskey is bottled at 45% ABV rather than 40% ABV. However, we do know that because there is no age statement on the bottle the whiskey inside must be at least 4 years old. This is one of the odd quirks of US labeling laws in that any whiskey aged less than four years must say how old it is but, no age statement is required at 4 or more years. We also know that since this is a straight rye whiskey it was aged in new charred oak barrels and that it has at least 51% rye grain in its mash bill. The rest of the mash bill isn't public but a reasonable guess puts it at 51% rye, 44-39% corn and 5-10% malted barley.

Jim Beam Rye has been around for decades and it is likely that this so-called reformulation, upping the proof to 90, is an attempt to say relevant in the booming rye whiskey category.  Rye whiskey has enjoyed renewed popularity these past few years, in part due to MGP and Whistle Pig. MGP based in Lawrenceburg, Indiana was once owned by Seagrams and made their easily identifiable 95% rye, 5% barley mash bill to blend into Seagrams 7 and other whiskeys. However, MGP now sells their spirits (rye whiskey, bourbon and even gin) to other companies that bottle it and sell it. Some of the most well know customers of MGP Rye are Bulleit, George Dickel, Templeton and High West. Whistle Pig on the other hand is buying a 100% rye whiskey from Alberta, Canada and bottling it in Vermont. Both of these whiskeys demonstrated the boldness and potential of rye whiskey and as a result, bartenders and whiskey drinkers were inspired to re-embrace a type of whiskey that mostly fallen out of favor.

Tasting Notes

Nose:  Immediately notes of vanilla and oak are carried up on a blast of alcohol, followed by baked apple, cinnamon and nutmeg. Once the whiskey has had some time to breathe a little, light fruity notes like blueberries or black currants comes through.

Palate:  The palate is sweet with a medium to full body and very harsh. After your palate adjusts to the alcohol, slightly spicy grain notes come through with strong oak flavor.

Finish:  The finish is short, slightly sweet and slightly spicy. Pleasant flavors of iced black tea are overshadowed by an odd note of raw dough.

Conclusion:  This is not a whiskey to drink neat. Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye has lots of oak flavor and lots of heat from the alcohol, underlaid with only the faintest hints of rye spice. It makes an OK Manhattan that seems to plays up more of the herbal character of the Vermouth. All in all, I will not be buying another bottle. 

Review: Russell's Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon

Owned By Gruppo Campari, Russell's Reserve Small Batch 10 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is distilled at the WIld Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and bottled at 45% ABV.

Price: $28-$44

In 1942, Austin Nichols, a wine and spirits importer began buying bulk bourbon from the Old Hickory Distillery in Tyrone, Kentucky. For about 30 years Nichols bought and bottled this bourbon under the Wild Turkey brand. Then in 1971, Nichols purchased the Old Hickory Distillery from the Ripy family and renamed it the Wild Turkey Distillery. At the time Nichols bought the distillery a native Kentuckian, Jimmy Russell, served as the Master Distiller overseeing the distillation and aging of all their whiskey. Russell began working working at the distillery sweeping floors and worked his way up, learning the tradition and practice of making bourbon from Bill Hughes and Ernest W. Ripy, Jr. 

Fast forward to 2000, Jimmy Russell and his son Eddie worked together to create Russell's Reserve Small Batch 10 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Russell's Reserve stands as a testament to the dedication and skill the Russell family has demonstrated in making some of the finest American whiskey over the past 60 years. One bourbon (75/13/12 corn/rye/barley)

Lastly, Russell's Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon  was one of nine bourbons I selected in a blind tasting of bourbons less than $50. Out of a group of 25 non-professional tasters Russell's Reserve received the highest average score making it our highest ranked bourbon of the night.

Tasting Notes

Nose: The nose has notes of butterscotch with soft warm aromas of oak logs burning, ripe pears, and light tannins.

Palate: The palate is silky smooth with very light heat and notes of sweet vanilla are balanced with oak and tobacco. The bourbon has a slightly fruity character similar to some brandies.

Finish: The bourbon has a long finish with notes of oak and bright Chardonnay.

Conclusion: Russell's Reserve is an excellent bourbon that is a delight to drink. This is the epitome of a well balanced bourbon and very impressive for a 10 year old 90 proof bourbon. Most bourbons of this age I find are over oaked but this is a great testiment to the Russell legacy. 

Review: Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon

Owned by Kirin Company based in Japan, Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is distilled at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky and bottled at 45% ABV.

Price: $28-$45

Four Roses Small Batch is made from vatting four different bourbons made at the distillery. Two of the bourbons are made from mash bill "E" which consists of 75% corn, 20% rye, add 5% malted barley, one of which is fermented with a yeast strain "K" which is meant to emphasise light spice and caramel flavors; and, the second is fermented with yeast strain "O" which is meant to emphasise rich fruitiness as well as light caramel and vanilla notes. The second set of bourbons are made from mash bill "B" which consists of 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% malted barley. And, once again each is fermented with yeast strains "K" and "O." Each of these mash bill/yeast strain combinations are distilled and aged separately. For the Small Batch bourbon, these four whiskeys are aged less than 7 years, vatted together and then proofed down before bottling. While many distilleries credit their yeast for making their spirits unique, Four Roses is one of the only major bourbon distillery that goes through the added work of propagating five different yeast strains to further control the flavor profiles of their bourbons.

Lastly, Four Roses Small Batch was one of nine bourbons I selected in a blind tasting of bourbons less than $50. You can read how it did here.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Immediately on the nose are fruity notes and acetone. Underneath these initial aromas are notes of burnt oak and a strong presence of vanilla.

Palate: On the palate the first flavor is a sightly astringent green note that is then followed by light heat on the tongue. After the heat dissipates, you notice both a sweetness and a big wallop of spice.

Finish: After swallowing the bourbon lingers for a long time with clear notes of oak and vanilla.

Conclusion: Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon is a nice bourbon, though not my favorite. That said, Four Roses Small Batch is well balanced and easy to drink bourbon well worth its price tag.