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Chasing the rye unicorn… (Review of Sazerac 18)

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Ok so first off, this review does not matter.  It does not matter than I am deeply, madly in love with this aged rye.  It does not matter that of the all of the strong southern-named men on my shelves like Rip Van Winkle, George T. Stagg, Elmer T. Lee, are not my baby.   Saz 18 is my baby.  But it doesn’t matter, you won’t find a bottle, not by walking into a liquor store.  Oh you may be a professional hunter; perhaps a Craig’s List seeker, or perhaps you got one by trading away your left kidney, but you still probably had to sweeten the deal.  Right now, if you happened across one in the secondary market, you will pay about $375.  In May, you may be paying a lot more.  Part of me feels bad for reviewing such unattainable goodness, but I just need to declare my love for this stuff and then I can move on to stuff you can actually find.

So how did I find this nectar of the gods?  Through absolute sheer luck.  I found my way into a liquor store in Atlanta during a lunch break from work one afternoon.  I was looking for plain Sazerac Rye (called baby Saz).  It’s also rare, but still findable as it gets released several times over the year.  I walked over to the rye whiskey section and ask a nice man if he had any Sazerac Rye.  In his hands was a bottle of Sazerac 18.  He told me he was looking for a place on the shelf to place this item.  Realizing what I was seeing, I squeezed my buttcheeks together to prevent sudden accidental leakage and asked if I could purchase the bottle.  He handed it to me and I quickly and prompty paid and left the store before he or anyone else could change their mind.  I sat in my car for awhile and looked at this beauty.  I had fallen in love.

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As most of you know, or some of you may not, Buffalo Traces releases a limited collection of 5 Bourbons every fall called the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection.  With names like George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, and Thomas H. Handy, this collection has become increasingly more popular and harder to find.  The bottles are beautiful and really allow the juice inside to shine through.  If you are lucky enough to get a hold of one or two, you know you have scored a nice treasure.    Two of the five antique collection releases are rye whiskeys (meaning at least 51% of the mash bill is made up of rye).  One is called Thomas H Handy Sazerac Rye.  It is a rye whiskey that is aged for 6 years and bottled directly from the barrel with a proof this year of 129.2.  The other is a rye whiskey that has been aged for 18 years before it is bottled at 90 proof.  Now, word on the street is that in 2006, master distillers at Buffalo Trace tasted some Sazerac that had aged for 18 years and decided it was at its peak and removed it from the oak barrels and put into metal containers.  The metal containers stopped the aging process and every Sazerac 18 since then has been the exact same.  The Sazerac 18 from 2014 tasted the same as it did last year, and the year before, and the year before that.  Regardless of how and where or when this stuff was made or bottled, it is beautiful, like angels dancing in my mouth

What’s interesting to me about Saz 18 is that the nose totally doesn’t match the taste.  To me, the nose is kind of flat.   It smells to me more like a bourbon than a rye whiskey.  A whiff of 6 year Sazerac (baby Saz) reveals more of the sweeter rye smell that I am used to.  I actually smell a good bit of corn on the 18, some rye, and some tobacco.  A deep inhale burned just a little, like some peppermint.  Again though, the nose just doesn’t set the tone for what follows.

The palate is nice.  The flavor of the rye permeates along with a minty flavor and a sweetness, like sugar or honey.  It’s so pleasant, but it quickly gets replaced by that finish….

Holy shit that finish.  This is where this thing shines.  It’s like a leathery, oaky, caramel thickness that doesn’t burn even slightly going down.  It’s so amazing.  It’s like I’m a termite and I’m eating a delicious wooden stair that has caramel spilt all over it.  In the process I also accidentally chewed up a little bit of leather and tobacco and swallowed it all down at once.  I actually don’t even taste the rye at all once it goes down, just this amazing finish that sends me into the world of termites and leather straps and wooden steps.  It’s messed up I know, but my brain just works in mysterious ways.

It is going to be a sad day in my life when I finish this bottle, for a I may not see it again until next year.  Heck even then I may not see it.  That doesn’t mean I won’t try.  My baby will always be out there, and I will always be looking.

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The motion of the ocean – (Review – Jefferson’s Ocean 3rd Voyage)

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I first heard of Jefferson’s bourbons about 6 months ago on poker night with the fellas.  A friend of mine brought over a bottle of Jefferson’s very small batch.  I was not that into bourbons at the time but I tried it out and really liked it.  One of the members of the poker group told us that it was named Jefferson’s because it was Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe for whiskey.  Although that does not appear to be the case, none of us had any reason to disagree with that statement, and ultimately, I began repeating that to many people once I purchased my own bottle.  It was one of those misconceptions that no one is really going to question at the time, and you really have no reason not to believe it.  To this day, although it is not true, it seems like a cool reason alone to buy a Jefferson’s bottle.

Over the past few months I have grown to really love Jefferson’s bourbon.  They have a great twitter presence who likes to retweet me and they also makes some really tasty stuff.  Rumor is they don’t actually make their own bourbon from scratch, they get it from other distilleries.  Apparently that is very common.  But it’s what they do with the bourbon after they get it makes it truly awesome stuff.  There are about 6 different varieties offered by Jefferson’s.  Their entry level bourbon simply called Jefferson’s Very Small Batch is a fantastic every day bourbon, especially at under $30 a bottle.  They also make a reserve whiskey that features older whiskeys blended together, a rare 10 year rye, a chefs collaboration, and much harder to find Presidential Select variations.  And then….this Ocean version.  While on a boat a few years ago, their master distiller, Trey Zoeller, came up with a brilliant idea to age some bourbon barrels on a boat for a few months.  The idea behind the ocean voyage was that the constant motion of the waves would allow the bourbon to have much better contact with the oak than sitting in a rack house.  Basically, the motion of the ocean allows better contact with wood.  That’s….what…she…said.

I found out about Jefferson’s Ocean about 2 months ago.  At that time bottles of the second voyage were sold out and very hard to find.  I become obsessed with finding a bottle, so much so that my 5 year old son who made liquor store stops with me after work began telling all of his preschool friends about Jefferson’s Ocean.  “My daddy wants dis bur-bun that’s been on a boat around Earf for 4 years”.  I knew it was trouble when random Pre-school kids asked if I had found Jefferson’s Ocean.  Forget the local neighborhood tennis team, 5 year olds gossip more than anyone else on the planet.  I finally got ahold of Jefferson’s Ocean Voyage 3 a few weeks ago when some barrels hit larger stores in Atlanta.  I got it at Sherlock’s, a nice large store with a big bourbon selection but a smug liquor staff.  If it hadn’t been so far away, I would have gone to Tower.  Another large store with a big bourbon selection but a friendly staff, and cheaper Jefferson’s Ocean.

Any-hoo, on to the important part.  First off, the nose of the Ocean is awesome.  It’s so smooth, like a sweet candy caramel.  I do smell alcohol and on very strong whiffs it actually burns my nostrils a little.  I kind of like that, especially since it’s not barrel strength.  Maybe it’s the saltiness like a saline spray shooting up my nostrils.  Either way, I like it.  I also got a hint of raisins.  The color is a nice lighter amber too, almost like a sweet tea or something.  It’s lighter than anything else on my shelf, sans the moonshine that I will never touch.

The palate of the Ocean comes across so smooth, with very little burn.  Caramel is the most easily recognized flavor for me, and it finishes with it nicely.  There is definitely a saltiness to it, and it makes it taste so unique to almost every other bourbon.  But I love it.  Perhaps I like a sweeter/saltier tasting bourbon, something a little different.  There is a finish that lingers, a sugary/saltery blend.  It tastes a little like toffee aftertaste, mixed with some raisins and some caramel and some slight cinnamon.  It’s a truly smooth and pleasant after taste.

People have waited in long lines this season, and they will continue to do so for a chance to buy the elusive Pappy Van Winkle.  While doing so, they might be bypassing the Jefferson’s Ocean that has just arrived.  I used to be on that ignorant boat, the one that would make that mistake, but no more.  I would take a bottle of this stuff over Pappy any day of the week., well at least prior to 15 years.  This is a delicious spirit, unique, and beautiful.  Well done Mr. Jefferson, you and this company using your recipe have made something awesome.  🙂

 

I wanted to love it…. (Review – Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Year)

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Really I did.  I wanted it to be earth shattering.  Weeks after my obsessive search began for the elusive Pappy, I had just unwrapped the plastic seal on a bottle of Van Winkle Special Reserve for my 38th birthday.  A trade of a Thomas Handy Sazerac Antique Collection bottle netted me my most prized possession, and I was ready to wait no longer.  I had read all the reviews, heard all the tales, taken in all the mythical lore I had come across.  This was the stuff of legends.  People waited in lines across the country just a week ago to score one bottle.  One bottle of booze.  Billionaires couldn’t get it even if they tried, or so said the article I found.  Another article told me to skip Pappy and buy one of their aforementioned alternatives.  Yet I continued, unabated in my quest for the unicorn whiskey as some referred to it.  I couldn’t count how many store owners laughed when I asked if they had Pappy.  I visited every store, tried to befriend every owner, and used any technique possible to place myself in a position of acquiring a bottle.

Two months after my quest began, here it was.  As I set the freshly opened bottle down on the kitchen counter, a strong aroma of the unicorn whiskey started to fill the air.  My wife commented that it smelled really good as it wafted around the kitchen.  I have to admit, the stuff smells pretty legendary.  Hopefully as you begin to follow my blog, you will see that I am fairly new to the bourbon tasting/reviewing party.  I consider my sense of smell and taste pretty good, but damn if I know how to put it into words.  People say they smell caramel, oak, butterscotch in this bottle.  I just smell some damn fine whiskey.  It’s sweet for sure, and I just can’t place the smell.  I would say the butterscotch reference is the closest for me.  Butterscotch and f*@ing awesome whiskey smell.

I poured about 1.5 ounces and let it air out for a minute or two.  I admired the color, a beautiful amber brown, with a nice looking coating where it had hit the side of my glen cairn glass.  I swirled it around a little bit, noticed the complexity, and continued to enjoy that damn fine smell.  Then I took my first sip.  It was a little harsher than I expected.  In fact it almost burned a little.  It was only 90 proof, but it stung the back of my throat a little and that alone kind of covered up the flavor for me.  I added a small ice cube and let it melt and tried it again a few minutes later.  This time it was less harsh and I had some nice flavors come across, but again I don’t know how to describe them.  I definitely got some oaky flavor, some honey, but it still ended with a little burn in my throat.  The aftertaste I would say had some caramel, but there had to be some spice there that was burning.  A few more sips netted the same result, a nice flavor, but a gentle burn, followed by an aftertaste that was almost like a caramel candy.  I finished the glass, set it down, and realized… that it was disappointing.  Really disappointing.  And I also realized I have had much better whiskey at a fraction of the cost.

I thought surely there must be a mistake.  Maybe it was dinner that I had that messed things up.  Maybe my glass was dirty, or the ice cube was polluted.  Or maybe I was getting a cold and that effected things.  Surely if someone would wait in 32 degree weather for a bottle of this stuff, that something was just wrong with me.

So I waited a day and tried it again.  This time, I put 1 whole ice cube in and let it melt all the way.  I let the whiskey sit for 10 minutes after that to open up.  And then I began to sip, slowly, trying to find myself loving it.  And sure enough, the same result.  A decent taste over my tongue, a slight burn, a slight sweet finish, but not near one of my favorite whiskeys.  On both nights, I filled my glass back up with some Elmer T. Lee, and realized how much better it was.

I am only 1 guy and I only have 1 opinion, but this wasn’t worth the hype.  It wasn’t worth the obsession.  This is decent whiskey at best.  Perhaps the 15 year or 20 year are earth shattering, and this 12 is simply a meteor that blazes out in the sky.  Perhaps I’ll never know if that is the case, but to be honest, I’m not going to lose any more sleep over it.

 

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