Iconoclast in the Limelight

The year 2020 will be chiseled in our memories for many things; few of them good.  It was a year marked by a worldwide pandemic, economic upheaval, riots in American cities and extraordinary political divisiveness.  But on that good side…2020 was the Year of Spirits of French Lick.

The Year of Spirits of French Lick

It seems that everyone had plans, hopes and dreams that were delayed, down-sized or otherwise destroyed last year.  While head distiller / head alchemist Alan Bishop and the team at Spirits of French Lick didn’t get to do everything they had in the works when 2020 started, they still had a remarkably successful year.

Single Barrel Program

Despite not being able to have groups in to the distillery to do barrel picks, the single barrel program thrived at Spirits of French Lick during 2020.  “We expected single barrel sales to dry up when the pandemic hit”, said SoFL marketing director, Jolee Kasprzak.  “Instead, they tripled!”.  Single barrel offerings have primarily consisted of Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon and The Mattie Gladden high-rye Bourbon.  Bottles from single barrels have been released through various liquor stores scattered across the country and through on-line retailer, Seelbach’s

Label Re-Design

The heart of Spirits of French Lick is the energetic, copper-haired Jolee.  The native Californian says, “My grandparents were immigrants and they always made art a focus in our family growing up”.  She studied English, Art History and Communications in college and took a job working for Wolf Creek Brewing, a Southern California restaurant and microbrewery.  It was at Wolf Creek that she “learned how to taste”. 

Jolee and her handiwork.

After getting married, Jolee journeyed from the left coast to the Hoosier state.  Her time in Indiana saw her gaining design expertise as the director of operations for a sign company and experience in the hospitality industry through restaurant management.  From the microbrewery to the sign company to the restaurant, all of this experience shaped Jolee into the perfect fit for her role as Director of Marketing Operations at Spirits of French Lick, which she started in 2018.

Jolee’s design experience was especially useful as she led one of the biggest undertakings of 2020 for SoFL which was the complete re-design of their labels.  With several new product offerings in the pipeline, it became a priority to freshen up the appearance and feel of the brand.   “There are unique details to each label depending on the spirit in the bottle”, Jolee explained, “but the feel, the scrollwork and the font are very similar.  This gives the Spirits of French Lick lineup a distinctive look on the shelf”. 

The new labels will be submitted to design competitions this year.  Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do very well in competition as they are some of the most attractive labels on the market today.

Unpretenious

“This is, in fact, the most ‘dickish’ things I’ve done in the industry and I couldn’t be prouder of it”.  This is how Alan Bishop unveiled Unpretentious; a two-year, high-rye bourbon finished in port casks.  Alan hates the marketing behind barrel finished Bourbon, especially port finishes.  So, with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, Alan made the most pretentious whiskey he could and called it “Unpretentious”.  He also made it taste pretty darn good.  It was released in the gift shop in mid-June and sold out by early August, so the public was extremely receptive to it.  Social media buzz and Bourbon award season also showed there is a place in the market for Alan’s sense of humor, especially when it is accompanied by a great whiskey. 

Bottled-in-Bond

July saw Spirits of French Lick reach a major milestone when their first bottled-in-bond Bourbons were released.  Younger versions of Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon had been out for a few seasons, but in mid-July it hit the shelves as a four-year, bottled-in-bond offering.  This spirit’s name-sake, Lee Sinclair, was a successful southern Indiana businessman who bought (and rebuilt after a fire) the West Baden Springs Hotel.  Most of the whiskeys created at Spirits of French Lick are named after characters or places of historical significance to the region.  

Cast in this unlikely role of being named after a high-rye Bourbon is Mattie Gladden.  Mattie Gladden, the woman, was the local madam who is infamous for many reasons including having once been mistress to P.T. Barnum.  The Mattie Gladden, the whiskey, was released at the end of July as the second bottled-in-bond Bourbon in the SoFL line-up.  It is a high-rye Bourbon that Alan jokingly remarks “has a whore-forward profile”.  I’m not sure what that means and I’m not sure that I want to know.  What I do know is…it is fantastic and was one of my favorite Bourbons from 2020. 

Alan Bishop Day

A shocker of an event occurred on October 20.  That is the day when on the ABV Network’s The Bourbon Daily podcast, Steve Akley randomly declared that day to be Alan Bishop Day.  In a classic “If You Know, You Know” fashion, this took on a chaotic life of its own inspiring a flurry of social media posts some of which might actually be suitable for sharing.

Fascination Street

“Oh, it’s opening time down on Fascination Street” is the first line to the Cure song that this barrel-aged absinthe was named after.  An absinthe comprised of 13 different botanicals aged for two years in a number 2 char new American oak barrel produces a unique and flavorful spirit.  Fascination Street was released in October and is available in short supply at the distillery.

Awards

As 2020 was coming to a merciful close for all of society, it was also a celebratory close for Spirits of French Lick.  Indiana Bourbon started things off by naming The Mattie Gladden as the Bourbon of the Year for 2020.  Whiskey media guy, Fred Minnick, selected Unpretentious as the second best barrel-finished whiskey for 2020 and Lee W. Sinclair as the best non-Kentucky Bourbon of 2020. 

When Steve Akley and the ABV Network announced winners of their 2020 awards, much of the hardware (if there was actual hardware) was taken by Spirits of French Lick with Alan Bishop being crowned Craft Distiller of the Year and The Mattie Gladden being anointed Best New Whiskey and Best Bourbon. 

In their year-end awards show, My Whiskey Den (Patrick Belongia, Mike Lisac and Benjamin Eaves) unanimously named their Distiller/ Distillery of the Year as Alan Bishop and Spirits of French Lick. 

Finally, Lee W. Sinclair bottled-in-bond was included in Minnick’s year-end blind tasting for his 2020 Whiskey of the Year.  LWS made a deep run and ended up remaining until the final six and beat out some of “Big Bourbon’s” biggest boys along the way. 

Iconoclast

“Several years ago a friend told me that I approached distillation like an iconoclast”, Alan recalled.  “I liked the word and it has stuck in the back of my head all this time and it seemed like a good name for this special series of whiskey”.  To save you a few clicks, an iconoclast is one who opposes settled beliefs, institutions and traditions.  If you spend much time with Alan you’ll see very quickly that he is against the run of the mill and swimming against the stream.  The moniker “iconoclast” fits him and it fits the whiskey he makes.

Spirits of French Lick christened 2021 with the maiden voyage of the Iconoclast Series (yes, there will be others).  This first release is a three-barrel batch of Lee W. Sinclair at barrel proof.  Alan explains, “These three barrels simply did not fit the Lee profile at all.  I decided to try them in a stand-alone batch and it could not have worked better.  I’ve not never put anything in a barrel I like more than this first Iconoclast release”. 

Iconoclast is a distillery-only release and when they’re gone…they’re gone.  This four-year Bourbon carries a proof of 107.9 with prominent flavors of cherry, French toast, vanilla and cream.  It is truly delicious and should not be missed. 

2021 and Beyond: Anything Can Happen

The release of Iconoclast is a strong indication that Spirits of French Lick intends to extend their “Year of…” past 2020 and into 2021.  Alan and Jolee have shared with me some of their plans for the rest of the year.  Each of these deserves being termed as “the highly-anticipated release”.

  • Valentine’s weekend: The Right Way is a rye aged in absinthe barrels.  It is available in the distillery gift shop starting Saturday, February 13.  What better way to say I love you?
  • May: April showers bring May flowers, but this May brings The Morning Glory.  This is a kasha (buckwheat) Bourbon. Respect the grain, indeed.
Rational responses / Force a change of plans / Anything can happen

  • May: This month also is the scheduled release of William Dalton.  This is a bottled-in-bond wheated Bourbon and will replace The Wheater in Spirits of French Lick’s catalog.  Dalton was the longest-serving master distiller in Indiana history, holding this role for 55 years at the Spring Mill distillery.  The Wheater was a blend of SoFL wheated Bourbon and sourced wheated Bourbon.  It was my least favorite of their whiskies, so I am looking forward to this change.  The William Dalton will be 100% Spirits of French Lick bourbon. I have tried a sample and it is quite excellent and is a much better fit in their lineup.
  • Summer: It’s hard to say “now this sounds really different” when I’ve already listed a rye aged in absinthe barrels and a kasha bourbon, but…this does sound really different.  Further evidence that anything can happen: an apple brandy aged in tequila barrels. 
  • Fall: A perfect fit for the fall months will be the release of a bottled-in-bond apple brandy.
  • Fall: A bottled-in-bond rye will hit store shelves.  It will be called Solomon Scott. Scott was a regarded distiller, bootlegger and moonshiner in pre-prohibition southern Indiana.

An overnight success thirty some-odd years in the making, the accolades of 2020 have Alan Bishop living in the limelight, so to speak.  With that attention from the Bourbon public come expectations.  The things Spirits of French Lick have in store for 2021 is quite an encore to 2020 as Alan and his team makes a tradition of defying traditions.

Raise a Glass to Neil Peart

There are drummers and then there is Neil Peart.  In many ways he broke the stereotypes for drummers and established new standards for drums in rock music.  Drummers are typically thought to be the ones in the band who blew things up (Keith Moon) or blew themselves up (if we are to believe Spinal Tap).  Peart’s personality, however, was one of an introvert who actively shunned the limelight.  Drummers are not usually thought of as being the intellectual in the group (though Levon Helm of The Band and Steve Gorman of The Black Crowes immediately come to mind as drummers who certainly were).  However, Peart defied “the norm” further by being the chief lyricist for his band, Rush, penning challenging and thought-provoking songs for more than 40 years.

A year ago today, Neil Peart died.  He had fought against an aggressive form of brain cancer for the last three of his sixty-seven years.  With his death we knew we had lost a unique mind and talent; a true one-of-a-kind. 

To remember Neil Peart today, I’ve put together three groupings of Rush songs that I think represent some of the major themes he wrote and played about over his career.  Even though Peart was a Macallan drinker, I’ve paired each grouping with a bourbon you can raise a glass of in his honor.

If you are a fan of Peart and Rush, you might agree or disagree with my list and that’s OK.  You have freewill. If you don’t like Rush, it’s an excuse to have a few pours (pass an evening with a drink and a friend) and maybe enjoy their music a little more given another chance.

Philosophy of Life / Introspection

The first theme I’m going with revolves around songs that explore philosophy of life and delve into who we are as people over time.  I’m pairing these three songs with Old Grand Dad (bottled-in-bond or 114…your call).  Being at the age of a grandfather (which I am) certainly brings a pause to reflect back on the life that’s been lived and how to best live the life that still remains. 

Time Stand Still (Hold Your Fire album): “Summer’s going fast, Nights growing colder / Children growing up, Old friends growing older / Freeze this moment a little bit longer / Make each sensation a little bit stronger.”

Dreamline (Roll the Bones): “We are young / Wandering the face of the earth / Wondering what our dreams might be worth / Learning that we’re only immortal for a limited time”

“Time is a gypsy caravan steals away in the night / To leave you stranded in dreamland / Distance is a long-range filter / Memory a flickering light / Left behind in the heartland”

Resist (Test for Echo): “I can learn to resist anything but temptation / I can learn to co-exist with anything but pain”

“You can surrender without a prayer / But never really pray / Pray without surrender”

Creativity and Growth

Much of Rush’s music and Peart’s lyrics exemplified creativity.  They also wrote and sang about being creative, exploration of ideas and growth.  For this grouping of songs I am pairing Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon from Spirits of French Lick.  Much of what they are doing at Spirits of French Lick under head distiller Alan Bishop embodies exploring the world of distillation and pushing the boundaries of the industry and of their own imaginations. This philosophy seems to fit much of what Rush has done especially within these themes.

One Little Victory (Vapor Trails): “The measure of the moment / In a difference of degree / Just one little victory / A spirit breaking free”

Between Sun and Moon (Counterparts): “There is a lake between sun and moon / Not too many know about / In the silence between whisper and shout / The space between wonder and doubt”

New World Man (Signals): “He’s not concerned with yesterday / He knows constant change is here today”

Boldness and Individualism

There is much of Rush’s music that can fit these themes.  The 2112 album is about an individual resisting collective thought.  I’m using Booker’s to pair with this theme.  The bourbon (select the batch of your choice) is bold and unique and the man who made it (Booker Noe) certainly was, too. 

Freewill (Permanent Waves): “You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill /
I will choose a path that’s clear, I will choose Freewill”

Headlong Flight (Clockwork Angels): “All the journeys of this great adventure / It didn’t always feel that way / I wouldn’t trade them because I made them / The best I could, and that’s enough to say”

Marathon (Power Windows): “You can do a lot in a lifetime / If you don’t burn out too fast / You can make the most of the distance / First you need endurance / First you’ve got to last”

“More than just survival / More than just a flash / More than just a dotted line / More than just a dash”.

Encore

Any show must have an encore and a Rush concert is not complete without Tom Sawyer.  And since “your mind is not for rent / to any blog or government”, as you enjoy this classic song, select the whiskey of your choice.  Your options are limitless (Maybe as his skies are wide).

Cheers to Neil: his life, his words and his music.

The treasure of a life
Is a measure of love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give / In the fullness of time
Is the only return that you expect / The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen…It’s a measure of a life

The Garden (Clockwork Angels), Neil Peart

For a Spotify playlist of the Rush songs included in this article…click here.

What’s Your Favorite Band? What’s Your Favorite Bourbon?

As someone who is very much into both music and Bourbon, I frequently get asked these two questions:

What’s your favorite band?

                              What’s your favorite Bourbon?

Whatever is playing now.

                              Whatever is in my glass now.

Whatever is playing next.

                              Whatever is in my glass next.

Whatever fits the mood.

Whatever inspires the mood.

Whatever sets the occasion.

Whatever elevates the occasion.

Whatever I can share with you.

Whatever you can share with me.

Someone’s choice in music or choice of whiskey can be a deeply personal thing, but can also be something even the most introverted among us is willing to share with practically anyone.  A song’s opening guitar riff can take us back days or even decades to emotion-filled moments of our past.  While the sight of a bottle or a sip of its contents can spark memories of drinking stories we have already told way too many times.

There are times when a song or a band or a musician is deserving of something special in our glass.  Or whatever is in our glass is made more special because of the music we’re enjoying with it.  I’ve paired E.H. Taylor with The Rolling Stones.  Lee W. Sinclair with Rush.  Stumpy’s Spirits rye with The White Stripes.  And Booker’s with Led Zeppelin and/or old school Country music.  Some of these pairings are with purpose.  Some are just coincidental.  All are best enjoyed on the deck.

One pairing tradition I have is Tom Petty with Weller Special Reserve.  Three years ago today Tom Petty passed away and I had a pour in his memory of what I had in my glass at the time: that Weller green label.  There wasn’t any significance to Weller Special Reserve at the time.  But, WSR has gained significance to me because I now associate it with Tom Petty. 

Is Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers my favorite band?  Sure…sometimes.

Is Weller Special Reserve my favorite Bourbon?  One day a year since 2017.

So, this evening I’ll be sipping Weller on the deck and listening to the “Wildflowers” album and then random hits and b-sides from 40 years of mid-tempo rock-n-roll classics.

Cheers! 

Turn it up.   

There’s something good waiting down this road.

At the End of the Trail: Wilderness Trail

It was to be the 2nd Annual Bourbon Fellowship Bottled in Bond Blind Tasting Bracket (BFBIBBTB).  It was to be the first Thursday of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  It was…not to be.

The basketball tournament was cancelled.  Bourbon Fellowship was cancelled.  The whole stinkin’ world was cancelled. Everyone had a blast with this blind tasting event the first time we did it last year.  So when the world became less of a “cancelled” place we rescheduled BFBIBBTB a few months later.  Just like last year, there were some surprises along the way.

First Round Pairings & Results

The eight Bourbons selected for the blind tasting had to: (a) be a Bourbon, (b) be Bottled-in-Bond, and (c) not have been in last year’s bracket, with the exception of the champ, New Riff. (For last year’s bracket and results, click here).

There were no other criteria for inclusion other than what I thought would be interesting.  Here were the first round match-ups.  You can judge how interesting they are:

  • Match-up 1: (A) Heaven Hill 7 year vs. (B) Heaven Hill 6 year
  • Match-up 2: (C ) A.D. Laws vs. (D) Old Grand Dad
  • Match-up 3: (E) Wilderness Trail Wheated vs. (F) Wilderness Trail High Rye
  • Match-up 4: (G) New Riff vs. (H) Evan Williams

When we got started, we had eight participants.   What are the odds of anything ending in a tie?  Pretty good, as it turned out.

Heaven Hill vs. Heaven Hill

After the group completed their tasting of these two products – one new (expensive and difficult to find) and the other old (a discontinued bargain) – it was a tie.  Four preferred 7 year and four cast their lot for 6 year.  So, I re-poured the samples and let the participants re-taste and re-vote.  In the second go-around, the 7 year walloped the 6-year by a count of 7-1.  Everyone commented that it was a coin flip decision for them; it just happened that more of the coins landed on 7 than 6.  To me, this says that there is a marginal difference between the quality and taste of the two products. 

A.D. Laws vs Old Grand Dad

I like to throw something into blind tastings that the participants haven’t had before.  The A.D. Laws certainly fit that bill, but faced a wily veteran in Old Grand Dad.  We ended up with a 4-4 tie on this one, too.  I was beginning to think the guys were planning it that way just to get more Bourbon!

In the re-taste / re-vote one person changed their choice and A.D. Laws would advance.  A.D. Laws was easily the most divisive Bourbon of the night and maybe the most divisive Bourbon our group has ever shared.  This is a four-grain, bottled-in-bond (60% corn / 20% heirloom wheat / 10% heirloom rye / 10% malted barley) and it has very distinct chocolate notes on the palate.  It was definitely a love-it-or-hate-it whiskey.  It got just enough love to move on in the bracket.

Wilderness Trail Wheated vs. Wilderness Trail High Rye

I couldn’t decide which Wilderness Trail product to include in the bracket, so I went with both.  There was a clear consensus of opinion on this one.  The High Rye was the top choice by a 6-2 count.  Comments from the group certainly gave a lot of love to its wheated brother, but the high rye was the decisive winner and would advance.

New Riff vs. Evan Williams

They say repeating a championship is more difficult than winning the championship in the first place.  It’s true in sports.  It’s true in Bourbon. Last year’s champ, New Riff, went down to one of the most underrated Bourbons on the planet: Evan Williams bottled-in-bond. EW won by a 5-3 margin.  Take heart, New Riff.  No one can take last year’s title away from you.

Final Four

Heaven Hill 7 year vs. A.D. Laws

By the time we started the Final Four, a late-comer joined the group (so…no more ties).  The five tasters who stood by A.D. Laws in the first round, stayed by A.D. Laws in the Final Four.  Heaven Hill’s 7 year fell 5-4 to A.D. Laws.

Wilderness Trail High Rye vs. Evan Williams

The experienced bottom-shelfer could not get past the young stud.  Evan Williams could only muster two votes as Wilderness Trail garnered seven and moved on to the Finals.

Finals

A.D. Laws vs. Wilderness Trail High Rye

All good runs come to an end.  Cinderella turned into a pumpkin…or something like that.  The unlikely journey to the BFBIBBTB Finals is over.  The loyal following gathered by A.D. Laws couldn’t survive the momentum of Wilderness Trail.  By a score of 7-2, Wilderness Trail High Rye claimed the crown of 2020 Bottled in Bond champ. 

Both Wilderness Trail bottled-in-bond products are very good and their cask strength rye may be my favorite of anything they produce.  In a very short time, it seems Wilderness Trail has become synonymous with quality whiskey.  There are a small handful of distilleries that are on a considerable roll right now (despite COVID-19) and Wilderness Trail is certainly one of those.  In a very short time, Shane Baker and Pat Heist have made their brand into one that truly moves the needle.  Congratulations to Wilderness Trail High Rye Bourbon, deserving of the title: Best Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon for 2020.

America and Independence 2020

This article is not about Bourbon, but bear with me for a few minutes, please.  While I’m not writing about America’s native spirit, I believe this post is about the spirit of America.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence at once dissolved ties with England and established a principle and a creed for the Nation they had just created.  It was a standard for America to live up to.   It was a goal that still needed to be reached even after the Revolution against England was complete. This Declaration of Independence was, and is still, a statement of hope.  

Douglass (1852)

Hope was found in The Declaration by Frederick Douglass.  In 1852 (nearly a dozen years before the Emancipation Proclamation) Douglass delivered a landmark speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”. There are excerpts and dramatic readings of it on the internet, but they are heavily edited (you can find the full text here).  It deserves a complete read, but in summary, there are three “acts” to the speech.  The first act reminds the audience of the importance of American independence and the greatness of the founders.

“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.”

In the second act, Douglass rightly blasts people, politicians and preachers of the day for allowing slavery to continue in America.  “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”, Douglass asks.  The answer, obviously and unjustly, remained “no”. Douglass went on to paint a poignant picture of the hypocrisy and sin of the continued existence of slavery in a land claiming “all men are created equal”.

In the final act of this speech, Douglass returns to the Declaration of Independence:  “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”

Lincoln (1861)

In an 1861 speech, just weeks before the start of the Civil War, President Lincoln spoke of the hope derived from the Declaration: “I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this [nation] so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time.  It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.”

Throughout his career, Lincoln’s political compass was the Declaration of Independence.  He said this at a debate in 1858: “They [the Founders who issued the Declaration] meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all,—constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”

At that same debate, Lincoln went on to acknowledge “They (the Founders) did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”

King (1963)

Martin Luther King, Jr. in his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech (full text here) makes reference to the Declaration of Independence.  “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.”  King went on to accurately say that America had defaulted on that promissory note, “But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

King references the Declaration as part of his hope for America: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

2020

As we stand at July 4 of this notorious year, we hear calls to “cancel July 4th” and to tear down the monuments of the Founding Fathers.  The men who started this nation were not perfect.  Douglass knew it.  Lincoln knew it.  King knew it.  They, themselves, knew it.  The creed and principle they established, however, was and is still brave, brilliant and perfect:  All men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. 

Restating Lincoln on the Declaration: “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence”.  But, still having work towards it’s attainment does not mean we abandon the principle or those who established it.  On the contrary, hold those principles up higher to guide us.  Douglass says it much better: “I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost. From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day — cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.”

These rights spoken of in the Declaration are not derived from government.  They are derived from God.  Government’s role is to protect those rights…not to assign them, reassign them or cancel them.  The Divine source of our rights as Americans only enhances their value.  Protect them.  Hold them dearly.  Never take them for granted.

What I have attempted to do in this post is provide a little hope in the midst of a year full of despair.  And as some are now disparaging America, her founding and her Founders, remember who you are and what you are called to as an American.  In all of our personal and national imperfections we remain the greatest nation this world has ever known.  Raise a glass to the Founders, to Douglass, to Lincoln and to King.  Raise a glass to all who strive today to bring us closer to the “never perfectly attained” creed of the Declaration.  Raise a glass to hope in this year that sorely needs it.  God bless America and all those who protect her and call her home.  Cheers!

Westport Whiskey & Wine…Knob Creek Picks

The best whiskey store I know of is, fortunately, in my town of Louisville. That store is Westport Whiskey & Wine. Richard Splan and Chris Zaborowski opened Westport in 2008. The store has been known for an outstanding selection of store picks personally selected by Chris. Chris has an amazing palate and I trust his opinions on whiskey as much as anyone I know.

Westport also has a legendary tasting room offering some outstanding, highly-allocated whiskeys at remarkable values. Other stores try to copy this, but seem to regularly fall short by comparison.

The staff at Westport is also better than any other I know. From Emily Meadows (Chris’ daughter and store manager) to Emily “the other Emily” Holt to Stephen Gandolfi to Timothy Van Riper to J.J. Valentine and others…this group knows their stuff. It seems that even in the heart of Bourbon Country too many store have staff that can only tell you “Jack Daniels is their best selling Bourbon” and “we don’t have Blanton’s”. The gang at WWW know their stuff. They are friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. I couldn’t ask for much more than that.

Deck Pour Saturday Afternoon

So, I am taking a beautiful Saturday afternoon and spending some time on my deck with a few Westport Knob Creek picks and listening to Bill Withers (RIP). I pulled three different picks from my cabinet and poured them into unmarked cups to make this as “blind” as I could. I tasted each with the idea of ranking them. Before I get to that…a brief story.

I’ve been on two barrel picks and both have been with Chris and Westport Whiskey & Wine. The first was at Wild Turkey (three bottles: a Kentucky Spirit and two Russell Reserves). The second was at Jim Beam for Knob Creek (two bourbons and one rye). On the Knob Creek pick it was just Chris, Richard, two of the bar managers from Butchertown Grocery and me. The Beam employee managing the pick asked “has anybody not had a chance to pop a bung from the hole?” Like an idiot, I raised my hand. I didn’t read the room at all. Everybody else there had been on dozens to hundreds of picks. I run up there like a doofus and take the wooden mallet and start wailing away. I couldn’t bring myself to look behind me, but I’m guessing everyone was staring at their watches and giving Chris the evil eye for bringing such a noob on this pick. At one point the Beam guy said “No, stop hitting the bung. Hit beside it”. All I could say was “I’m trying!”. Well, I tried to say that. By that time I was out of breath and hoping that Jesus would send an angel down to pluck that bung out of the hole and end my embarrassment. At long last…the bung popped out (Thank you, Jesus) and everybody else could go on with their lives.

The two Bourbons that we selected that day are included in the trio I’m tasting today on my deck. The third they likely picked a lot more efficiently than the two I was involved with. Sorry, Chris.

Tasting: Knob Creek Picks

Here is the line-up in order of tasting:

Number 1: Barrel #8500 is a 9 year, 6 month selection picked on 8/12/19. This is the first one picked on the group I was with.

Number 2: Barrel #8496 is a 14 year, 9 month selection picked on 2/25/19.

Number 3: Barrel #8501 is also 9 year, 6 month in age and picked on 8/12/19. This is the second Bourbon we picked that day.

Number 1 was sweet on the nose. The taste was like a Bit-o-Honey candy: sweet and nutty. The finish was sweet as well with some nice spice kicking in, too.

Number 2 was very different from 1. It was leathery and floral on the nose with oak and pepper on the palate and finish. The extra age brings the oak.

Number 3 was also sweet on the nose. Instead of sweet with honey, it was sweet with vanilla and toffee. Some smoky oak and pepper were prominent in both the taste and the finish. The sweet was still there, but not as much at Number 1.

While I enjoy the second, I am not, personally, a big fan of oak in my whiskey. So, I would rate this one third of the three even though it is still an outstanding Bourbon that I enjoy.

I really can’t decide between number 1 and number 3. I am thankful to have been on picks with two outstanding whiskies like these. Number 1 is actually from the barrel that I beat the living crap out of with the wooden mallet, so I have a soft place in my heart for that one. So, I’ll call it my favorite.

Both 1 and 3 (barrels 8500 and 8501 are available now at Westport now. I know people flock to 15 year old Knob Creeks like a mob to toilet paper during a pandemic, but these 9 year old Bourbons have much more complexity and sweetness than the 15 year, in my opinion. Stop by and pick one up while you can.

The folks at Westport are doing some creative things right now in light of practically everything being shutdown. They are still open and offer delivery and some “grab and go deals” that you can find by clicking here. I would encourage you to “support local” at this time especially. In this case “supporting local” will also get you the best that you can hope to find in terms of whiskey quality and customer service. Here’s to hoping we can gather in the tasting room at Westport, again, sometime soon.

Blind Tasting Is Truth

Like me, Galileo is a fan of blind tastings. Because, you see, blind tastings are truth. There is no label bias. No influence of Bourbon journalists. No social media pressure. It’s simply you, the whiskey and what you like. What you really like.

At a recent Bourbon Fellowship we had thirteen guys participate in two blind tastings. The “Bourbon experience” level in the group ranged from novice to what I would consider to be sophisticated. They were given no clues about what they were tasting other than the liquid in front of them was, in fact, Bourbon. There were three Bourbons in each flight and they were instructed to rank them 1st, 2nd and 3rd. The results were surprising to both me and Galileo.

Blind Tasting #1

For the first tasting I decided to explore the wheated mashbill from Buffalo Trace. The Bourbons included were Weller Special Reserve, Old Weller Antique and Pappy Van Winkle 15 year. The results:

While none of these Bourbons are easy to find, the one that is the most difficult to locate and will cost you $1000 on the secondary market finished last. LAST! And with only one 1st place vote along the way.

Galileo: “I just discovered the moons of Jupi…wait, Pappy’s finished last?

Blind Tasting #2

For the second tasting I also picked on a highly-allocated Buffalo Trace product. I matched Blanton’s against Cooper’s Craft (82.2 proof) and JTS Brown bottled-in-bond. The results:

While the betting favorite (Blanton’s) came out on top in this flight, it was by a very slim margin. Some of the more experienced palates in the group actually preferred Cooper’s over Blanton’s. So, the question at hand: Is it worth hours of hunting to get Blanton’s when other less expensive and more readily available Bourbons may be close to it in terms of your actual taste preference?

Can we draw definitive conclusions here? Probably not. If the same group tasted the same Bourbons a day later the results could be different. Likewise, if another group did the same blind tastings the order of finish would likely not be the same.

What we can conclude is that blind tastings do reveal truth. Or if that goes too far for you, blind tastings at least dispel myths: well-entrenched, very expensive myths. And unlike Galileo, you don’t have to suffer the wrath of the Inquisition to do so.

These blind tastings were a lot of fun. The group seems to really enjoy them. I would encourage you to do these with friends in small or large groups. You are sure to learn a few things and have a good time while doing it.

Kevin Rose

Three Things of Five – 2019

Need a last minute Christmas gift? Here are five new whiskies for 2019 I’d recommend. Need something to listen to driving over the river and through the woods to or from Grandmother’s house? Here are five new albums I loved in 2019. Need something to watch while sitting around the house in a food coma? Here are five streaming ideas for you.

Top Five New Whiskies of 2019

I’ve selected five whiskies that were new releases in 2019 that would be great last minute Christmas gifts or excellent bottles to share at a New Year’s party. This list is comprised of whiskies that, if they are distributed in your market, should be very easy to find.

  1. Four Roses Small Batch Select ($55): Brent Elliott and the gang at Four Roses simply can’t miss. This is the first new permanent addition to the Four Roses lineup in a dozen years and it is outstanding. The only thing wrong with this one is I am currently out. So, if you are still wondering what you can get me for Christmas…
  2. Booker’s ($70): Including Booker’s is cheating somewhat, but my blog…my rules. Jim Beam releases four unique batches of Booker’s each year, so technically speaking Booker’s has four new whiskies each year (technically). Nevertheless, I love Booker’s and each of the four batches in 2019 were terrific. As a gift, Booker’s high proof deliciousness always fits.
  3. Old Forester Rye ($20): Old Fo outdid itself this year with the release of their first-ever rye whiskey. They very easily could have charged double the price, but, thankfully for us, they did not. In an age when most distilleries are contriving every excuse they can to raise prices, let’s give credit to Old Forester for bucking that trend. Plus, this is a very tasty rye whiskey that would be a welcome addition to any one’s cabinet.
  4. Wilderness Trail High Rye Bourbon ($70): Some outstanding whiskey is coming from Shane Baker and Pat Heist down in Danville, Kentucky. They introduced the third whiskey to their lineup (a bottled in bond, high rye Bourbon) in the Spring of this year and it is every bit as good as their wheated bottled in bond and their rye. Get on the Wilderness Trail before it gets too crowded.
  5. Legent ($35): This one may be a surprise addition to this list. This new product from Beam-Suntory is Bourbon finished in sherry and wine casks and then blended with more Bourbon. I am not typically a fan of finished whiskies, but I liked this one. More details on it can be found on my profile of Legent written for the ABV Network.

Top Five Albums of 2019

Music, even more so than whiskey, is a matter of individual preference. If you tell me a whiskey or two that you like, I can probably recommend several others you’ll enjoy. If you tell me a few musical artists you like, if I haven’t heard of any of them then I’m no help to you. Regardless, here are my favorite albums from the year. With Spotify and Apple Music it is really easy for you to give them a try.

Photo: Scott Willis Photography
  1. Trigger Hippy, “Full Circle and Then Some”. This rock/country/soul album is so easy and fun to listen to. Trigger Hippy is the brain child of Steve Gorman, founding member and drummer for The Black Crowes. I just saw them live last weekend which is an experience I’d highly recommend, too.
  2. The Raconteurs, “Help Us Stranger”. Of all the Jack White musical vehicles, The Raconteurs is probably my favorite. So, I had high expectations when this album dropped in 2019 after an eleven year wait. This album is musical genius from start to finish and the best Jack White associated album since The White Stripes “Elephant” (and that is saying a LOT).
  3. The Black Keys, “Let’s Rock”. I didn’t care much for The Black Keys 2014 release, “Turn Blue”. This new album, however, was a great comeback to me. It is a nice blending of modern Keys albums (“El Camino” and “Brothers”) and old-school Keys (“Thickfreakness” and “Magic Potion”).
  4. Rival Sons, “Feral Roots”. This is one of those bands that I like that I don’t get why they aren’t more popular. They have a funky-Led Zeppelin vibe. Vocally and musically this band is strong and Mike Miley may be the best drummer in rock music right now.
  5. Tedeschi Trucks Band, “Signs”. This is THE best live band in music today. There isn’t a close second. Their latest studio album, “Signs”, is still a showcase for their musical talent, but nothing like seeing them live. As Steve Gorman once told me: “Susan Tedeschi is the best singer and Derek Trucks is the best guitarist. It’s hardly fair to any other band out there”.

Five Things to Stream

I’m not putting the obvious on the list. You already know about “The Office”, “Parks and Rec” and “Friends”. So, here are a few other shows to check out (or revisit) if you haven’t already.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Georgetown University
  1. Mike Birbiglia, “The New One” (Netflix): Mike Birbiglia is a supremely talented stand-up comedian. His shows are both hilarious and extraordinarily well-crafted. The entire stand-up is the telling of one story with clever rabbit trails and funny tangents brilliantly woven into the tale.
  2. Dave Chappelle, “Sticks and Stones” (Netflix): This special from Chappelle was viewed controversially upon its release because he pulls no punches (to the left, to the right, to you, to me and to himself). It is a very crude brand of humor, which is why I have not watched it…twice. Still, this is not for the easily offended.
  3. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (Hulu): I wasn’t a fan of Andy Samberg when he was on SNL, but I gave his sitcom a chance when it came out in 2013 and I am glad I did. Samberg is very funny in it and the writing is fresh and clever. Andre Braugher (who I loved in Homicide: Life on the Street) is surprisingly terrific as a comedic actor, too.
  4. “Fargo” (Hulu): The FX Series loosely based on the Coen Brothers movie of the same name is extremely well-written and a case study in character acting. There are three seasons available to stream and each is a unique story line unto itself. Season One is my favorite with stellar performances from Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks. Good news: in 2020, we have the release of Season Four to look forward to.
  5. “Seinfeld” (Hulu): As I was writing an article on “Festivus” I got sucked in to the Seinfeld world again. For a show about nothing, it has a lot of hilarious plot lines for us to enjoy.

I hope some of these recommendations help you enjoy time off from work or time spent with family during this holiday season. If you have any feedback or other suggestions, please share them with me. On behalf of me and my family I want to wish a very Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Kevin Rose

Just Say No…

Jason is one of the funniest and most talented guys I know. He’s a musician, he’s a fantastic cook and he can effortlessly make better any gathering he’s a part of. We’re fortunate enough to have Jason as part of The Bourbon Fellowship but, aside from tailgating back in his college years, he is relatively new to Bourbon. The wonderful things about that are: (1) He thinks I know a lot about Bourbon and (2) He is willing to ask anything. That second one…that can make for some interesting discussions in our group.

A couple of weeks ago Jason asked: “Is it fair to tell someone to not use your good whiskey as a mixer?” Many of you may be hosting parties around the holidays and this very issue may be one you have to deal with. We discussed this at Bourbon Fellowship and this was the consensus opinion:

1. Just say no. If someone wants to take your William Larue Weller and mix it with Yoo-Hoo, you are well within your rights as host and owner of that bottle to nip that in the bud. The “drink what you want, how you want” rule applies to Bourbon you paid for. If someone wants a mixer, then it is quite reasonable to direct them towards a nice bottom-shelfer you’ve included on the table.

2. Know your crowd. If your invitation list is full of people who understand and respect Bourbon then you can feel a little more at ease about what to put out as your whiskey lineup for the party. Say we have a Bourbon Fellowship New Year’s party. I trust these guys to not be looking at the good Bourbon as something to liven up their Ale 8.

Like Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett, Michter’s 10
and Dr. Pepper are great separately
but never really fit together.

3. Know your crowd (part two). If your invitation list has some who are unlearned in the ways of Bourbon (or if you just aren’t sure where they fall on the Bourbon spectrum) then leave the “good stuff” in the cabinet. That way if they want to spike the eggnog you don’t have a vein start pounding in the middle of your forehead when they reach for your Birthday Bourbon.

4. Call an audible. Say it’s your wife’s book club holiday party. The other husbands that couldn’t find an excuse to not come actually turn out to be good dudes who like Bourbon. (Let’s be realistic…one of them turns out to be a good dude who likes Bourbon). Sneak out some of the good stuff and make a discreet pour or two.

5. Don’t be “that guy”. While you have the right to set the ground rules you don’t have to be a jerk about it. If you need to re-direct someone, subtlety and discretion are useful skills. Embarrassing someone or mocking their lack of Bourbon knowledge is a d-bag move. At the end of the day, people and relationships are, of course, more important than any Bourbon

With a little planning and a generous spirit you can make the sharing of your whiskey line-up the best part of any party (holiday or otherwise). Most of us like to share our bottles and love to let others try new things and help them learn more about Bourbon. Part of learning more about Bourbon, however, is understanding that you don’t take another man’s allocated whiskey and mix it with your Dr. Pepper. No means no.

I want to wish you all a very Merry Christmas. We are all blessed more than we deserve (at least I am). I hope you have a wonderful time with family and friends as we celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Kevin Rose

Happy Birthday, Bourbon Elvis

Jimmy Russell is Bourbon Elvis (sans white jump suit).  He is the rock star of Bourbon rock stars.  The celebrity of Bourbon celebrities.  The master distiller’s Master Distiller.  Today is Jimmy’s birthday.  Long live The King.

Lots of people have Jimmy Russell stories.  I have a few of them myself, but will try to limit this post to a couple and avoid tangents into others.  Otherwise, we may be here awhile.

Jimmy and me. Best of friends.

I first met Jimmy on June 16, 2018.  (I realize that isn’t that long ago, but I’m fairly new to Bourbon.)  It was the 10th anniversary celebration for Westport Whiskey & Wine in Louisville and it was hot.  It was fry-an-egg-on-your-forehead, sweat-through-your-underwear kind of hot.  Despite the heat, there is Jimmy Russell:  Wiping his sweat on a scarf and tossing it to the crowd (he didn’t really do that).  But, Jimmy was there.  He was there to support Chris Zaborowski and Rich Splan, the owners of Westport.  And he was there to meet Bourbon fans like me.  He sat under that tent for four hours shaking hands, smiling and answering the same questions a hundred different times with an enthusiasm like it was the first time he had heard it.  All the while, Jimmy was just sweating it out with us commoners.

The most recent time I saw Jimmy was almost a year later: June 13, 2019.  Jimmy was again at Westport Whiskey & Wine, but this time with his son, Eddie, and his grandson, Bruce.  They weren’t promoting anything specific.  They were just there to share a few pours while taking some pictures and talking Bourbon with Wild Turkey fans.  My older son and I were sure to get a picture with the Russells.  The three generations of Russells with two generations of Roses.  At the time, my son and his wife were expecting so the third generation Rose was on his way.  My grandson was born just a few days shy of sharing a birthday with Jimmy.  So, join me in raising a glass of something Wild Turkey for Jimmy’s birthday.  Here’s to many more years, many more stories and many more Bourbons.  Cheers, Jimmy, and thank you.  Thank you very much.

Families photo: Three generations of Russells. Two generations of Roses with the third on the way.

When you drink Wild Turkey you can’t help but think of Jimmy and all he means to the world of Bourbon. Raise a glass and give a cheer for Jimmy any time you’re sipping Wild Turkey, but especially on his birthday.

Kevin Rose