Authors Posts by Geoff Kleinman

Geoff Kleinman

+Geoff Kleinman, is the founder, and managing editor of He is a nationally recognized spirits columnist, a reviewer for Whisky Advocate Magazine and has contributed to Playboy Magazine. Geoff is Bar Certified with the Beverage Alcohol Resource Group, has judged many major spirits and cocktail competitions and is a Kentucky Colonel.

GQ Drinks Cocktail Book
GQ Drinks Cocktail Book

When asked what all-around solid cocktail book we’d recommend, we often point to David Wondrich’s Esquire Drinks. The problem with Esquire Drinks is that it’s out of print and increasingly difficult to find. We also frequently reference King Cocktail, Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail, which are both excellent books. Simon Difford’s Cocktails: The Bartender’s Bible could have been a definitive tome were it not for recipes delineated by “shots” rather than ounces or milliliters.

Into this void steps Paul Henderson, one of the senior editors at GQ UK, who assembled a collection of 150 key cocktails into a stunning cocktail book that is simply seductive. Hardcover bound with a lie flat binding, the GQ Drinks book is as well assembled as any cocktail book we’ve seen. Broken down by spirit category, each recipe is clearly laid out with a concise introduction and clear directions.

The curation of cocktails in GQ Drinks is its strong suit as it brings together gold standard classics (Old Fashioned, Mint Julep, Margarita, and Moscow Mule), drinks that deserve to be classics (The Bramble and Tommy’s Margarita), complex modernist cocktails (Leather Aged Boulevardier, Claro Fandango and Enlightened Botanist ), and alcohol-free drinks (Virgin Southside, Aztec Hot Chocolate, and Lavender Fizz). As with any cocktail book, GQ Drinks also has a few “what the hell where they thinking drinks” like T.B.C. (Tequila Beer Chaser), which is effectively a beer and a shot, and Pink Bamboo, which has sake infused with grasshopper!

Stunning Image From GQ Drinks (Photo: Romas Foord)
Stunning Image from GQ Drinks (Photo: Romas Foord)

The cocktail recipes in GQ Drinks range in difficulty from combining a few ingredients to extremely complex homemade syrups, tinctures, and even vaporizing. All recipes are listed in both imperial and metric, something essential for any modern cocktail book. The biggest problem with GQ Drinks is that it has gone way overboard selling brand space in the book. Every single cocktail has brand-specific spirits attached, and they haven’t been picked because they are the best spirit for the cocktail – they’re in there because brands paid for them. The book is pretty egregious with this and even goes so far as to brand some of the cocktail names, so the Sazerac isn’t just a Sazerac but the “Thomas H. Handy Sazerac”, and the Daiquiri isn’t a just a Daiquiri, it’s a “Plantain Daiquiri” (of course with Plantation Rum). We understand the economics of the publishing industry all too well, but when a book is so shamelessly brand bought, it undermines its credibility.

Perhaps the most glaring example of absolute brand whoring is the cocktail recipe for the Negroni, which calls for Tanqueray No. 10 Gin, Martini Gran Lusso, and Marini Bitter. All of these are great products, but the Negroni is Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin. Omitting Campari and swapping in an ultra high end, limited edition vermouth is nothing short of shameless. Another face slapper is the cocktail recipe for Tommy’s Margarita, which calls for Jose Cuervo Reposado. We’ve been to Tommy’s and know Julio Bermejo, the creator of the drink, it’s hard to imagine he’d ever use Cuervo in his cocktail (unless a customer asked). It’s often Pueblo Viejo or Don Julio, and it’s typically BLANCO tequila.

It’s such a shame that such a beautiful book of well-curated cocktails is so eviscerated by brand sales. GQ Drinks is a reminder that there is still a market for well curated, well laid out, and concisely described cocktails. Perhaps Esquire will get inspired and have David Wonderich do another edition of Esquire Drinks. Until then we’ll be using our well tattered and worn copy.

GQ Drinks will be available on November 4th at the list price of $29.99.

Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila
Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila

With the explosion in popularity of American Whiskey, other spirit categories have tried to ride whiskey’s coattails with crossover offerings aimed squarely at whiskey consumers. The most common way for non-whiskey brands to do this is with oak, namely via the now extremely pervasive “Black Barrel”.  Basically, by extra-aging a spirit in a deeply charred barrel, that spirit gets an infusion of strong oak and color, and seemingly, instant whiskey consumer friendliness.

The list of brands to “go black” is fairly long and includes such major releases as  Johnnie Walker Double Black, Jameson Black Barrel, Captain Morgan Black, and Mount Gay Black Barrel.

Tequila producers have also been eyeing that whiskey consumer, and there has been a dramatic increase in anejo and extra anejo releases aimed at them, including Tequila Avion Reserva 441800 Milenio, and Gran Patron Piedra. Much of the movement in the tequila space has been aimed at the high end whiskey consumer. Jim Beam/Suntory (owners of the Hornitos Brand) deeply understand the lower end of the price spectrum and have seized the opportunity to bring a lower priced tequila offering aimed at the value-driven whiskey consumer.

Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila takes the standard Hornitos anejo tequila aged for a year in traditional oak barrels and then finishes that tequila in heavily charred American Oak casks for four months, and then moves it to a toasted American Oak barrel for another two months. The aim here is to get some deep color and oak from the heavily charred barrel and then additional sweetness from the toasted oak barrel.

Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila (40% ABV / 80 proof, $29.99, NOM 1102) is dark gold in color and visually could easily be mistaken for an American whiskey. The nose, however, is decidedly tequila, with black pepper, vanilla, and roasted agave mixed in with old oak. While the oak notes in the nose are fairly strong, they don’t completely obliterate the core tequila aromas.

The entry for Hornitos Black Barrel is oak forward, but it has some sense of balance with roasted agave, black pepper, and caramel. It’s really here in the entry where this tequila is at its best. As we move on to the midpalate, the pepper spice increases, ultimately outpacing the oak. The midpalate is all about pepper kick – it’s black pepper, white pepper, clove, habanero, and then oak. There is an undercurrent of sweet agave to help balance all this spice out and it does a fair job of it, until the end of the midpalate when the spice and heat overtake everything else.

Perhaps the weakest part of the Hornitos Black Barrel equation is its finish. It’s a little hot and overly dry. The flavors established in the midpalate evaporate, leaving a slightly bitter combination of white pepper, oak, and raw agave.

One of the things that Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila has going for it is its price. At $30 a bottle, this Hornitos is really more of a mixing tequila than sipping, and it is an easy tool to create variations on classic whiskey cocktails: a teaspoon of agave, a couple dashes of bitters, Hornitos Black Barrel, and some ice and you’ve got a delicious take on the Old Fashioned. It’s mixed, or with ice, that Hornitos Black Barrel really shines.

We don’t think that anyone would argue that Hornitos Black Barrel Anejo Tequila is amazing tequila, but Beam Suntory (the brand’s owners) haven’t priced it as such. Hornitos Black Barrel is an interesting riff on anejo tequila aimed squarely at American whiskey drinkers. Like Diageo did with Captain Morgan Black, Hornitos has kept their core audience in mind and released a product that extends the core product’s familiar flavors into new crossover territory. 81 Points


Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 Amontillado Edition Whisky
Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 Amontillado Edition Whisky

Every year Laphroaig releases something special for the members of its affinity program “Friends of Laphroaig” under the moniker Cairdeas (which is Scottish Gaelic for friendship).  Sometimes these releases can be quite hard to come by, and we’re told that the supply for the 2014 Laphroaig Cairdeas Amontillado Edition is much smaller than last year’s Port Wood Edition.

For the 2014 Cairdeas release, Laphroaig’s Master Distiller John Campbell uses an uncommon finishing barrel, Amontillado sherry. Amontillado is a drier style of sherry than Oloroso (which is the most commonly used sherry barrel for whisky) and it brings salinity, citrus, and a nuttiness to the equation. Unlike many of the non-age stated releases on the market, Laphroaig has been completely forthcoming about the age of this year’s Cairdeas malt: it’s an 8 year old single malt which spent 7 years in ex-bourbon barrels before spending a year in Amontillado sherry hogshead casks.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 Amontillado Edition (51.4% ABV / 102.8 Proof, $74.99) – golden orange in color, the nose of this year’s Cairdeas leads with Laphroaig’s signature ashy campfire peat smoke, which is balanced by lemon peel, salt, almond, and iris. In addition to its campfire qualities, the peat in the Amontillado edition also has a slight rubbery note to it.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 is flavorful right out of the gate with ashy peat smoke combining with salt, honeysuckle, almond, and lemon peel. While there’s a hint of honey sweetness, the opening is fairly dry.  The ashy campfire peat smoke introduced in the entry ramps up fairly quickly towards the midpalate where it’s met with some solid spice including black pepper, leather, clove, and oak. The level of salinity also increases into the midpalate.

Surprisingly, the dry citrus, floral, and subtle sweet notes from the opening manage to balance out the intense smoke and spice. It’s a delicate balance, but somehow it works. Towards the end of the midpalate, the smoke and spice notes come to a crescendo with the addition of some heat from the spirit. It’s really here that we really get any sense of the proof of this whisky. Up till this point, you’d be hard pressed to pick this out as 51.4%. The finish for Laphroaig Cairdeas is long, ashy, smokey, slightly acidic, and dry.

There’s a lot to really respect about this year’s Laphroaig Cairdeas release – not only has Laphroaig disclosed the actual age of this release (8 years), they’ve kept the price consistent with the previous year’s release. When you compare the Laphroaig Cairdeas release at $75 to the recent Ardbeg Committee Supernova Release at $180, you realize that Laphroaig is trying to reward its loyal fans, not fleece them.

Laphroaig Cairdeas 2014 Amontillado Edition isn’t the out of the park home run that last year’s Port Wood Edition was, but it’s a very well crafted exploration of Laphroaig’s core ashy peat. The Amontillado brings some interesting things to the equation, and for Laphroaig fans who love its signature ashy peat, this will be quite a treat. 90 Points.

Ardbeg Supernova 2014 Whisky
Ardbeg Supernova 2014 Whisky

Ardbeg has made quite a big deal over blasting a small amount of whisky into space. From a scientific point of view, it’s an interesting experiment aimed at discovering the effect of gravity on the maturation process of whisky. From a practical perspective, though, Ardbeg’s space program is extremely small, limited to a few vials of their whisky, so little that no consumers will ever get to try this space-traveled spirit.

This fact hasn’t stopped Ardbeg from releasing a number of spaced-themed whiskies to celebrate their journey into space. In 2012, a year after Ardbeg launched their whisky into space, they launched Ardbeg Galileo 1999 Whisky.  Now, with the return of their cosmic traveled whisky to terra firma, Ardbeg has brought back one of their most popular space themed whiskies: Ardbeg Supernova.

This time around, Ardbeg Supernova is getting a release as Committee Release (Ardbeg’s loyalty program) SN2014. The 2014 Ardbeg Supernova is different from previous Supernova Releases (a committee release in 2009 and wide release in 2010) in that it has a greater amount of sherry-finished whisky and, from our tastings, a significant increase in younger malt in the blend.

Ardbeg Supernova Single Malt Whisky [Committee Release SN2014] (55% ABV / 110 Proof, $180) – as you’d expect from a whisky whose peat rating is at 100ppm, the nose from the 2014 Supernova is solid peat, but the peat here is more vegetal, barnyard peat than peat smoke. Even at this peat level, Ardbeg Supernova smells a lot less like a campfire than your everyday Laphroaig. Underneath the peat are the clear aromas from the sherry cask including a solid nuttiness, dark fruit, and vanilla. There’s something about the way that the sweet aromas mix with vegetal and smoke that’s reminiscent of mezcal. Supernova’s high proof is also apparent in the nose which does a nice job of amping up the aromas without giving a lot of alcohol burn.

The entry for Supernova is a lot lighter and thinner than we’d expected. Instead of a peat bomb (which we ultimately get in the midpalate), the entry is a muted mix of honey, dark fruit, dark chocolate, and light peat. The thin and unremarkable entry is a disconnect from what we expect from Ardbeg Supernova.

It isn’t until the midpalate that we get the real strength of Supernova. It is here that the peat bomb finally goes off and we get the strongest amount of smoke supported by black pepper and ginger spice. In many ways the midpalate feels like a bomb – a blast of spice and smoke without any real sense of continuity or integration. After the bomb goes off, Ardbeg Supernova gets dry and puckery which drives the finish that is long with the smoke from the midpalate hovering on the palate for quite some time.

The 2014 Ardbeg Supernova is nothing short of disappointing. Ardbeg has established the Supernova line as one of their showcase series, and they’ve priced it accordingly at $180 a bottle, but the 2014 release pales in comparison to the 2009 and 2010 releases. Part of the problem with this Ardbeg Supernova is the sheer amount of young malt in the blend.

When it comes to peated whisky, young malt isn’t a bad thing, as young peated whisky can offer a lot of interesting elements to the equation. But the young malt in the 2014 Ardbeg Supernova isn’t balanced out with deeper, older malt. The result is a whisky that tastes young, thin, and one dimensional. It’s unfair to hold up a 2014 blend against a 2009 or 2010, since the malt stocks and demand are vastly different now than they were back then, but for $180 we’d expect much more from this release. Following on the heels of Ardbeg Auriverdes, Ardbeg Supernova 2014 should give Ardbeg fans genuine concern. Could Ardbeg have a significant problem on their hands in terms of older malt? From these two releases, it seems so. 80 Points

Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Bourbon Whiskey
Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Bourbon Whiskey

With the American Whiskey craze in full force, any time a distillery puts out something rare or old, there’s a going to be a great deal of expectation and frenzy surrounding it. Heaven Hill is sure to stoke those frenzy fires with their release of Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Single Barrel Bourbon. Heaven Hill has seen strong success releasing older, single barrel Elijah Craig whiskeys, first with their 20 year old Elijah Craig release in 2012 and then again with a 21 year old release last fall (which sold out extremely fast). One of the major issues with releases in this space is that American whiskey doesn’t age very well past 12 years. There are, of course, a few rare and notable exceptions to this, but they are indeed the exceptions. After about 9-12 years, most American whiskeys lose the battle with the barrel they are aged in and become overly oaked, unbalanced, and sometimes even downright unpalatable.

This reality hasn’t stopped whiskey collectors and enthusiasts from snapping up any and everything they can find that’s old. Part of this irrational consumption comes out the misconception that these whiskeys are going to be “worth a fortune” someday, that somehow older whiskey is better whiskey, and the seemingly undeniable pleasure some have of owning something other people don’t or can’t. It’s hard to fault whiskey companies from putting products out in a space with such fervent consumers, and for the most part Heaven Hill has done a pretty good job finding older whiskey that manages to maintain some sort of balance and deliver a pleasant taste experience.

Watch our video: Understanding Aged Bourbon with Larry Kass of Heaven Hill Distilleries for a good explanation of how the rare barrel can defy aging gravity and age differently than others.

Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Single Barrel Whiskey (45% ABV / 90 Proof, $199) is one of the oldest whiskeys that Heaven Hill has released under the Elijah Craig brand (although they’ve previously released a 25 year old under the Rittenhouse brand, as well as a 27 year old bourbon under the Parker’s Heritage Collection line). This release is two years older than last year’s release with a slight increase in price, now hitting the $200 mark. Since it’s a single barrel product, taste, character, and flavor notes may vary from barrel to barrel, but we’re confident that Heaven Hill has selected a range of casks with similar character (our bottle comes from barrel number 26 which was barreled on 2/26/90).

Deep amber in color, this whiskey is consistent in color with the extreme age of this whiskey. Oak is definitely the lead aroma out of the glass and it reads as dusty old oak with a touch of varnish. On the nose, Elijah Craig 23 Year Old isn’t just an oak bomb: beyond the oak there’s cinnamon, shortbread cookie, marzipan, and dried orange peel. On the entry, this whiskey also has a little more to offer beyond oak with vanilla, caramel, and cinnamon. The oak spice does ramp up pretty quickly, though, and by the time we get to the midpalate, it’s become undeniably strong oak. As with the nose, the midpalate features some counterpoint flavors which try desperately to balance out the oak, including clove, coconut, caramel, dark cherry, and orange peel, but you really have to break through the strong oak to get to them.  The finish for Elijah Craig 23 Year Old whiskey is slightly long and oaky with a touch of heat and touch of dark chocolate. It’s not as dry as you’d expect with all this age, but it’s oaky and deeply tannic.

As with their other older releases, Heaven Hill has found barrels of the old stuff that are interesting in some way beyond just being an oak bomb, and there’s a real effort here to create some sort of balance, especially with the the proofing. The problem, though, is that this whiskey is past its prime, and there’s just no denying the reality of age.

There’s no doubt that like its predecessor, the Elijah Craig 23 year old single barrel will be quickly snapped up by whiskey collectors and folks who try to chase age in their spirits. At $200, it’s well out of reach of the average whiskey consumer, and that’s just fine. There are far better whiskeys out there (including many from Heaven Hill) at much lower prices. Elijah Craig 23 year old single barrel isn’t designed for the everyday consumer, and odds are the folks who will end up buying this release won’t care how good or bad it really is, just that they managed to get their hands on some old rare stuff that no one else will get. That’s what the whiskey market has come to these days, and for the rest of us, we’ll enjoy such gems as Heaven Hill’s Evan William’s Single Barrel, which sells at literally 1/10th of the price. 89 points.

Tasting Whiskey by Lew Bryson
Tasting Whiskey by Lew Bryson

As many of you know, in addition to Drink Spirits, I also am on the Buying Guide team for Whisky Advocate Magazine. My managing editor there, Lew Bryson, is perhaps one of the most amazing figures in spirits media. Never have I met a more humble, loving, thoughtful writer with such an undeniable lust for life. When I found out that Lew was writing a book about whiskey, I knew it was going to be something very special, and it is.

Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits, which will be released on October 21, 2014, is a no-frills look at exactly what goes into making whiskey and how that impacts what you get in your glass. Lew’s guide goes further and helps the everyday spirits lover decode what exactly they are tasting and where in the process it’s coming from. Tasting Whiskey is written with the same kind of heart, humor, and insights that have defined Lew’s writing, both in whiskey and beer (where he’s helped foster the Session Beer movement).

When Story Publishing asked us if we’d like to give away three signed copies of Lew’s book, we jumped at the chance. Tasting Whiskey is a phenomenal book and we’re proud to give our readers the opportunity to try to win a copy.

Enter here for your chance to win one of three signed copies of Tasting Whiskey.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Once you’ve entered out giveaway, head over to Story Publishing’s site as they are giving away 2 tickets to 17th Annual WhiskyFest in New York (a $490 value)!

Maker's Mark Cask Strength Whiksey
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Whiskey

Here’s a head scratcher: why would a company that had a controversial announcement about lowering the proof of their core product due to production shortages (and then reversing that decision) go ahead and release a cask strength expression of their whiskey? The answer is Cask Strength Maker’s Mark Whiskey is only available in extremely small quantities, and only at the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, as well as a few select retailers in Kentucky. Even though it’s a small limited release, Cask Strength Maker’s Mark is an important release. Marker’s Mark is famous for their 50 year stretch as a single product company (which ended in 2010 with the release of Maker’s 46), so any time they bring out something new, it’s cause for significant attention. Released without an aged statement in 375 ml bottles, Cask Strength Maker’s Mark gives us a rare glimpse into the heart and soul of what makes Maker’s Mark the whiskey that it is.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon Whiskey (113.2 Proof / 56.6% ABV, $39.95 per 375ml) – Maker’s Mark’s nose is typically so soft and sweet, it’s a little bit of a surprise to nose Maker’s Mark Cask Strength and be hit by oak. The oak here isn’t overpowering, just much more pronounced than in the standard 90 proof version of Maker’s. The nose on Cask Strength Maker’s also features stronger cinnamon, deeper caramel, and a more pronounced wheat grain. There’s a subtle marzipan note in the nose that is more difficult to pick out in the standard release. Side by side with 90 proof Maker’s, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength makes the standard release seem very tame and restrained. Cask Strength Maker’s is fuller, spicier, and more inviting without being overly fiery.

Everything that makes Maker’s Mark so enjoyable is right there in the entry, with a foundation of sweet caramel that supports bright cinnamon and oak spice. Even at the beginning of the taste experience the integration of flavors is superb. Cinnamon spice builds sequentially towards the midpalate where it’s joined by wheat grain.  Here in the midpalate you have the core of what makes Maker’s Mark so affable: a combination of caramel, cinnamon, and wheat, all well balanced with great integration and solid flavor. Towards the end of the midpalate the cinnamon spice peaks and is joined by black pepper and clove. Even though it’s cask strength, the alcohol never loses its supporting role, and although there’s some heat here, it doesn’t eclipse the flavors. The finish is medium length and slightly dry, driven by the cinnamon spice, soft wheat, and black pepper. There’s a noticeable cooling effect on the finish, the hallmark of impeccable distillation.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is a gentle giant if there ever was one, and even though it’s over 50% alcohol, it never loses its easy, affable character. It’s easy to understand what a revelation it must have been in the 1950s when Maker’s first launched, even when tasted straight out of the barrel. A world with a cask strength edition of Maker’s Mark is a world we want to live in, and so we’re happy that the company has made the move to pull some whiskey from their stocks for this release (even as limited as it is). It’s unfortunate that Maker’s Mark isn’t able to make this a much wider release as Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is beautiful whiskey, brightly flavored, perfectly balanced, and oh so good. 97 points.

Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Whiskeys
Buffalo Trace Antique Collection Whiskeys

Buffalo Trace is home to some of the best bourbon in the world, and each year they release a showcase series under the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. These whiskeys are are all priced at $80 even though they span a wide range of ages and proofs, and are often incredibly hard to find.  The Antique Collection hits store shelves sometime between mid-September and October and is often quickly snapped up. Buffalo Trace deserves a lot of credit when it comes to moving the needle for American Whiskey: the company’s Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon was the first single barrel American Whiskey released, and their whiskey stocks are the base for some of the world’s most sought after spirits (including Pappy Van Winkle).

This year, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection is comprised of five whiskeys: George T. Stagg, William Larue Weller, Thomas Handy, Eagle Rare 17, and Sazerac 18. Instead of reviewing these whiskeys individually, we’ve decided to review them together in this one master review. We’re also doing something that many whiskey enthusiasts have asked us to do – giving them scores. Please let us know in the comments if scores likes these are something you’d like to see us do more. It’s a complex issue and we’ve shied away from them in the past.

George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (60.05% ABV / 138.1 proof, $80) – when someone asks which whiskey has made the biggest impression on us, the answer is always George T. Stagg. We’ll never forget the first time we had this whiskey and the fireworks that it produced. There are few whiskeys in the world with the sheer power of flavor that George T. Stagg produces. Last year, Buffalo Trace tried to make Stagg something that is more commonly available with Stagg Jr., but there’s simply no substitute for the real thing.

The 2014 George T. Stagg comes from Buffalo Trace’s warehouses C, H, I, K, L, P, and Q, and was distilled back in the spring of 1998 (making it ostensively a 16 year old whiskey). Buffalo Trace informs us that there will be more George T. Stagg on the market this year than last year. In 1997 they increased distillation for Stagg, which is good news, but the demand this year will undoubtedly be even higher than last, so it’ll still be a hot ticket to get.

The nose for the 2014 George T. Stagg is pretty oak forward with a slight varnished wood note along with old oak furniture. Beyond the oak is cinnamon, marzipan, coconut, and caramel. You can tell from the nose that this whiskey has some real power but the nose isn’t assaultive, just big. As always Stagg is a power punch right out of the gate, with the entry combining caramel, cinnamon, and monster oak.

Everything here is turned up to 11 – the caramel is lush, cinnamon spicy, and the oak strong. This year’s Stagg isn’t the smack across the face that some of the previous years have been, but more lush and round than previous years. The midpalate captures Stagg’s fire and it’s here where you’re getting the real impact of the 138 proof whiskey. Through much of the midpalate, Stagg manages to keep the caramel-cinnamon-oak balance, but things teeter at the end of the midpalate and come crashing down on the side of the oak. The finish is long and spotlights charred oak, overly tannic and slightly bitter – a slight left turn for an otherwise solid whiskey.

George T. Stagg is the archetypal power whiskey, and Buffalo Trace has again delivered another expression of George T. Stagg in that style. In many ways it’s a little bit of a head fake before the knock out punch. The entry is really good and we really like the integration between the strong flavors, but the end of the midpalate and the finish are over oaked. With so many other big oak releases out there, it may be what people are coming to expect, but it could have been handled with a little more finesse. Then again, Stagg is always more power than finesse.  A solid, but imperfect release that will appease Stagg fans, but fall short of winning a ton of awards. 91 points.

William Larue Weller Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (70.1% ABV / 140.2 proof, $80) – this year’s offering was distilled in the spring of 2002, making it a 12 year wheated old bourbon. This year’s release was aged on the second, third, fourth, and sixth floors of Warehouses D and K, and weighing in at 140.2 proof, it’s the strongest Weller release yet.

Whereas the George T. Stagg lead with oak and caramel, the William Larue Weller is much more acidic in the nose with orange peel, dried wheat, and dried apricot making up the core of the nose. Underneath are almonds, toffee, and dusty oak. The entry for William Larue Weller is not shy about showing off the monster proof here. It’s much stronger out of the gate than this year’s George T. Stagg, but like Stagg there’s a sense of lush caramel right from the start. The entry for William Larue Weller is really engaging and manages to be both sweet and spicy, and slightly acidic. The transition from opening to midpalate is seamless as the flavors introduced in the entry progressively build. In the midpalate things get a little more spicy with cinnamon, clove, and oak accompanied by Wheaties, blackberry, and caramel. At the end of the midpalate there’s a real wallop from the alcohol – it’s big, bold, and impressive, but doesn’t take you out of the experience.

The opening and midpalate set the stage for William Larue Weller’s crescendo, and when it comes, it’s really spectacular. The finish is, of course, dry, defined greatly in part by the alcohol blast at the end of the midpalate, and accompanied by toffee and sweet charred oak. The William Larue Weller takes water extremely well – a few drops intensifies the lushness of the whiskey.

Good whiskey has the ability to take you on a journey, and this year’s William Larue Weller does just that. It’s a more complete whiskey than this year’s George T. Stagg and ultimately a much better one. 95 points.

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye (64.4% ABV / 129.2 proof, $80) – along with George T. Stagg, Thomas H. Handy has always been one of the all-stars of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. There are few rye whiskeys on the market that are as big and bold as Handy. This year’s Handy was distilled in the spring of 2008, making it a 6 year old rye whiskey. The 6 year age is a bit of a sweet spot for rye whiskey, the same point that the grandmaster, Jimmy Russell, bottled his Russell’s Reserve. The 2014 release was aged on the fifth floor of Warehouse M.

From the first nosing it’s clear that this year’s Thomas H. Handy isn’t in the same universe as previous years’ releases. After a vapor shot, an odd vegetal note emerges – okra?!? Yes, okra (it’s not a note we’ve gotten from a whiskey in the past). Beyond that slightly off-putting note are some of the traditional rye whiskey notes like rye spice, caramel, cinnamon, and oak. There’s really no other way to put it, other than saying the nose for this year’s Handy is just odd. Fortunately, the vegetal note that was so apparent in the nose isn’t as dominant on the palate, but what is dominant is the oak. The experience of the opening is like chewing on a caramel covered pencil, lead and all. In the midpalate we get to spit the proverbial pencil out of our mouth and we get cinnamon, marzipan, and rye spice, but the opening is so off-putting that there’s nothing that follows that can fully redeem it. The finish is fairly long with a fair bit of heat that carries the cinnamon spice from the midpalate along with the rye and a dash of caramel. The overbearing wood is there, too, and it ultimately carries things to a bitter oak end.

Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye strongly benefits from adding water, which helps reduce some of the impact of the leaded pencil in the midpalate and enhances the caramel and cinnamon notes. Even with water the core issues are there, and the finish is still as heavy oak, fiery and bitter.

While Thomas H. Handy isn’t horrid, it’s not in line with the standard that Buffalo Trace has set for this brand. For us, this will be the benchmark whiskey in this collection for reviews. Read a review that raves about this misfire and you know that the reviewer may be rating the label more than the whiskey in the bottle. 83 points.

Eagle Rare 17 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (45% ABV / 90 proof, $80)  – Eagle Rare has always been an unsung hero of Buffalo Trace’s line, often underpriced and overlooked. It’s a little bit of a head scratcher that a 90 proof Eagle Rare is priced at the same price point as a 138 proof 16 year old Stagg and a 12 year old 140 proof Larue Willer. Perhaps Buffalo Trace has finally recognized the value of this brand and priced it accordingly. The 2014 edition was aged on the second, third, and sixth floors of Warehouses I and K.

The nose on this year’s Eagle Rare 17 year old leads with brown sugar and marzipan along with oak, orange peel, and cinnamon. The entry for Eagle Rare 17 is tightly integrated right from the start with cinnamon, brown sugar, and oak all perfectly entwined. The balance, integration, and presentation of flavors is exquisite and accompanied by a particularly pleasant mouthfeel. As we head toward the midpalate the oak spice ramps up, but it doesn’t steal the spotlight from the other flavor notes, especially the brown sugar and cinnamon, which do a great job of supporting the oak spice. The finish is long and slightly dry, driven by the oak, but again supported by the other flavors in the equation. The finish also has a slight coffee bean note added to the mix.

This year’s Eagle Rare release (like many of the other entries in the Eagle Rare line) proves that great whiskey doesn’t have to be so difficult: capture some nice flavors with balance, integration, a nice mouthfeel, and a good finish, and you’ve got a recipe for success. Eagle Rare continues its line of success with another standout release in this year’s collection. 93 points.

Sazerac Rye 18 Year Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (45% ABV / 90 proof, $80) – the nose on the Sazerac Rye is what we would have expected with the Thomas H. Handy. Rye grain leaps out of the glass along with clove, oak, ginger, mint, and caramel. The entry for Sazerac Rye is soft and round, capturing almost identically the aromas from the nose and presenting them as flavors on the palate, including rye spice, ginger, oak, mint, cinnamon, black pepper, and caramel. These flavors increase in the midpalate, but unlike the Eagle Rare they don’t lose the balance or integration established in the opening. Part of this is the sweet base of caramel and molasses which supports the rye, oak, cinnamon, ginger, clove, and black pepper spice. There’s a bit of an oak kick at the end of the midpalate with a touch of heat, but it fits well within the mix of flavors and helps give the Sazerac Rye some nice structure. Unlike this year’s Eagle Rare 17, the proofing for this year’s Sazerac Rye is spot on, balancing the flavors and heat perfectly.

The finish for the Sazerac Rye 18 is extremely long and fairly dry with the oak and rye spice at its core and the mint hovering right above. The mint and rye spice on the palate lingers around for a very long time after the whiskey has come and gone.  Sazerac Rye 18 is one of the most balanced and integrated whiskeys in this year’s collection. It’s not as stand-out spectacular as the William Larue Weller, but it’s much better than this year’s Thomas H. Handy, and ultimately it is very well-crafted whiskey. 92 points.

Most years, George T. Stagg and Thomas H. Handy are the stars of this collection, but this year the underdogs William Larue Weller, Eagle Rare 17, and Sazerac 18 are the real stars of the show. The biggest disappointment is, of course, Thomas H. Handy – it’s unclear what went wrong with this batch, but the hard truth is that not all years of whiskey are good years, and that is especially true with Handy. The pricing for the collection seems a little unbalanced, as well. It’s hard to understand how Buffalo Trace is selling a 138 proof 16 year whiskey at the same price ($80) as a 6 year old rye, and yet again at the same price as a 90 proof Eagle Rare, but given the price that like spirits are hitting the marketplace lately, it makes some of these older, stronger releases a “deal”. The problem, though, is that age and proof chasers won’t be as happy as those who cherry pick this collection. Nit picks aside, Buffalo Trace has again presented some very fine whiskeys in a collection that shows their real range and capabilities.

Reyka Vodka Distiller Thordur Sigurdsson
Reyka Vodka Distiller Thordur Sigurdsson

Iceland is an amazing country, forged by volcanoes and founded by Vikings, of only 300,000 people which sits at the meeting point of the North American and European tectonic plates. The volcanoes of Iceland (and there are many) really define the country, from the geography, how people live and work, and perhaps most profoundly, its water.

Hot Springs Used To Generate Power
Hot Springs Used To Generate Power

Iceland’s volcanic core creates a myriad of hot springs which pump large amounts of extremely hot water to the surface. Iceland has been very savvy about using this water to power steam electric generators to provide the majority of the country’s power needs. As a result, Iceland doesn’t have the need to burn fossil fuels or coal to generate energy (or heat their water), which helps make it one of the cleanest inhabited places on earth.

Natural Lava Filtration of Glacial Water
Natural Lava Filtration of Glacial Water

Given Iceland’s typography and its extreme northern location, giant glaciers dot the landscape and are a source of a tremendous amount of water in the country. The juxtaposition of glaciers and lava beds helps create a natural water filtration system which, combined with the pollution-free air, helps create some of the world’s best water. It’s really this water that makes Reyka Vodka so special.

When you buy a bottle of 80 proof vodka, the bottle only contains 40% of spirit, and the remainder is water. What water you put in there can have a significant impact on the final character of a spirit. Many vodka makers use highly filtered and often distilled water to dilute their vodka. Reyka simply uses untreated Icelandic water, the same that freely flows out of the tap. In almost any other part of the world, using tap water would be considered sub-par, but Icelandic tap water is like liquid gold, it’s just that good.

Iceland Imports and Exports A Lot
Iceland Imports and Exports a Lot

As with many things in Iceland, part of the Reyka equation comes from somewhere else. In this case it’s another island – Scotland, where William Grant & Sons ferment and distill white barley to create 96% ABV spirit. Some may take issue with the fact that this Icelandic Vodka has its first distillation in Scotland, but the kind of still that Reyka uses in Iceland, the Carterhead Still, isn’t capable of distilling up to the required strength to create vodka – this requires a column still. It’s not uncommon for vodka producers to use a grain spirit which has been initially distilled by someone else, including most notably Titos Vodka, Svedka, and in part, Ketel One Vodka.

Caterhead Still
Carterhead Still

Ironically, barley is a crop which grows in Iceland and is very much a part of the Icelandic culture, and it’s really the barley which works in concert with the Icelandic water to define Reyka Vodka. It is in the little town of Borgarnes, located 73 km outside of the capital city of Reykjavik, where Reyka really becomes Reyka Vodka. Here, one man, Thordur Sigurdsson, is completely responsible for creating every drop of Reyka Vodka. Thordur takes the barley spirit from Scotland, pre-heats it using a geothermic heat transfer system, and then loads it into a Carterhead Still for distillation. The Carterhead Still is a style of pot still that combines elements from traditional whisky and cognac stills with an additional chamber which can be used for the alcohol vapors to pass through something before condensation, typically botanicals for gin, but in Reyka’s case it’s lava rock. There are only six Carterhead stills in the world – William Grant & Sons owns three them, two of which are used to make Hendrick’s Gin and one is used for Reyka Vodka.

Geothermal Heat Transfer
Geothermal Heat Transfer

Using heat transfer to warm the barley spirit means there’s really not much ramp-up time in the still, reducing the chance of overheating the spirit, which could create a subtle burned note. As the spirit is warmed in the still it turns into vapor, where it passes through a number of plates that create condensation that aid in the distillation process. Reyka also goes the extra step to fill one of the plate chambers with stainless steel grommets, almost exactly like copper ones that Absolut uses for Absolut Elyx. These stainless steel grommets help create further condensation without adding any flavors or character to the equation.

Lava Rock Condenser
Lava Rock Condenser

At the top of the Reyka Carterhead Still is a unique lava rock basket that the distilled vapors pass through as they are being condensed into liquid. After condensation, the spirit is passed through another lava rock chamber, filtering it again as a liquid. Most vodka goes through some sort of filtering process, but this is often done after distillation. Reyka’s style of lava rock filtering is unique.

Second Lava Rock Filtration
Second Lava Rock Filtration

Once the spirit has flowed through the lava rock, it’s cut into head, heart, and tales with only the heart used to make Reyka Vodka. After distillation, unfiltered Icelandic water is added. This water is so prized that Martin Miller ships their gin to Iceland so that it can be blended and diluted with Icelandic water, and then bottled. For Reyka Vodka the journey doesn’t end there. Reyka is actually shipped back to Scotland and bottled at the William Grant & Sons bottling facility, which also serves Hendrick’s Gin.

Reyka Vodka
Reyka Vodka

The final result is a vodka which is slightly sweet, soft, and incredibly clean, with absolutely no minerality. Reyka Vodka maintains the character of Icelandic water while adding a touch of sweet barley grain to the mix. It’s a combination which stands up neat or chilled and is one of the few vodkas that can easily be enjoyed without mixing or diluting it in any way. Like Iceland, Reyka Vodka has been a fairly well kept secret since it launched in 2005, but like Iceland the word has started to get out about this vodka.
Watch our Behind The Scenes of Reyka Vodka for an in-depth look at the making of Reyka Vodka.

Also be sure to watch Fjalar Siguroarson as he explains the source for the elements of Reyka Vodka:

Garrison Brothers Texas Whiskey
Garrison Brothers Texas Whiskey

It’s hard not to respect the work that the Garrison Brothers are doing out in Hye, Texas. In an era where so many micro-distillers are using merchant whiskey from other states for their initial releases, it’s refreshing to see a distillery take a true artisan approach to their products. On each bottle of whiskey, Garrison Brothers proudly trumpet that it’s “cooked, distilled, barreled and bottled by Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Texas.” The Garrison Brothers are also excellent about disclosing what’s in the bottle. Our bottle of Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey states that it’s made from #1 panhandle white corn, harvested in 2010 from farms in Dallam County, distilled and barreled in 2010 and released in Spring of 2014, bottle number 18953. Aside from disclosing their exact mashbill (which, in addition to the corn, contains Winter Wheat grown on the Garrison Brother’s distillery ranch, as well as barley), that’s about as much information as you’re going to get on a bottle of whiskey.

In addition to providing so much information on the bottle, Garrison Brothers are quite savvy with their packaging. The Garrison Brothers Whisky bottle features the Texas lone star front and center on the bottle as well as embossed on the wax-covered top. Garrison Brothers have managed to skirt the Maker’s Mark “dripping wax” trademark by expertly squaring off the base of the wax on the bottle. Again, it’s a smart move from a distiller who seems to have a very clear vision of what they are doing.

Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey (47% ABV / 94 Proof, $70-$90) – dark amber in color, this two year old whiskey seems to have been aged in smaller barrels to give it more surface exposure and therefore more color in a shorter period of time. Using small barrels is also apparent on the nose, which leads off  with young wood, with an aroma like walking into one of those unfinished furniture stores. Underneath this wood is caramel, coconut, pecan, cornmeal, and a touch of cinnamon spice. Two years is pretty young for a whiskey and that youth is apparent on the nose, which has some nice aromas, but they’re not very well integrated. You also have to dig pretty hard past the young wood and sawdust to get to them.

The entry for Garrison Brothers whiskey follows on with the nose pretty closely, bringing together the sawdusty raw wood with dry cornmeal. The opening would be too dusty and dry were it not for the support of caramel, which helps give it some balance and rounds thing out for a pleasant mouthfeel. The midpalate shows some promise as it seems to blow off some of the sawdust notes from the entry in favor of some spice with clove, black pepper, and cinnamon. There’s also a slightly bitter note underneath which reads like dark chocolate or coffee grounds. It’s here where the alcohol rears its head with a dash of heat that gives the whiskey some solid structure, which further benefits the whole taste equation. The finish is medium length, driven by the heat in the midpalate, and features that slightly bitter and subtle dark chocolate note from the midpalate.

While there is some promise in the mix with this Garrison Brothers’ whiskey, it’s greatly hampered by the same things that tend to hamper most craft whiskeys: it’s too young and it’s been aged in too small barrels. There’s simply no replacing time when it comes to whiskey, and while Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey has nice elements, it’s just not ready. If Garrison Brothers put this whiskey in 55 gallon casks and let it age 4-6 years, blending those casks to a unified taste, they might have something really special. Unfortunately, this isn’t that whiskey. The price is also absolutely astronomical compared to the taste experience. Tasted side by side with another wheated bourbon, Larceny (which is less than half the price of Garrison Brothers), and it’s clear that while Garrison Brothers is an interesting whiskey, it’s just not nearly as actualized, integrated, balanced or delicious.

We respect the hard work of craft distillers, but Garrison Brothers Whiskey is another example of the need for craft distillers to be patient with their whiskey. When it comes to whiskey, there are simply no short cuts. Garrison Brothers has gone to great lengths to use quality, organic, locally sourced ingredients for their whiskey, and lovingly and painstakingly “cooked, distilled and barreled” them. Now they need to have what’s impossible to ask of a small, independently run distillery: patience, lots and lots of patience.