Whither Whisky Wind-down?

By far the most popular series I’ve written here is Whisky Wind-down.

The original, set in 2016, was my way of combining my love for whisky, my disdain for the events of 2016, and my fascination with advent calendars.

The result? 31 days of drinking, talking about random things, and really enjoying my own words again.

Through 2017, my writing tapered off again, but I got fired up at the end of the year, and I once again laid down a month’s worth of (almost completely consecutive) posts, even though I spent the last few days of that year traveling around Costa Rica.

Then the silence. I still haven’t explained that (and am perhaps inclined not to?) but for the next twenty months the newest post on the site remained 2017 Whisky Wind-down, 1: Life’s a Beach.

For all you knew, I had died on that beach. Or decided to live on it.

Anyway, I didn’t.

I spent the next year not writing here, and when December 2018 rolled around, a few people — I have fans! Tens of them! — wrote to me when Whisky Wind-down didn’t start that year. I told them (truthfully) things had been difficult but I still planned (honestly, I planned) to write a reduced 2018 Whisky Wind-down. At first I thought it would just have a late start. Then a late start became “maybe a top 10 list,” which became “maybe just one good, long post to wrap the year,” which became 10 months not writing anything at all here.

Well, I’m writing here again. And whether I ever get around to properly explaining the time I wasn’t writing here, I am, right now, enjoying myself again.

And I still drink whisky.

It’s my pleasure, therefore, to tell you to expect, in the coming days, Whisky Wind-down The Third: The Saga Continues, Following A Hiatus That Will Likely Not Be Elaborated Upon During This Series, Though You May Read With Eagerness Just In Case I Change My Mind, Or, Just, You Know, Read It Because You Like Reading Whisky Ruminations.

I’ll call it 2019 Whisky Wind-down, for short.

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 21: Tatanka! 

Today’s dram: Buffalo Trace, Single Barrel

Today’s tasting notes: So, this was acquired a bit by accident. We were running low on bourbon, but I didn’t feel like the longer drive to the excellent bottle shoppe where I normally shop. Instead I visited a local package store. It’s a pretty good store on its own, but it has a lesser selection. I wasn’t looking for anything special, though, just an inexpensive everyday bourbon. Buffalo Trace was about the best bet of what was on offer, but they were out of standard 750 ml bottles. They did, however, have one 1.75 liter bottle available. Though it was more than I intended to buy, the price was good, and hey, it’s not like my wife and I won’t eventually get through this.

It was only when I got home that I noticed the small gold sticker on the side that says “Tower Spirits Single Barrel Select.” Weird. Especially since the shop I went to wasn’t Tower Spirits, and they did not charge me a premium single barrel price. Huh.

So I looked up the Buffalo Trace single barrel program and learned — as I suspected, having some familiarity with this concept — that Buffalo Trace allows high-volume buyers the option to buy all of a single barrel and have it bottled exclusively for that store.

How this bottle ended up at my local independent shop I have no idea. 

I also had no idea how this bourbon would vary from regular old Buffalo Trace. Note that it isn’t cask strength; this is the usual dilution, just all from one barrel, not the typical blend of 20-30 that make the standard Buffalo Trace. (That’s considered small batch, I think.)

This could be subtle or stunning, depending on any number of factors in production. And what characteristics was the Tower Spirits buyer into? Is this stronger, smoother, sweeter, milder, wilder, what?

I didn’t want to just try this blind, but fortunately we happened to have a smidge left in our last bottle of regular Buffalo Trace. (This was what prompted the shopping trip, after all.)

And so, my wife and I set up a side-by-side tasting.

The results?

The color is a shade darker, but the aroma is identical (or close enough for our senses, anyway). 

On taste, we agree the select version has a bit more of an edge to it and is slightly less sweet than the regular. These are subtle differences, though, between essentially two versions of the same product. This select barrel would have been paired with other, sweeter, milder barrels to make a batch of the regular. 

All in all, good stuff. I plan to pick up a bottle of the regular to have on hand for future comparisons. We can share this fun with whisky-loving guests. 

Today’s thoughts: My wife has a Buffalo Trace shirt that says “Party Animal.” Pictured upon it is a large buffalo, standing stoically on a bluff.

That’s basically me, at parties.

Also, I will drink your whisky.

Today’s bourbon trivia: Buffalo Trace is a fun distillery. The wife and I visited during our whirlwind Kentucky bourbon vacation last year. Located adjacent to the Kentucky River in Frankfort, it’s like a little village that makes bourbon. The distillery has been around since the late 1700s and has had several names and owners over the years, but it has almost never stopped making bourbon. (Even during Prohibition, when the bourbon made there was sold for <cough><cough> medicinal use only.)

Today, the distillery makes several brands besides the namesake, and their production method is common to distilleries that have multiple lines. Some distilleries have a complex system of barrel rotation that, combined with careful blending, results in a consistent house style for a particular bourbon line. (Maker’s Mark takes this to an extreme by not even making more than the one base bourbon.*) Buffalo Trace doesn’t do that. They have several mash bills, and they send certain barrels of certain ones to certain levels of the racks and they leave them there, for however many years they deem necessary. Four years later, the same base bourbon, made with the same mash bill, is two different bourbons when one was aged at the ground floor and the other in the attic. Bottle one and call it George T. Stagg. Bottle the other and call it Eagle Rare.** Science!

Also, and I mean this seriously, a rickhouse is what heaven must smell like.

I say that partly in jest, but it’s grounded in bourbon lore. As the whisky ages in these buildings, which are not climate-controlled, the natural cycles of heat and cold move the liquid in and out of the wood, drawing the oak flavor and the natural wood sugars released in the charring, making raw whisky into bourbon.*** One reason Kentucky is such good bourbon-making country is the variance of the weather throughout the year, accelerating this process. In the midst of that, some is lost to evaporation, and that is why the air smells so wonderful. Bourbon makers call this loss the “angel’s share” because it rises away. The longer the aging, the more the loss. Which, aside from the time involved, is a factor in the cost of older aged bourbons — there’s just less of it.  On a related note, Scotch whisky does not suffer as much loss, what with the more stable year-round temperatures there versus Kentucky. That stable temperature is also why the youngest Scotch whisky for sale is usually at least 10 years old, with 12 far more common and the good stuff taking 15, 18 or more. Time works slowly in Scotland.

Today’s toast: To party animals everywhere: Be excellent to each other. (And party on, dudes.)


* — If you read Whisky Wind-down 24, you know 46 is just an alteration of the base style. (Basically, they follow one process through to completion, creating the namesake bourbon, but sometimes they then experiment from there. So far, they’ve only marketed and sold one of those experiments. I don’t count cask strength versions separately, since those are still made with the same process, just undiluted at the end. (You could turn a cask strength whisky into its standard version, though you would have to be an animal — not a party animal, just a terrible person — to do so.)

** — These are examples only, not exact, though those are both brands made there. Four years, by the way, is the minimum for Kentucky straight bourbon to be sold without an age statement. (If it’s younger, you’re supposed to say so.) Good bourbon commonly ages a bit longer, at least six or seven years. (If memory serves, that’s the standard for brands like Buffalo Trace and Maker’s Mark. But people we talked to everyone say time is never exact. Master tasters begin sampling, then keep checking up until it’s deemed ready. Merciful squid, what a job.)

*** — Several of the the folks we talked to on our tours repeated variations of the phrase, “We don’t make bourbon. We make white dog. Nature makes bourbon.” (White dog is what bourbon makers call the raw whisky that comes off the still. Were they doing this illegally, it would be called moonshine. Side-note: Ever had moonshine? Or white dog? Talk about harsh! Imagine straight-up vodka. From a not-so great vodka maker. Add some acid. That’s about it. It’s amazing what time on charred wood turns that stuff into.)

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 24: Reunions and Rare Bottlings

Today’s dram: Maker’s Mark 46, Cask-strength (only sold at the distillery)

Today’s tasting notes: I’m opening this one for the first time today. I picked it up last October, when the wife and I went on a road trip through Kentucky, home of bourbon: 1,531 miles, 8 days, 13 distilleries, 6 bourbon bars, 3 cave tours, 2 dinners with friends, 1 game night. (Gee, it would have been nice if someone had blogged about that, wouldn’t it?)

The distilleries included every one on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which includes most of the big-name bourbons you’ve probably heard of, including Maker’s Mark. For most of its history, Maker’s Mark only produced one bourbon, its namesake. One grain bill, one technique, one whisky. A few years ago, it began gradually experimenting and eventually released Maker’s 46, which is the namesake whisky aged an additional year or so during which time several lightly toasted wooden staves are inserted into the barrel. (They got it right on the 46th variation, hence the name.) While you can buy Maker’s 46 in any good bottle shoppe you can only buy the sparingly produced cask-strength version of 46 at the distillery.* It’s pricey, but my wife and I splurged on a pair of bottles, given how much we like Maker’s 46.

I love the handmade look to the label on this one. Not like the professional label on your regular bottles of Maker’s Mark, eh? Well, it kind of is. One of the cool things we saw on the distillery tour was the print shop, where two people are employed full-time to print all the company’s labels on a 19th century hand-crank printing press. Pretty damned cool.

I know that’s a lot of preamble for the tasting notes, but context matters, yes?

So, taste — sweet mercy! 

I’m a fan of Maker’s Mark, anyway. I love the nuanced difference between their bourbon and most others. I love that their mash bill isn’t the typical corn/barley/rye. They sub winter wheat for the rye. This tones down the spiciness (or “bite”) and gives the whisky a softer, easier touch. 

Maker’s 46 is that, with a gentle vanilla note added from the extra aging with those special staves. 

This? Oh, it’s lovely. All the grace and gentle beauty of 46, with the warmth dialed up just a touch from its cask strength. 

Today’s thoughts: Along the way on our road trip, we stopped in Louisville, which apart from being home to a few distilleries and many bourbon bars, is also home to a dear old friend of mine. And while I had not seen her in person in over twenty years, she is one of a handful of people I went to high school with whom I still care to keep in touch. She was DM for the first serious Dungeons & Dragons campaign in which I ever played.** She introduced me to R.E.M. and feminism.

These days she works in a game store, and I am a tiny bit jealous of that. But we got to stop by the shop to get a couple of board games in, and I even picked up a few dice while I was there because there is no such thing as too many dice.

It was good catching up. We agreed to not let another 20 years go by without hanging out. 

Today’s trivia: Since bourbon must be aged in new oak barrels, a steady supply of used barrels emerges from every bourbon distillery. Different distilleries have different means of disposing of their used barrels (nearly always for profit) but a great many end up at Scotch whisky distilleries. Scotch whisky also has to be aged on wood, but there is no requirement that the wood be new, so many varieties of Scotch whisky spend most (or all) of their maturation years in barrels that once held bourbon. (Some are aged in barrels that were originally used for sherry or other spirits, and this can be an important aspect a whisky’s profile. I digress. More one this later, surely.)

So, Maker’s Mark barrels? They’re mostly sold to Laphroaig. As our tour guide put it, if you love Laphroaig whisky  — I do! —  you owe a tiny bit of gratitude to Maker’s Mark.

Today’s toast: To travel and friendships renewed!


* — Cask-strength versions of original Maker’s Mark bourbon, once hard to find, have started popping up at better bottle shoppes. That’s good stuff, too. (If any of these terms are unfamiliar, check out yesterday’s post, Whisky Wind-down, Interlude: Terminology.)

** — I’d previously participated in other role-playing games, even a quick D&D session, but she ran the first proper campaign*** I was a part of. Glory days.

*** — It was a second edition game world of her creation, with a focus on role-playing over combat. I played a thief.

Travel Log: Chicago

I’m recently returned from a four-day excursion to the “Windy City.”

That is not a cute nickname, by the way; it’s a warning. Hold on to your hat. Also, your body warmth, because Chicago is out to blow both right off you.

Having said that, I loved it. But I am admittedly non-typical in my attitude towards cold and snow and such.

Still, that wind. Wow.

One of my prized possessions is a Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) scarf, knitted for me by my mother-in-law. Unfortunately, I don’t often get to wear it around Atlanta, as a 12-foot wool scarf is a bit more than required for our mild winters.

Oh, was I glad I packed it for Chicago. How bad is 20-degree wind chill? Even with that scarf wound a few times around my face, I could feel my nose and cheeks burning with cold after just a few minutes outside.

Serious. Wind.

Despite that, my wife and I did get out to explore the area of Chicago known as “the Loop,” which is where we spent our first couple of days.

Things We Did

Howell & Hood: This fantastic eating establishment is located in the historic Tribune building. The menu is fancy American pub food, which is good, but the highlight is the beer list, which includes 115 offerings on draught. These are all lovingly described in the menu, and the serving staff is the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic I’ve ever encountered in a beer bar, rivaling what you expect to find in a brewery tour. We enjoyed a few heavy winter beers while watching snow fall outside. Lovely.

The Chicago River: It’s beautiful in February, with large ice chunks bobbing along as it makes its way through the city. I’d advise taking it in from a hotel room window or other enclosed, warm space, though.

The Art Institute of Chicago: Wow. Just wow. We only had about three hours to spend here, which was barely enough time to hit the highlights. This is a museum that begs to be taken in slowly, over two or three days. If I lived in Chicago, or reasonably close to it, I’d buy a membership straight away. Among my favorite bits: the Impressionists collection, the Modern collection, and the huge collection of Japanese woodcut prints. We didn’t even get to most of the ancient, Europeon, or African collections, nor the weaponry. We also missed “Nighthawks,” as it was out for restoration. Bummer. That’s a personal favorite. We did get to see most of the other celebrated holdings, though, including “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte,” “American Gothic,” and several entries in Monet’s Haystacks series. There were also some van Gogh paintings, which, to tell you a bit about how impressive this museum’s holdings are, were not even mentioned in the “quick tour” highlights. 

Cloud Gate: It’s a giant silver bean. Uh, okay. Shiny.

Pizza: Deep-dish, Chicago style. I had to have this at least once, in Chicago, and we managed to squeeze it in. Unfortunatley, I didn’t get a crack at stuffed pizzed. I had also wanted to take a pizza tour, but, even if time allowed, those apparently aren’t offered in winter.

Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!: If you’ re a fan of this NPR news quiz, and you’re planning to visit Chicago, make sure to look up show times well in advance, as tickets go on sale (and promptly sell out) six weeks before each taping. In short, it was awesome. The cast was great, and it was delightful to watch them perform and then answer questions and mingle after the show. Wonderful people, all.

I’d like to point out that everything in that list is something my wife and I looked into shortly before going to Chicago. We were in town for a wedding, not because we had Chicago on our list of vacation spots. However, once we knew we were headed there, we sought to find the sort of things we would enjoy.

That’s sort of our general philosophy with travel. Find the fun. Every place has something to offer. Take a minute, find what interests you, and enjoy.