Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Happy Hollow Oldest Reserve - Bourbon Past vs Present Part Two

For bourbon fanatics, you can't get better than a bottle that's been hiding on the back shelf of a liquor store gathering dust for thirty years. Why are these dusties so treasured? Are they really that good? This past Spring, we teamed up with Jim Parisi of Xavier Wine Company in Manhattan's Meat Packing District to find out. Bourbon Past vs. Present was born. Two new and two dusty bourbons fought it out including Old Taylor 86 from the late 1970's against the new EH Taylor Barrel Proof, and a 1973 Old Forester Bottled in Bond against the new Old Forester Birthday Bourbon.  The winner, by a landslide, was the 1973 Old Forester BIB.  For Bourbon Past vs. Present Part Two, we wanted to up the ante and find an even earlier bottle.

A Mystery

As Jim was putting the word out that we might be planning a sequel, a friend of his sent us a picture of a very rare old bottle of bourbon that he'd purchased at an auction some years ago. He volunteered to let this bottle go for our tasting and we accepted, not sure exactly what we'd gotten our hands on, but excited nonetheless. This is it:

Oldest Reserve

What we do know about this bottle (because it's written on the label) is that it was distilled in 1953 and bottled at 15 years old (presumably in 1968), that it's bottled at an interesting 101 proof, that it was distilled in Kentucky and bottled by the "Happy Hollow Distilling Company" in Lawrenceburg.

While this seems like some good information, it's not very much to go on. This bottle is not really a "dusty" since it was a special limited release and not most likely not generally available to gather dust in liquor stores. So none of our dusty hunter friends could help us identify the source.

Old Happy Hollow

There doesn't seem to be anything we could find called "Old Happy Hollow Distilling Company".  This isn't unusual since just like today, many brands pop up and bottle whiskey from various distilleries and give themselves interesting names (see Black Maple Hill). The signature dripping red wax hints at Maker's Mark. So we explored connections between Maker's and Happy Hollow.  And we found some...

Bill Samuels started Maker's Mark in 1953 (1953!) when he purchased the Burks Spring Distillery, which was originally named Happy Hollow Distillery because of its location in Happy Hollow, Kentucky. Here's an awesome picture of the reopening of the Burks Spring Distillery that also refers to the site as Happy Hollow.  We found the excellent Maker's Mark collector site No Broken Drips (by the way we love seeing this kind of dedication to a brand!  go guys!!). While they didn't have Oldest Reserve listed as a Maker's Mark bottling, they did note that Burks Spring Distillery used to produce a bourbon called Old Happy Hollow.

There's a lot of marketing hype about the origins of Maker's Mark. Supposedly Bill Samuels destroyed the old family bourbon recipe and (in lieu of doing a run of test distillations) took eight different mashbills and baked a loaf of bread with each one. (Hard to see how there's a grain of truth in that, but whatever). One of the recipes he'd borrowed from Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle, which substituted wheat for rye as the second ingredient. Supposedly this mix made the best loaf of bread and the rest is history. Meanwhile Bill's wife Margie was busy melting wax in the family's deep fryer and coming up with the signature bottle design.

Whatever truth or exaggeration exists in the history of the brand, we know that Bill did own the distillery previously known as Happy Hollow in 1953 and he was starting to establish a new company. However, if the above picture is accurate, they made their first barrel of whiskey in 1954, it's doubtful that Oldest Reserve was actually distilled by the Samuels Maker's Mark crew. In most cases when a distillery changes hands, part of the deal is to acquire existing stocks of whiskey. Is it possible that Samuels purchased old stocks of Happy Hollow / Burks Spring bourbon and then later bottled them?  This theory does seem consistent with the statement on the bottle "from the few remaining barrels of a very rare stock distilled in Kentucky... by the Happy Hollow Distilling Company."

Ok well enough theory, we still honestly have no idea what this stuff is, who cares let's drink it.

Tasting Notes

Nose: This doesn't have the mustiness that we associate with old bourbon. Perhaps due to the pristine condition the bottle was in?  Maybe is was cellared for many years and not exposed to a lot of heat or sunlight?  In any case it gives the nose of a nice high-rye bourbon.  Definitely not a wheater.  Well we knew that since they didn't start making wheated bourbon until 1954. Maybe it was some of the old stock of Burks Spring / Happy Hollow.  Ok back to what we know: the nose has a very nice combination of spice (high-rye bourbon) and sweetness. There's buttered corn, there's anise (black Twizzlers?), there's Worcestershire Sauce, rose water, fresh wet grass, char, cayenne pepper, a hint of brine - pickled okra, cologne.  A lot of layers coming out of this nose which at first seemed straightforward.  With 15 minutes to open up, (how did we not notice it before), there's that musty old bourbon quality. Skunky, funky, roll-it-up-and-smoke-it nose that we get from certain beloved bottles...

Palate: Very lovely. It stays perfectly balanced coming in on the tongue with rye spice, meeting the sides of the mouth with sweet green apples, and giving a hint of dry wood and the top of the throat.

Finish: Dry finish, punchy and delicious. You can still taste the spirit for sure, but there's a great drinkability here and a deep integration of heat, spice, sweet, and wood that all come together. Again it tastes nothing like a wheater, but like some of the great traditional bourbons that we've tasted from this era. There's a touch of oaky bitterness on the end of the finish that's maybe technically a flaw but still enjoyable.  Very unique bourbon that would be tough to confuse with modern day sauce.  What a treat!

Thanks to Jim for hosting another great tasting! Do you have any ideas / requests for Past vs Present Part Three? Let us know and we'll try to make it happen.  Cheers/SB

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review: Abelour A'Bunadh - Batting a Thousand

Batting a Thousand

We get asked pretty frequently to recommend a whiskey. Sometimes this is at a dive bar. Do you think people take Robert Parker to Chili's and ask him to recommend a bottle of wine? You know what, they probably do. Anyway, even at a decent liquor store, recommending whiskey is hard.

You have to know things about the person. Intimate things. Do they know whiskey or are they just getting started? Do they like spice? Sweet tooth? Do they like to be tied up and spanked by a smoky monster? (Yes!!)

Do we go for one of our favorites (like a big cask strength Willett or Smooth Ambler)? Or is that going to be too much for the poor soul who just wanted a tasty approachable dram? Do we try to pick something universally accessible (Talisker or Glenmorangie)? Or do we throw in the towel and pick something we don't even really like, but we think they'll like (Macallan)?

We've tried and failed all these approaches, but there's one recommendation that seems to be batting a thousand: Aberlour (pronounce it like there's an "hour" at the end) A'Bunadh (a-boo-nah).

There are so many great things about this bottle. It's off the beaten path. This is something most people will not have heard of, which makes it a great gift. It's a whiskey drinkers whiskey - you'll see this on the bar of many hardcore malt enthusiasts as a staple pour. It's cask strength, around 60%, so it will hit the mark for serious whiskey aficionados who have a taste for the strong stuff. But it's also incredibly smooth and complex, so add a few drops of water and it won't overwhelm a more novice drinker. It's 100% first fill sherry cask, so it masks the high proof with an incredible richness and complexity of flavor. It's not chill-filtered and it's uncolored (more brownie points for malt-heads), giving it a natural creaminess and rich mouthfeel. And finally it's around $70, which makes it a nice generous gift, but not over the top crazy. We've recommended a ton of these bottles, and never gotten a single complaint.  Like we said - batting a thousand!

Tasting Notes

Nose:   Very unique.  This is one you could easily pick out blind because of its distinctive combination of fruits, nuts, and wood. It's very sweet (but not cloying) with honey, oak, and stone fruits (plums, raisins, & apricots) playing equal roles. The sherry is very well integrated and adds richness while diminishing the strong alcohol presence.

Palate:   A lot of citrus comes out on the tongue.  Sweet tangerines, more honey, It's a good thick mouthfeel, with lots of warmth and richness. More oak though never bitter, lemon cakes and walnuts and chocolate covered cherries.

Finish:  This is one of the best and strongest finishes in a non-peated malt that we can remember. There's little burn (none with a splash of water), but a relatively long finish of sweet fruit and charred oak. It's a nice chest-warming sensation that leaves you very satisfied.

So, yeah, we like it. 

Get yourself a bottle of A'bunadh, a bottle of Talisker 10, and a bottle of Lagavulin 16 and you'll have yourself a malt section that any whisky fan will nod at with respect. Give one of these bad boys as a gift and you'll likely have a friend for life!