“If it’s not straight, you must abate” blind tasting

Time for another drinking for science post.  This time it’s a blind tasting conducted within the Houston Bourbon Society, HBS, with 15 tasters of 18 straight whiskies.  This is the 3rd time I’ve done a blind tasting with this group. Here is a link that covers previous blind tastings – https://tater-talk.com/2018/01/23/blind-tasting-of-20-american-whiskies/.  This time when I recruited the tasters I specifically ask for volunteers that had not participated in the previous 2 blind tastings.  HBS has over 6,000 members and if you are a part of this group you’re likely a bourbon enthusiast so you know a little more than the average consumer.  Are these folks expert tasters? Perhaps or perhaps they represent and score whiskies like the average bourbon enthusiast. 

In the past blind tastings, I’ve used a 100 point scale system.  In this system most whiskies score in the 60-100 point range and so below 60 becomes meaningless.  This time I switched to a more simple 0-5 scale, with 5 points being the best whiskey possible and 0 points being the worst.  2.5 points would be the middle of the road. Tasters scored each whiskey in either whole or half points. Tasters turned in scores of 3 whiskies each week, so this tasting lasted 6 weeks.  I instructed the tasters to score each whiskey on its own, preferably tasted on different nights.

The theme of this tasting was straight whiskies; specifically Straight Bourbon or Straight Rye.  Whiskies that are finished in a secondary cask that previously held wine or another spirit are no longer straight whiskies and did not qualify for inclusion.  Straight Whiskies are the product of only 1 state and aged at least 2 years. I also tried to keep the proof range much narrower than in my previous blind tastings.  This time the lowest proof was 90 and the highest proof was 116.8.

The results:

Sorted by Median:

link to graphs in larger format – https://photos.app.goo.gl/UgurGZBgge83ErFt8

So should you draw some sort of line at the top and never try any whiskey below that line?  Keep in mind that for every one of the whiskies at least one of the 15 tasters scored it 3.5 points, meaning they really liked it.  You like what you like; it does not matter if this particular groups overall score is lower than you expected. For example, I particularly enjoy OF Rye which scored very poorly; I’m still going to buy another bottle, and soon as my open bottle is finished. 


Most of the whiskies selected are current versions purchased right before this tasting began.  The GB Balmorhea were 2 375ml bottles, which I have been told was the first batch. Barrell Bourbon HBS Mr Blue was a 14 year pick of TN Straight Bourbon done in 2018.  The OWA bottle was from my bunker; I included this as a thanks to the volunteer tasters for their time. They were a great group providing very good tasting notes and completing scores on time each week.  

My personal observations are current Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a great Straight Bourbon, easy to find and at a reasonable price.  Henry McKenna, at least the normal single barrel that us every day folks randomly buy off the shelf, is a solid bourbon, but it’s not the world’s best whiskey no matter what some asinine award show proclaims. 


Advertised age statements – Does the collar match the cuffs?

When is an age statement not an age statement?  In my previous blog post, https://tater-talk.com/2019/07/23/rums-misleading-age-statements-and-other-lies/, on misleading age statements in rum I listed 3 ways producers mislead consumers.    Today I’ll look at another common way spirit producers abuse age statement requirements. I’ve seen this method used by all types of spirits.

The TTB regulates alcohol beverage advertising.  Obviously, this includes rules on what can and can’t be stated on the product’s label.  This also extends to ads in newspapers, magazines, TV or radio broadcasts, internet based social media, as well as websites.

I’ve talked before about how some whiskey blog posts basically repack a brands PR on a new product as their new blog post.  Often these include an age reference, but the actual bottle is NAS – No age statement. I’ve always found this to be disingenuous; if the whiskey is “X” years old, then state it on the bottle.  This violates TTB code:

CFR 27 5.65 (b) (2) (c) Statement of age. The advertisement shall not contain any statement, design, or device directly or by implication concerning age or maturity of any brand or lot of distilled spirits unless a statement of age appears on the label of the advertised product.

Unless the bottle carries an appropriate statement of age, the producer can make no claims of age in the advertising.

Let’s look at some blatant examples of producers violating this.  


The new Buffalo Trace grain of the tater bottling, oops I mean the new Buffalo Trace E.H. Taylor, Jr. Amaranth Straight Bourbon whiskey in their PR states it is aged ‘over a decade’.  Yet the actual product released is NAS.

Flor de Cana states on their website their rum is 18 years old. The actual bottle has just a number which is not an age statement.

Here is Michter’s website saying this whiskey is a blend of 10 to over 30 year old whiskeys. The actual bottle has no age statement.

This is from the website for Straight Edge. This is a bourbon finished in XYZ cask, which makes it a class type 641 Distilled Spirits Specialty and by code not allowed to state an age statement.

Are these producers not aware of the US federal code?  Are they misleading consumers on purpose? Perhaps the first release is the PR advertised age statement, but future releases will be much younger?  I know I will trust for fact what is actually on the bottle and discount anything in advertising.  

Rum’s misleading age statements and other lies

There are many brands of rums who IMHO are guilty of misleading consumers about the ages of their rums.  This is done in 3 ways:


1.  Stating a number on the label without actually calling it an age statement.

2.  Using a solera system where only a small fraction of the rum matches the age statement.

3.  Complete fabrication.

An example of #1 is Flor de Caña.  They sell a range of aged rums which carry a number 7, 12, 18, or 25 on the label.  Next to that, instead of saying years old, they state ‘slow aged’, which means nothing as it has no legal definition so it is just a marketing gimmick.  They depend on retailers who will happily tell consumers in their advertisements and shelf tags that these products are actually ‘X’ years old. They even advertise that they are ‘Fair Trade Certified’, which as an organization just lost all credibility for me.  I sent Fair Trade an email with my concerns and am waiting to see if they respond.



Before I address #2, let’s look at the TTB rules on age statements for spirits.  From the TTB BAM Ch. 8 we find: “Age is the period during which, after distillation and before bottling, distilled spirits have been stored in oak containers”, “Age may be understated but may not be overstated”.  There are no exceptions for rum or for solera processes, which I’m convinced in Spanish means bullshit age statement. So unless every single drop of a rum in the bottle has been aged in oak containers for at least 23 years, then that producer can’t label their product with a 23 year age statement.  Zacapa 23 is not a 23 year old rum which consumers often mistake it as.

That brings this to example #3.  Without doing a compliance check by visiting each distillery it’s not possible for me to name brands.  I can do the math though. Rums aged in the tropics lose an incredible amount to angels share each year, from 7 to 12% a year.  Producers do consolidate barrels as they age which helps, but does not stop this process. Losing 10% the first year and 7% each year after, which is the low end,  the angel’s share is 60% after year 12. It’s an 82% loss by year 23. Start factoring in the time and expense of holding inventory for 23 years, the cost of exporting to the US, federal taxes, importation cost, the wholesaler’s and the retailer’s cut, it’s easy to see that when you see rums for sale for under $50 that boast age statements of over 20 years, alarm bells should be ringing.

The rum brands on my naughty list I will not buy include:

Antigua Porteno
Botran
Canasteros
Centenario
Dictador
Dos Ron
Flor de Caña
Kirk and Sweeny
Matusalem
Opthimus
Papa’s Pilar
Villa Rica
Vizcaya
Zacapa
Zafra

Now getting into the brands that add sugar or other sweeteners post distillation without disclosing such is a whole other issue for a future blog post.

Saint Cloud Bourbon – hop off the hype train

2019 bourbon drinkers, or least the type that likes to read whiskey blogs, seem to always be searching for the next big thing.  This is especially true if it is new and they can ‘get in on the ground floor’. Whiskey bloggers are more than happy to get the page clicks or podcast/YouTube views, so they promptly gush all over the new guy in the market.  Being first to get a review out from a free brand provided sample bottle is important work for these types. Most of these blog posts are the PR points of the brand regurgitated into an article along with some tasting notes. But since you are reading my blog you know my angle will be different and I will dig a little deeper.

Today’s new flavor of the month bourbon is St. Cloud.  Sites like The Whiskey Wash and Breaking Bourbon have quickly done their thing with little to no due diligence performed.  Ray Walker is the person behind this new brand of bourbon. Ray fancies himself as a successful entrepreneur. He started a French wine company, Maison Ilan, and claims he was the first American to make Grand Cru Burgundy wine.  In 2011 he was featured in a New York Times piece. He wrote a book, The Road to Burgundy, that reached 15th on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list in August 2013.  His wines at this point were in massive demand with futures sold only to the lucky buyers who had ‘got in on the ground floor’.  Two years later the bottom fell out and buyers did not receive their wine, which was paid for upfront. The winery was bankrupt and shut down.  Just as there are bourbon forums, there are wine forums where many of these buyers have vented their concerns and consider Ray a huckster. Ray himself admits orders have not been fulfilled and has promised to make these buyers whole, but to date for some this has been nothing but an empty promise.  This is not the first time Ray has made serious business mistakes that cost others money. When he was in his twenties he dealt in BMW parts where he also left buyers with unfulfilled orders. Ray explained this away as being young and irresponsible. If you wish to read more about the fall of Maison Ilan, please see this article – https://www.burgundy-report.com/burgundy-report-extra/09-2016/the-spectacular-rise-fall-of-maison-ilan/

Ray Walker is now trying to shed his past reputation and rebuild his brand with a sourced bourbon.  The Saint Cloud website mentions it’s made using a “perspective that comes only from making Grand Cru in one of the world’s top wine regions”.  For me this just screams marketing spin as Bourbon is uniquely American and has very little to do with wine making. The website says the bourbon is unique and refined being “produced in a traditional manner using a hybrid pot-column still without the use of many other modern aides and equipment”.  There’s nothing unique about pot-column hybrid stills as those are the most common used stills by craft distillers across the US. I am curious what modern aids and equipment are forgone.

This product at one point was pitched as  L’Americaine Kentucky Bourbon. Perhaps this was a little too French as it was launched as Saint Cloud Kentucky Bourbon.   Batch one is apparently from 12 barrels and yielded 3000 bottles. The website says it was distilled in 2016 and bottled in March 2019. This could be a 2 year or possibly a 3 year old bourbon.  We know that federal code requires all American whiskies under 4 years to have an age statement. Here is their required age statement:

It states under 4 years.  This is not a TTB compliant age statement.  The TTB even has an online FAQ that covers age statements that specifically list this as not acceptable.  See S11 here – https://www.ttb.gov/spirits/faq.shtml

Is this product Bourbon or Straight Bourbon?  The above label which is placed on the side of the label says Bourbon in one spot and Straight Bourbon in another. The class type is required by code to be on the front of label; the front of neck label on the bottle states Bourbon.  Their website mentions that it is Straight Bourbon. Perhaps it’s a case of someone with a wine background who does not know the difference?

Also, this is Bourbon.  Redesigned. Jim Beam just ‘redefined’ Bourbon last month with their Legent whiskey.  Who will ‘reconceive’ bourbon next month?

The website has some lovely videos that spends more time showing the bottle being produced than the bourbon.  I’ll grant the packaging is very nice and my estimate accounts at the retail level for about a third of the price.  Speaking of price, we have another young bourbon that is over the $100 price point; this is listed on their website with a purchase price of $114.99 per bottle.  The chairman of Diageo Javier Ferran once said “A key driver of perception of quality is price”. Looks like they are taking a page out of the Diageo playbook.

Why are the blog sites hyping up such a limited release from a new company run by a person with a questionable business background?  My answer is they cater to taters who only care about owning, likely to later flip, a bottle that is a limited release, be it any limited release, as long as the hype can drive up the secondary market.

The Whiskey Wash ignored my request for a comment.   https://thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/bourbon/new-saint-cloud-kentucky-bourbon-crafted-by-former-winemaker/

Breaking Bourbon responded with “His prior business failure and sorting through that mess, however, was not the focus of the tasting notes for the bourbon.” https://www.breakingbourbon.com/tnt/saint-cloud-kentucky-bourbon-2016-batch-1


Is KY Owl Confiscated the copycat of the ‘white van speaker scam’?

Have you ever heard of the ‘white van speaker scam’? If not wiki link – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_van_speaker_scam. The gist is a con artist driving a white van makes you believe they have some high-end speakers left over from some job and must move fast. They are willing to move well below retail; often 80% below ‘retail price’ but you must act NOW. The reality is they are selling super cheap imported from China crap speakers. They are still out there but now have moved to flat screen TV’s; I was approached just last year.

In my opinion, KY Owl Confiscated is the whiskey version of the ‘white van speaker scam’. Its bulk sourced non-age stated KY straight bourbon whiskey for $129. Every single major KY bourbon distillery sells the same for $25 or less. Since KY Owl has no distillery they bought this from one of those other major KY distilleries. They are pitching high-end bourbon but delivering something pretty basic. Did I mention it has no age statement?

The white van scam generally starts in parking lot with the con artist approaching you saying ‘you look like a cool dude’. And since we all want to be cool, this relaxes your guard against being scammed. KY Owl does about the same; they immediately tell you they are ‘The Wise Man’s Bourbon’.

I thought the KY Owl Rye was overpriced but at least it carried an age statement. Perhaps one could justify the price if this was a very limited release, but it’s a national release with wide distribution. It carries no added secondary value.

I can’t stop you from buying $25 whiskey for $129; it’s your money. However, I can at least say I warned you and I will laugh at all the fools who do buy it.

Next level label deception – Old Fourth Distillery

A friend recently asked if I knew anything about Old Fourth Distillery out of Atlanta, specifically about a Bottled in Bond straight bourbon they had recently released.  I did not, so I googled their website and did a little reading. I also looked up their COLA label approval. The Bottled in Bond Act has some very specific requirements about labeling.  At first glance from what I read I thought surely they had distilled this bourbon, they fooled me. Their website proudly proclaims, “Atlanta’s Own Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 4 Years”.  The website says they knew they wanted to make whiskey when they opened in 2012, they barreled this bourbon in Jan. 2015, and it’s taken 4 years for the initial release. It’s very careful wording without ever saying distilled. The friend then sent me a blown-up picture of their label zooming in on some print hidden in some artwork that showed DSP-IN-15023.  Can you spot this in the picture below?

The “IN” portion indicated this bourbon was distilled in Indiana.  One would then assume the likely source would be MGPi, but their DSP is IN-15016.  Despite the dubious DSP number, I have confirmed this was distilled by MGPi.

I emailed one of their owners to express my concerns about the deceptive website information as well as to bring to their attention some specific sections in the TTB code they are violating.   It’s been a week with no response, so the blog is going up without comment from them.

They are in violation of 27 CFR 5.36 (d), which I have blogged or posted about many times.  If certain types of whiskies are distilled in 1 state but bottled in another, then the label must have a ‘Distilled in XYZ state’ statement.  In this case, they must say Distilled in IN on the label.

For Bottled in Bond spirits, the code says “27 CFR 5.42 (b) (3) – the label shall bear the real name of the distillery or the trade name under which the distillery produced and warehoused the spirits, and the plant (or registered distillery) number in which produced; and the plant number in which bottled. The label may also bear the name or trade name of the bottler.”  While they list an IN DSP number cleverly buried in the artwork, they don’t list MGPi by name nor do they list their DSP number on the label as required by this code.

It must take a lot of work to be this deceptive.  It would be so much easier to be upfront with customers about your process and sourcing.  Plenty of companies such as Smooth Ambler, High West, and others have found much success with the upfront disclosure business models.  In 2019, I’m surprised we still find those that like to engage in such deception. Shame, Shame, Shame.

Update – I emailed a preview of the above blog post and did receive a response from one of the owners.  He said “We are very sorry that you feel deceived by our product.  We openly tell our customers that we sourced the white whiskey from mgp and aged it 4 years in Georgia.”

Here is link to their website page on this bourbon; you can decide for yourself if they are being open that it is sourced whiskey.  https://o4d.com/bottled-in-bond/


Make your own ‘finished bourbon’ at home in the bottle.

As part of my drinking for science projects, I decided to test if I could recreate a bourbon that was finished in a secondary barrel by just adding a small portion of that finish directly to a bottle.  I will start by saying these products are NOT bourbon. We all know by federal code bourbon can’t have added colors or flavoring. Placing a bourbon in a secondary barrel that previously held another type of product adds both color and flavoring.   Bourbon by code is class type 101 for straight bourbon or 141 for bourbon.  Finished American whiskies by federal code become class type 641 – whiskey specialties. The catch is the TTB allows producers to state Bourbon on the front label if they also state what was done to it.  So ‘KY Straight Bourbon with added yellow food coloring’ could appear on a label.

My theory is I can replicate, or even surpass, these whiskies by just adding small amounts of the secondary product directly to a bottle and allowing it to marry for at least 30 days. In many cask finished bourbons the secondary cask finishing times are often very short.  Also, producers have been known to recharge their secondary barrels – after emptying they add some additional port/sherry/etc. back to the barrel before refilling with bourbon.

For the test, I made 3 ‘finished bourbons’ employing my method starting with standard available bourbons.  I added my secondary finishing directly to the bottle and let this marry in the bottle for 30 days. I have learned from previous testing that allowing time for flavors to meld together is an important step in the process.  I purchased 3 well known secondary cask finished bourbons. I also limited my costs to around half the retail cost of their commercial counterparts. I had a group of 11 testers blind taste and score each whiskey.

In the past for scoring I employed a 100-point scale.  The issue with a 100-point scale is 0-60 is not used. After discussing scoring systems with a NASA scientist friend I decided on a 5-point scale.  This time, and going forward, I will be using this 5-point scale:

  • 1 – off putting with flawed notes
  • 2 – meh – would work good as a mixer
  • 3 – sipping whiskey – good everyday pour
  • 4 – Good whiskey, above average with little to no flaws
  • 5 – OMG, my mouth is having multiple orgasms – the best of the best

I debated how much to add on percentage basis to each bottle.  How wet are the barrels when producers add whiskey to them? I came across an interview on the K&L blog with Alexandre Gabriel of Maison Ferrand in which he said “Back to the Port barrel analogy, we have done tests and found that when you empty a barrel there is still roughly 3.5% of the previous liquid in the barrel. If it’s a wet barrel, then you’re now up to 5%.”  Of note, the TTB says if over 2.5% of wine flavoring is added, then the product must be stated as Flavored Whisky with the type of wine listed. This makes me wonder if some of the commercial products really should be labeled something like Port Flavored Whisky.  Perhaps producers elect to use secondary barrels to finish rather than add directly to the bourbon barrel to avoid the requirement of calling the final product a flavored whiskey. I elected to keep my additions under 3%, which is a very small amount per bottle and calculated out to 0.75 oz per bottle.  I’ll list my exact recipes at the end of the article.

The test was in 3 rounds.  Each round the testers tried 2 whiskies side by side; my version and the commercial version.  The testers did not know the whiskies selected or the finishes.

Round 1  For the first ‘finished bourbon’, I selected Angel’s Envy, which was the first widespread release of a bourbon finished in a port wine barrel.  For my version I used a base of Old Grand-Dad 114 proof, some water to reduce proof, and Tawny port.  The cost of my version was $21.50 whereas the cost of the Angel’s Envy is $47 in my market. While they don’t disclose who they source the base bourbon used in Angel’s Envy, it has always been KY Straight Bourbon.  They do have their own distillery, but as of now their own distilled bourbon is still aging. I saw Wes Henderson from Angel’s Envy recently and he mentioned they had sourced KY bourbon from 12 different KY distilleries. So who knows, there might be some Beam distilled high rye bourbon in the mix.  The result of the tasting panel:

My bourbon with port added scored 3.04

Angel’s Envy Port finish scored 3.14

The result was close, but Angel’s Envy won this round.  5 testers scored the AE higher, 4 testers scored my version higher, and 2 had it as a tie.

Round 2  For the second ‘finished bourbon’, I elected to go with a brandy finish.  I selected Belle Meade Bourbon finished in a Cognac Cask. For my version, I started with Wild Turkey Rare Breed, some water to reduce proof, and Armagnac.  My version cost $41 whereas the Belle Meade was $75.

My bourbon with Armagnac added scored 3.0

Belle Meade Bourbon Cognac Cask Finish scored 2.59

The testers clearly favored my version.  8 selected my version as better, 2 preferred the Belle Meade, and 1 had it as a tie.

Round 3  For the third ‘finished bourbon’, I went with an Orange Curacao finish.  The commercial whiskey was Parker’s Heritage Collection 12th Edition. For my version I used Elijah Craig bourbon including both the standard and the barrel proof versions to match the 110 proof of the PHC 12.  I added Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao to the bottle. My version cost $43.50 whereas the PHC cost was $90.

My bourbon with Orange Curaçao added scored 3.14

PHC 12 Bourbon finished in orange curaçao barrels scored 1.85

This was not even close.  10 of the testers scored my version higher and 1 had it as a tie.  

 

My conclusion is if you are a fan of ‘finished bourbons’ you should definitely try making some at home.   I have open bottles of all 3 of my ‘finishes’, where as you might have to purchase a bottle. A bottle of ‘finish’ will go a long way as I used only 0.75 oz each time.  Below are my exact recipes used, but I would encourage others to play around with their own versions. Be sure to let the blend marry for at least 2 weeks or preferably 30 days.

My bourbon with port added:

  • OGD 114 – 23.5 oz
  • Reverse Osmosis water – 2 oz
  • Kopke 10-year Tawny port – 0.75 oz

My bourbon with Armagnac added:

  • WT Rare Breed – 21 oz
  • Reverse Osmosis water – 4 oz
  • L’Encantada 13-year-old Armagnac – 0.75 oz

My bourbon with orange curaçao added:

  • Elijah Craig standard – 15 oz
  • Elijah Craig barrel proof – 10 oz
  • Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao – 0.75 oz