Whiskeys Revisited is a Paste series that gives us a welcome excuse to go diving through the dustier corners of our liquor cabinet to taste bottles we haven’t sampled for a while, in search of fresh perspectives. You can see all previous entries in the series here.
With the worst facets of the pandemic now hopefully in the rearview mirror, things have gotten at least nominally “back to business” in the spirits world. Regularly scheduled limited release whiskeys have come and gone, the obsession with Buffalo Trace products has continued unabated, and in general things have felt more familiar for whiskey geeks in 2022 than they did in the two years prior.
And when things feel familiar, and spirits writers are operating as they tend to operate with a constant influx of new products to taste, one thing that always seems to get forgotten are revisits to previously released bottles. It’s only natural, given that this scene is hyper focused on newness and novelty, but it’s also a shame that we don’t revisit some of those other bottles in our liquor cabinet more often.
This is the Paste series that gives us an excuse to do exactly that, so let’s get to tasting.
This Parker’s Heritage release from Heaven Hill, which was released back in 2020, was the company’s first big experiment with extra-charred bourbon barrels, and was subsequently followed by a Heavy Char Wheat Whiskey in Oct. of 2021. When we say “extra charred,” we’re talking about a #5 char level, which is two levels above the #3 typically used by Heaven Hill on all its products, and one level above the #4 “alligator” char that is the highest one widely used in the industry. This bottle features Heaven Hill’s classic house bourbon mashbill, aged 10 years in that #5 barrel, weighing in at a robust 120 proof.
Tasting this one again, I’m getting deep caramel sweetness, but also a dry oakiness that permeates the sip—it’s reminiscent of how I imagine a kiln drying oak for firewood would smell. Diving into the palate, it’s reminiscent of aged rum in a way, with molasses and spice notes of gingerbread/root beer counterpointed by bittersweet dark chocolate. I’m also getting more dark fruit here than on previous sips, with lots of black cherry and raspberry. Heat is fairly significant, with chile flake-like spice. This is a complex bourbon, and one that seems to keep evolving as I revisit it.
Joseph Magnus has built up an impressive cult following for its Cigar Blend brand in recent years, which unfortunately has resulted in some aggressive price gouging from retailers in particular—it’s not uncommon to see stores trying to get $500 or more for these bottles, in yet another sign that the “secondary” is rapidly becoming the “primary” market.
These whiskeys tend to come in many small batches, with 90 or more different Cigar Blend batches at this point. They all differ significantly, but have at least a few things in common: They’re made from a “mother blend” of well-aged sourced bourbon barrels from 12 to 20 years old, which are blended with the flagship Joseph Magnus Bourbon product, which is finished in sherry and cognac casks. That resulting blend then gets another secondary maturation, in casks that previously held Armagnac brandy. Proofs vary somewhat, and my sample from Batch 44 (nicknamed “Luke the Drifter”) was a particularly strong 127.4 proof.
On the nose I’m reminded of chocolate-covered Nutty Bars and chocolate wafers, dipped in dark fruit syrup. The booze makes itself felt, while the profile on the palate is extremely “dark” in tone from top to bottom. I’m getting flavors reminiscent of molasses pralines, with intense spice—brown sugar cookies, tons of ginger candy. Black raspberry and black pepper suggest a peppered jam, which starts out sweet and syrupy before rapidly transitioning into drying oak, mint and more leathery notes. It’s an interesting and dramatic swing between the richer, sweeter front end and the more savory, dry, oak-driven back end.
High West’s most awarded rye brand returned this year with its annual release, and a new label as well, while continuing the evolution that has seen this brand slowly and steadily move away from primarily featuring sourced whiskey to primarily featuring High West’s own house spirit. This is a blend of straight rye whiskeys between 4-6 years old, featuring a large proportion of High West’s own rye, bottled at 46% ABV (92 proof).
On the nose, I’m getting brown sugar and toasted rye bread here, along with aromatic oak, cinnamon and nutmeg. Probing further, there are traces of toasted coconut candy, along with rye grass and herbal tones. On the palate, this release features some nice, subtly toasty oak and spice, which aren’t too overly obvious or assertive. There’s also orange citrus and apricot, along with light caramel. The overall impression is tasty, unfussy and easy to drink, though this seems a bit more delicate than I remember. It’s also possible that I’ve simply been drinking more strong ryes lately, so this one now registers as more reserved. Regardless, it’s a nice everyday rye for neat drinking or cocktails.
I’ve had complimentary things to say on a few occasions now about small Kentucky whiskey operation Buzzard’s Roost, who I believe have made themselves into leaders in the “toasted barrel” space, even though they haven’t received a lot of recognition for it. All Buzzard’s Roost whiskeys are sourced from producers such as MGP, but the key is the secondary maturation they give to their whiskeys in proprietary toasted barrels, which are then charred to a very light char level #1 and used to finish whiskeys. Suffice to say, I’ve tasted similar products from a lot of distilleries both small and large in the last few years, and the results from Buzzard’s Roost more accurately reflect what these “toasted barrels” are meant to accomplish than the whiskey I’ve had elsewhere.
This was the first bourbon release from Buzzard’s Roost, simply titled Barrel Strength Straight Bourbon. Its specs are quite familiar—a blend of 4-6 year old MGP bourbon, at a cask strength of 57.2% ABV (114.4 proof). What makes it stand out is that secondary maturation.
That finishing period in the toasted and lightly charred oak adds a really lovely spice profile to this bourbon, redolent of dry spices and baking spice. It’s not too sweet overall, though it does have a lovely ribbon of toffee offering some richness. The star of the show is that warm, spicy oak, which offers gentle tannin and rye spice, but simultaneously avoids drying out the whole thing to an unpleasant degree, which is a pitfall of these types of whiskeys. It’s a really nice balancing act, and a company I still think more drinkers need to discover.
This bottle was the third release in Dickel’s Cascade Moon series of free-wheeling limited releases, and the first rye whiskey in the group. On the surface, it just looks like a pretty standard, well-aged, sourced MGP rye (the 95/5 recipe, of course), not that there’s anything wrong with that. The unique wrinkle, though, comes from the fact that these barrels were acquired by Dickel when the whiskey was only a few years old. They then spent a decade maturing in Tennessee rather than Indiana, which obviously has a significant effect on how they eventually present. This bottle is presented at 50% ABV (100 proof), and was one of my favorite releases of 2021 when I initially tasted it.
Revisiting it now, this bottle is just as delicious and complex as ever. The nose is full of rye bread and caraway, grass, barrel char, dried herbs and sweeter toffee. Cocoa nib nuttiness and aged leather round things out, with very little ethanol to be found. On the palate, this 13 Year Old Rye turns a little bit sweeter, with a luxurious front end suggesting vanilla pudding and hints of black cherry and toffee, before an assertive roastiness (French roast coffee) helps the profile segue into a back end of smoke, leather and dried herbs. With a velvety smooth texture, it makes a beautiful transition between slightly sweet and slightly bitter, with extremely gentle alcohol presence. This was just clearly drawn from an exceptional set of barrels. Kudos to Dickel’s Nicole Austin for recognizing this gem.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.