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.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, online publishers like Paste could occasionally be hurting a bit for content, when it came to certain industries we cover. The spirits industry, for instance, essentially went into “turtle” mode for a period of time, relying almost entirely on package store sales and delaying major releases of new spirits or limited edition offerings. In a period of uncertainty, there was simply less “new whiskey” on the market to write about, which was a disruption from the normal flow of this industry.
Realizing that this didn’t necessarily have to be a disadvantage, I started reevaluating the contents of my own whiskey collection, as I imagine so many other drinkers were doing at the same time. This manifested in a series of pieces on whiskeys we were revisiting “during quarantine,” but it now feels like the relevance of such specificity has come and gone. Although the pandemic is still clearly a threat, we’ve all had to come to terms with a new world by now, and it feels like American drinking habits have more or less returned to where they were before.
That return to relative normalcy included the return of new whiskey product launches and limited releases, but it seems to me this is no reason not to continue reevaluating the older ones on a regular basis. Why must we only discuss the new and shiny? Why not sample a bottle we haven’t tasted in months, to see how it may have changed—or how our tastes have changed with it?
Here, then, is the first in a newly rechristened series that will see us re-tasting whiskeys of all kinds, from bourbon and rye to single malt scotch and more exotic selections.
It almost feels pointless these days to list an MSRP next to any mid-tier or above bourbon from Buffalo Trace, given that they can only be acquired for these prices in certain scenarios, such as via state-run liquor stores. Suffice to say, the E.H. Taylor, Jr. lineup has been vastly inflated in terms of pricing in recent years on first the secondary market, and then the primary market thanks to rampant bourbon price-gouging from retailers and package stores taking advantage of uncontrollable demand from bourbon geeks following the BT hype train. So with that in mind—if you luck out with your package store, or are willing to wait in a line before a store opens, you might snag one of these for $70, which is a fair price. If not, then be ready to pay a 100-400% premium. Which, by the way, we absolutely do not recommend you do.
Now, let’s talk about the actual whiskey, yeah? E.H. Taylor is essentially Buffalo Trace’s mid-shelf showcase for their classic bourbon mashbill #1, generally containing older and stronger bourbons than those found in BT products where more value can be found, such as Benchmark or the namesake Buffalo Trace bourbon. The flagship of the Taylor lineup is E.H. Taylor Small Batch, which has an MSRP around $40. The next step up is this single barrel expression, which is apparently somewhat older, although an exact age statement for E.H. Taylor expressions is rarely stated. They’re all obviously at least 4 years old and 100 proof, as all Taylor expressions bear the “bottled in bond” title, although they can all be assumed to be significantly older than 4 years. What you’re left with is a BT bourbon mash bill #1 product with a decent amount of age and a respectable 100 proof. The bourbon equivalent of a belt-high fastball.
Revisiting this E.H. Taylor Single Barrel, I’m presented with luxurious tones of deep caramel, vanilla and slight cocoa right off the bat. It has significant sweetness, which is typical of this BT mashbill, and no doubt one of the things that has made it so beloved, but it also has hints of a deeper, oaky funk that lend appreciable complexity. The heat is quite low for its 100 proof, very nicely integrated and accessible. Further sips yield juicy orange, lots of vanilla, cocoa, cherry and trailing spice/subtle heat. What it has in spades is caramel, which is of course another Buffalo Trace signature. All in all, there’s no arguing the quality of what’s in the bottle—it’s extremely tasty bourbon. If you get the chance, by all means buy it. Just don’t get suckered into paying 400% markups for it.
Among the classic Speyside scotch distilleries that focus their production around sherried single malt whiskies, The Glenrothes is one that still seems to fly somewhat under the radar for the rank and file scotch drinker. They’re known to the more seasoned single malt geeks, but the neophyte doesn’t recognize the brand the way they do say, The Macallan, or even GlenDronach. Their use of sherry is also on the more subtle side than a true sherry bomb distillery such as Glenfarclas, owing to their use of “sherry seasoned” casks rather than full-on sherry casks or puncheons. This can make Glenrothes releases a more subtle, middle-of-the-road approach to sherried single malt. The line was also redesigned in recent years to reflect this, getting rid of its unique “vintage year” system in order to introduce more permanent flagship expressions dubbed the Soleo Collection. Today, this includes The Glenrothes 10, 12, 18 and 25 year, along with the non-age-stated “Whisky Maker’s Cut.”
The 18-year-old expression sits in the middle of this range, as a first venture into “extra aged” territory with a correspondingly high price tag. It’s bottled at a typical but somewhat reserved 43% ABV (86 proof). The distillery notes it was “matured entirely in sherry-seasoned oak casks,” and is presented at natural color.
Right off the bat, you get an impression smelling this whisky of the sherry’s involvement, but also of the fact that this malt doesn’t completely revolve around sherry influence. It smells of bright, sweet lemon and golden raisins—surprisingly bright fruit notes for something this age—along with honey and digestive biscuits. It’s actually fairly subtle on the nose, rather than being punchy or bombastic. On the palate, notes of honeycomb and pear are quite pleasant, leading into the oxidized nuttiness of sherry. At this point, the spike of upfront sweetness reverses course, leading into a back end that is more roasty, oaky and dry, with notes of cocoa, roasted nuts and charred cinnamon stick. Overall, this is a nice sherried malt for someone who prefers a drier finish rather than sweeter decadence.
The fairly recent Sam Houston line of bourbons is a product of Western Spirits Beverage Co., the producers of an oddball array of products that include Bird Dog Whiskey, Bokeelia Rum and Calumet Farm Bourbon. The Sam Houston line, on the other hand, is meant to be a premium sourced bourbon competing against all the other high-age-statement, sourced bourbon brands out there these days.
Western Spirits Beverage Co. doesn’t reveal their source, but the 74% corn, 18% rye, and 8% malted barley mash bill almost certainly indicates that this is a product of the Barton 1792 distillery, the makers of everything from Very Old Barton (our cheap bourbon blind tasting winner) to the flagship 1792 line. Barton also produces a lot of well-aged bourbon that goes to independent bottlers, and this looks like one of those brands. It’s bottled at a sturdy 98 proof, and spent 14 years in a #4 charred barrel.
On the nose, this one is notably citrusy, with bright orange highlights complemented by creamy vanilla, but also a more earthy mustiness that no doubt has crept in over 14 years in the oak. There’s more toasty grain on the palate than you would expect from a bourbon of this maturity, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case—it’s met by caramel corn and then a big rush of citrus, vanilla and caramel. These notes combine with old seasoned oak and lots of spice, which turns quite peppery. It certainly has the feel of “high rye,” and Barton’s modestly higher rye content probably plays a role in that. On the back end, I’m getting some more complex notes of milk chocolate, toasted marshmallow and anise. All in all, enjoyably spicy and citrusy. A cool bottle to check out, if you’ve never had some extra-aged Barton.
There are certain malt distilleries out there who are primarily known to consumers not for the product that bears their name, but for where their product ultimately ends up. That’s Mortlach, pretty much—the Diageo-owned Speyside distillery is most famous for the fact that its malts make up a key component of several different Johnnie Walker blends. That’s obviously an important claim to fame, being an integral part of one of the world’s best-selling blended whiskies.
At the same time, though, Mortlach also produces its own range of single malts sold by Diageo, and it was recently included in sample packs of whisky from Diageo-owned distilleries, alongside the more famous likes of Oban, Talisker and Lagavulin. It would seem that Diageo is likely inviting writers to taste more Mortlach on its own, so we’ll oblige them in this instance. This is the 12-year-old flagship, matured in a combination of American ex-bourbon and European sherry casks. This expression is also known as “The Wee Witchie” in some labeling, and is bottled at an oddly specific 43.4% ABV (86.8 proof).
On the nose, immediate impressions are of honeycomb and orchard fruits, with a nose that suggests considerable richness. Sherry influence is light to moderate, evoking dried fruit such as sultanas and dried apricot, with the lightest hints of damp earthiness. This is met by a baked shortbread note and light cinnamon, with flashes of ethanol that are perhaps slightly more aggressive than I would have expected for the proof.
On the palate, Mortlach 12 leads off with a buttery impression that quickly turns to honey, florals, roasted nuts, vanilla and mild earthiness. Unexpectedly, it’s actually not really as sweet as the nose was leading me to expect, instead turning drier and slightly bitter. A dark fruitiness emerges over time, but it makes me think not necessarily of sweetened jam or jelly, but a more bitter and pithy dark fruit marmalade. The earthiness, meanwhile, is not smoke or peat, but something slightly meaty and intriguing, blending well with drying oak. This seems to be an interesting case where the sherry maturation hasn’t resulted in as much sweetness/richness as I was expecting on the palate, but the result is still interesting in a way that is hard to put a finger on. Regardless, for the $60 MSRP it doesn’t seem like you’d regret checking it out.
I was quite pleasantly surprised and impressed when I first tasted Knob Creek’s brand extension into a more aged expression a few years ago, precisely because I found it sort of hard to believe in advance that adding three more years of aging to the classic Knob Creek Small Batch (which is 9 years age stated once again) would result in a substantially different bourbon, especially while retaining its 100 proof point. That’s the question—in going from 9 years to 12 years old, what is really going to change? And is it going to be worth a 100% price hike from the $30-35 you expect to pay for the regular Knob Creek, one of the genre’s best overall values?
The answer, as it turns out, is that there’s a surprising amount of transformation in that additional three years. Something wonderful happened, in fact, making for a more elegant and nuanced version of the Knob Creek so many people know and love.
On the nose, Knob Creek 12 packs heady notes of maple and deeply caramelized sugars, along with vanilla and spicy old oak. Rich brown sugar, cinnamon and sweet spices flow on the palate, into more leathery/tobacco/slight tannic notes that hint at the extra maturation. Some of these same tobacco notes are found in the 9 year version of Knob Creek as well, but here they merge seamlessly with cocoa and hints of very dark fruit compote, while the oak contributes hints of roasty, bitter balance. It drinks very easily at the 100 proof, and really shows off a lovely oak profile. I still love this stuff, tasting it again now. It’s a better brand than I would have ever expected.
And here’s the thing—I think this is also a better brand that Knob Creek’s own limited release 15 year expression, which takes the same flavors and runs a bit too far with them, to the point of becoming dominated by oak. This series reaches its balancing point at 12 years, and it’s a wonderful outcome. The price is more than fair at $60, and although I’ve seen this one creeping up to $70 and above in more places as of late, I’d still be happy to pay that.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.