I could make up some reasons why March is the best time of year to drink whiskey. It's nice to have a bourbon while watching Kentucky play during March Madness? An Old Fashioned is a great way to celebrate the first day of spring? A rye Manhattan is just what small business owners need after they've finished filing their corporate tax returns on March 15?
All of the above are true, but really, any time is a good time to drink whiskey. And since several new brands have hit the market in the last couple of months, there's yet another excuse to sip the amber nectar -- research. If you don't have the time, money or inclination to tear yourself away from your tried-and-true favorites, I've selflessly researched a bunch of them myself. Hey, it's the least I can do for fellow whiskey lovers.
Here are four of the more exciting whiskeys (three bourbons and a rye, to be precise) that are new to the shelves of your local booze emporium.
EARLY TIMES 354 BOURBON (40% alcohol by volume, aged at least 4 years, suggested retail price $16). Early Times has been around since Jack Beam (Jim Beam's uncle) started the distillery in the 1860s. In the 1950s its bourbon was, according to their website, the best seller in the world. For the last thirty years, however, Early Times has been a bourbon-free distillery. Now they've re-entered the market with a splash with their 354 bourbon, which refers to the number of the distillery's federal permit, the oldest in Kentucky. I have no idea how it tastes compared to the vintage stuff. Regardless, I like it a lot. It's a great starter bourbon if you're just getting your feet wet, as it were. It's very sweet, with a lush, almost syrupy mouth feel; there's lots of vanilla, honey and caramel notes along with an interesting touch of candied orange peel. It's quite mild, with hardly any alcoholic burn on the finish. Add a little water or an ice cube and it opens up a bit, revealing a more refined nature. I find it goes great in a Perfect Manhattan (where equal proportions of sweet and dry vermouth are used; a standard Manhattan only uses sweet vermouth). You can buy better bourbons, but you'll have a hard time finding a better one for 354's suggested retail price of $15.99. A heck of a value.
REDEMPTION HIGH-RYE BOURBON (46% alcohol by volume, aged at least 2 years, suggested retail price $25). Redemption hit the market last year with a nice, low-key rye that's pleasant for sipping and nifty for cocktails. Their second product is a bourbon, but you can tell these folks love their rye. A bourbon is required by law to be distilled from a mashbill of at least 51% corn, but after that, anything goes. Redemption kept the corn content at a relatively low 60%, and used rye for almost all the remainder. The result is a light, spicy, vibrant bourbon that, surprise surprise, tastes a lot like a light rye whiskey. Redemption doesn't age its products too much, so you don't get the deep, rich flavors and woody notes found in older whiskeys. Which is kind of why I like it so much. If you're not in the mood to gaze into your glass and figure out whether you're getting notes of allspice or cardamom in each sip, High-Rye Bourbon is a great "don't think, just drink" whiskey. And it's quite versatile in mixed drinks, so would-be mixologists can let their creativity run wild with it.
HIGH WEST DOUBLE RYE! (46% alcohol by volume, aged between 2-16 years, suggested retail price $35). From a bourbon with a high rye content to a rye with a high corn content. The folks at High West, based in Utah (a Utah-based distillery? Isn't that like an Israel-based barbecue joint?), have blended a 2-year-old whiskey made from 95% rye with a 16-year-old concoction that employs almost 40% corn in its mashbill. Hence, Double Rye! (The exclamation mark is part of the trademarked name.) This is a monster of a whiskey. It starts off sweet, thanks to the corn, with a strong vanilla vibe, but it's quickly followed up by a veritable explosion of peppery spice and dry cereal notes. You like big flavor? This is the rye for you. Like it a little more mellow and smooth? Add a little water and... well, it's still a monster, but a tamer monster, at least. Not for the faint of heart, but if you love rye, you will definitely enjoy Double Rye!, exclamation mark and all.
KNOB CREEK SINGLE BARREL RESERVE BOURBON (60% alcohol by volume, aged 9 years, suggested retail price $40). Whiskeys can be a lot like people. You'll encounter a lot of them in your life. You'll probably despise a few of them. You won't remember the vast majority of them very well, if at all. A few will become acquaintances whom you'll enjoy bumping into every now and then. And fewer still will become lifelong friends. I was already BFFs with Knob Creek's gorgeous 9-year-old bourbon, but I have a feeling I'll be inviting its slightly more sophisticated cousin, Single Barrel Reserve, over to my place for drinks even more often. I was so excited about Single Barrel Reserve that I jumped the gun and reviewed it four months ago, long before bottles had reached the drinking public. Now that you can actually buy it for yourself, I figured it's worth mentioning again. If you don't want to click on the link above, here's the story in a nutshell. Exceptional barrels are hand-selected by the Knob Creek distilling team (including the great Fred Noe, a seventh-generation distiller) during the aging process. Each bottle of Single Barrel Reserve comes from, you guessed it, exactly one of these special barrels. You still get the robust, sweet, slightly nutty flavor that Knob Creek is known for. But it's (even) smoother, the flavors are (even) more harmonious. Single Barrel Reserve takes an already great bourbon to the next level, which is some rarefied air indeed.
AND COMING SOON...
There are plenty of new whiskeys on tap for the coming months (wait, can a whiskey be "on tap"?). I've had a chance to try two. May promises the release of Jim Beam's Devil's Cut bourbon. Apparently, the folks at Beam have figured out how to remove the bourbon that's been absorbed by the oak barrels in which it rests during the aging process. No idea how they do it, but I can tell you this -- it tastes mighty woody, and quite smoky for a bourbon as well. Interesting stuff.
And the folks at Ransom Spirits (helmed by mad genius distiller Tad Seestedt) are working on a new whiskey, wisely dubbed Ransom Whiskey, based on a mashbill for Irish whiskey dating back to 1871. It's an interesting mix of barley, rye, and a little bit of oat, which you won't encounter much in whiskey nowadays. The mix is delicious and, thanks to the oats, quite unlike anything I've had before. The whiskey hasn't finished aging (it's only been in the barrel for a few months), but even at this tender age you can tell it's going to be special.
Have you tried any exciting new bourbons, ryes, or any other spirits that strike your fancy? Had a sneak preview of upcoming editions? Disagree with the reviews here? Chime in at the "Comments" section -- your two cents are encouraged.
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