When the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, when baseball gives way to football and the sweaters come out of mothballs, it can only mean one thing -- it's whiskey season again. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a snifter of Scotch or a perfect Manhattan on a sweltering July evening. But for me, autumn is whiskey weather. Time to put away the fruity pseudo-tinis and faux-jitos and get down to some serious drinking. This year, in addition to all the old favorites that have gotten us through many a previous autumn chill, there are three new whiskeys on the market that will cast a warm glow on your taste buds.
Four Roses bourbon doesn't have a particularly fancy pedigree and it doesn't cost an arm and a leg. It's a solid, no-nonsense and mighty tasty bourbon that's been around since your great-gran'pappy was knee high to a grasshopper (or 1888, in other words), and for a spell in the '30s and '40s it was the most popular bourbon in the United States. In recent years, however, as the spirits market has gravitated toward rarer and higher-end concoctions, they've gotten a little hifalutin. There are now ten different Four Roses expressions, each one aged and distilled differently. Four Roses' new Limited Edition Small Batch is a mixture of three of those recipes, aged between 10 and 15 years and then mixed at barrel strength. On the nose, it's mellow, fragrant and almost perfumey, redolent of young wood and nutmeg -- when my wife took a sniff she said, "It smells like Christmas." On the tongue, it starts off sweet, with a nifty brown sugar vibe, before the alcohol and oak whack you upside the taste buds; the finish is long and super-dry. While the Small Batch is designed to be a sipping whiskey, I think it makes a nifty bourbon for cocktails as well.
And speaking of cocktails... when it comes to Manhattans, Knob Creek is my bourbon of choice. It's so flavorful, so bold and robust, with so much... pizazz, that it can compensate for sloppy bartenders who are heavy-handed with the vermouth. And of course if you make it right, a more beautifully balanced drink you'll be hard pressed to find. But on its own, neat or on the rocks, I find that Knob Creek is a little too powerful -- its high alcohol content (100 proof) a little overwhelming, its flavor just a little bit out of control. That's where Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve comes in. In case you're not in the know, "single barrel" means that unlike most whiskeys, which are blended and bottled from several different barrels in which the elixir has been aging, each bottle comes from one specially selected barrel that's determined by the distiller to be (barrel)head and shoulders above the rest of the batch. And with Knob Creek, whoever chose the barrels chose well. Where standard Knob Creek can taste powerful but untamed, like the bourbon equivalent of a bucking bronco, Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve is a stallion that's been broken in, a fine thoroughbred of a whiskey. Everything's a little more focused -- the flavors are more harmonious, the wood notes even woodier, the sweet notes even sweeter. And what's amazing about this stuff is that it's even smoother than regular Knob Creek, despite containing a full 10% more alcohol (it checks in at a whopping 120 proof). And at a suggested retail price of $39.99 for a 750ml bottle, you can even afford to mix it in a Manhattan, although I think I'd drink it right out of the shaker before having a chance to add anything to it. The only bad thing I can think to say about it's not on liquor store shelves yet. So, what do you drink until it is?
Already available is a weird and wonderful new concoction from Ransom Spirits, the Oregon-based distiller which brought us the mind-blowingly brilliant Old Tom gin last year. This year's baby, WhipperSnapper Oregon Whiskey, is... well, what is it, anyway? Is it a bourbon? A Scotch? Sort of and sort of. The two main components of WhipperSnapper are malted barley (the same stuff they make Scotch from, although this barley is from Oregon) and un-aged or "white dog" Kentucky corn whiskey (from whence comes bourbon). The resulting alchemy, about an 80/20 ratio of corn to barley, is then aged in barrels that have housed French pinot noir and American whiskey, as well as new unused barrels. The aging process is relatively short -- generally less than two years, hence the "WhipperSnapper" name -- and then various barrels are selected and combined for each bottle. The end result is something akin to an incredibly vibrant young Scotch, while you also get the sweet and unrefined vibe of the white dog. At 84 proof, it goes down dangerously smooth neat or on the rocks. I suppose you could mix it with soda, but it's so damn good on its own that you needn't bother. Because it's not peaty, WhipperSnapper would make a great gateway drug for those timid souls who are scared off by the pungent aroma and powerful flavor of Islay single-malts. But it still makes for a damn fine libation even if you like the "hard stuff" like Lagavulin or Laphroaig.
All three of these fine American-made whiskies will make you proud of your country. And by buying them, you'll be giving the economy a boost. Meet you at the liquor store, fellow patriots!
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