The Curious Bartender - An Odyssey of Malt, Bourbon & Rye Whiskies: A Brief Review

Photo courtesy: The Graham Hotel

Photo courtesy: The Graham Hotel

PROLOGUE

It's nearing dusk on a Friday evening in Georgetown. It's humid and traffic is terrible. I know if I sit in my Uber any longer in standstill traffic, I'll be late for "date night." The Uber driver was chummy for the 10-minute ride over to the part of DC I needed to be in, so I didn't mind asking  if I could pop out while it seemed advantageous to walk the rest of the way to my final destination.

"Five stars," I proclaim as I exit his Toyota Camry! He nodded, smiled and wished me a happy evening.

I'm meeting my girlfriend for dinner at a (self-proclaimed) whiskey bar called The Alex. It's our first time trying this place and, full disclosure, she booked it using a Groupon-style deal. I'm usually weary of places that need to lure patrons with coupons, because if you're that good, then coupons aren't necessary. Right? However, Georgetown does offer upscale shopping and some offbeat nightlife in the District, and most of the dining options are above par. Also, this place is a restaurant in the Graham Hotel, a boutique accommodation that's a tribute to Alexander Graham Bell (notice the names?). I've probably passed it 100 times and never noticed a hotel existed there. 

Alas, I finally found myself standing in the hotel lobby. And after a slight squabble with the concierge about having outside beverages in the restaurant (I had a practically empty Sprite bottle in tow), I weaved my way down and through the old establishment and found myself where I needed to be, clocking in at a customary five minutes fashionably late. Understandably so.

From left: Bulleit Rye, Hudson Manhattan, Whistle Pig 10 Year Rye

From left: Bulleit Rye, Hudson Manhattan, Whistle Pig 10 Year Rye

I did fail to mention that the "coupon" deal that I was being treated to included a flight of whiskies. And, well, whiskey and flights (of any kind) are usually a decent combination. I'll oblige.

For being a "whiskey bar," The Alex's selection was quite limited, and the prix fixe flight options were even more restrictive. There were three themed flights to choose from: Bourbon (basic), Rye (moderate) and some Willett Distillery offerings (Noah's Mill, Pot Still Reserve and the Family Estate Bottled Two-Year Rye).

Admittedly, I jump at any sight of Willett distillery brown water, with the exception of the Two-Year rye. Because, let's face it. It's a two-year-old whiskey! As a standalone rye, it does absolutely nothing for me. However, it does happen to make the tastiest old-fashioned cocktail known to man! So, I started with that. I later opted for the rye-themed flight. It seemed like the most solid trio I could have chosen.

THE REVIEW

As a surprise, my girlfriend stuck with the whiskey themed night and presented me with some new reading material, The Curious Bartender: An Odyssey of Malt, Bourbon & Rye Whiskies by Tristan Stephenson. Needless to say, I was elated. What better way to toast this occasional whiskey adventure than with a complimentary piece of whiskey propaganda? There is none.

Synopsis, via Amazon:

"An innovative, captivating tour of the finest whiskies the world has to offer, brought to you by bestselling author and whisky connoisseur Tristan Stephenson. Tristan explores the origins of whisky, from the extraordinary Chinese distillation pioneers well over 2,000 years ago to the discovery of the medicinal 'aqua vitae' (water of life), through to the emergence of what we know as whisky. Explore the magic of malting, the development of flavour and the astonishing barrel-ageing process as you learn about how whisky is made. In the main chapter, Tristan takes us on a journey through 60 distilleries around the world, exploring their remarkable quirks, unique techniques and flavours, featuring all new location photography from the Scottish Highlands to Tennessee. After that, you might choose to make the most of Tristan's bar skills with some inspirational whisky-based cocktails. This fascinating, comprehensive book is sure to appeal to whisky aficionados and novices alike."

One thing you'll probably notice is the juxtaposed spelling in the Amazon review and subsequently throughout the book itself (the author is British, after all) of Whisky and the American (the best) way of spelling Whiskey.

For all intents and purposes, it seems that Whisky is the "old world" spelling, used as a common explainer in whiskies such as Scotch and Irish variants. Whiskey is the "new world" usage in American and some other whiskey labelings. Both are acceptable.

I don't think the book actually covers the variable spellings, or perhaps I missed it? In any case, I use the "(e)" so not to offend. Although, all things being equal, Bourbonatic is "a blog dedicated to the exploration of American whisk(e)y!" :)

To preface my review, I did not read this book "cover to cover." Honestly, for informational reads like this, I rarely do. There is a lot of quality information in this book, but it's very much piecemeal. Aside from the history section, the different sections of the book are tailored for enthusiasts from a wide spectrum of the whiskey world, as you can imagine. So, I payed extra attention to the chapters cataloging the history of American whiskey, explanation and reviews of American whiskey products, and the expansive and fascinating cocktails section near the end.

DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER (EXCEPT FOR THIS ONE)

The book itself is absolutely beautiful. The weathered, rustic cover stock and weighted feel makes this the manliest of manly books, if there ever was such as thing? Open it up and there are gorgeous photographs on almost every page, breaking up the monotony of long blocks of text, which is nice. This really is one of the more handsome books in my bookcase. Admittedly, I do think it was designed as more of an accessory, so-to-speak. Meaning, it would probably look better sitting beside my favorite bottle of bourbon, or on a bar cart next to a full decanter, rather than being buried on a shelf with other, less attractive bindings. This is almost certainly a good thing!

FOCUS ON THE DETAILS, BUT LIMIT THE NUMBER OF DETAILS

This is pretty great read, indeed. Not just for whiskey lovers, but also for newbies who are just getting into the scene and want to learn more about whiskey, its history and subsequent revival. It is not a “how to” book on sniffing and sipping (although it does touch on this a bit); There are some better options for whiskey beginners. However, you will enjoy learning about the “rules,” guidelines and of crafting different whiskies of the world, why they’re significant to preserving the nuance of the namesakes, and studying the identity and character of the different regions of whiskey production.

The author also doesn’t try to take on too much with identifying, explaining and/or reviewing as many whiskies as he can. Stephenson even notes multiple times that it is “impossible” to do so. I applaud that he stuck to the basics and the true nature of his writing by not being overly ambitious with this effort.

I would certainly recommend this book to anyone hoping to dive a little deeper into whiskey lore, and they should find some interesting notes about whiskey that may otherwise go unmentioned by other "experts." It truly is fascinating to get a glimpse into the perspective of fellow enthusiasts. And this is no exception.

THERE'S COCKTAILS, TOO

The last section of the book dives into a spectrum of bourbon-inspired cocktails, and man they are aplenty. As is proper; The author is a "curious bartender" and bar owner. The cocktail recipes are accompanied by exquisitely shot photographs of the end results. Whoa! I'm confident my iPhone camera cannot take pictures like that, let alone do I have the ability to replicate such meticulously well-crafted pieces of art. Seriously! As some food is art, so too are these concoctions! But hey, it should be fun to try! Cheers!

Coming Soon: The completely botched Bourbonatic versions of The Curious Bartender's bourbon cocktails.

Hooray! Bourbonatic is in the Bardstown Whiskey Society

Of all the things in whiskey geek-dom, Heaven Hill Distilleries offers this (not-so) exclusive membership to those whiskey fans seeking some pseudo-recognition, via acceptance into the Bardstown Whiskey Society (BWS). I'm not so sure how much of a "society" it really is, except getting some decent discounts on their partner tours and a $5 mail-in rebate for a purchase of a Heaven Hill whiskey. Interested? Take all of five minutes to fill out some field forms on the BWS website

You can also find membership benefits here: http://www.bardstownwhiskeysociety.com/member-benefits/

In any case, I got a membership card. Awesome! Anytime someone asks, "what makes you an authority on whiskey?" I'll just whip out that membership card, slam it down on the table, say nothing, and let that card do all the talking. Or, perhaps I'll just get a cheap frame for my certificate and set it beside my ever-growing collection of American whiskey? I haven't decided how I want to leverage this position of power.

With that said; Thank you, Heaven Hill Distilleries, for accepting me, the Bourbonatic, into your club of sorts. I'll be gracing your grounds again soon. Very soon.

The Jack Rose Willett Release + Review

So, I'm biased on a lot of accounts here. A lot. One, I am a Willett Family Estate Bourbon sheep. Second, I frequent Jack Rose Dining Saloon more than my own apartment these days. But I could not - I repeat - could not pass up a chance to take in the sights, sounds and bourbon during the 2,015 in 2015 event at one of the finest whisk(e)y establishments in the world!

See above: I was among the first to get a taste. A fresh bottle was opened right in front of me.

See above: I was among the first to get a taste. A fresh bottle was opened right in front of me.

Literally. The world.

Jack Rose (now) boasts a total of 2,015+ bottles of whiskey (their Instagram account lists 2,200+) in its collection. The details aren't important. It's a lot. And I've tasted more bourbon, and subsequently spent more money, at this fine establishment than I care to admit. I'd also be hard pressed to name any other whiskey bar in the western hemisphere that can boast these numbers!

Nevertheless, when Jack Rose has an event (especially if Willett is involved) attendance is mandatory.

Note: Jack Rose also does "Pappy Hour!" And as you might guess, yes, it's tastings of Pappy Van Winkle during "happy hour" hours. I keep missing them, however, since they're rather unannounced. But one day!

At some point, Jack Rose (JR) might have been one of the better-kept secrets of D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood. No longer. In fact, for the past year or so, this place has been the scene for nights out in "AdMo," including my own. Anytime we're in the area, JR is a must stop. If not for the whiskey, the food. If not for the food, the experience.

For any whiskey fan out there, JR is a spectacle. Bookshelves lining three walls, from floor to ceiling, packed full of the finest, rarest whiskies on the planet. Bartenders and whiskey advisors scale latters to reach the tippy-top of the top shelf whiskies. It truly is a "library of whiskey."

A Quick 2,015 in 2015 Recap: JR owner, Bill Thomas, must have some friends in pretty high places in the whiskey world. Hand-picked barrel's of Willett's Family Estate Bourbon can't come lightly, or cheap, outside of the distributors that usually source them. One of those friends, I presume, is Willett Distillery master distiller, Drew Kulsveen, who was supposed to make an appearance at the event. I didn't stick around long enough to find out. It was a "school night."

In any case, the event called for free tastings of the new exclusive Willett bottling, which almost certainly pulled the large crowd. And a crowd it was. Probably the most people I've seen packed into that place before 8pm on a Wednesday, or any evening for that matter. The tasting was to take place at the tail-end of the evening festivities. Again, knowingly, I decided to make it an early night and ponied up some bucks to be one of the first to taste the new offering. It was justified. 

Enough prelude. Let's dig.


As mentioned above, this particular bourbon was sourced by Bill Thomas, owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon. The restauranteur / bourbon fanatic got his hands on a Willett Family Estate bourbon barrel and the fine folks at the Willett Distillery bottled it exclusively for his restaurant, Jack Rose. The barrel / bottles are aptly nicknamed, "Jack Rose." To celebrate, Jack Rose held a "2,015 in 2015" event to announce its exclusive bottles and gloat about having such an expansive collection after pulling this haul from Willett.

Willett and its acclaimed Family Estate bourbon is perhaps one of the fastest growing names among bourbon enthusiasts. Since Willett is a non-distilling producer (NDP) - I won't get into theories about where their juice comes from, we'll save that for later - this is the only background reference I can provide at this time.

(Un)Fortunately there aren't any other reviews to reference (that I've seen) since this is an exclusive release. So, you'll just have to take my word for it!

Name: Willett -  Family Estate Bottled Singel Barrel Bourbon "Jack Rose 2015"

Proof: 125.2

Age: 11 years

Year: 2014/15

Delivery: Neat. (Later, with water).

Color: Deep rouge, auburn.

Nose: Warm butter and brown sugar. Hints of peanut brittle and spice cake.

Impression: At first sip I got a blast of sugar and salt brine. In the middle you get a good amount of oak flavor, finished with vanilla, coriander and orange zest. I will say that the nose was much more pleasant than my first impression, which is a pretty rare occurrence in most regards.

Overview: With a fresh palate and at 125 proof, this bourbon packs a punch. I knew I wouldn't particularly like the high heat at first, but of course I had to sip it neat on the first two pops. The heat does't last long though, and the mouthfeel is actually nice, full and rich. However, the proof is simply too high, IMO. This offering would probably be fantastic if it were bottled at sub-120. 

Let's add a little water.

I added two drops of water to what I eye-balled was about 2/3 of the ounce left. Wow. What a difference this made. The bite at the front was dissipated significantly. The mid flavors lingered a little longer on the tongue, and the finish was softer, as expected.

I decided to test the resolve of this bourbon with one more drop of water at about 1/3 ounce to see if it would go flat. Surprisingly enough, it held up! I was still able to get the profile to come through with almost no heat on the top.

Recommendation: Just add water. If you like high spice, this probably won't bother you. But for those with milder tastes, this will pack too much on the front, and leaves too little on the back.

Grade: 3 - Very Good. I've tasted 15+ different Willett bourbons, and this lacked balance compared to the others I've had. Complexity was masked a bit, although underlying flavors are present, albeit not prominent. I would have given it 3.5-barrels if the proof had been slightly lower. At 115-120 proof this bourbon would be one of the finer 11YO whiskies floating around. It's a shame (or perhaps not?) there's only one place you can get it!

Copper & Oak - A Whiskey Splurge in NYC

Photo courtesy: Time Out NYC.

Photo courtesy: Time Out NYC.

As a post-Valentine's day trip from DC to NYC with my girlfriend, we decided that she would pick the restaurants, as long as I could pick the bars. Her choices were pretty fantastic, hitting up celebrity chef restaurants such as Bobby Flay's Gato and Chris Santos' Stanton Social.

Sidebar: Aside from the delicious meals we had at both of these establishments, we might have also stumbled upon the best "pizza-by-the-slice" places anywhere. While venturing out in Soho, we popped into Prince Street Pizza, a "NoLita pizzeria." If you find yourself in the area, do yourself a favor and grab a slice (or two) of their vodka sauce pie. It's seriously write home worthy!

Not to be one-upped, I sprung for one of the better whiskey spots on the Lower East Side in Copper & Oak. This place is owned and operated by its big brother Brandy Library. As with Brandy Library, Copper & Oak could pass for a small "library," with a lot less pretense. Outfitted with backlit bookshelves stuffed with plenty of amber elixir to warm the cockles of any whiskey enthusiast—it’s also an apt setting for those looking to expand their whiskey wisdom. The walls are made of deconstructed bourbon barrels and they also plastered whiskey bottle tops on the bathroom door for good measure!

At Copper & Oak you can dive deep into the Kentucky brown water, as they boast quite the collection of hard-to-find whiskies (not just bourbon, obviously) from around the world. Sticking to what I know, I reached straight for the 7-year Willett rye. At this point, I had only tried one other Willett rye, a 6-year offering from a few months before. Of course, as with most Willett's, it was robust and fiery goodness. My girlfriend (also a Bourbonatic by proxy), got the Parker's Heritage "Promise of Hope." 

Note: Unfortunately, I wasn't taking notes on this one, so I'll reserve proper reviews when I'm paying more attention!

After chatting up Joel, our bartender for the evening - who also happens to be the Head Spirit Sommelier - discussing the finer points of american whiskey, our favorite's from Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill, he reaches for a Elijah Craig 23-year and pours me a sipper's sip. Whoa! This one packed a delicious punch! For what it's worth, at first taste off of a rye, the sweet and oak was so prominent, but the finish was really something special. I figured that was a hard follow up for something new, so I went back to an old faithful in the Colonel E. H. Taylor Single Barrel. As you will soon come to find out, the Taylor Single Barrel is one of my favorites from Buffalo Trace, and probably one of the best bourbon's that won't (completely) break the bank.

If you're a whiskey-geek rummaging around NYC's LES, this is a mandatory stop. Not only do they have a plethora of whiskey to appease even the most experienced of palates, they even offer the token food menu and some simple wine offerings if some of your compatriots aren't "with the whiskey." Check it out. You won't be disappointed. The setting is small, but it is glorious!