I hate being told what to drink by the calendar or the thermometer. A daiquiri by the fire in January tastes just as delicious to me as it does by the pool in July. A good tequila is a wonderful thing whether you're wearing a sweater or a swimsuit. But there's something about fall, with the leaves turning, the jackets coming out of the closet, the darkness stealthily encroaching on our long summer dusks, that has me reaching for whisk(e)y, Not that I'll turn down a dram or a well-made Manhattan any time of year, but a little chill in the air makes a smoky single malt or a sweet, rich bourbon that that much better.
And hey, let's not kid ourselves — Labor Day isn't just the end of summer, it's the start of Whisk(e)y Season, when amber waves of booze flood our local liquor stores and watering holes. So many new bottles! So many unknowns! Is that new rye with the whimsical name a cynical marketing ploy, or did they put as much time into making the whiskey as they did with the bottle design? Is that superannuated single malt sublime, or will you be picking the splinters off your tongue after a sip? They used WHAT kind of wood to age that whisky? Someone had to find out the answers, and by "someone" I mean me. I found the scoop the best way I know how — by drinking. (And doing a little research on what I drank, but mainly by drinking.) If you love whiskey, there'll definitely be something among these not-quite-dozen for you to enjoy. And if you don't like whiskey, I hope at least one of them will help change your mind. Slainte!
Michter's Toasted Barrel Finish Bourbon (45.7% ABV, $60). The first release of this beauty since 2015 couldn't have come at a better time for me personally, since I finally finished my old, carefully rationed bottle over the summer. Michter's limited edition releases really are limited; they disappear from store shelves lickety-split. And it's not just a marketing ploy, either, they honestly have trouble keeping up with demand. In this case, certainly, it's not hard to figure out why. By toasting the barrels rather than charring them, the finished product turns out much mellower, without the dry, peppery bite a charred barrel can impart. Instead, rich caramel, baking spices, vanilla and dark chocolate caress the tongue, with the oak coming through more gently and subtly on the finish. At a bit over 90 proof, it's a hefty bourbon, but it's easy to drink without water. It's easy to drink, period. Let's hope it's not another three years until the next batch comes out, but lay in ample stocks just in case.
Westland Garryana 2018, Edition 3 I 1 (56% ABV, $150, less than 2,000 bottles available). Previous releases of this whiskey have landed smack-dab in the wheelhouse of a lot of whiskey nerds. An American malt made by an indie distillery in the Pacific Northwest, using a native oak (Quercus garryana) that's in such short supply that only very limited quantities can be made, certainly ticks a lot of hipster boxes. But the thing is, it's also really tasty, so you can't mock the hipsters too much. Supplies of garryana oak are so limited that this year, Westland had to jimmy the formula to make enough whiskey even for a run of less than 2,000 bottles. In addition to traditional new American oak and "Garry" casks, the third edition — a combination of three different mashbills — was also aged in refill ex-bourbon barrels, first-fill ex-port pipes, and refill casks which previously held... Westland whiskey. But necessity is the mother of invention — and, if this is any evidence, of some excellent whiskey. The nose has that unique, weird, slightly funky Garry aroma, along with some new oak, honey. The port casks make their presence felt on the tongue, with rich fruity notes along with dry baking spices and coffee. The sweetness evaporates pretty quickly, leaving in its wake a dry, leathery finish. Would I like it to have more Garry oak in the mix? Of course. Am I loving it anyway? Hell yes.
Aberlour Casg Annamh Single Malt Whisky (48% ABV, $65). I'm not a fan of no-age-statement whiskies in general. Yeah, I know that NAS supposedly frees the blender to create the best possible whisky without the constraints of age statements. I also know that such thinking is a bunch of hooey, and that distilleries are running out of aged stocks, rendering the blending of older and younger malts a last resort rather than a real choice. It's true, however, that NAS expressions are, in general, getting better. Hell, Aberlour's own A'Bunadh, a glorious cask-strength powerhouse, lacks an age statement. So I approached Casg Annamh (Gaelic for "rare cask") with a little less cynicism than I would otherwise. And was rewarded with an altogether nifty sherried malt, abundant with rich marmalade, dried apricot and fig notes, with a flicker of spice and a gentle caress of oak on the finish. It's beautifully balanced, something I don't find often enough in NAS blends, and a perfect fall sipper. If you're a fan of sherried whiskies and aren't familiar with Aberlour, it's time to get acquainted.
Whistlepig Rye Boss Hog V: The Spirit Of Mauve (59.5% ABV, $500). It's not every day you come across a whiskey dedicated to the memory of a pig — with a stopper representing said pig's ascension to heaven, no less. But after upending the world of rye whiskey close to a decade ago, Whistlepig has the right to get goofy if it wants. The Spirit Of Mauve (Mauve being the pig who resided on Whistlepig's farm in Vermont), the fifth in the series of rare, superlative, very expensive ryes, and actually the second Boss Hog to be dedicated to a pig (The Spirit Of Mortimer was released in 2015). As with previous editions, it's a single barrel (aged 13 years (older than the brand itself, which means it's sourced), bottled at cask strength. But what's unique about Mauve is that it's finished in calvados casks — Mauve the pig loved apples, you know. Whistlepig is a big whomper of a whiskey at its standard 50% ABV; this behemoth, at close to 60, is a tad overwhelming taken neat. My exact response was, "Hey, this is really gooHACK HACK HACK COUGH WHEEZE" — I felt like a high schooler trying his first slug of hooch. A splash of water, however, brought down the alcoholic burn, revealing a gorgeous rye with bright green apple notes up front followed by big, rich rye spice and dry oak. $500 ain't exactly cheap, but if you love rye — and pig-shaped stoppers — I recommend it.
Four Roses 130th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon (54.15% ABV, $140). Four Roses' 125th Anniversary Small Batch release was hailed as one of the finest bourbons ever made not just by Four Roses, but by anyone, period. In the intervening five years, Brent Elliott replaced the legendary Jim Rutledge as the brand's master distiller, and established his own bona fides by putting out the Al Young 50th Anniversary Small Batch, another ridiculously good and hosanna-laden bourbon. So needless to say, expectations were a wee bit high for this one. Four Roses is famed for its ten distinct bourbon recipes, utilizing two different mashbills and five different yeast strains. This batch employs four of those recipes, aged between 10-16 years and bottled at cask strength. And yes, it is delicious, with sweet cherry and milk chocolate notes mingling with cinnamon spice, finishing long and surprisingly smooth given the high proof. Water brings up the fruity notes a bit, but it's totally unnecessary. About 13,000 bottles are available, first at the distillery and then rolling out nationwide. Do not hesitate, unless you enjoy paying ridiculous prices for whiskey on the secondary market.
Mortlach 16 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky: Distiller's Dram (43.4% ABV, $100). You may not have heard of Mortlach, but you've probably tasted it, since it's used as a component in Johnnie Walker blends. It's also pretty terrific on its own, the product of several different sized stills, an odd, not-quite triple-distillation process (the Mortlach folks claim it's distilled 2.81 times), and old-school wooden worm tub condensers to cool the vaporized spirit, which give it a full, almost meaty flavor. This stuff ain't called "The Beast Of Dufftown" for nothin'. Diageo tried to launch Mortlach as a high-end single malt a few years ago and botched the follow-through, earning the ire of a lot of aficionados. Now they're re-launching it with three different age statements. The 16-year-old is the middle whisky, and it's my favorite of the three. Mortlach has previously had a renowned and somewhat hard-to-find 16-year-old which, alas, I've never tried. The new one, however, is worth your time and filthy lucre. Aged entirely in ex-sherry casks, it's big and bold, with citrus and smoky sweetness reminiscent of meaty barbecue — it's the whisky that drinks like a meal. The finish is long and dry, leaving lingering traces of tobacco and leather along with a hint of fruity sweetness. I generally don't go for sherried malts, but this is delicious.
Parker's Heritage Collection 12th Edition: Bourbon Finished In Orange Curaçao Barrels (55% ABV, $90). This isn't the first edition of Heaven Hill's renowned Parker's Heritage Collection to sport a barrel-finished bourbon, but the barrel used in this instance — orange curaçao — will likely cause bourbon purists to do a spit-take or two. But I guess I'm not a purist, because I think it's a beautiful sipper; in fact, I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying it. The 7-year-old bourbon is finished for four months in curaçao barrels, which lends a definite hint of orange to both the nose and palate. But the bourbon backbone stays strong, and the fruitiness of the liqueur complements the whiskey without overshadowing it. If you need any added incentive to give it a try, a portion of the proceeds go to ALS research, as all Parker's Heritage releases have since 2013, when Parker Beam first made his battle with the disease publicly known. An excellent whiskey for an excellent cause.
Caol Ila 35 Year Old Single Malt Whisky (58.1% ABV, $989). I don't know if this is the oldest Caol Ila ever released, but it's certainly the oldest to be bottled as part of Diageo's Special Releases series, which goes back to the turn of the millennium. Even before the first sip is taken, it's clear that this is a pretty big deal. And once you take that first sip... oh my goodness. Standard Caol Ila — an oily, moderately peaty, rather medicinal Islay malt — isn't for everyone, although the 12 Year Old is a personal fave. But I can't see any Scotch whisky fan denying the brilliance of the 35 year old. Time in the barrel has worked wonders here, with a salinity offset by sweet berry, soft vanilla, and subtle minty notes. The smoke wafts onto the palate towards the finish, gently and beautifully. If you were ever going to spend a grand on a whisky, put this one on your short list. And if some generous soul offers you a dram, by all means take it.
Jefferson's Twin Oak Custom Barrel Bourbon (45.1% ABV, $80). Jefferson's isn't the first whiskey to use grooved barrels in its aging process — Jack Daniel's tried it with their terrific Sinatra Select expression, and Ardbeg did it with its recent Ardbeg Grooves limited edition, to name two. But Twin Oak is, to my knowledge, the first bourbon to get groovy. And that counts for something, right? What counts for more is that it's a damn good bourbon. Jefferson's doesn't distill its own juice, but they do lots of interesting things with aging, most famously with the aged-at-sea Jefferson's Ocean. For Twin Oak Custom Barrel, a collaboration with the Independent Stave Company resulted in a 10-year-old bourbon that's finished for four months in custom-made grooved barrels that are toasted and then flash-charred. The grooves put more of the liquid in direct contact with the oak. What does this do to the bourbon, you might ask? I get a deeply rich, dark chocolate/burnt toffee flavor that's got a bit of a bite on the finish. An $80 bourbon isn't terribly cost-effective for mixing, but it makes a nifty Manhattan — it gets along well with vermouth but refuses to be overwhelmed by it.
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon: 18th Edition (55.5% ABV, $100). I still harbor ill will towards September from my back-to-school days, but Old Forester makes the cruelest month (sorry, T.S. Eliot, you had it wrong) a little more bearable. Birthday Bourbon celebrates the birthday of Old Forester's founder, George Garvin — the man who first bottled his bourbon rather than selling it out of barrels, close to 150 years ago. The entire batch is distilled and laid down in one day, and then aged 12 years and bottled at 101 proof. Given what goes on between barreling and bottling, Birthday Bourbons can taste wildly different from one year to the next. This year, apparently, the total yield was down thanks to an extra large angels' share. As a result, this bottling is concentrated, potent, and quite tannic on first sip, with bitter chocolate, burnt caramel and creme brulee notes emerging after a few seconds on the tongue. Further sipping reveals soft vanilla and hints of dark fruit, but that dry oak remains dominant throughout, with a ridiculously long, lingering finish. If you you dig a well-oaked bourbon, or you're a rye fan who thinks most bourbons are too sweet, then go for the gusto.