EZdrinking

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary.

Searching for the world's best drinks and what makes them extraordinary. EZdrinking is a drinks blog by Eric Zandona that focuses on distilled spirits, wine, craft beer and specialty coffee. Here you can find reviews of drinks, drink books, articles about current & historical trends, as well as how to make liqueurs, bitters, and other spirit based drinks at home.

What I Learned from the California Rum Festival

Image from TheRumLab.com

The other weekend I attended the 2nd Annual California Rum Festival hosted at the SOMArts Center in San Francisco. I found out about this event last year just after its inaugural festival came to a close. Now I really like rum and rum cocktails so I made sure to sign up for their newsletter because I didn't want to miss it again.

When the day of the event arrived I was excited to check out a couple of the breakout sessions though overall, I didn't know what to expect from the event. While the first speaker was setting up I decided to walk the floor and create a game plan for tasting. The event was hosted in a long open gallery space and as I walked the hall there were a couple of rum brands that I recognized but many of them I hadn't heard of. Going into the festival I knew that I generally like Jamaican rums (I'm a big fans of Appleton and Rum Fire) and that I'm not a fan of overly sweet rums. 

After scoping out the floor, I popped into a great seminar lead Forrest Cokley on Panamanian Rums.  Forrest presented Ron Abuelo 7 Year Old Rum, Panama-Pacific 9 Year Old Rum, and Ron DurĂ¡n 12 Year Old Rum. Each of them were made on column stills and aged in ex-whiskey barrels and both Ron Abuelo and Ron Duran had some amount of sugar added post distillation so they were a little sweeter and a little easier on the palate. All three were nice rums  and while my favorite of the three was Ron Abuelo, I wasn't super excited by any of therm. However, I think they would really appeal to people who love Ron Zacapa or Flor de Cana.

After the session I returned to the floor and began tasting a lot of rums. I tried rums from Puerto Rico, Panama, Antigua, Jamaica, Guyana, Kauai, South Carolina and even the Philippines. And as I tasted them, I began to discern a pattern of what rums spoke to me. I noticed that I like rums that taste like rum. Not rum that tastes like oak, or rum trying to be whiskey, or rum so adulterated that it tastes more like vanilla extract. I got excited for unaged or lightly aged rums, high ester rums, rum made on pot stills and rum agricole. Now this doesn't mean I don't like any sweetness, oak, or spice in rum but rather that I those flavors in proportion so that the base distillate can show its character. Here were my favorites...

The Rum Society No. 40: The Rum Society is a company that buys single origin pot distilled rum and blends them together. No. 40 is an unaged rum distilled in Guyana on a wooden pot still. This rum comes from the same distillery that produces El Dorado. The rum is chalk full of beautiful fruity and floral esters and it is incredibly smooth. Drinking this rum was an ecstatic revelation.

Rhum JM Agricole Blanc 50%: Rhum JM is a historic producer of rum agricole, i.e. rum made from fresh pressed sugar cane, on the French island of Martinique. Like other rum agricole, the blanc has a wonderful bouquet of grassy and floral notes. And even at 50%ABV it wasn't overly hot or harsh.

Rhum JM VO: This rum takes the raw distillate from above and matures it in new American oak barrels and re-charred bourbon barrels. This short stint wood adds a layer of complexity however, the base rum still shines through. In my opinion the V.O. demonstrates how rum can be complemented by its time in oak without being overpowered.

Damoiseau Pure Cane Rum 110 Proof: Damoiseau is another rum agricole however, this one is distilled on the French island of Guadalupe. The rum has a wonderful earthy character complemented by an array tropical fruit notes. And at 110 proof this unaged rum is designed for cocktails.

Pusser's Rum Gunpowder Proof: Pusser's is a blend of five rums from Guyana and Trinidad aged for a minimum of 3 years. This blend was used for over 300 years by the British Royal Navy as a daily ration to its sailors. The original blend was stored at 54.5% ABV which saved space and was strong enough that gunpowder soaked in the rum would still ignite. Pusser's is a very rich and dense rum with lots of molasses, honey, and spice. For my taste the Gunpowder proof was the sweet spot. The lower proof Blue Label (42%) did not have the same intensity of flavor, and the overproof  (75%) was super hot and clearly meant to be used sparingly in cocktails.

Koloa Rum Company Kaua'i Coffee Liqueur: This Liqueur is made through a collaboration between the Kauai Coffee Company and Koloa Rum Company. Koloa takes their white rum which is twice distilled from raw sugar up to 90% ABV before being  proofed down.  A brewed coffee of Kauai grown aribica and robusto beans is added to the rum with a little sugar and vanilla. The combined flavors of rum and coffee is a fantastic combo and the vanilla, molasses, and dark chocolate flavors make this a tasty after dinner treat.

Conclusion

If you have a chance to attend an event like this I highly recommend it. When only one spirit is served, whether it is rum, gin, or whiskey, I think it presents a great opportunity to discover new brands and better understand your own personal preferences.

Review: Elijah Craig Small Batch 12 Year Old Bourbon

Elijah Craig Small Batch 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon, distilled by Heaven Hill Distilleries and bottled at 47% ABV. 

Price Range: $25-$35

Heaven Hill first introduced Elijah Craig Small Batch 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon in 1986, six years before Jim Beam introduced their line of small batch bourbon collection. Small batch is an unregulated term that usually means the producer uses a smaller number of barrels (anywhere from 50 to 200) which are blended together before bottling. Whereas larger brand like Evan Williams or Jim Beam might use thousands of barrels for one bottling run. In large part, the term small batch is just a marketing ploy to justify a higher price point but as with most things, if you like the product in the bottle and you are willing to pay for it then marketing like small batch doesn't really matter.

Up until the beginning of 2016, Elijah Craig Small Batch was essentially a 12 year old version of Evan Williams. Because of this some friends and I ran a little taste test. We poured ourselves three glasses: Evan Williams Black Label, Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage, and Elijah Craig. This is a fun way to see how aging time can affect the bourbon. Now obviously this wasn't an exact 1 to 1 comparison since they are each bottled at different proofs and the Vintage comes from just one barrel. However, you get a general idea of what Heaven Hill bourbon is like at about 6ish years for E-Dub, 10 years for the Vintage and 12 years for Elijah. This was a great experiment because it confirmed for me that I'm not a big fan of extra aged bourbons. With each jump in age there is a noticeable increase in the amount of oak flavor in the bourbon. While I think Elijah Craig is a high quality bourbon, it wasn't my favorite because for my tastes there was too much oak. However, for one of my friends, Elijah Craig was his favorite because he liked the more intense oak flavor. There are a number of brands that you can use to run this experiment, but if you happen to still have a bottle of Elijah Craig Small Batch 12 year old it is worth trying with some friends.

At the beginning of 2016, Heaven Hill announced that, Elijah Craig Small Batch, which now sells 70,000 9-liter cases per year, has dropped it 12 year old age statement. This change is apparently  due in part to its own success and Heaven Hill's desire to see the brand continue to grow. Heaven Hill said that they could not continue to grow Elijah Craig Small Batch 12 Year Old without increasing the price or negatively impacting supply of Elijah Craig 18. From here out Elijah Craig Small Batch will be a mix of 8 to 12 year old bourbon. So if you like Elijah Craig and you happen to find a bottle with the 12 year old age statement, you should snatch it up because it probably isn't coming back.

TASTING NOTES

Nose: There is a strong aroma of caramel and vanilla with notes of fresh oak and green apples.

Palate: The palate is intense, full of sweet caramel, oak and baking spices. At 47%ABV there is some heat but very little astringency and the flavors round out with a pleasant note of honey water.

Finish: The finish starts with a lingering sweetness that is balanced with dry tannins from the oak. Spice flavors and cornbread slowly fade as a warm sensation fills your chest.

Conclusion: Elijah Craig Small Batch 12 Year Old is a very bold bourbon that should please drinkers who like stronger wood and oak notes in their whiskey. Its power if awe inspiring and it is definitely a bourbon worth contemplating slowly over a long quiet evening. For its price it is a fantastic value which probably explains why Heaven Hill decided to drop its age statement.

Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Bourbon

Evan Williams Single Barrel 2002 Vintage Kentucky Straight Bourbon, distilled by Heaven Hill Distilleries and bottled at 43.3% ABV. 

Price Range: $20-$25

Heaven Hill released their first single barrel vintage bourbon in 1995. While this is not the first single barrel bourbon ever released, that distinction belongs to Blanton's Bourbon, Heaven Hill distinguishes this product by only selecting barrels from the same year the bourbon was put in oak. Many other single barrel whiskies select their barrels based on a similar flavor profile rather than age. Each year, their Master Distillers Parker and Craig Beam select "honey" barrels that come from the upper floors of their rick houses. They explain that these upper floors experience the greatest annual temperature swings which they believe results in a bourbon that is deeper in color and richer in flavor. While the Evan Williams Single Barrel does not list an age statement, each vintage lists the date the spirit went into the barrel and the date the bourbon was bottled, which is usually nine or ten years.

TASTING NOTES

Nose: The nose is rich and powerful, full of caramel and vanilla with undertones of cedar sweet cherries and persimmons.

Palate: The palate is surprisingly light and delicate though the alcohol is initially a little strong. The bourbon is slightly sweet and fruity however it is well balanced with oak.

Finish: The finish had a light dryness from the oak which initially tastes slightly nutty and salty. As the flavors linger, sweet notes of raspberries and cherries come back to the fore.

Conclusion: With its lighter and more delicate flavors, Evan Williams Single Barrel 2002 Vintage is a great bourbon to sip neat, especially for its sub $30 price tag. Given a little time to breath in the glass, some of the strong alcohol notes that are initially intense blow off and you are left with a pleasant and smooth bourbon. Evan Williams Single Barrel is also one of my favorite bourbons to give as a gift because it is often completely new to the recipient, it tastes fantastic and it is super affordable.

Review: Heaven Hill 6 Year Old Bottled in Bond Bourbon

Heaven Hill 6 Year Old Bottled in Bond Old Style Bourbon, distilled by Heaven Hill Distilleries and bottled at 50% ABV. 

Price Range: $9-$15

In 1939 Heaven Hill Distillery release their first Bottled in Bond bourbon call Old Heaven Hill. Since then the brand has persisted even though it was supplanted by Evan Williams in 1957 when Heaven Hill decided to make E-Dub their flagship brand. Living in California, I never see Heaven Hill Old Style Bourbon, but this probably due to the fact that it has the same mash bill as Evan Williams. However, while I was visiting Louisville, for ADI's 2015 Conference I found some. I drove out to Liquor Barn and I perused the bourbon aisles I came across Heaven Hill's 6 Year Old Bottled in Bond Old Style Bourbon. I was excited to see this bottle for two reasons. First, because Evan Williams dropped its age statement sometime in the early 2000s, and second, because it was a Bottled in Bond. In the Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Bottled in Bond used to be the gold standard of bourbon because it guaranteed a certain level of purity and quality. Today, Bottled in Bond bourbons don't have the same cachet that once did but I see rumblings of a comeback. However, since a bottle of the bourbon was only about $12 I grabbed two to take home. 

TASTING NOTES

Nose: After the pour the nose is surprisingly closed off despite the its higher ABV. Once it has had time to breath the bourbon opens up with aromas of oak, apple, brown sugar, pumpkin bread and maraschino. 

Palate: On the palate the bourbon is a little astringent from oak tannins, the whiskey starts warm and crescendos to a nice level that isn't completely overpowering. In the mouth, flavors of cocoa, cinnamon, and nutmeg play against a pleasant sweetness and balanced with oak.  

Finish: The bourbon has a long finish and while the warmth from the alcohol lingers, notes of sweet maraschino fade into dry oak.

With Water: More caramel, toffee, and hazelnut comes through on the palate and interestingly, the oak flavor intensifies.

Conclusion: In the end Heaven Hill 6 Year Old Bottled in Bond Old Style Bourbonis a solid value bourbon for making cocktails. Taken neat the bourbon is a little too hot, the palate is slightly bitter and the nose is closed off. However, this bourbon works well in classic whiskey cocktails such as the Manhattan and Old Fashioned.

Review: Evan Williams Black Label

Evan Williams "Black Label" Kentucky Straight Bourbon, distilled by Heaven Hill and bottled at 43% ABV. 

Price Range: $9-$12

Heaven Hill, the producer of Evan Williams, has a long and fascinating history which I will have to go into further detail  at another time. Heaven Hill launched Evan Williams bourbon in 1957, 22 years after the company's founding. Since then, Evan Williams has become Heaven Hill's flagship brand, selling over $50 million dollars worth of whiskey in the last 12 months. Despite the the fact that Evan Williams is touted as being the second larges selling bourbon in the US, it has less than half the market share of Jim Beam white label and less than one fourth the market share of Jack Daniels.

Evan Williams is thought to use a traditional bourbon mash bill of 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% barley. Also, Evan William use to carry a 7 year age statement, but like many other whiskeys, it has dropped its age statement. Since there is no stated age on the label we know that it is at least 4 years old but some estimate the bourbon is probably more in the 5 to 6 year range. While Heaven Hill produces four versions of Evan Williams that vary by proof and the color of the label, (Green Label 40%ABV, Black Label 43%ABV, White Label 50%ABV, Red Label 50.5%ABV) the Black Label is the most common.

Evan Williams, or as my friends and I affectionately call it E-Dub, is an extremely undervalued bourbon. I was first introduced to Evan Williams three years ago when some friends of mine and I put together a blind tasting of whiskeys $20 and under and I was blown away by its flavor, quality, and price point. Since then Even Williams has become one of my favorite all time whiskeys. E-Dub is extremely versatile, it taste great neat, you can drink it on the rocks if that's your thing, and it makes an amazing Manhattan, all for about 10 bucks a fifth!

TASTING NOTES

Nose: The nose is strong with notes of oak, cherries and vanilla. As the bourbon breaths, aromas of green apple and minerally chardonnay are carried up with a hint of the underlying alcohol.  

Palate: The palate is smooth, with a medium body and a pleasant warmth that fills the mouth. The bourbon tastes lightly sweet with notes of oak, fresh bread and baking spice.

Finish: On the finish, the bready character lingers while higher notes of sweet cherry shine through and a light oak astringency drys the palate for the next drink.

Conclusion: Evan Williams Black Label is a high quality everyday bourbon that's easy on the bank account. As I said before, Evan Williams works neat and it is excellent mixed in cocktails. If you are not enamored with the extra aged, high-priced oak bomb bourbons that seem to be all the rage, then Evan Williams is an excellent bourbon to check out.