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.

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.

Review: The Artisan's Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits

Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl, Translated by Paul Lehmann, The Artisan's Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits: Small-Scale Production of Brandies, Schnapps & Liquors, (Austin: Spikehorn Press, 2015), 200 pages, $29.95.

The authors of The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits, Bettina Malle and Helge Schmickl, both have doctorates in technical sciences and chemical engineering. In 1998, they designed their first still and began teaching workshops on distilling in Austria. In 2003, they published a book, based on their experiments in distilling a variety of fruit brandies and infusing liquors, called Schnaps brennen als Hobby. Since then, they have also written two books about making essential oils and vinegar.

The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits is an introductory work on distilling, primarily written for non-professional distillers. In the German-speaking countries of Europe, home distilling is permissible with certain licenses and under certain circumstances. Because of this, Malle and Schmickl’s description of distilling, its history and practice are very basic and not well-suited to professionals or even would-be professionals.

The book does not engage deeply with traditional distillation practices, and in some cases the authors make unorthodox claims regarding production techniques that, despite their technical backgrounds, they do not go on to substantiate with science. For this reason the book largely comes across as a reaction to bad home-distilling practices. If Malle and Schmickl had used their expertise to explain why certain traditional techniques work, or made a better case for why their methods produced superior spirits, perhaps all distillers could have benefited.

Ultimately, The Artisan’s Guide to Crafting Distilled Spirits does not fully acknowledge that the best distilled spirits are the result of both artistry and chemistry. The goal of the book is to help its readers make better spirits and to understand some of the chemical processes involved, but at 200 pages, the book is too short to be a thorough technical description of how to craft excellent spirits. Because Malle and Schmickl ignore many of the tried-and-true techniques of traditional distillation and seem to believe that making excellent spirits is instead a matter of following a recipe, Crafting Distilled Spirits is not recommended reading for the professional.

Review: Distilled Stories

Edited by Capra Press, Distilled Stories: California Artisans Behind the Spirits, (San Francisco: Capra Press, 2016), 256 pages, $20.00.

Distilled Stories: California Artisans Behind the Spirits recounts the stories of 32 California distillers and how they came to make distilling their profession. Distilled Stories was born out of a desire to better understand the spirits renaissance that is currently sweeping much of the world. After a chance meeting with Arthur Hartunian, the editors of the book decided to seek out and interview members of the California Artisanal Distillers Guild to hear their stories and record for posterity what inspired their passion for distilling and drove them to make it their life’s work. Distilled Stories is introduced by Wayne Curtis with a brief history of the U.S. spirits industry, which sets the distillers’ stories into their proper historical context.

In Wayne Curtis’ introduction, he likens the growth and increased variety of high-quality spirits available to consumers to a child’s coloring box which once only held six colors but now contains 128. Similarly, each distiller’s story represents the addition of a new hue to the spirits world that is making it more rich and vibrant than ever before. Distilled Stories is a fascinating and interesting read because each distiller’s story is unique and varied. Some of the distillers come from long family traditions that span hundreds of years, while others are completely new to the industry. Despite these variations in background, each distiller’s story illustrates the drive and passion it takes to create unique spirits that they and their families can be proud of. Each story also represents a part of the vanguard of California’s burgeoning artisan distilling movement. While it is certain that the number of California distilleries will continue to grow, Distilled Stories will serve as an important artifact for spirit lovers and inspiration for future generations of distillers.

Originally published in Distiller Magazine Summer 2016

Kings County Distillery: ADI's 2016 Distillery of the Year

Image by Gail Sands

Colin Spoelman grew up the son of a Presbyterian minister in Harlan County, one of Kentucky’s 39 dry counties. Despite growing up in a town with no liquor stores or bars, Spoelman, as recounted in the prologue of his book The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey (Harry N. Abrams, 2013), he and his friends obtained liquor from either a local bootlegger or a woman who sold booze out of her home with seeming impunity. While living in New York in 2005, Spoelman began to ponder the idea of making and selling distilled spirits. After a couple of years of experimenting, Spoelman and David Haskell founded the Kings County Distillery, and in April 2010 they began making whiskey out of the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.

In six short years, Spoelman and Haskell have grown the reach of Kings County Distillery both in terms of distribution and influence within the industry. Today, their spirits can be found in seven U.S. states and five countries. Originally working with five 25-gallon stills, Spoelman and Haskell produced a corn whiskey “moonshine,” and laid down a portion into new small barrels for bourbon. Their award-winning spirits were received by an enthusiastic public and, in part because of favorable New York State laws for small distilleries, Kings County Distillery began to grow. In 2013, Kings County Distillery upgraded to two larger Scottish-made whiskey stills and open wood fermenters. Spoelman explained that by using corn grown in New York, open top fermenters and an aging room without temperature controls, they were attempting to create whiskey that embodies the character and terroir of New York and would be purposely different from the bourbon coming out of Kentucky. And, as their production for aged spirits has grown, they have also gradually increased the size of the barrels they are using.

In 2014, Kings County Distillery earned a Gold Medal: Excellence in Packaging award from ADI. To date, all of Kings County Distillery’s spirits have been bottled in a glass hip-flask bottle with a simple metal screw-top and a slim paper band as a label. This simple package has helped their product stand out on liquor store shelves and served as a testimony to both Spoelman’s upbringing in Kentucky and the distillery’s humble beginnings. This otherwise generic bottle, closure and label have become immediately recognizable and synonymous with Kings County Distillery without any of the irony or kitsch of the mason jar used by a number of small distilleries. Spoelman and Haskell have continued to use this simple packaging because the contents have come to speak for themselves.

Kings County Distillery Barrel Room. Photo by  Valery Rizzo

One of the reasons for the success of Kings County Distillery’s spirits is the talent they have been able to attract to their mission. Blender Nicole Austin oversees their barrel program and ensures that each new batch of whiskey they bottle is the best expression of what they make. Andrew Lohfeld, a former distiller at Kings County Distillery, believed an oat whiskey had potential and convinced Spoelman that they should try it as an experiment. As it turned out, Lohfeld was right and their Oat Whiskey earned a Gold Medal and Best of Category: Alt Whiskey at ADI’s 2016 Judging of Craft Spirits. Because of their collective efforts, Kings County Distillery has earned more than a dozen awards for their spirits. And despite their success—even in the face of their success—the team at Kings County Distillery have not been overly jealous of other people’s success or opportunities. With the blessing of Spoelman and Haskell, Lohfeld has gone on to leverage his experience and intuition as a distiller and co-founder of a new rum distillery in New Orleans.

Bill Owens, President of ADI, presents the 2016 Distillery of the Year award to Colin Spoelman of Kings County Distillery. Photo by Carl Murray.

This year ADI recognized Kings County Distillery with its Bubble Cap Award as the 2016 Distillery of the Year. Kings County Distillery joins a small group of distilleries that represent the highest standards in the craft spirits industry in terms of the quality of their spirits, their camaraderie in the industry, and their work as ambassadors to consumers for both their own company and the industry at large. ADI is proud to champion the ethic and commitment to quality embodied by Kings County Distillery, and looks forward to their continued growth and success.

Originally published in Distiller Magazine Summer 2016