Buffalo Trace sharing its experiments

Buffalo Trace has quietly been working with what amounts to an adult chemistry set for about 17 years. What comes of the activity is a steady stream of experimental whiskies from the Franklin County, KY, distiller.

Now for the first time, Buffalo Trace plans to bottle a few experimental barrels. Its rule will be a maximum of 400 bottles of any one kind for each experiment to be released, beginning late this month.

Says Harlen Wheatley, master distiller, "We love to push the envelope of whiskey making by exploring different ideas and methods we've never tried before."

Company officials say the first three barrels will be the start of making more periodic releases. The first trio will be called the Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection.

Buffalo Trace says no pre-release tasting samples will be available, so I can't provide first-hand tasting notes. Here, instead, are details of the first three releases as described by the company:

• French Oak: This bourbon was aged 10 years in a French oak barrel in which the staves were first air-dried for 24 months. The oak has given the whiskey a sugary sweetness and dark caramel color.

• Twice Barreled: After aging this bourbon for 8 years, 8 months, this whiskey was put into a new barrel. With twice the wood, this whiskey has lots of oak and a long, warm finish.

• Fire Pot Barrel: This barrel was heated to 102 degrees F for 23 minutes to dry the wood prior to filling. The whiskey has a smoky nose, and hints of fruit and tobacco on the pallet.

The Experimental Collection will be packaged in 375ml bottles at $46.35 each. Each label will fully describe information unique to that barrel.

Buffalo Trace Distillery is a family-owned company. in a distillery producing bourbon and vodka on site. The facility recently was named to the National Historic Register.

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A sensory soiree

Hi Bill:

I host sensory wine tastings, bringing everything from cut-up cigars to limestone, etc., to build smell files about wine varieties.

Can something similar be done with vodka, tequila and gin?

Many thanks,

Allison Robbins

Dear Allison:

That's an interesting question. I'd say one can definitely do that with all three, although vodka would be the least aromatic.

Vodka must be, by legal definition, odorless, colorless and tasteless. I agree that it's colorless, but there is a bit of a nose and one can detect tastes depending upon the type of water used as well as whether is is a grape, potato or grain vodka.

Because vodka can be made from any organic matter, so tastes and aromas do sometimes come into play.

Gin, however, is virtually a booming bottle of herbals. There are some basics in each blend, such as juniper berries, lemon, etc., but the varieties are enormous. (Just take a look at the side panel on a large bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin for an example of a lengthy list of infusions.)

Tequila presents some good possibilities, depending upon the style. There are three -- blanco, which is silverish or clear and is not aged; reposada, which is aged 3-11 months in wood and picks up nuances from the leaching process, and anejo, which is aged a year or more in oak and picks up caramel, butterscotch and herbal notes.

If you try any of these, I'd love to hear back from you on the details.

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Rye on the rebound (online version)

Back in the dark ages of my occasionally misspent youth, when the legal drinking age in New York was 18 and minimum wage was less than a buck an hour, 30 cents would buy you a nice highball. Really.

Highball. Then a common term for a simple mixed cocktail, now a quaint, anachronistic word. The highball of choice for my untrained young palate was rye and ginger. Four ounces of ginger ale and a shot of whatever rye the bartender poured into it. I wasn't into labels in those days. Even for the ginger ale.

For many years, though, rye rarely came to mind. Rye -- a whiskey distilled from rye or rye and malt -- is far down the list of brown beverages, peering up longingly at the lofty perches occupied by a sea of bourbons, an ocean of scotches.

But that hasn’t deterred all rye distillers. After all, vodka wasn't always wildly popular. Bourbon had its down periods. The current success and attention of the forgotten whiskey may indeed be signalling a rye rebound.

Such star bourbon makers as Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Old Overholt and Van Winkle are pushing their ryes. Old Potrero, lesser known but a must-have with rye aficionadoes, has several styles on the shelf, and Michter’s, which has a whole range of ryes, is making a huge comeback.

And, in a victory of huge proportions for the legitimacy of rye, Heaven Hill Distilleries' Rittenhouse Bottled-In-Bond Rye Whisky took the title of "North American Whiskey of the Year" at the recently-completed 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

In the whiskey world, that’s akin to Rudy making the varsity football team at Notre Dame.

The annual competition is perhaps the most prestigious spirits competition in the industry. Rittenhouse’s victory meant it had to clear two huge hurdles.

First, it had to be judged a double gold –- a unanimous pick -- medal winner in a blind tasting in its rye whiskey class. Then it had to top all other double gold winners in the North American Whiskey category, which included bourbons, Canadian whiskies and artisinal spirits made by micro-distilleries.

Kirstin Jackson, brand manager for Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, didn’t mind crowing a bit after the triumph.

"Historically, rye whiskey has been the ultimate expression of classic American whiskey style, and we at Heaven Hill Distilleries were one of only three remaining producers to keep the style alive during the lean years when rye was overshadowed by bourbon and Scotch and Irish whiskies," she said.

Rittenhouse Rye was launched by the Continental Distilling Co. of Philadelphia after the repeal of Prohibition. Later, it was bought by Heaven Hill Distilleries, the nation's largest independent family-owned spirits producer and the second largest holder of aging American whiskey in the world.

While the victory as best North American whiskey overall might have been a surprise, winning in the rye category was not. Rittenhouse was named "Whiskey of the Year" for 2005 by Wine & Spirits Magazine, and last summer Esquire called it "one of the best American Whiskeys at any price."

In recent years I’ve been trying high-end ryes. While a high price doesn’t always guarantee quality and enjoyability, it seems to help. For example, I was very pleased with Michter's Single Barrel Straight Rye (92.8 proof), aged 10 years in charred white oak. It carries a suggested retail price of $57.99. Now, however, Rittenhouse chimes in at the opposite end of the pricing scale with a suggested price for its 100-proof version at about $19 and its 80-proof at about $15.

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What next? Freezers for Eskimos?

If someone told you Russians would be importing vodka, you'd truly know the world has been turned upside down. Or, upside from Down Under.

The Tamar Distillery, a new manufacturer operating at Beauty Point on the island of Tasmania off the southeast coast of Australia, has signed a six-year distribution deal for its Strait brand vodka after initial test events in Russia showed strong consumer and distributor reaction to its distillation.

Philip Ridyard, managing director of Tamar, said at a media event,"The Russian market is very sophisticated and we're looking to break into that area along with other imported spirits internationally.

"The main attraction is the quality of the wheat grain alcohol we're using and also the quality of the Tasmanian natural spring water. Water is so important as it provides the purity and the individual character of the vodka. No vodka is identical and our Russian colleagues were impressed with Tasmania's quality and disease-free attributes."

Plans call for eventually expanding the line to include Tasmanian fruit-based and spiced vodkas as well as fruit liqueurs and gin.

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The Donald, The Drink: The update

Late last year I wrote about the impending debut of Trump Super Premium Vodka. The question at the time was whether it would be just another novelty label or whether it actually would sell.

Well, the initial reports say the latter is the case. Drinks Americas Holdings, which is handling the marketing and distribution of teetotaler Donald Trump's distillation say 40,000 cases have been ordered in the first 30 days of presenting to wholesalers. That's an opening tally of about $5 million in advance orders, and that's only from a limited number of states. The company expects to begin shipping by May 1.

Why the strong showing? J. Patrick Kenny, CEO of Drinks Americas, told Drinks Business Review, "In our view the Trump name is one of the most recognizable and valuable global trademarks in existence today, synonymous with the very best in class."

The super premium vodka category is the fastest growing segment of the largest distilled spirits category, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS). While super premiums account for only 23% of sales by volume, almost 44% of the revenue - exceeding $1.3 billion per year - comes from the segment.

Drinks America develops, owns, markets, and nationally distributes alcoholic and non-alcoholic premium beverages often associated with celebrities. Among them: Willie Nelson's Old Whiskey River Bourbon and Bourbon Cream; Roy Yamaguchi's Y Sake, and golfer Greg Norman's Norman's Wines from Australia.

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Caymans 'tourist' rum enters U.S.

Fans of Tortuga Rum no longer have to go to the Cayman Islands for a bottle. It now is being made available in 10 U.S. states with nationwide distribution expected by mid- to late summer.

Majestic Distilling of Lansdowne, MD, is the U.S. importer.

The Tortuga Rum Co. Ltd., founded in 1984, is the largest duty-free liquor business in the Cayman Islands. Its premium and flavored Tortuga Rums, blends of Jamaican and Barbados rums, are a good seller to cruise ship passengers and other tourists. Prior to signing a distribution agreement with Majestic, they were available only in the Caymans.

Majestic is offering Tortuga rums in 1.75, liter and 750ml bottles. Banana, coconut and spiced flavors will be introduced later this year.

The Tortuga Rum Co. is a family-owned business based in Grand Cayman. It already has international business experience with its Tortuga Caribbean Rum Cakes, the Caymans' No. 1 export product.

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Gimme a T(equila)

NEW YORK -- Tequila. For some people the name conjures up images of lost weekends in Tijuana, wild nights at college parties, or self-medicating visits to dingy bars when life got too much to bear.

That was then, this is now. The consumer market for the onetime outlaw alcohol continues to expand, with the 100% pure blue agave super premium niche recording a 25% sales increase in the past year. Tequila has gone mainstream and upscale in a big way.

In fact, it has gone so mainstream that the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) has just approved a $1.6 million grant to support the Tequila Trail, a sustainable tourism project in the Tequila region of the Mexican state of Jalisco.

The aim is to highlight the region's natural and cultural attractions such as mariachi music and the charrors, the traditional horsemen. The region is linked by highways to Guadalajara, the country's No. 1 convention city, and to Puerto Vallarta, one of Mexico's most popular seaside resorts. The project also will be supported by the Jose Cuervo Foundation and other distillers.

Beyond Jose Cuervo, Sauza, Patron, Don Eduardo, Corazon, Don Julio and other familiar names, more newcomers to the American market keep popping up, drawing comparisons to the explosion in vodka labels that shows no signs of abating.

Partida, for example, is an estate-grown tequila made by the Partida family in Mexico's Amatitan region. They've released tequila in all three official categories -- Blanco, Reposado and Añejo. Partida's Reposado won a double gold at the recent San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the Blanco won a single gold, the Añejo -- aged 18 months in French-Canadian oak barrels -- won a silver.

It also earned a perfect, and rare, five-star tasting mark from my colleage F. Paul Pacult in his respected Spirit Journal. Not bad at all for a tequila introduced to the general market less than a year ago. Suggested retail prices: $45 for Blanco, $57 for Reposada, $62 for Añejo.

At the other end of the production extreme is Siembra Azul (Blue Harvest), a kosher, 100% blue agave small-batch product just introduced to the U.S. market in March. It's produced by David Suro-Piñera, who returned to his native land after two decades in the States to take up commercial tequila making.

"I've spent 20 years researching the greatest tequilas and made hundreds of trips in search of the rarest and best tequilas that my homeland offers," says Suro-Piñera.

His tequila comes in three traditional varieties, all produced in the highlands of Jalisco state. The Blanco retails for about $34, the Reposado for $39, the Añejo for $45.

The first batches of Siembra Azul Blanco and Reposado are available only in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania restaurants, bars and liquor stores, but will go national in the coming months. Consumers elsewhere who can't wait can order through online companies such as Sherry-Lehmann Wine and Spirits in New York.

Tequila has its unique points. For one, there are no vintage years because tequila is made year-round from a plant that takes eight to 12 years to mature and its ripeness doesn't depend on the climate of one particular year. However, the weather obviously plays a major role year after year on the quality of the blue agave plants.

Once the best plants are selected, workers cut off the outer layers to reveal the piña, the pineapple-like heart of the plant, roasting it, with a clay oven the most traditional and, say purists, the best way to heighten flavor, then undergoing the fermentation and distillation processes.

Just as true champagne can only be made in Champagne, France, true tequila can only be produced in the Tequila region of Mexico and must meet stringent government regulations. It is made in two general categories:

Tequila 100% Agave -- Must be made only with the juice of the blue agave plant and must be bottled at the distillery in Mexico. It may be Blanco, Reposado, or Añejo.

Tequila -- Must be made with at least 51% blue agave juices. It may be exported in bulk to be bottled in other countries following the NOM standard. It may be Blanco, Gold, Reposado, or Añejo.

NOM, the official Mexican product safety requirements, defines four types of tequila:

Blanco, or Silver -- The traditional tequila. Clear, transparent, fresh from the still. Must be bottled immediately after distillation process. Traditionally served in a two-ounce glass called a "caballito."

Oro, or Gold -- Modified by adding colorings and flavorings, caramel the most common. Widely preferred for frozen Margaritas.

Reposado, or Rested -- Kept in white oak casks or vats called "pipones" for two to 11 months. Much mellower than blanco or oro, pale in color, gentle bouquet.

Añejo, or Aged -- Matured in white oak casks for a year or more. Maximum capacity of the casks should not exceed 159 gallons. Amber color, oak notes.

Reserva -- Not technically a category, but recognized as an Añejo aged in oak up to eight years.

The aforementioned Paul Pacult was the leadoff speaker at a recent tequila workshop in Manhattan for beverage journalists and industry insiders. He, mixologist/author Dale DeGroff, spirits experts Steve Owen and Doug Frost and beverage historian Dave Wondrich led the group through a tasting of the full range of tequilas as well as sampling several drinks created by DeGroff ("The Craft of the Cocktail").


The Manhattan tasting covered a trio of 100% blue agave tequilas, from young to aged, and can be used as a basic yet high-quality range of tequilas for an at-home tasting party.

(1.) The Don Julio Blanco had a slight greenish tinge with an initial taste to match -- pleasant brine, dill and clover.

(2.) The Don Eduardo Reposada tended toward notes of butterscotch from being aged form several months in oak.

(3.) The Corazon Añejo showed the results of being aged two years in new oak, with a vanilla aroma and initial flavors and aftertaste of vanilla, caramel and pear.

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Tea and alcohol, a great partnership

I have a weakness for people who try to marry two of my favorite beverages, tea and spirits.

Gary Regan, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, takes on the topic just as I did two summers ago in creating the Marteani, a refreshing green tea/vodka cocktail that excited some local interest among bartenders looking for a warm-weather special.

Regan, who writes a column called The Cocktailin, writes about Qi Lapsang Souchong Tea Liqueur, a product made by Qi Spirits, a new company in San Francisco. The liqueur is distilled by Lance Winters of St. George Spirits in Alameda, a partner in the new venture.

You can get the details by linking directly to the company or to Regan's column.

As noted, the California drink utilizes a commercial tea liqueur. My New York drink uses a commercial iced tea, Arizona brand green tea with honey and ginseng.

Here's the California recipe, adapted from a recipe by Kieran Walsh, bar manager at Solstice Lounge in San Francisco.


• 3 kumquats, halved (plus 1 kumquat for garnish)
• 1/3 oz. simple syrup
• 2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
• 2 dashes orange bitters
• 1 3/4 ounces Bulleit Bourbon
• 1/3 oz. Qi Tea Liqueur


Muddle the halved kumquats with the simple syrup and both bitters in a mixing glass. Add ice, the bourbon and the Qi liqueur, and stir for approximately 30 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled old-fashioned glass and add the garnish.

And, here's the New York recipe from my own adult chemistry set:


• 3 oz. Arizona Green Tea w/honey and ginseng
• 3 oz. all-grain vodka (Absolut, Blue Ice, Beldevere, etc.)
• 6 drops Angostura Bitters
• Splash of Galliano or Strega
• 2 orange slices
• 1 mint leaf


In a metal cocktail shaker, combine tea and vodka. Add bitters and splash of Galliano liqueur, or the more herbal Strega if you prefer, plus a handful of ice cubes. Stir briskly, then strain quickly into a frosted martini glass. Twist the juice from an orange slice into the drink and let it meander through the solution on its own. Garnish with an orange slice and a mint leaf for color.

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