By Richard Thomas
After Elijah Craig, the first big name in bourbon I learned of was George T. Stagg. When I was a teenager growing up on a farm located between Midway and Frankfort, Kentucky, the summer air was humid enough that if the wind was blowing in the right direction, you could smell the vapors coming from the nearest distillery. Today they call that place Buffalo Trace, but at the time it was known as the George T. Stagg Distillery.
Despite having a truly excellent bourbon named for him, George T. Stagg was not a masterful distiller or whiskey innovator. Born in Garrard County, Kentucky in 1835, Stagg was instead a great salesman and administrator, and it was his business acumen rather than any crafty whiskey knowledge that made him one of bourbon’s historic names.
As usual, good luck played a part in Stagg’s rise to prominence. He was working as a whiskey salesman in St. Louis, Missouri when he met Edmund H. Taylor, Jr., now also the namesake for another Buffalo Trace whiskey line. The two joined forces, and built one of the dominant whiskey businesses of 19th Century America. This entry from a history of Kentucky published in 1887 describes Stagg as the head of the E.H. Taylor company, which encompassed two neighboring distilleries: O.F.C. and Carlisle.
In 1904, the entire complex was renamed in Stagg’s honor, a name that lasted until the distillery and its flagship product were rebranded as Buffalo Trace in summer 1999. The distillery is still named for George T. Stagg on its listing in the National Register of Historic Places, however. So Stagg’s name lives on, both on his distillery and on one of the award-winning brands of bourbon coming out of it.
By Richard Thomas
Billed as a sinister, stronger choice in bourbon, Jim Beam’s Devil’s Cut was indeed a cutting edge whiskey, albeit not for the reasons advertised. Instead, Devil’s Cut was the first mass market bourbon release to base itself firmly on the process of barrel rinsing.
When a whiskey barrel is emptied, some of the liquid remains behind, soaked into the interior wood surface of the barrel. Barrel rinsing extracts that last bit of whiskey out, and Beam was the first producer to use the barrel rinse extract on a large scale. Beam mixes the extract with a more normal 6 year old Beam (in what proportions they won’t say) to create the 90 proof Devil’s Cut.
I say first producer, but certainly not the last. Maker’s Mark, which is owned by Jim Beam, announced they would respond to their supply problems by introducing barrel rinsing, presumably using Beam’s proprietary method. Brown-Forman is also known to have a rinsing process of their own under patent. This is why The Whiskey Reviewer has chosen to look at Devil’s Cut, originally released more than two years ago, at the present time. The whiskey extracted by the rinsing process isn’t quite the same thing as the major portion floating around in the barrel, and if rinsing is going to become more widespread, taking a close look at a product drawn in large part from the rinse extract is very much in order.
Bottled in a pretty standard Beam-style bottle with a charred paper-stylized label, Devil’s Cut has a light-to-middling amber color in the glass. The nose has a certain floral vanilla sweetness to it, with hints of oak.
Given that nose, the flavor is a shocking surprise. Although that vanilla sweetness is still there, the bourbon is bold, oaky, spicy, and with a rough and ragged kick on the end. I must strongly and pointedly disagree with most other reviewers on this, so much so that I wonder if Beam hasn’t tinkered with the Devil’s Cut’s flavor profile since it’s release two years ago. While I would not call this bourbon harsh, it certainly isn’t mellow, and sweetness is not its dominant characteristic.
The finish leaves a slight vanilla aftertaste, and a lingering warmth that rides on and on, off into the sunset. This part bears much more resemblance to the nose than the spicy, bold, rough taste in the middle.
My question with Beam Devil’s Cut is one of how it stacks up against other bourbons that are a bit bolder, a bit spicier, and a bit stronger. Viewed from that perspective, it runs parallel to Jim Beam White Label. While very different from Jim Beam’s original and core product, it serves much the same role. Devil’s Cut is a baseline, thoroughly average whiskey for a whiskey of its type, just as Beam White Label is practically the textbook definition for an average bourbon.
Depending on local taxes, a fifth of Devil’s Cut should cost about $25.
By Richard Thomas
Remember when left-wing blog Alternet dubbed Louisville’s Maker’s Mark Bourbon House the “most racist restaurant in America,” and then called for a boycott of Maker’s Mark bourbon? In the August 2012 incident, one Andre Mulligan alleged that the downtown Louisville restaurant turned him away when he tried to book a party there because he estimated the attendees would be entirely black. Mulligan went on to allege that when he and his friends turned up at the restaurant as normal patrons, they were turned away and even threatened off a public sidewalk by Maker’s Mark Bourbon House bouncers.
In the news stories that followed, it was revealed that not only did the restaurant already have a history of race-related incidents, but that Andre Mulligan himself had a few blemishes stemming from a litigious past. Maker’s Mark denied any responsibility for what a licensee of its brand name did, and everyone except The Whiskey Reviewer missed the irony of such an ugly incident occurring just around the corner from the Muhammad Ali Center.
Now the whole thing is over, and it ended rather quietly at that. According to the Louisville Courier Journal, the lawsuit was dismissed in March 2013 with the consent of both parties, with each side liable for their own court costs. No word has come yet from Alternet on how their proposed boycott of Maker’s Mark went, but judging from the Maker’s Mark 86 proof fracas and subsequent sales boost, it likely did not go well.
(Based on an Angel’s Envy Press Release) Angel’s Envy Cask Strength was named the “best spirit in the world” on Paul Pacult’s “Top Spirits List” in the June 2013 edition of Spirit Journal. The brand tied for first with Highland Park 25-Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky (The Whiskey Reviewer gave this bourbon an A-grade, and called on Angel’s Envy to make more!). The annual round up reviews the “five star distillates from all major spirits categories we’ve tasted over the preceding year,” says Pacult. In an earlier review of Cask Strength, Pacult awarded the brand five stars (as he did with the Angel’s Envy bourbon port cask finish) – his highest recommendation – and noted, “this masterpiece deserves a sixth rating star.”
Pacult’s recent review says, “the port pipe aspect comes shining through right from the get-go on this supple, caramel-laden and pipe tobacco-like opening aroma. Concludes long, roasted, meaty, winey, bakery shop bittersweet and fudge-like. This is the American whiskey equivalent of the mythical Black Bowmore 1964 Sherry Oak Islay Single Malt.”
Released in November of 2012, Angel’s Envy Cask Strength sold out in weeks. Due to the scarcity of barrels necessary for the enhanced finishing process, the company only released 600 total bottles in Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee. This November, the brand plans to release an additional 500 9-liter cases in select markets including Kentucky.
As with Angel’s Envy, the critically acclaimed super-premium bourbon of uncompromising character and quality, the Louisville Distilling Company gave Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson complete creative freedom to achieve a specific taste profile for Cask Strength. Using locally sourced grains and Kentucky limestone water, this expression was aged to the perfect level of richness and maturity in the few American white oak barrels that made the cut. Lincoln chose to blend those barrels into a single batch and age the bourbon in hand-selected port casks until he tasted a previously undiscovered sweet spot.
“Once in a blue moon, we find barrels with unique characteristics that we squirrel away for special things,” says Lincoln Henderson, Master Distiller, Angel’s Envy.
“The secondary maturation for Cask Strength is unchartered territory,” says Wes Henderson, Chief Operating Officer and Master Ambassador, Angel’s Envy. “We judge only a handful of barrels exceptional enough for this lengthy finishing process, which yields a rare and rich bourbon worth savoring.”
The suggested retail price for a 750ml bottle, which may vary by market, is $149. A remarkably complex bourbon at 121-proof and 60.5% alcohol by volume, Cask Strength is best enjoyed with just a bit of water to release the flavor nuances.
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The Whiskey Reviewer’s Rating System
The Whiskey Reviewer uses a letter-based rating system, instead of the numerical 100-grade rating system. Click here to learn why.
The following indicators should be taken as only a guide and not a set of hard and fast rules. Some "premium" whiskeys really are quite terrible, while some mass market products are good enough to pour into a decanter and serve to the Duke of Edinburgh.
A+: A masterpiece and one of the ten best whiskeys of its type.
A: An outstanding bottle of whiskey, but lacking that special something which makes for a true masterpiece.
A-: A fine bottle of whiskey, representing the top end of the conventional, premium range.
B+: Very good stuff.
B and B-: Good and above average. The best of the mass market whiskeys fit in this category, as do the bulk of the premium brands.
C+ to C-: Average whiskey.
D+ to D-: Below average whiskey.
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