Wandering a bit off the path this week: I have two store special selections from Gordon's Fine Wines & Liquors in Waltham, Mass. One of them is the bottle of Dad's Hat Rye that was selected by Gordon's liquor guy Nick Taylor and his boss, Dave Gordon, last year when I was in the distillery (check that out here); the other is a Barrell Bourbon Private Barrel Nick selected. I also have a non-whiskey spirit; hope you enjoy that. I did. Let me know if you'd like more of that. I'm looking to learn.
Dad's Hat Rye Gordon's Private Barrel, 45%
Despite what's been mentioned several places on the Internet, I didn't actually help pick this bottling. I was at the distillery, I tasted all the barrels (as did Nick and Dave, and my friend and whiskey enthusiast Sam Komlenic, and the distillery owners Herman and John), and made comments as we tasted (as did everyone), but when it came down to the actual final selection, we all stepped aside and left that to Nick and Dave, which is as it should be. They chose to blend two barrels, so this is the first time I'm tasting the selection.
Nose of rye grain, oak, and mint, with some sugary sweetness and some of that fresh-cut jalapeno character Nick noted in one of the barrels. Active, fresh, and clearly young, but not unruly. Hot and busy up front — jalapeno, alcohol, rye whack — then it settles down into rye and oak, then the peppery heat returns in the finish to wrap itself around a rye-centered slow-burning oak fire. Impressive stuff for 7-9 months old.
Barrell Bourbon #13 Gordon's Private Barrel, 62.35%
Bottled at 8 years, 6 months of age: cask strength Tennessee whisky (yes, and there's your tip on the source), unfiltered, uncut. As with the other Barrell bourbons...that's all you know. They're sourced whiskeys, and Joe Beatrice ain't talkin'. But...Tennessee. Whisky. Get it?
Mint, warehouse reek, sugary booze, cornbread, berry cobbler (heavy on the cobbler, but the berry's still there) all play happily in the nose, and it's a beauty. Wowzer of an entry, too, as the heat you'd expect from a Booker's-strength bottling is all there, but the mint blows up as it hits the tongue — not all sweet, almost like lightly-burnt mint — followed by the corn, but it's sweet, fresh-ground meal; then the oak sweeps in for the finish, a lushly-paneled hallway leading off into the distance where, hopefully, there's another sip.
There is, of course, but let's try it with water. A good dousing proves that everything's still in place after the fire's put out, and the mint is fine, and there's that berry cobbler in a corner of the kitchen that didn't get burned...and now I can taste that the baker sprinkled cinnamon sugar on top. Excellent. These Barrell selections are setting a high mark on consistent excellence; the Barrell Whiskey I reviewed last year in Whisky Advocate was one of my favorites of the year, and this is a kicker as well. Wise up, stop chasing the hype, and start grabbing some of these instead. But don't flip 'em!
If it weren't totally frigid outside, I'd get a glass of this and drop a big cube of ice in it and hit the deck. As it is, I'm going to settle in by the fire and warm up.
Germain-Robin Old & Rare Barrel 351, 45.3%
I've been fortunate enough to correspond with Ansley Coale occasionally over the years, thanks to John Hansell at Whisky Advocate having met him; Ansley would occasionally send samples to the magazine, knowing that we likely wouldn't review them. Then last year, things changed. Not only did he send a copy of Hubert Germain-Robin's excellent small treatise on alembic distillation (Traditional Distillation Art and Passion) and some samples of Craft Distilling's very good young whiskeys, I got a chance to interview him for a Wine Spectator piece I did on artisanal distillers (which Germain-Robin absolutely qualifies as). Great interview, and I hope you can find a copy (it's not online, I'm afraid). He also sent me some samples of brandy for the piece; I needed tasting notes from each distillery. Having never done tasting notes on brandy before, I can only tell you, this was like trying to write your first whisky tasting notes on something like a Brora 35 year old: 0-60 in 30 words or less.
Bless his soul, even after seeing that, he sent more. and I'm going to try to do a couple of them justice. The Barrel 351 is from the vintage Ansley calls "perhaps our finest distillate, a 1987 pinot noir from the Welch vineyard in Potter Valley, 26 years old." This is what makes these brandies different; rather than distilling from wine made from the Ugni Blanc grape (which, apparently, makes so-so wine), Hubert Germain-Robin decided to make brandy from the best grapes, real wine grapes. It shows.
Fruit essence on the nose: quick, bright, intense, sweet but not insipid, and just a bare hint of oaky spice and earthy chalk underneath. Initial entry is delicate and vinous, more wine than fruit now, and you can feel the vaporous heat. Suddenly a warmth spreads over the tongue: creamy fruit, oak, and a gentle hint of vanilla. It's an eye-opener: the brandy seems to gain body as it spreads on the tongue, and fruit blossoms high in the mouth: grape, lushly ripe apricot, and a tricksy bit of anise. The finish is by way of a gentle closing of the day, as slow and beautiful as a sunset as one thing after another shuts down: the big fruits, then the grape, then the vanilla, then the wood, and finally, just the warming heat is left. There's not much of this left (only 120 bottles, from one cask), and prices are headed north of $600, making it the most expensive bottle I've ever reviewed at length. But if you like brandy, I can promise you: you will very much like this.