It’s been a dispiriting spring for those of us who follow the politics of sport and the sport of politics.
From the Frankfort First Family Feud, to the WWE-flavored presidential campaign, our broken political system seems to be spiraling to new depths, spiking our communal blood pressure by dozens of points.
In the glare of the most widespread, longest-lasting and most offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports, the NCAA has apparently blinked, raising the specter of North Carolina’s morally complicit basketball program receiving a free pass, sending those of us who demand justice and fair play into the deep recesses of depression.
And closer to home, as Marques Bolden makes his “life-altering” decision between the Devils and the Deep Blue C-A-T-S, KSR Nation stews in nervous anticipation, understanding that our ninth championship banner could rest in the buzzer-beating choice of the talented teenager.
At times like these…thank God for bourbon.
Yes, as millions of Americans prepare for Kentucky Derby parties (except at Dartmouth, of course), I offer my annual list of recommendations for serving our signature spirit. While in the past I have shared my favorites, as well as some primo higher-proof concoctions, tonight’s list focuses on newly-released bourbons that merit your attention (and consumption). With the bourbon industry exploding over the past decade, some of the tastiest and most potent potables have just recently hit the shelf, and your faithful pointy-headed degenerate gambler has walked the Earth (like Jules in Pulp Fiction) to bring you the best of the freshman class.
As always, a few caveats. If you are not of legal age, please bookmark this page and save the savoring for your 21st birthday: It will be worth the wait. Second, if you are looking to complete a mint julep recipe, or hung up on mixing bourbon with soda, find a cheaper brand: These finer varieties are best appreciated neat (straight up), with branch (a fancy word for “water”), or on the rocks (c’mon, I don’t have to explain, do I?) Third, tread carefully on quantity: especially if you are consuming straight product, a one or two-drink maximum is advised for the novice. Finally, if you drink and drive, or call me Francis, I kill ya.
1. Joseph Magnus, $92/bottle, 100 proof (50% alcohol)
Like most Kentuckians, I’ve grown up on the notion that for a liquid to be labeled “bourbon,” it had to be born in the Bluegrass State. Not true. Indeed, one of the finest new bourbon whiskeys is distilled in the nation’s capital. Magnus has a compelling back story: Sports agent Jimmy Turner was cleaning out his parent’s home in St. Louis when he happened upon a century-old bottle labeled with his great-grandfather’s name. Turner reached out to some elite whiskey professionals and revitalized the family business.
To our great benefit. Magnus is aged in white oak barrels, and then uniquely finished in sherry and cognac casks. It features an apricot nose (smell), and the taste has hints of orange, nuts, and vanilla. The finish is extra smooth and deeply satisfying. And it is living proof that there’s at least one good thing these days that comes out of Washington, D.C.
2. Colonel E.H. Taylor Cured Oak, $70/bottle, 100 proof (50% alcohol)
My loyal readers — and vituperative commenters — may recall that the Colonel in all of his iterations (especially the barrel-proof variety) is my go-to palliative. Proving that Frankfort can produce some good news, this Sazerac/Buffalo Trace Distillery brand has surged in popularity over the past decade; and like many, I’d take any variety in a heartbeat over its much-hyped, over-priced cousin, Pappy Van Winkle. I’m anxiously awaiting getting my hands on the 2016 “Seasoned Wood” release, but I have already had a brief chance to savor the 2015 model, the Cured Oak.
Aged for 17 years, Cured Oak is the oldest Taylor ever released, so it is a bit surprising that the nose is quite fruity — I smelled cherry, apple and a little grape in the mix. The body is quite full, with plenty of more fruit for the tongue, mixed in with vanilla and a woody feel. The finish is a decadent chocolate, smooth and light, despite the higher proof.
Of course, the challenge with the Colonel is that he’s so popular that he’s hard to find. My pledge from last year remains: Find me a few bottles of the rarer varieties, and there are two lower Rupp Arena tickets with your name on them.
3. Orphan Barrel Lost Prophet, $120/bottle, 90 proof (45% alcohol)
While this Diageo brand has been fairly popular (perhaps due in part to the really eye-catching label designs), I’ve never been a big fan. But this, their fourth release (and their first distilled at Buffalo Trace, whereas previous product was born at Bernheim), is outstanding. Aged for 22 years, it can get quite expensive, but unlike Taylor above, more of it can be found in circulation.
The nose is enveloped with cinnamon, one of my favorite sensations. And typical of the older whiskeys, the palate is wrapped by leathery, oak-y flavors. But there are also some unusual sweeter notes: I tasted vanilla, honey, and even a little coconut. The finish is quite dry — not my favorite — but the rest of the experience is well worth it, even for the price. Note that longer-aged bourbons are an acquired taste; but if you’ve entered this ball ring, Lost Prophet is a slam dunk.
4. Woodford Reserve Double Double Oaked, $50/bottle, 91 proof (45.5% alcohol)
Whenever I encounter a newbie to the world of bourbon, my instant introductory recommendation is Woodford Reserve’s Double Oaked, distilled in Versailles, just a Jordan Speith-wood shot from Keeneland. Double Oaked is best characterized as a dessert bourbon, sweet and smooth, chocolate-y and caramel, all goodness and nothing offensive to the palate or throat. Last year, the folks at Brown Forman seized upon their product’s mass popularity by finishing it for an additional year in a second, heavily-toasted oak barrel, and the Double Double Oaked was born.
Like its younger-aged predecessor, the nose is rich and sweet: caramel, maple syrup, even some butterscotch notes. The palate, however is spicier — you still taste the fruity and chocolate of the original, but a chai-tea-like sensation livens up the flavor. The finish is warm and smooth, but a bit dry, and the taste of cloves lingers in the back of the throat.
Do note: Double Double Oaked is only available for purchase at the Versailles distillery, so be sure to add Woodford Reserve to your next Bourbon Trail tour.
5. Four Roses 2015 Limited Edition Small Batch, $120/bottle, 108 proof (54% alcohol)
While the Four Roses distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY, has a rich and fascinating history — the 1910 building features gorgeous Spanish Mission-style architecture — I’ve never been a huge admirer of the product. In recent years, however, the distillery has released annual limited edition small batches, which seem to improve in succession. The 2015 version has received rave reviews in the bourbon world, and this 16 year-old deserves all of the kudos.
The nose is as strong as they come: It is hard to keep up with the complex elements, from tobacco to caramel to cherry pie. There’s little drop off to the taste; the palate is smothered with a rich texture, a terrific balance between sweet, fruity candy and leathery, spicy flavor. But best of all is the finish: sweet, creamy, smooth. It’s phenomenal. I can’t wait for the 2016 model.
OK — what new bourbons did I miss? Fire away in the comments section below.