Bourbon, Straight by Chuck Cowdery – A Partial Review

Bourbon, Straight - Chuck CowderyOkay. I am not finished with it yet, but so far Charles K. Cowdery’s book on the history of bourbon, titled “Bourbon, Straight” is, well…can I give it the best compliment ever — interesting. It’s like Bourbon 101 — and it makes bourbon that much better, especially if you like to engage your mind and palate in your pursuits.

Who wouldn’t love a book that starts like this:

“Like sex, alcohol is one of those subjects where much of what people think is wrong.”

And even better the introduction is titled “Of Sex and Shellfish” — and when you get right down to it, what more do you need to survive — Sex, Shellfish and Bourbon! That sort of boils down (pun intended) life’s essentials.

I live on the coast (Savannah) and love oysters, shrimp, crabs and just about every other kind of shellfish. I also love reading and to be honest, it’s how I discovered bourbon and Pappy Van Winkle. If you’ve read other posts on this blog you know already that Walker Percy introduced me to bourbon and Wright Thompson showed me the secret that Pappy was the best bourbon out there.

However, Chuck Cowdery made me love and appreciate this brown spirit, even more. His overview of the history of America’s spirit is a must-read for anyone new to the bourbon game. Or if you’ve always been a bourbon lover, but never run across it be sure and get a copy pronto.

It’s that good, informative and yes, interesting. Cowdery writes about the roots of bourbon, the basics of whiskey, how the brown stuff really got its name, new charred oak barrels and bottling. But my favorite chapter so far is chapter eight, “An American Whiskey Sampling Guide.” The purpose of the chapter is to “help you sample the output of every American whiskey distillery.”  He notes “such a guide is necessary because most distilleries sell essentially the same whiskey under multiple brand names, so if you buy bourbons at random you might end up tasting the same whiskey over and over, and miss others.”

He gives a value bourbon, a higher-shelf, and a rye (if available) from each of the 14 distilleries he names. That may have changed by now (the book was published in 2004) but it a great place to start if you want to take a journey around the American whiskey universe over the next several months.

I won’t name all the whiskeys he recommends here as you might not buy the book and read it and you need to. But I did discover that I had already sampled many of them.

Here are the ones I haven’t tried and look forward to sipping over the next few months.

  • Old Grand-Dad 114 – Beam (Now owned By Suntory)
  • Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond – Heaven Hill (Private, Family-owned)
  • Russell Reserve’s 10 Year, 101 Proof Rye – Wild Turkey (Now owned by Campari)
  • George Dickel No. 12 (Tennessee Whiskey)  - George Dickel (Now Owned by Diageo)
  • Virginia Gentleman 6 year 90 Proof – A. Smith Bowman (Now Owned by Sazerac)
  • 100 Proof Old Forester – Early Times (Owned By Brown-Forman)
  • Blanton’s – Buffalo Trace (Now owned by Sazerac)

If you’d like to purchase the book from Cowdery’s blog, go here. (And I don’t get a kickback.)

Now let me get back to reading this gem — and sampling a little taste of some more great bourbons.


Why W.L. Weller Bourbon Is Almost Pappy Van Winkle

Apparently, W. L. Weller distilled Kentucky Straight Bourbon with wheat before anyone else — including Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr. Van Winkle actually worked as a liquor salesman for W.L. Weller and Sons before he and a friend, Alex Farnsley, bought the A. Ph. Stitzel Distillery, which made bourbon for Weller.

WL Weller 12 - Pappy Van Winkle Alternative

On Derby Day in 1935, Stitzel-Weller opened its doors and began making its wheated bourbon recipe famous. Eventually, the union produced Pappy Van Winkle, one of the most celebrated and hard-to-find bourbons in the world.

Why Weller and Pappy Are Almost the Same
Stitzel-Weller closed in 1992 and today, W. L. Weller 12 and Pappy Van Winkle are both produced at Buffalo Trace’s distillery. Basically, Weller 12 Year Old is made of Pappy that didn’t quite make the cut for Pappy Van Winkle Lot B 12 year. That’s why many say it as close to Pappy as you can get — for a whole lot less.

Why Weller Isn’t Pappy
At first, this may seem like a big deal or that it didn’t taste good enough to be considered Pappy. However, when you realize Pappy Van Winkle chooses the best of the best, you’ll see it can come up a tad short, still be a very good bourbon and become Weller.  The difference between the maturation of one barrel to another can be very slight — if not almost indiscernible — except by a highly trained whiskey palate.

In other words, 12-year-old Weller is almost 12-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, except it is findable and cost muchless than Pappy at around $26 for a 750ml bottle.  On the other hand, Pappy Wan Winkle 12 year old runs about $75 a 750ml bottle off the shelf and more in the secondary market.

Weller and Van Winkle of the Same Bourbon Family
Check out this cool chart to see how certain bourbons are “related.” Notice on the first tree, the Buffalo Trace tree, that WL Weller 12, in a sense, branches off and through further aging becomes Pappy 15 year, 20 year and 23 year.  Not an exact science, but I think it is a great visual for understanding how certain bourbons “grow” into other bourbons through the art and science of aging.

More Kudos for Weller 12
Recently WL Weller 12 also earned Double Gold at one of the most prestigious  spirits competitions in the world, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Only one other $25 bourbon, Larceny, distilled by Heaven Hill, also received the Double Gold.

Other Double-Gold bourbons below $50 included Knob Creek Small Batch ($31), Jim Beam Single Barrel ($35), Soldier Valley Small Batch  ($40), Yellow Rose Double Barrel ($40) and Breaker Small Batch ($49). I’ll talk more about these in future posts.

Black Saddle Small Batch  ($50),  Four Roses Single Barrel ($50), Stagg, Jr. Small Batch ($50) and Woodford Reserve Double Oaked ($50) also earned Double Gold.

Hill Rock Estate Distillery ($80) and Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel ($85) took Double Gold in the over $50 under $100 price range, while Pappy Van Winkle 20-Year ($120) was the lone Double Gold recipient that cost over $100.

To view all results, check out this link.

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When You Can Find (Maybe) a Taste of Pappy Van Winkle in 2014

Pappy Van Winkle BourbonSummer’s here — at least in Savannah, GA — and the living is easy. But, it’s already hot and humid as hell.  And speaking of what’s hot, many bourbon lovers and Pappy Van Winkle chasers are starting to ask when they can at least try to get their hands (and lips) on the best bourbon in the world.

Fall, Football and Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon
Once upon a time, Old Rip Van Winkle used to split the Pappy release between Spring and Fall. However, that ended last year as the distillery combined the Spring and Fall release into a larger Fall distribution. Now the only time you have a shot to get it is during the college football year.  (Can’t wait for that either). No matter, Pappy doesn’t last long anyway. Maybe 24 hours. So you know pretty fast whether you’re one of the lucky ones.

How Pappy Is Distributed
Some stores make the Pappy Van Winkle release a huge event with lines down the street, offering it on a “first come, first served” basis or via a true lottery – not just a waiting list. Others reserve it for their best customers or a have a waiting list. A few may offer presales, but this is hard to do, as most stores don’t know their allotment until the day the Pappy Van Winkle shows up.

Times and Dates May Vary
Most reliable sources anticipate that Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon will start arriving in October at the earliest and depending on your state by November or even December. These projections are typically based on last year’s arrival so your local liquor store can give you a decent, but not exact estimate. Here’s an example of how the release played out last year as a guide. Thanks to for tracking it. They should do so again this year so bookmark the link.

How to Get Some
You should also ask the stores how they allot Pappy Van Winkle. Most will have a long-standing waiting list, save it for their best customers, or will tell you they can’t get it (even if they can) so you’ll leave them alone. In other words, it’s a crapshoot and it keeps getting harder as the Pappy Mania seems to be in full hysteria phase at the moment.

Your best bet is to find a store that offers it on a first come, first served basis  or a real lottery. Caveat: You’ll need to fortify yourself (with another bourbon) for the wait. It may take hours or days so I hope you enjoy camping in liquor store parking lots. Otherwise, try and find a “mom and pop” store off the beaten path. One that has been around for a while, preferably in Kentucky if you have a summer road trip planned. Or, if you’re really desperate and have lots of money to blow, you can check out the secondary market and pay about 10 times retail.

If you’re not sure you want to plop down that much cash before you taste it check out the Pappy List for locations (bars) that offer it by the pour. It won’t be cheap, but it’s damn good and every bourbon lover — even if you’re new to the party — should try it at least once.

Good Luck and Cheers
The unfortunate truth is there’s a lot of fluff in the market place right now. Pappy lovers have to contend with aggressive entrepreneurial types, status seekers, and bourbon dabblers. However, some liquor stores still try and get the gold standard of bourbon into the hands and mouths of true bourbon appreciators. God bless the good guys.

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