Category Archives: Whiskey

Aged and consumed: Vintage and small-batch spirits can be a real gift

Tales of the Cocktail 2017
When the genie in the bottle hasn’t been loosed for a quarter-century, everybody wants a piece. The pouring of a 25-year-old bottle of Mandarin Napoleon, at Tales of the Cocktail 2017.

NEW ORLEANS – The oversized bottle of Mandarine Napoleon, perched atop a pedestal, had gone unopened for 25 years when it arrived at New Orleans’ Napoleon House in July. Here, ambassadors of Belgium-based Mandarine Napoleon had chosen Tales of the Cocktail, the spirits industry’s largest annual gathering, to unveil a taste a quarter-century in the making. Because some things, you know, are worth waiting for.

Tales of the Cocktail 2017
The unveiling took place on the second floor at New Orleans’ Napoleon House.

Nearly 200 years ago, New Orleans’ mayor had offered this French Quarter residence as a refuge to exile-threatened General Napoleon; hence the name of the classic bar downstairs. Now, a small crowd swirled and sipped cocktails in anticipation of this unique aged offering of Napoleon’s treasured blend of cognac and mandarin orange liqueur.

At last, the cork was loosed and glasses were filled, in carefully measured amounts. The notes of sweet orange were exquisite – and the coterie cooed in excitement, aware that the experience was both rare and unrepeatable.

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rare vintage spirits
Priced at $30,000, only 74 bottles of Bowmore’s limited-edition bottling exist — and they come in a really cool box.

With Christmas just around the corner, makers of rare and vintage spirits are pimping their wares with the subtlety of Paul Revere on his midnight ride. But while few have the bling to splurge on these liquid unicorns– say, one of just 74 bottles of Bowmore 1966 Scotch (priced at $30,000) or even a more fathomable $400 bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label “Ghost and Rare” – last summer’s Tales festival offered the chance to try a few gems that would be soon available to the general public.

Along with the 25-year-old Mandarin Napoleon, there were vintage releases from London-based Last Drop Distillers – which, despite the name, is not actually a distillery. “We describe ourselves as the antique dealers of the spirits world,” said joint managing director Beanie Espey.

TOTC 2017
Last Drop’s Beanie Espey displays a mini bottle of the precious liquid at Galatoire’s.

The intimate lunch tasting unfurled on the lively second floor of iconic French Quarter restaurant Galatoire’s, where Espey had brought along Last Drop’s two most recent releases, keeping them carefully at hand like a femme from a Bond film ferrying a briefcase full of jewels.

A decade ago, Espey’s father James and his business partner Tom Jago – creators of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Malibu Rum – realized there were prize liquids out there going unenjoyed, the forgotten or neglected creations of quality distilleries willing to pass them on to others for proper care. The two formed Last Drop Distillers to gather what rare rosebuds they could. “These whiskeys really shouldn’t exist,” Espey said. “They’re all happy accidents.”

TOTC 2017
A pour of Last Drop’s 1971 Blended Scotch. The company describes itself as the antique dealer of the spirits world.

In nine years, the company has launched six products, producing an exclusive 5,000 bottles presented in leather cases complete with a Last-Drop-monogrammed cork stopper. “We want to curate and collect the world’s finest spirits,” Espey said – and not just Scotch, either; cognac, rum and fortified wine are all in the works or under consideration.

As a dapper old gent marked his birthday a few tables away flanked by cackling ladies in fine hats, Espey poured a sample of Last Drop’s 50-year-old “double-matured” Scotch whisky, released in 2015. A blend of more than 50 malt and grain whiskies, the batch had been first aged in bourbon casks, intended to be marketed in Asia as a 30-year-old whisky. A portion, however, lived on to be transferred to oloroso sherry casks for two decades, forgotten in the Scottish lowlands – and then rediscovered, Last Drop says, at just the right moment for bottling.

TOTC 2017
Last Drop’s 1971 Blended Scotch Whisky was named Scotch Whisky Blend of the Year in Jim Murray’s 2017 Whisky Bible.

Only 898 bottles had been produced, and few remain available; before us sat bottle No. 193. The 50-year-old whisky still packed a firm handshake, with notes of autumn fruit and spice.

Espey then gingerly poured a dollop of last year’s highly acclaimed release, Last Drop’s triple-distilled, 45-year-old 1971 Blended Scotch Whisky ($3,999), named Scotch Whisky Blend of the Year by Jim Murray in his 2017 Whisky Bible and still available at select retailers. The allotments were generous considering the bottles’ price tags, making them worthwhile gift splurges for big spenders. “That’s a hundred dollars in that glass,” Espey said.

Having first been aged in bourbon casks for 12 years, the blend had been moved to sherry casks for nine years before being returned to bourbon casks for 24 more restful years. Slightly nutty and fruity on the nose, its taste was smoky and subtle, with notes of dried apricot. “It’s a very classic 1970s blend,” Espey said. “It’s quieter, but it wins you over. It’s quite charming.”

Next up for Last Drop? A nearly 150-year-old Tawny Port.

Hennessy, TOTC 2017
Hennessy’s master of distillation, Olivier Paultes, describes the single-batch project to attendees at Tales of the Cocktail 2017.

A day earlier, a few dozen attendees had gathered in the naturally lit back room of Bevolo Gas & Electric Lights, a 72-year-old French Quarter fixture, for a preview of Hennessy’s Master Blend No. 2, a limited U.S.-only offering ($75 at Total Wine; also available at other retailers) that finally hit shelves in late October.

Renowned cognac authority Olivier Paultes, the brand’s 53-year-old director of distillation, explained how more than a decade ago, Hennessey launched the single-batch project in which eaux de vies, or unaged grape distillates, are aged 18 months in young French oak barrels before being moved to older ones — for a total aging of at least 10 years.

TOTC 2017
Hennessy’s Master’s Blend No. 2 is the second in a single-batch series initiated by the brand’s former master blender, Yann Fillioux.

Along the way, the barrels are moved to damp or dry cellars, depending on the desired effect; each blend is bottled only when and if Hennessy feels it has something interesting to say, introduced to the world when deemed worthy.  The wonderfully spicy Master’s Blend No. 1, released in 2016, was a blend of between 80 and 100  eaux de vies between 5 and 15 years old.

“Maybe (a particular blend) doesn’t have the profile of (traditional) Hennessy, but it has its own worthwhile notes,” said Jordan Bushell , the brand’s national ambassador. “Maybe we don’t do it one year. It’s all based on the grapes and how they speak to us. If they don’t tell an interesting story, there’s no point making a blend.”

Luckily for those gathered at Bevolo, Hennessy had indeed chosen to issue the series’ second release. Barely a handful of humans had sampled the Master’s Blend No. 2 before our group, only one of them unconnected to Hennessy. The 86-proof blend veered rye-like, spicy and bold and velvety, with notes of pepper, clove, nutmeg and licorice combining for an extended finish. An elixir made for sipping neat or on the rocks, the cognac is sold in a gorgeous, artist-designed bottle.

Josh Hendrix
Dallas’ Josh Hendrix describes the Master’s Blend No. 2 as “history in a bottle.”

And once they’re gone, they’re gone. “You will never taste it again,” said Paultes, who became the youngest master blender in France when he was just 25. Or as Josh Hendrix, a Dallas-based Hennessy rep, puts it: “This is history in a bottle.”

Bushell, the brand’s national ambassador, said the single-batch project offers “freedom, in a way, to create something that’s just… a taste of the moment. And to not have to recreate it again. There’s that freedom of expression to show off cognac in a different way. It’s all about the celebration of the moment.”

At a time offering plenty of celebratory moments, it might be worth adding one of these sippers to your own collection – or wrapping one up to pass along the love.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Last Drop Distillery’s co-founder, James Espey, as David Espey.

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Fort Worth’s Whiskey Ranch is a whiskey wonderland — and a boon for Texas spirits

Whiskey Ranch sits on the grounds of the former Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth. (Photo  courtesy of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co.)

Five miles southeast of downtown Fort Worth, on a course where golf greats Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson learned the game, something cool is happening in the world of whiskey.

A spiffy archway off Mitchell Road marks the new portal to what was once the Glen Garden Country Club, a 112-acre property soon to be reborn as Whiskey Ranch. The handsome new development, which opens in mid-November, is the expanded operation of Fort Worth-based Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., producer of TX Whiskey and, more recently, TX Bourbon.

Whiskey Ranch, though, is much more than a distillery – and it could portend the emergence of this juicy cut ofTexas, from Fort Worth down to Hill Country and the Houston area, as a distillery-rich region along the lines of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. Texas, after all, is one of the nation’s largest consumers of whiskey; why shouldn’t it be made here?

“It’s more than likely going to become a beacon of whiskey tourism,” says Nico Martini of Dallas-based Bar Draught, a cocktails-on-tap startup. “It wouldn’t surprise me if this part of the world becomes a known whiskey region.”

Fort Worth, Firestone & Robertson
The facility’s dramatic, 50-foot-high copper column still is fully visible. (Photo courtesy of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co.)

Owners Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson conceived Whiskey Ranch not just as a place to make spirits but as a showcase to illuminate the production process, a site for charity and private events and a sampling area, all amid a still functional, par-68 golf course.

Showcase the process it does, with its radiant centerpiece a 50-foot-tall, Louisville-made column still, as well as massive fermenters that can be viewed up close and from a second-level vantage point.

Now, those who tour Firestone & Robertson’s primary distillery will find it nestled in a pastoral setting beyond a guard gate, abutted by a courtyard, retail center, tasting room and special-events space with a sweeping patio overlooking the golf course’s 18th hole.

In terms of property and capacity, the two say, it will be the largest whiskey distillery west of the Mississippi. And to their knowledge, the only distillery on a full-fledged golf course.

Says Robertson: “It’s kind of a whiskey wonderland.”

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
Co-founder Troy Robertson of Firestone & Robertson heads through the site’s “barrel breezeway” to the Ranch House’s elegant event space.

A PLAN BEGINS

The pair’s plans began to bubble five years ago after they, along with master distiller Rob Arnold, launched their palate-friendly TX Whiskey at 901 Vickery, their original, pot-still operation in Fort Worth’s Hospital District that they simply call “The 901.” Anticipating the need for more capacity to feed the spirit’s growing popularity, they also noticed a market for tours and special events. The idea of a multi-dimensional facility was born.

“We really wanted to share the process,” Firestone says, noting two factors that differentiate whiskey from, say, vodka – an aging component, and thus a need for storage space and more capital. “Whiskey making is really a mystery to a lot of people.”

A map showing the new entrance to the Whiskey Ranch grounds, off Mitchell Road in Fort Worth. (Map provided by Bread and Butter PR, for Whiskey Ranch)

Their eyes fell upon the former golf course, sprawling over the bluff in a modest residential area southeast of the city. Though fallen into neglect and shrouded by a half-century of overgrowth after closing in late 2014, it seemed perfect for their vision.

As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, early opposition arose from some residents fearful of what an alcohol-driven development might bring. Ultimately, though, the city approved the plan.

Firestone & Robertson, Fort Worth
Tours will end in the facility’s Tavern Room, where guests can sample the whiskeys and admire golf memorabilia.

In shaping their vision, Robertson and Firestone took cues from model Kentucky distilleries – the campus feel of Maker’s Mark, the vintage style of Woodford Reserve. Wanting to preserve as much of Glen Gardens’ history as possible, they garnished the tasting room with golf memorabilia and evoked the stone and wood design of the original clubhouse in the grand patio outside.

They also wanted to echo the feel of The 901, whose design incorporates reclaimed materials “partly out of necessity and partly because we liked the look,” Robertson says.

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
Co-founder Robertson with the TX pour in the facility’s tasting room.

TAPPING INTO THE SENSES

At the new facility, visitors will enter the “Ranch House” foyer, with wainscoting fashioned from repurposed pallets and a mosaic made from the brand’s signature boot-leather bottle tops.

That leads into a rustic retail area and further into what looks to be the classic rickhouse setting of a barrel-aging warehouse. The rows of empty barrels are actually a facsimile of what’s inside the distillery’s working barrel barn, an obsidian-tinted building a stone’s throw away that looks vaguely like a dormitory. It’s the first of five they’ve got planned on the site, ultimately creating room for 20,000 53-gallon barrels.

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
A patio adjoining the tasting room and special-event space overlooks the golf course’s 18th hole. (Photo courtesy of Firestone and Robertson Distilling Co.)

Firestone and Robertson created the smaller copy, which they call the “barrel breezeway,” since fire codes prohibit large numbers of people from wandering the real thing, Partway through the barrel-lined corridor, a right turn takes you into the chandeliered Oak Room, a special-event space with concrete floors and room for 180 people. More space is available on the patio outside, where two large fireplaces complete the lodge-like setting.

Just inside, through another door, is the so-called “Tavern Room,” where the near-daily tours will end and guests can sample TX whiskeys and cocktails made with them by a staff bartender.

Early on, as 16 months of construction and landscaping began, Firestone and Robertson noticed something as the overgrowth was cleared away: There on the horizon, at the edge of a sea of treetops, was downtown Fort Worth. “We realized we were on this bluff with an incredible view of the city,” Firestone said. “At night, it’s electric.”

That distant skyline view is now the focal point of the courtyard, which stretches from the Ranch House to the Stillhouse. Inside, behind a pair of two-story doors, is the dramatic column still that will allow for continuous production at the facility. Made by Louisville’s Vendome, the copper contraption is a distillery rarity in that it’s fully visible, with a window allowing guests to peer into its bulbous base.

Firestone & Robertson, TX Whiskey
The focus of the courtyard: the Fort Worth skyline view to the northwest.

A walk upstairs lets visitors rise with the copper column and look into the fermenters and see the yeasty bubbling of the mash. The entire experience is meant to tap into the senses, with production “designed to operate completely while still having people around,” Robertson says. “Nothing’s in the back room, so to speak.”

Production at the new facility will be underway by December, taking advantage of four deep-water wells onsite. But Firestone and Robertson will continue to make whiskey and offer tours at The 901, where they’ll also experiment with potential new products.

Their vision, they say, has pretty much aged and turned out as planned. If anything, it’s grander than they imagined, but as Robertson puts it: “Our aspirations have always been to compete at the highest level with the biggest whiskey producers.”

WHISKEY RANCH, 2601 Whiskey Ranch Road, Fort Worth.

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