Rum Curious by Fred Minnick

Before I start, let me say that I will not be switching to rum going forward–I will maintain my love and long-term devotion to Bourbon, but, as you know from some of my previous blogs, I may temporarily stray from time to time to other spirits including rum.  Everyone enjoys a little strange now and then…

Fred Minnick is a world famous whiskey journalist, in addition to being one of the best spirits judges out there.  He judges at the San Francisco Ultimate Spirits competition, and it seems that every Whiskey magazine I open, he is rating and reviewing whiskey and other spirits in them as well.  I have read all of his previous books, most recently Bourbon Curious, which is another one I highly recommend.

Perfect for summer reading, Minnick covers the history, production and regulations of Rum before jumping into the tasting and reviews.  It was a nice vacation from reading about everyone repeating what Bottled in Bond is or the requirements for a Bourbon Whiskey.  Rum has an interesting history, steeped in the evolution of the United States as a country.  One could argue that it was more important building the foundation of the country than Bourbon was.  Minnick’s writing flows well, is easy to understand, but doesn’t patronize the reader.

The reviews are interesting and educational with humor intertwined as well–I especially like when he threatens anyone making a cocktail out of any rum he rated 95 points or higher.

Father’s Day is right around the corner, and for the Bourbon lover who already owns all the books, this is a perfect gift.

Below are the links to a couple rums I rated earlier… Fred and I do not agree on our ratings, I thought both were very good, however, he rated the Barrell Rum very well, but lambasted the Balcone’s Rum.  I guess I have a lot more to learn before I’m invited to be a judge at the Ultimate Spirits Competition.  Pick up your book for yourself or for your favorite Father ASAP!



Balcones Texas Rum Special Release Batch 15-1 63.9% abv

I first tried the Balcones Texas Rum at the 2016 Whisky Jewbilee a couple of weeks ago and liked it so much I needed to get a bottle (or two) for my personal collection.  I confirmed with the brand ambassador that the one I tried at the event was Batch 16-1, but this bottle that was available in New York is Batch 15-1, bottled on May 22, 2015.  This is a six barrel blend made of two new American Oak barrels, one new European Oak barrel, and one each used barrels of American Oak, French Oak and European Oak.  The average barrel age is three years.

Initial notes are brown sugar, cloves, smoked hickory chips, Cuban cigar box, almond croissant and candied walnuts.  When the bottle was first opened, the heat on the nose was hot, but after waiting a few minutes, the heat quickly dissipated into pure smoothness, especially nice for a 127.8 proof spirit.

The palate is unlike any rum I have ever had before.  It’s big and takes over the entire mouth with a creamy thickness that reminds me of a very high end non-chill filtered bourbon.  The notes from the nose all come through on the palate, but are a little warmer than the nose.  The finish goes on for a solid two minutes, putting it in an elite category.

I was told this is the oldest to date product that Balcones has ever produced and the patience has paid off–apparently Batch 16-1 is slightly older. The previous products I have tried were all way too hot on both the nose and the throat, but this one is not.  The time in the barrel has paid off and anyone who buys it will be happy.  It’s a shame that too many of their products have been rushed to market, but hopefully the success of this one will show the extra time is worth it.  93/100.


2016 Whisky Jewbilee and Event Tasting Strategy

The 5th Annual Whisky Jewbilee was my first time attending this cool New York City event… I brought a few clients and friends with me to enjoy the fun.  As part of any large tasting, you need to have a game plan ahead of time—know where the rare bottles are and hit them first.

A huge mistake rookies make is trying to be very polite and going through the whole vertical.  I totally understand being polite, going through each one and hearing why the 10yr is so great.  But… there will be time for that at the end of the evening if you really care.  There were about 6 Scotches that were 25yrs or older and they were all gone within the first 30 minutes, so if you didn’t hit them first, you missed out.  Fortunately for me and my friends, I had them all mapped out and we were able to try them all.  To be honest though, a the selection of 25yr Scotch didn’t really excite me…

I’m much more of a bourbon fan than scotch, so I was hoping for something special underneath the tables, that wasn’t on the original tasting list.  There were three tables that really stepped it up in my opinion:

Skinner Auctions brought a bunch of dusties including a 1970s Stitzel-Weller Cabin Still decanter.  Only a 4-5yr bourbon, but so incredibly smooth.  And to get the chance to try anything from Stitzel-Weller is welcomed.  I went back for five pours, which probably was overkill, but almost no one was hitting this table, so it was a hidden gem.

For all the negative things I have written about Balcones over the years, they actually stepped it up at this tasting.  I tried their normal products, and again, I really didn’t like them.  I had never tried their Brimstone, and I think that might be my least favorite one of theirs of all time—just horrible.  However… when I asked if they had anything under the table, I was very pleasantly surprised.  Winston Edwards (the brand ambassador) pulled a new product, the Balcones Texas Rum Special Release 63.9% abv.  He said it was mostly a 3.5yr rum blended with some younger ones.  This product blew me away.  Great mouthfeel, such rich notes, just a tremendous amount of complexity and length.  This was so good I bought two bottles online and can’t wait to try it at home and do a proper tasting.  Stay tuned in the coming weeks for a full review on this rum.

The other favorite table was Barrell Bourbon.  Joe Beatrice brought both whiskey batches, including the sherry cask Batch 002, which was a top 5 of the night as well as Batch 006 and Batch 007.  They also has a special Batch 007b, which apparently was the same barrels from Batch 007, but bottled a few months later, so a little more age, and slightly different proof, but everything else the same.  Very tasty.  I love when the presenters have a little something special under the table if you ask nicely–thank you Joe!

I was very disappointed by a lot of the other bourbon tables, especially Four Roses, Bookers, Basil Hayden, Bakers, etc… they just brought their normal bottles.  Four Roses should have at least brought the Elliot’s Select, but just brought their normal ones.  For a tasting, they should have stepped up their game a little bit.  If I wanted a glass of Basil Hayden, I could just go to any bar, their performance was not exciting.  For next year, hopefully the larger brands lose the attitude and bring something a little special.

At the end of the evening, my clients and friends had a great time, we all drank quite a bit of very good whiskey and I even got to meet Mark Gillespie from WhiskyCast which was a treat.  Because it wasn’t in a proper tasting setting, I am not going to give any grades but the top drams of the night, not in any order were: Stitzel-Weller Cabin Still 1970’s dusty, Barrell Bourbon Batch 006, Barrell Whiskey Batch 002, Balcones Texas Rum Special Release, Balvenie 25.



And Now the Conclusion of My Phone Interview with Reid Mitenbuler…..

Part IV Conversation, and the conclusion, with author of the book Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler

NBD: So you were pretty critical on small barrels in the book…

MB: Small barrels are like crack. Once you start using them and have distribution, it’s very hard to change. Places that start from the get-go have a hard time switching to large barrels and longer wait times. And once it’s working, it’s very hard to change. There are a lot of guys who start up an outfit, build a brand and sell it off. These guys are marketing first, and the product is the second consideration. Now, a lot of that is changing. I’d use Few as an example. The first time I tried it, I didn’t like it, but every time I try it is getting better.  Their product can be wildly different from bottle to bottle.

NBD: So are you working on a follow-up book?

MB: I’m working on something involving the entertainment industry, but it’s very preliminary and unrelated. I actually had been working on Bourbon Empire for over ten years and the timing was very fortuitous. Whiskey was blowing up and I was already working on the book. Most whiskey books come from the perspective of an educator, trying to teach about whiskey or about tasting. My angle was to be a storyteller of the industry, through whiskey. There was a lot of details that I cut out, I could have gone full geek, but I felt I would have lost of lot of the broader readership if I did that. I could have gone in incredibly detail on barrel aging and the different type of grains, but the story of the industry would have been lost. I learned more about connoisseurship of wine from reading The Billionaires Vinegar compared to a lot of the books on tasting that I’ve read. I had that in the back of my mind when I was writing this. I felt that you could get a better sense of why older isn’t always better from telling a story.

NBD: Or if you want a really expensive lesson on why older isn’t better, you could just pick up some of the Orphan Barrel Series… Or they can just come over to my house and try them too.

MB: Yeah, I know, and I didn’t put this story in the book, but there is a group of master distillers from all the big places in Kentucky, and they all meet for lunch a few times a year. They all bring fun bottles for everyone to try. There was one of these meetings and one of them pulls out this 23 year old bottle. And these guys are masters, these are the guys from all the big distilleries. The guy who is relaying this story to me says he tastes it and says it’s like sucking on a pencil. He thinks it ‘s just not that good, not balanced, too much wood, it’s gross. He makes eye contact around the room and his buddies give him a look that the whiskey is just beyond the pale. He then looks across the room and the other half their eyes are rolling back… but maybe the other guys are being polite or maybe they honestly like it. It’s a bottle that everyone knows by the way…

NBD: Reid, thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. The book was great and I hope everyone reads it.


MB: Thank you.

Chip Tate Phone Conversation, The Conclusion: The Lawsuit, Baby Blue and the Undiscovered Country

If you didn’t read part 1 of my conversation with Chip Tate, please catch up on my blog:

I felt I could not have a call with Chip Tate without asking about the lawsuit.  At this point in the conversation I had determined that he wasn’t the Wild West character he often is portrayed to be, and was thoroughly confident that my safety was not in jeopardy if the question was posed tactfully.  It turns out my knowledge was incomplete based on the New York Times article.  Ultimately, significant bad blood remains between some of the former investors and Chip, but Chip made clear that he is moving past this and on to bigger and better things.  Balcones was his baby, and it is not easy to let that go, but sometimes business decisions trump emotional ones.  Chip is trying to embody the old adage that the best revenge is living well as opposed to the old Klingon proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold.  His revenge?  Well, having stills that are much bigger than the last time, production that will dwarf the old capacity and producing a better product through using the institutional knowledge gained from Balcones.

I also wanted to know about Baby Blue.  Those who read my blog a couple weeks ago know my disappointment from my purchase, so I inquired what was different between now and before.  I additionally asked for his opinion to whether it was new Balcones that screwed it up so much after his departure.  (To be fair, I have never tried the Baby Blue from years past so if anyone reading this has an old sample they are willing to share, please DM me.)  Chip compared Baby Blue to a 16 year old on an Olympic team… Paraphrased: “there aren’t many 16 year olds on teams like this, most are 26yrs old, and it’s certainly not any 16yr old that makes the team… the person has to be very special.  Most great athletes at 16, wouldn’t make the cut, even if they do by the age of 26.”  This long metaphor is how he sees Baby Blue, finally crystalizing the point that “not all great whiskeys are great at a young age.”  He claimed that when he was bottling at Balcones, he would taste every barrel and find the ones that were, and he admitted this was an oxymoron, “young mature whiskeys.”  Only the exceptional ones would make the final product.  Chip said that out of 300 barrels, only 20-30 would be considered for Baby Blue.  I asked him if he thought that instead of only pulling 1 out of 10 to make the final product if Balcones was now using the entire production.  He replied that he does not know what they are doing now, but reading between the lines, I get the feeling that he believes they are, and that’s why the final product has suffered.

Our conversation touched on how he views investors, as some articles have intimated long standing battles between him and former investors.  He wanted to make sure that everyone understood that he 100% believes that investors should profit from any investment in his ventures, as it’s a business and if you invest, you should make money.  Going forward he plans increased discretion and enhanced due diligence on potential investors in addition to modified investment structures.  He clarified for the new venture, he’s going to be running the business and that no one should invest if they don’t have full faith in him to do it.  “Don’t bet on the horse if you don’t think he can finish the race.”  Whether it’s 16 year old Olympians, horses, Wyatt Earp or the physics of cell phone reception, Chip always has something interesting to say in a colorful fashion.
Chip expects to be up and running by the Fall, with young whiskeys and other spirits following soon afterwards.  What does not kill you makes you stronger is a cliche that appears to fit with the Chip Tate story.   A deeply thoughtful man, passionate about his work but without pretension; Chip is one of the few people in the industry that has the attention to detail from the very basic fundamental level all the way to the top with the ability and desire to roll up his sleeves to get into the mix as well.  It was a pleasure to speak with him and I look forward to trying the new product once Tate & Co is fully operational.

Phone Conversation with Chip Tate: Wyatt Earp or Dr Egon?

I had the pleasure of speaking with Chip Tate on the phone this weekend, discussing his new venture, his old venture, trends in the marketplace and life in general.  If you have read previous articles about him, keep reading, because you may see a different side of Chip compared to how he has typically been portrayed.  When I started this blog a couple weeks ago I never expected to be invited to chat on the phone with Chip Tate, especially after I completed bashed Balcones; I just wanted to blog about bourbon.  But life is a journey and I’m just following the road…

My general impression of Chip prior to my conversation was a man with a similar demeanor to a Wyatt Earp gun slinging Texan intertwined with knack for distilling; but very quickly into our hour long conversation, I realized that the reality is very different.  He is thoughtful, reasonable, entertaining and scientific.  He is far from the portraits painted online, but if there was going to be a fight at the O.K. Corral, I’d still rather be on his side than facing him…

When I phoned, cell reception was poor and he inquired if I lived in a steel framed house (I don’t, I just happen to live a couple miles north of the nearest cell tower in CT).  This morphed into a four minute explanation of electricity, cell phone signals and their reactive properties with steel frames.  Extremely thoughtful, but not pretentious, Chip’s attention to detail for his work starts right at the beginning of the story of his new distillery.

Post-physics lesson, I asked Chip what he has been up to and he said he has been building stills for Tate & Co Distillery, his new company.  Most distillers purchase their stills, but not Chip, he’s been welding them for a while–an admitted repeat still builder.  The new stills are going to be between 8-12x larger than the previous ones at Balcones and the total distilling capacity is going to be upwards of 30x, or 150,000 cases of annual production at full capacity.  While not expecting to run at capacity, their flexibility will allow Tate & Co to do one off seasonal specials like small batch brandies when certain fruits are ripe.  Their size will also allow them to engage in collaborative projects with other distilleries which promises to be exciting.  Not apply to stills, Yoda’s wisdom does…

Any conversation with Chip would not be complete without discussing “craft.”  The whiskey word of the year injects fear in the heart of many producers, forcing many to drop it from their labels (in addition to handmade, hand crafted, small batch, etc.).  Chip asserted that “[craft producers] need to add a lot of equity to the craft brand.”  After so much dilution from other so-called craft distilleries, the term craft needs to be re-established.

Chip joked that some of the largest producers have launched into the craft game by assembling myriad random barrels, slapping on fun looking labels and with full fanfare and backing by their monstrous marketing teams, announcing to the world a new craft brand.  While on the other hand, some other producers just lie about their product (you can guess which one he was talking about).  One of them recently “got their asses kicked for good reasons, as their sins are egregious.”  Chip claims there are a lot of NDPs out there that he really enjoys , but voiced his issues with the ones which spew falsehoods.  It’s one thing to omit the truth, but publishing lies is pretty low for anyone, and the consumer deserves better.  Like Chip’s previous projects, his future projects embody craft.  I mean, who builds their own stills?

I will post Part 2 of my conversation with Chip later in the weekend.

Balcones & Chip Tate Continued… The Magic of the Blend, Do Not Underestimate It.

For those who also follow me on Twitter, you probably already saw part of this exchange today, but for those of you who didn’t, Chip Tate, the former Master Distiller of Balcones replied to my tweet on a the Balcones Rumble.  He wanted to make sure that I, and all of you, knew that he had nothing to do with any of the Balcones production since August 5th, 2014.  We also exchanged several direct messages that you didn’t see and it is very clear that he is very proud of what is has accomplished, and is looking forward to his next project and leaving this all behind him.

For those of you who are not familiar with the history, the New York Times wrote an article providing the background (  Essentially it’s a classic story of once a company gets to a certain size, the investors are no long happy with the founder and after continued disagreements, run him out of town.  These types of growing pains are unfortunately a recurring theme throughout the history of corporations (anyone remember Steve Jobs and Apple, the first time around?).  Restraining orders were exchanged, nasty words thrown back and forth, and as a result Chip Tate was no longer part of Balcones and the investors had the distillery, the brand, and the whiskey to do with what they pleased.

Chip made a very good point to me via twitter: “None of those bttls were blended by me. Good blending is extremely important, especially for young spirits.”  What I have noticed from reading other blogs, is that there appears to be too much emphasis on the origination of the distillation.  Certain blogs freak out about NDP (non-distiller producers), whether it’s Templeton’s, Whiskey Pig, or myriad other brands out there.  The negative connotations that bloggers put out about Indiana’s MGP kinda of makes me laugh–did they even try the product, or did they assume because it came from Indiana it must be bad?  On the flip side,  take some of the Orphan Barrel bottles (I owe you all reviews on them, I promise to get them out soon), or the post-Chip Tate Balcones… you could have the best master distiller, from the best distillery aged in the most historic rickhouse in the world… but if you don’t have a good blender, it’s all for naught.  So much of the magic that goes into the bottle is through finishing the whiskey, blending the right barrels together adding the correct amount of distilled water, and so much more.  Just because it was made at Stitzel-Weller doesn’t guarantee that it will taste like liquid gold… if it wasn’t aged enough, or too long (cough cough Old Blowhard), it will take one helluva blender to take the patient from code blue to resuscitated–or maybe a strong enough person is needed to tell the investors that they need to put it back in the barrel for another couple years??  A combination of both lesser blending and rushing product to market is what I think Balcones has been suffering from for the past 11 months, and it’s clear to me from tasting it.

Ultimately, a brand is only as good as it’s current product, and if the talented people who build the brand are gone and the replacements aren’t of the same caliber, the cache will erode and eventually fade away into history’s abyss.

Like I’ve always said, I judge a whiskey but it’s smell, taste and how it makes me feel.  The new Balcones product make me feel like I want my money back.

I haven’t tried the old stuff, and if anyone is willing to send me a sample, please direct message me on twitter as I’d love to try it and do another review.