Russell’s Reserve 10 Year: An Appreciation

I’m sitting here at my desk at home, in the quiet while kids and wife are asleep, enjoying a peaceful time before bed. Listening to Arvo Pärt, reading John Frame, and (relevant to this blog) sipping on some bourbon.


Photo taken at Myrtle Beach during family vacation in July.

Now, I thought to myself, I’ve so neglected this blog, I should just do a big post highlighting some of the beers, bourbons, wines, etc. that I’ve tried in the past-however-long. But, I’ve particularly enjoyed Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon, and that happens to be what I’m sipping on tonight (it also happens to be the only whiskey I have in the house). So for now, a post about that. We’ll some where we go next.

Wild Turkey is great. I love what they do. Granted, I haven’t had that much from them. So, what am I saying? I don’t know. I really like Wild Turkey. And Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Small Batch is one of the bourbons I’ve enjoyed the most.


The bourbon gives a lovely presentation: it’s a deep, rich amber color. The labeling presents well, and let’s be honest: that matters. (Truthfully, I don’t know how I feel about the old label v. new. There was a beautiful simplicity about the old that I really appreciated, but there’s something really nice about the new label, too.)

The aroma gives a nice an inviting scent of oak. Caramel and vanilla jump out, too. Those are all there in the taste, with more prominence to the vanilla, caramel, toffee. Some really good leather, oaky warmth.

They’re all nice, warm flavors, but not a “hot” spiciness. Just a very pleasant woody, toffee warmth. Really, it’s just what I want in a bourbon. 90 proof is, I think, a sweet spot. I know the super high proof whiskeys are trendy, but whatever. This is great.

I was given  this bottle for my birthday. That’s about the only way I try really nice whiskeys (or things in general, I guess; and yeah, I know even this is considered mid-range). Man, am I grateful for it. I’m sipping, trying to make it last. It’s definitely a favorite.


The old label: nice, simple aesthetic, right?


Founder’s Centennial IPA

Founders' Centennial IPA.

Founders’ Centennial IPA.

Appearance: A nice hazy burnt orange with frothy white foam and lacing. I appreciate the translucence of an unfiltered ale.

Aroma: Pine resin, florality, and grapefruit characterize the centennial hop variety, and those are the first things you get on the nose. The malts make themselves known as well with notes of caramel and biscuit.

Taste: The taste agrees with the aroma with the exception of being more balanced. The sweetness of the caramel and the biscuity, bready malt are there throughout, giving Centennial a toasted caramel malt backbone. This is an IPA, though, and with 65 IBUs at that. The hops provide a strong, but not overwhelming, bitterness, pine resin and floral notes taking center stage. There’s a slight metallic note. The balance of hop bitterness with the caramel sweetness of the malt give almost a candied bitter taste, if that’s not too paradoxical.

Mouthfeel: Centennial has a relatively thick mouthfeel (for an IPA, at least,) and good carbonation. It finishes crisp and dry.

Overall: Centennial is a great, well balanced IPA, and one I’ll certainly come back to and recommend.


Battle of the Bottom Shelf

The Whisk(e)y Whimsy group recently held “Battle of the Bottom Shelf”: a blind tasting of nine of the most ubiquitous, <$20 bourbons in PA state stores. It was Jon’s brainchild, and we did it in a really nifty cabin which Dave acquired for us:

battle bottom shelf

The point was to discover those bourbons which give the most bang for your bottom shelf buck, and to do so blindly in order to eliminate preconceived preferences and prejudices. Some results were surprising.

Now, in the world of bourbon, the <$20 line is admittedly arbitrary and unhelpful, because (unlike scotch) for only a few dollars more you break into significantly better bourbons. For instance, in the low twenties you can find such delicious mid-range bourbons as Elmer T. Lee, Elijah Craig, and Weller Special Reserve; and, in the high twenties you can find such world-class contenders as Eagle Rare and Evan Williams Single Barrel. Still, for the purposes of our “Battle of the Bottom Shelf,” the <$20 line was functional.

Allow me to share my own, personal comments and rankings. Remember, I did not know what I was tasting when I made these comments–my goal was not to provide a proper review for others, but to jot down brief notes-to-self for the sake of my own ranking. Also remember that I am not listing these in the order in which we tasted them, but in the order in which I ultimately ranked them (before their unveiling):

Evan Williams Black Label
My ranking out of these nine: #1.
Blind note-to-self: “higher quality nose and taste.”

Bird Dog
My ranking out of these nine: #2
Blind note-to-self: “plenty of flavor, tad drier than I prefer, bit woody.” 

Old Forester
My ranking out of these nine: #3
Blind note-to-self: “dull watery nose, warm tingly mouth feel, maybe slightly floral thing, cheap sweetness, thin, no finish except white orange pith.”

Rebel Yell
My ranking out of these nine: #4
Blind note-to-self: “likable if weak standard bourbon nose, very mellow palate, inoffensive, eh, don’t love it but good one to start someone on.”

Jim Beam White Label
My ranking out of these nine: #5
Blind note-to-self: “weak standard bourbon nose, fine bourbon palate but with hints of grain like blended scotch, more finish than some others, but the finish is not great”

Ezra Brooks
My ranking out of these nine: #6
Blind note-to-self: “nougat nose, hot sharp palate, mild balanced sweetness, one simple note. Nah.”

Old Grand-dad Bonded (100 proof)
My ranking out of these nine: #7
Blind note-to-self: “standard bourbon nose, hot palate, some flavors I don’t like. Not contender.”

Four Roses Yellow Label
My ranking out of these nine: #8
Blind note-to-self: “not contender”

Old Crow
My ranking out of these nine: #9
Blind note-to-self: “hint of paint thinner – nope”

Unanimous Agreements Among All Ten Tasters

  1. Evan Williams Black Label and Bird Dog are the two best whiskeys of the bunch. 8/10 blind tasters ranked EWBL #1 and BD #2, and 2/10 blind tasters ranked BD #1 and EWBL #2. Those who preferred EWBL admitted that BD was a very close second, and those who preferred BD admitted that it was a very tough call for them.
  2. Four Roses Yellow Label and Old Crow are the two worst whiskeys of the bunch. All ten tasters ranked FRYL #8 out of these nine whiskies, and all ten ranked Old Crow the very worst.

Greatest Surprises 

  1. Bird Dog being in the top two whiskies, right alongside Evan Williams Black Label. Who even knows who makes Bird Dog or where it comes from? We expected it to be a red-headed step-child in the bunch. We were shocked at the unveiling.
  2. Four Roses Yellow Label ranking so poorly. It’s often listed as one of the greatest values among budget bourbons, but all ten of our blind tasters thought that seven other budget bourbons were considerably better.

My Personal Recommendations 

  1. Evan Williams Black Label, Bird Dog, Old Forester, and Rebel Yell are all worth buying. You may rank these four differently than I do; so, if you’re into bottom shelf bourbon, try all of them.
  2. If those four are unavailable, Jim Beam White, Ezra Brooks, or Old Grand-dad Bonded (100 proof) may be acceptable. I’d be willing to buy one of these three if I really had to buy a bourbon in this price range and could not get any of my top four. But, assuming that one of my top four could be had, I can’t think of a reason ever to buy any of these three.
  3. I’d accept Four Roses Yellow Label for free. It’s not as though it’s undrinkable. Maybe it mixes well, if you’re into that (I’m not). But it’s sub-par bourbon, even by bottom shelf standards. I wouldn’t buy it.
  4. I would actually pay to never drink Old Crow again. It’s truly terrible stuff.
Other Comments
  1. There are other bottom shelf bourbons, of course, which were not included in this experiment. It’s possible that we’re missing a noteworthy addition. One of the more glaring oversights is Old Grand-dad 80 proof. Perhaps it would have fared better than its 100 proof big brother did. Another glaring oversight is Wild Turkey. Ah well.
  2. Bird Dog is the oakiest of the lot. If you’re looking for a bottom shelfer that shows some wood, this is it.
  3. Old Forester was the most divisive bourbon of the lot. Some of us considered it a close third, while others put it quite a bit further down the list. I myself like the sweet and floral character couched in warm tingle. Although its style is overpowered by that of Bird Dog, when they’re put side-by-side, I bet that it’s really a tie for second (just of a very a different style). But, others’ mileage varied.
  4. Rebel Yell’s mellow softness really is remarkable, when put next to other bourbons. The flavor is run-of-the-mill, but the feel would be more accessible to some.
  5. If you like nougat, you should like Ezra Brook’s nose. There’s no complexity–just a single note–but, I really like that single note. Unfortunately, the palate is not what the nose leads you to expect.


Tonight, I finally get to the tin of Penzance which Jeremiah so generously sent my way. This elusive tobacco has been on my list for a long time.


I apply my pipe tool to the indents on the side and–aha!–the satisfying suck and pop of a virgin tin.

Peeling back layers of oily paper reveals a mass of almost greasy crumble cake. Perhaps it’s just the lighting, but it strikes me as having a grey hue.

penz open

The aroma in the tin is woodsmoke, yet without any sharpness–cool and mellow, something like a fireplace recently doused with water. There’s some beef jerky. It’s all very earthy: think of the rich soil floor of a pine forest after a good rain.

It rubs out extremely easily. Actually, it just sort of crumbles, but moistly.

I might let a bit dry out, first–the moisture is natural, fresh, and pleasant, but may prove problematic. Then again, nah: I’ll pack the pipe anyway and give it a try. If it isn’t ready to take to the match, I’ll just let the pipe sit overnight.

Well this is nice: after an initial char, the weed lights well enough. You know, I somehow think that this tobacco would lose something distinctive, if dry.

I’m shocked not to taste more Latakia. It’s there, but not like the tin aroma led me to expect. Virginias and Orientals are in play–Orientals are foremost–but they don’t fully account for the experience, either. The overall taste truly is more than the sum of its parts. In fact, I’m tempted to say that it’s other than the sum of its parts. It’s a fruit wood fire on a peaty moor. Yeah, that’s it. Deep, earthy, true, natural, full, rich, thick, creamy.

As the smoke gets under way, I do get a little gurgle going; but, not enough to bother me at all. This Ben Wade–a straight pot–tends to gurgle, anyway.

I just realized that I’ve been puffing too hard. Still, the leaf has not gotten hot or nippy at all. I’m slowing down to see what very slight sips might reveal. Huh, a mellow nougat flavor now wafts around my mouth. Maybe a little toasted marshmallow, too.

This is somehow more real than other tobaccos. Like the finest cakes of the most natural leaf put away in clay pots ages ago by Tobold Hornblower to ferment in a moist, earthy cellar.

I step out of the room and back in:
The note is pleasant: nutty and nougatty and creamy, with a little incense mingled in.

After smoking, I feel like I’ve just eaten a steak: heavy and sated. There are even steaky flavors left in my mouth.  Too much of this might turn my stomach; but, one pipe in the evening is just the thing.

The Most Memorable of My Favorite Beers

A word on this awkwardly but carefully named list:

I couldn’t just say, “My Most Memorable Beers,” because that would include memorably bad beers, memorably unusual beers, and beers that were memorable for situational reasons irrelevant to the beer itself. And I didn’t want to include those.

But I didn’t really want to say, “My Favorite Beers,” either, partly because I have not included on this list some beers which may be as good as or better than beers of the same style which I have included on this list. Why? Just because some beers are especially memorable for me–for instance, I had low expectations for Narwhal, so I’ll never forget the shock of its goodness; whereas, I had high expectations for Expedition and Old Rasputin, so their deliciousness came as no surprise, and they are not on this list despite being (arguably) better beers. Similarly, Ayinger Celebrator is, in the opinion of many, a better beer than Samichlaus; but, for whatever reason, it just didn’t leave much of an impression on me; whereas, to me, Samichlaus is not only unspeakably delicious, but also very special, since my second son, Nicholas, was born on the eve of his namesake’s feast day.

It’s an idiosyncratic sort of list, I know. And without further ado, here it is:

Alpha King, 3 Floyds
Flower Power, Ithaca
Sculpin, Ballast Point

120 Minute, Dogfish Head
Burton Baton, Dogfish Head
Heady Topper, Alchemist
Hopulence, Wormtown Brewing
Hopslam, Bell’s
Palate Wrecker, Green Flash

Courage, Wells & Young’s
Narwhal, Sierra Nevada
Oatmeal Stout, Samuel Smith’s

Scotch Ale / Wee Heavy
Dirty Bastard, Founders

Abbey Belgians
Gouden Carolus Classic, Brouwerji Het Anker
La Fin du Monde, Unibroue
Trappistes 10, Rochefort

Samichlaus, Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg

Olde School, Dogfish Head

P.S.  I may update this post from time to time. I can only hope that I have occasion to!

1993 Three Nuns

My college friend and favorite pipe maker, Jeremiah Sandahl of Sandahl Pipes (website, Facebook), recently sent me a tin of Penzance, a couple flakes of Stonehaven, a couple flakes of 10 year old Best Brown Flake, and a bowl’s worth of (you aren’t going to believe this) 22 year old Three Nuns.

No, really.


In case you didn’t know, Three Nuns is a tobacco of legendary import in the pipe community. It was first produced in Scotland in the early 1890s, and is most famous for being the go-to leaf of no less a man than C. S. Lewis.


“I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and pencil in their hand.” 

–C.S. Lewis

It was a Virginia/Perique blend until 1998, but perique dropped out of the recipe at time–the same time that Three Nuns stopped being imported into the US.

In 2013, and this time under Mac Baren, the new Three Nuns came to the US market. This new, Mac Baren Three Nuns replaces perique with dark fired Kentucky, and is supposedly very good (I haven’t tried it, to date), despite being an altogether different tobacco than the legendary blend of pipe lore.

But, the Three Nuns which filled my pipe, tonight, was from a 1993 tin. The real deal.

I don’t know how to express my gratitude to Jeremiah. This was without a doubt a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it is not lost on me that this gift of so rare, so precious an incense comes to me during Epiphany.

Well, the decision which confronted me tonight was a serious one: which pipe would have the honor of hosting the one and only bowl of original Three Nuns I am likely ever to have?


I selected my Peretti bent bulldog. It may be my best smoker.

Next, I got the Richard Wagner station going on Pandora. I once heard Peter Kreeft say that Wagner “turned Lewis on.” That was the day I became a Wagner fan.

Now, it was time to pack the pipe.

The tobacco came to me mostly pre-rubbed; but, there were a couple round bits of coin center in my bag. Nifty little things.The leaf was very dry, of course–it was 22 years old, after all! But, it did not require any rehydration–it wasn’t even beginning to disintegrate, and I like my tobacco dry, anyway.

Let me tell you, it took to the match! I’m glad that I selected the bent bulldog: its shallow bowl permitted full view of the tobacco dancing to the flame as I have never otherwise seen tobacco dance. Its ribbons stretched mesmerizingly heavenward; and then, the dance turned to battle as the majestic violence of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” led this leaf in a charge of writhing ecstasy.

This needed to be sipped with care: it heated very easily (and, positively, did insist on staying lit!). It never bit, but I don’t mind saying that I put the pipe down several times to keep it steady.

The cherry glowed as radiantly as you like.


As the smoke got under way, I began to taste something like Tobasco sauce, especially on the sides of my tongue. It was mixed with sweet and sour sauce. There were hints of mustard and pickle juice–but not by themselves, of course: they were in a sweet hay loft. Underneath all this–and I do mean underneath, ever so faintly–there was the support of something more substantial, like mushrooms growing in a pleasant old stone basement. Then, toward the bottom of the bowl, a darker flavor began to show up, very much like the charring around the edges of a nice brisket. Still, that slight Tobasco tang toward the back of the sides of my tongue never did leave.

What about the room note? Well, a smoker never can never comment on his own–not as well as another might; but, I did think that I caught the occasional whisper of tangy ketchup lacing the pleasant smoke. Then, when I stepped out and back into the room, the note struck me as roasted nuts and dark cocoa (somehow reminiscent of Rocky Patel’s Vintage 1992).

Also noteworthy was an unusual and delightful sizzling hum which met my ears, at the bottom of the bowl, buzzing very quietly but distinctly.

The ash which this tobacco burned to was the finest I’ve seen — grey confectioner’s sugar.

I didn’t notice nicotine till I stood up. At which point I noticed more than I’d expected to.

This was an unforgettable smoke. Remarkably good. I’m sorry that it’s over. But the Resurrection is coming; and, who knows? Perhaps you and I and Jack will share the best Three Nuns yet in the fullness of the Kingdom.

Home Infused Compound Botanical Gin

Cheap gin–unlike, say, cheap bourbon–is a waste of time.  But good gin is wonderful.  Who wouldn’t want to savor liquid Christmas tree?

I recently tried to infuse my own.  Now, creating an extract of juniper berries (with other botanicals) in a neutral spirit produces what is called a “compound gin.”  Compound gins are widely regarded as inferior to those which undergo additional distillation after the extraction.  But, not being a moonshiner, I did what I could.

Here are the botanicals I used:


  • 2 Tbsp juniper berries
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 10 fir needles (from my Christmas tree)
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp. fennel seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. dried lavender
  • 4 allspice berries
  • 1/2 slice of cucumber
  • 1/2 cinnamon stick
  • 2 black peppercorns
  • 1 Tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1/2 Tbsp. fresh orange zest 
  • 1/2 Tbsp fresh lemon zest 
I simply put all these into a bottle of Smirnoff Red:
I flipped the bottle around, stirring the contents, every 12 hours.After about 60 hours, I poured the now-infused spirit through a strainer / coffee filter / funnel, into another bottle, like this:


The finished bottle looked like this
I prepared to drink liquid Christmas tree (complemented by subtle floral, cucumber, citrus, and spice notes).  I was excited.  I nosed.  Uh-oh…very dominant citrus nose, with spice complexity.  But no juniper.  Maybe it will show up on the palate?  I sipped.  Drat.  I was drinking orange pith.  I was careful not to get any pith in the zest, but this was basically a drying, slightly bitter, off-quasi-orange liquor.  No Christmas tree.  So here is what I plan to change, next time:

  • I will increase the juniper berries to 3 Tbsp.
  • I will crush those juniper berries a bit, before putting them in the bottle.
  • I will infuse with those juniper berries for 24 hours before any other ingredients go in.
  • I will give those other ingredients just 24 hours, for a total of 48 hours.
  • I will remove the bay leaf.  I’m wondering if it’s a bittering agent, and this did not need that.
  • I will use 3 cardamom pods (crushed), instead of the ground cardamom.
  • I will increase the lavender to 2 tsp.
  • I will use the whole cucumber slice (in 4 strips).  And a thicker slice (more like 1/2″).
  • I will remove the orange zest (but keep the Tbsp. of lemon zest).
  • I will add 1 tsp. of honey.

If those changes, next time, do not produce a gin that I am happy with, I will give up trying to get a bottle of Hendrick’s for the price of Smirnoff Red!