Good Days With The Mays

Personal blog for Jess and C.J. May

Whiskey Wonderland

This blog post is written by guest star C.J. May!

My wife, Jess, is the best gift giver I know. She spends a lot of time keeping track of the things people like and taking notes of things they might want as a gift. Since graduating college, I’ve become a big fan of whiskey. I don’t drink it regularly, but I don’t collect it and let my bottles sit like trophies, either. I think even rare or expensive bottles are meant to be drunk and are best enjoyed with friends (especially friends who share my love for whiskey).

Before we moved out of our apartment in Pella and started on our adventure, I had accrued around 50 bottles of whiskey at various stages of emptiness. Part of the problem was that I was buying them faster than I could drink them. Clearly, I need more friends! The other part of the problem is that I love to try new whiskies, but usually you have to commit to a whole bottle to try something new. Jess recognized this dilemma and thought of a great Christmas present for me.

For Christmas this year, Jess got us tickets to the Southeast Texas Whiskey Festival in Beaumont, Texas that took place during the first weekend of our stay in Galveston. It was a whole night dedicated to tasting different whiskies handed out in tiny, but unlimited quantities by distillers from Texas and around the world. The whiskey festival took place in a 40,000 square foot civic center, and featured over 400 different bottles of whiskey including varieties of Bourbon, Rye, Irish, and Scotch.

I took “tasting notes” which is kind of a posh thing to do, but it seemed like the perfect way to describe the full experience on our blog rather than writing a story about how I drank a lot of good whiskey and got really drunk. I’m by no means an expert on whiskey, but I do enjoy it a lot and do like to think about the different flavors that I smell and taste as I enjoy my sips from beginning to end.

I’ll go through the whiskies in the order that I tried them from the beginning to the end of the night. For each one, I’ll give it a rating on a scale out of 10 and add my thoughts and tasting notes. I’ll also mark my top 5 of the night next to the rating if a whiskey makes the cut.

Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 year – 8.2

This one will probably be my longest review. To those that know whiskey, they would be jealous to read that I got to try this bourbon. And probably a little appalled that I only gave it an 8.2. This whiskey was very unlike other bourbons I’ve had. Instead of caramel or vanilla, I got a lot of cocoa butter which was unique but very nice. It had an “over-aged” bitter oaky-ness to it as well. As whiskey gets older, the oak barrel imparts more flavor into it. 12 years isn’t particularly old for bourbon, but the “aged” flavor was very strong which took me by surprise. I’m personally not a huge fan of that flavor profile, but some people really chase that.

Old Rip Van Winkle distillery produces the rarest and most expensive (aftermarket value) bourbon, and they actually have many older bourbons including a 15 year, a 20 year, and a 23 year. Anything over 15 years is very old for bourbon, and I think that if I somehow ever got a Pappy Van Winkle 20 or 23 year (MSRP $300, Aftermarket avg $6000), I’d probably trade it with a friend or family member who would appreciate it for a couple bottles that I’d rather have on the condition that we both get to try a sip of the stuff we gave away.

Wild Turkey Master’s Keep One – 8.8

This bourbon is one of the premium releases from Wild Turkey, a very popular distillery that has a large range of bourbons and ryes. It was really smooth with virtually no hint of alcohol burn. My only complaint with this one was that it was a little thin at the end and the flavor didn’t really “linger” much.

Elijah Craig 18 – 9.5 (1)

For a bourbon, 18 years is a long time to age in the barrel. However, master distillers have honed the art of aging whiskey over hundreds of years. There’s no unit of “done-ness” that is imparted during a standard length of time in the aging process. Aging whiskey is an art, and knowing which barrels can stay put and which can keep going is a very specialized skill.

Elijah Craig distillery seems to have it figured out, though, because their 18 year bourbon was the best whiskey I tried all night. It was unbelievably smooth with a viscous, buttery mouth feel. The age showed itself a little, but it didn’t have as much of the “over-aged” bitterness as the Van Winkle 12 year and was at a nice level for my tastes. It was so good I forgot to write down flavors. Oops 🙂

Weller Special Reserve – 7.8

A whiskey’s “mash bill” is the combination of grains that went into the alcohol distillation before going into the barrel. Bourbon must be at least 51% corn, but after that there are no clear rules for the mash bill. Weller Special Reserve is a “wheated” bourbon which means wheat is the secondary grain after corn. I’m not a huge wheated bourbon guy, but this was actually pretty good. It was sweet like honey and vanilla with some cinnamon notes.

Colonel EH Taylor Small Batch – 7.1

Colonel EH Taylor is considered an “allocated” bourbon which means they don’t produce a lot of it, and it can be harder to come by than most bourbons. It can certainly be found with some hunting, but its rarity has raised the hype level for it quite a bit. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. Maybe other editions of EH Taylor are better than the Small Batch, but my expectations of greatness turned out to be just plain ‘ol goodness.

Calumet 8 – 6.1

At the Calumet distillery booth, I got the opportunity to try 3 different age statements of their bourbon back to back. That allowed me to really taste the subtle differences that the aging process has on the same distilled spirit. The 8 year had more alcohol burn than I would expect from an 8 year old bourbon, but it made up for it with the flavor profile. I’m a fan of rye whiskey and rye-forward bourbons for the peppery spice that it adds, and I could tell that Calumet makes rye a major player in the mash bill.

Calumet 10 – 6.9

The Calumet 10 year was just a slightly better version of the 8 year. A little less alcohol burn, a little smoother, and a little longer finish.

Calumet 15 – 8.9 (5)

The jump in age from the 10 year to the 15 year was immediately noticeable even on the nose as I smelled the aromas before trying my first sip. It had much more of the pepper and spice that I love in bourbons on both the nose and the palate, and it had a lot of oak and leather notes on the finish. This was my fifth favorite whiskey of the night.


Now we are leaving the world of bourbon and crossing the ocean into the isles of Scotland. Scotch was the first type of whisky, and the mash bill looks quite different from that of bourbon. Single malt scotch whisky is made with 100% malted barley. Which means that the only ingredients in scotch are barley, yeast, and water. The process to make different types of single malt scotch whisky varies from region to region in Scotland.

My favorite type of scotch is called islay scotch (pronounced eye-luh), which is a style characterized by the strong smoky, earthy flavors that are imparted by the peat fires that they use to dry the malted barley. The more “peated” a scotch, the stronger the flavors of bitter smoke. It’s a bit of an acquired taste for some newer to the world of whisky. Either way, the tasting notes of the scotch will look a lot different from the bourbons whether they are peated or not.

Old Charlotte Heavily Peated – 8.7

I am bummed that I didn’t take great notes on this one other than that the flavor profile reminded me a lot of Laphroaig 10 year (another islay scotch), but this one had more sweet floral notes and was very smooth.

Octomore 13.2 – 9.3 (2)

This one was my second favorite of the night. Octomore is known for having the most heavily peated scotch in the world, and boy did this one live up to the expectations. The nose was intense smoked ham and sulfur, and then on the palate it was initially burnt coal followed by more ham. The finish was like a lingering earthy bonfire that smolders all night. It was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had trying a new whisky.

Benriach Smoky Season – 6.7

Even though this one was advertised as smoky, it tasted much sweeter after the Octomore (or maybe I had just ruined my tongue). This one had some honey and smoke on the nose with the same plus a bit of pear on the palate. Just a touch of alcohol burn, but still a pretty easy sipper.

Torabhaig – 8.1

This was a neat one. By this time my friendliness was starting to reach higher levels, and I had a cool conversation with the representative from this distillery (he was from Scotland!). He told me that Torabhaig is the first new distillery on the Isle of Skye in over 200 years, and that they started distilling in 2017. That means the whiskey that I had was very young for scotch. Despite its young age, I thought their scotch was impressive, with lots of floral sweetness and a hints of smoke and brine.

Dalmore 18 – 9.0 (T3)

One thing to clarify before I get into this one – an 18 year old scotch is relatively much younger than an 18 year old bourbon due to the differences in the aging process. Most people agree that the prime age for a scotch is 15-21 years old, compared with 8-12 years old for bourbon. This Dalmore was a fun one to try because I bought a bottle of Dalmore Port Cask to celebrate Jess and I’s engagement.

This one spent the last 4 years of its aging process in used sherry casks. There was lots of fruit, especially pear, on the nose. It was extremely smooth and had a long, lingering, sweet finish. Dalmore is a highland scotch, which means that there was no peat in it. This one was tied for my third favorite whiskey of the festival.

Balvenie 12 Double Cask – 5.6

I had heard good things about this Balvenie, but it didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. There was lots of alcohol burn that seemed to dominate the whisky more than any other flavor. I didn’t keep track of when Jess and I ate the food that was served for dinner, but it was somewhere around this time and may have impacted my palate. I’ll probably have to try this again some time (but maybe not commit to a bottle of it).

Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask – 7.2

From the same distillery, this scotch was a night and day difference from the Double Cask. Finished in Caribbean Rum casks, this one was smoother with still a little ethanol taste, but it was also much sweeter and had a better finish.

Glendronach 15 – 7.5

This one was a solid scotch. Like the last few, there was no peaty smokiness. Cranberries on the nose, a little more oak and still some fruit on the palate. Fairly smooth.

Highland Park 21 – 9.0 (T3)

At the time of drinking it, this was the oldest whisky I had ever had (though that record was soon taken by the next one I tried). It ended up being tied for my third favorite whisky of the festival. At 21 years, this whisky was old enough to drink itself. It was relatively simple and sweet on the nose, but extremely complex on the palate. It started with some flowers, and then came honey with a bit of spice. Maybe it was the intoxication level, maybe it was the insane smoothness, but I wrote down that I wanted “a whole glass of this”. The only knock on it for me was that the finish wasn’t as long as I wished that it was.

Glen Scotia 25 – 8.4

After trying a 21 year old scotch, I found a distiller that was giving samples of their 25 year old whisky. A fun fact about this one – I was the same age as the whiskey (25 years old) at the time of trying it, which is probably the only time in my whole life I’ll get to say that. At this age, the oak starts influencing the spirit so much that it tasted closer to some of the older bourbons that I had than some of the younger scotch. It was briny with lots of oak spice. No alcohol burn at all, but there was a little bit of a dry burn from the spice of the age. Fans of that flavor profile probably would have ranked it higher than I did, but I still enjoyed it a lot and it was a cool experience to try such an old and rare whisky.

Wild Turkey 101 – 4.1

After feeling like I had run the full gamut of scotch whiskey and having had some seriously incredible sips, I decided to try something standard to see if the other stuff I was trying was really that good. I returned to the Wild Turkey booth where I tried the Master’s Keep One earlier, and tried a couple of their basic expressions. Wild Turkey 101 is about as standard as it gets for bourbon. It was quickly clear to me that the stuff I had been trying all night was truly special. By comparison, the 101 had a lot of alcohol/ethanol taste and burn to it and tasted very generic.

Wild Turkey Longbranch – 6.6

Longbranch is a newer release from Wild Turkey that I had been wanting to try. It’s a year or two older than the 101, and a lower proof. Overall, it was a much better bourbon. It didn’t outshine some of the other stuff that I had earlier in the night, but I could definitely see myself getting a bottle of it at some point since it’s readily available and not too expensive. Plus Matthew McConaughey sponsors it, which means my mom, Amy, automatically gives it her stamp of approval.

Weller Antique 107 – 7.4

After the Wild Turkey booth, I wanted to try something a little more rare again. I revisited the Buffalo Trace / Weller booth and tried the Antique 107. This was the same wheated bourbon as the Special Reserve that I tried earlier, but this one had more age and proof that created some distinct differences. There was some cherry on the nose, with sweet wheat and caramel on the palate.

Breckenridge Imperial Stout Finish – 2.0

The festival was soon ending, but before heading out I wanted to try something from Breckenridge distillery. One of my favorite bottles of bourbon that I ever owned was a bottle of Breckenridge Reserve Blend that I got while visiting some of my best friends in Colorado with Jess. The Breckenridge booth had a lot of different options including the Reserve Blend, but I wanted to try something new.

I asked the representative what they recommended, and he said that the Imperial Stout Finish was their most asked for bourbon of the festival. So, I tried it. Dear God, that stuff was just awful. Intense ethanol from start to finish with some sourness and no clear flavor profile. It even induced a gag which is rare for me when it comes to whiskey. I quietly dumped the rest in a garbage.

This blog post has gone on long enough, so you won’t get a long lingering finish like the Octomore. I’ll just say that if it wasn’t clear by now, I really enjoyed the gift that Jess got me, and I think I need to go to many more whiskey festivals in the future. Hit me up if you want in on the next one!


C.J. May

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