When my brother was tasked with bringing some bourbon for a recent family gathering, the staff at a local franchise of a major retailer suggested McFarlane’s Reserve as an affordable Weller alternative. Just now your mind may have come to a screeching halt as mine did; perhaps due to its rather daring, and to some, potentially blasphemous, endorsement.
If you have never heard of this $21 bottle, you are not alone, as it has only been released within the last year and is bottled and distributed by IJW Whiskey Company, equally obscure and unknown in the spirits world. (Public records indicate that the brand McFarlane’s Reserve was trademarked in April 2020). Very little is actually known otherwise, and speculations include its origins as a private equity company looking to dive into the still-booming bourbon market by sourcing from a Kentucky producer. If true, it wouldn’t be unheard of.
The bet within the Drinkhacker camp is that it is Bower Hill distillate. Here are some clues: Bower Hill is named and inspired by the “Battle of Bower Hill,” which is the first battle of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. And the origin story of McFarlane’s Reserve is uncannily tied to this battle as well, as proudly described on its rather sparsely populated website:
In 1791, President George Washington signed the “Whiskey Tax” into law and appointed General John Neville as the collector of the revenues.
In the Summer of 1794, Major James McFarlane and his band of Whiskey Rebels, descended on Bower Hill, General Neville’s majestic west Pennsylvanian estate, in protest of the tax. On the second day of the standoff, a white flag was waved from Neville’s mansion, and McFarlane, assuming the government had surrendered, stepped out in the open and was shot dead. McFarlane’s death further radicalized the resistance, inciting additional violent clashes with the government, which ultimately quelled the Whiskey Rebellion in the fall of 1794. McFarlane’s brave stand, however, is a lasting tribute to American passion and our intimate and storied history with our native spirit.
If one is yet to be convinced of the Bower Hill connection, how about one of the featured cocktails recipes named the Bower Hill Boulevardier?
Anyway, let’s put forensic curiosity to the side and pop this open:
After letting the bottle settle a bit after opening, the nose is bright and sweet with a hint of cinnamon-driven heat. There is also pronounced astringency that occasionally cuts through some very subtle apple pie baking spices. The palate is a barrage of cola sweetness that alternates with bitter leather, and again some random appearances of astringency. The drink is thin in texture, which probably puts the flavors in hi-def, without some viscosity and weight to temper the exuberant single-focused expressiveness of the spice, sweet, and leathery elements. White pepper and cinnamon linger longest on the finish, alongside an unexpected soft popcorn and dinner roll note.
What strikes me most about this bottle is the hint of potential that additional aging and a higher proof offering could illuminate. The bottle states that the its average age is 3 years. And all in all, in spite of its imbalance, this is a very promising pour. The notes are all familiar bourbon elements, but perhaps the youth and thinness in the pour drives these notes to emerge sporadically and a bit aimlessly. It’s drinkable, especially when you factor in the $21 price tag, and I think this would do well with newer bourbon drinkers or in cocktails where some added sweetness and spice are desired.
The journey of IJW Whiskey Company is also worth revisiting as they emerge from under the radar over time and we hear more directly from the company of their future plans and offerings.
(And to provide closure on the matter of its similarity to Weller’s, my conclusion is that they’re not really in the same camp — or any members of the Buffalo Trace camp.)
B- / $21 / mcfarlanesreservebourbon.com