Review: Rabbit Hole Distilling Bourbon and Rye

Rabbit Hole Distilling is a new producer of whiskey, based in bourbon’s heartland, Kentucky. The company recently broke ground on its own distillery in downtown Louisville; for now it is producing whiskey at another Kentucky distillery using its own mashbills and recipes.

Rabbit Hole hit the ground with three whiskies. The standbys — a bourbon and a rye — are reviewed here. We missed out on the third, a sourced bourbon that Rabbit Hole finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. (A gin arrived later.)

Thoughts on these two — none of which is bottled with a formal age statement — follow.

Rabbit Hole Distilling Kentucky Straight Bourbon – A four-grain bourbon, but not what you think: The mash is 70% corn, 10% malted wheat, 10% malted barley, and 10% honey malted barley (a beer-centric barley with honey overtones; it’s not flavored with honey). “Over two years old.” The nose is closed off somewhat, offering restrained menthol notes, and lots of popcorn character. The palate is heavy with grain, but also rustic and loaded up with popcorn character. I do catch a whiff of honey on the back end — an earthy sweetness that provides a bit of balance to a whiskey that would clearly benefit from some extra maturity. A touch of dark chocolate lingers on the finish. 95 proof. B- / $46

Rabbit Hole Distilling Kentucky Straight Rye – 95% rye, 5% malted barley, also over two years old. Clearly youthful and a bit brash on the nose, where the whiskey melds barrel char with ample, toasty grains and some brown sugar notes. The palate finds more balance, a sweeter profile than the nose would indicate, with enough baking spice character to showcase the rye grain quite handily. Apple pie and bananas foster notes give the mid-palate a fun, fruity, chewy character that leads to a finish loaded with notes of honey and gingerbread. Impressive for a rye this young. 95 proof. A- / $59

rabbitholedistilling.com

Life in a Post-Bourbon World: Predicting the Next Big Thing in Booze

It’s no secret that bourbon has been the It Spirit for a good few years now. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is how pretty much no one saw it coming. One needs to only look at the vast amount of supply shortages today to see just how unprepared most of the market was. Here’s a fun exercise. Go into your local store and ask them if they have any Weller, Eagle Rare, or even Very Old Barton. Their thousand yard stare, coupled with the nervous tick in the corner of their eye will tell you all you need to know about the current state of things.

Reports and predictions of the “bourbon bubble” bursting have so far been premature. It seems that—at least for now—for every one person who tires of the hunt, there are ten more ready and willing to take their place in line for the latest limited release. I’m not here to predict when that will end, because it’s already proven to be a pointless exercise. However, what can be a fun prediction is guessing what will follow bourbon as the almighty “next big thing.” So let’s take a look at a few spirits, and the reasons why they will — or won’t — usurp bourbon’s place at the top of the hype pedestal. For each of these four, we’re also including the all-important “Van Winkle Factor” — wherein we ask whether there is a singular product which will drive said hype train and become the bane of existence to liquor store employees everywhere.

1. Rum

For years now, rum has been talked about over and over again as being the next big spirit.

Why it Will Succeed:

Rum has a lot of crossover appeal to the bourbon fan. Many rums share a lot of the same flavor components with bourbon — vanilla, caramel, and good old-fashioned barrel spice — though with a slightly softer and sweeter side rum has the potential to appeal to an even broader audience. I have myself, and have heard many others refer to it as “summertime whiskey,” a product which delivers a lot of the same flavor notes but without the warming heat of whiskey. It’s easy and delicious. Plus, the rebirth of tiki drinks and island culture has pushed the importance of specific rum types into the minds of consumers everywhere.

Why it Won’t:

First and foremost, rum has an issue with age statements. Countries like Jamaica and Barbados require an age statement consistent with what most U.S. consumers understand, the age on the label is representative of the youngest spirit in the blend. But rum comes from so many places beyond those two countries, and in those countries age stating is much more vague. Two brands that represent this better than most are Ron Zacapa and Zaya. Ron Zacapa uses a solera aging system which puts a vague average of “23” on their entry level bottle. Zaya recently changed their bottles from saying “12 years” to now indicating that it is now a blend of 12 aged rums. It’s a clever switch of phrasing that makes marketing departments proud but makes many consumers roll their eyes. Also, and here is the obvious, rum has been talked about as the next big thing for quite a while and hasn’t really taken off. Maybe rum’s popularity as it is now is just where it is going to be. Maybe we have already reached peak rum and we are just fooling ourselves that it is going to keep growing.

Van Winkle Effect:

Does rum have that one big bottle? The one which people will wait in line for, the one which will inspire countless Instagram posts with jealous responses? It just might. The Caroni Rum Distillery has been closed or 15 years. Bottles still pop up from time to time from independent bottlers. This may be more of a correlation to a bottle of A.H. Hirsch than a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, but bottles of this rum seem to pop up and disappear quite quickly.

2. Mezcal

Why It Will Succeed:

Tequila’s funky, and smoky, compadre has been king of the mixology world for a couple years now. Not since the concept of “pre-Prohibition” have we seen such an obvious inspiration for so many new bars. In one Chicago neighborhood alone, I can count at least three new mezcal specific bars that have opened up in the last year. Yet it persists. A few weeks ago my social media feed was full of one friend’s picture of a mezcal flight, another drinking a mezcal old fashioned, and another commenting on the addition of a new bar a block from their apartment. All of this is without mentioning that mezcal has sotol and raicilla, new Mexican spirits, to bolster its rise in the same way that rye whiskey did for bourbon.

Why It Won’t:

The barrier of entry to mezcal knowledge is quite difficult for even the more advanced drinker. The variation on types of plants mezcal can use and the 8 different regions where they can all come from can create a dizzying combination of recipes and styles. While this is a wonderful thing for adventurous drinkers, it limits the amount of direct bottle to bottle comparison and debate over what is the best, which was a key component to the rise of bourbon. While mezcal may be the current king of the cocktail world, that hasn’t quite yet translated over into bottle sales.

Van Winkle Effect:

Del Maguey’s Single Village series seems to be the obvious choice here. They were among the first to push mezcal as something more than just the thing with the worm or scorpion in the bottom of the bottle. Also they fully embraced the extra funk that is the pechuga style of hanging a chicken carcass in the still for some extra gameyness. To be honest though, mezcal is the current and future king of the cocktail world, but it will have a hard time transitioning into actual off-premise consumer sales.

3. Armagnac

Why It Will Succeed:

There is an old adage which states that all old punk singers become country singers. In the same way, all old whiskey drinkers become Armagnac drinkers. It turns out that while Cognac has been all the rage, it has had a southern neighbor which has offered more value for the money all along. While both Cognac and Armagnac are grape brandies, the big difference lies in the use of the Baco and Colombard grapes. Baco is a big deal in terms of difference, it is a grape variety which can only be grown in the Armagnac region and can only be used for distillation. Also, Cognac opts for double distillation while Armagnac goes for single. Just think of Armagnac as Cognac’s rustic cousin. Only in this regard “rustic” means that bottles can be packed with complex and wonderful flavor.

Why It Won’t:

It certainly doesn’t help that the average consumer still has a hard time understanding what Armagnac is. Couple that with the fact that the TV. show Chopped recently referred to Armagnac as an “apple brandy” and you get the idea of the hill this delightful spirit needs to climb.

Van Winkle Effect:

There are stores you can walk into where you can buy a Marquis de Montesquiou Armagnac which was distilled in 1865. Those types of stocks are extremely rare and should instantly spark the attention of any collector. Outside of that you have producers like Chateau de Laubade and Darroze, which have lots to offer that will happily turn heads.

4. Irish Whiskey

Why It Will Succeed:

Irish whiskey has been one of the fastest growing spirit categories in the world over the last few years — mainly because its sales started off so small. What has been a predominantly homogenized category is currently exploding with new offerings. Look no further than the style of single pot still Irish whiskey for a style of whiskey that is unique to the country that started it all. As well, there is no shortage of Jameson drinkers that are looking for something more premium and more unique. For ages all of your Irish whiskey came from one of four distilleries: Midleton, Cooley, Bushmills, and Kilbeggan. Since 2014 there are now 32 running and proposed distilleries in Ireland.

Why It Won’t:

Irish whiskey has a slight image problem. There are many consumers who have for very long looked at it as predominantly for shots. To many whiskey drinkers it can be seen as plain and boring. The heavy influx of new distilleries and producers putting out new and varying products is already starting to combat these attitudes, but it remains more a question of when change will take place.

Van Winkle Effect:

One need look no further than the relative disappearance from shelves of the Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve to see how stocks of older Irish whiskey are becoming squeezed. Releases like the Redbreast Lustau Edition and the Midleton Barry Crocket Edition are helping keep the hype chatter up.

In Conclusion:

Here is the thing with bourbon. Seemingly every major bourbon distillery is expanding in some form, be it actual distilling space or simply just more warehouses to store more barrels. According to some reports, companies like Beam-Suntory are filling almost 500,000 barrels a year, which to us means only one important thing, the big producers don’t see an immediate end in Bourbon’s expansion. In fact they are looking forward to numbers that only continue to grow. And as younger distilleries across the country are able to start bringing new and more mature products to the market the demand will be there.

So yes, maybe it is poor form to say that the next big thing after bourbon is bourbon. But I’m OK with that. Because if it’s something else it will probably be mezcal, or rum, or Armagnac, or Irish whiskey.

Review: Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey Sherry Cask Finished

Luxco’s Limestone Branch Distillery brings us a new sourced product, Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey Sherry Cask Finished, made in honor of Minor Case Beam, grandfather of president Steve Beam and a rye whiskey fanatic back in the day.

There’s not a lot of production info here — it’s MGP rye, but the mashbill isn’t revealed. We do know it is aged for a mere two years, but it’s unclear if that is just the age in the original new oak barrel or if that includes the sherry cask finishing time. Also unknown: what kind of sherry is used for the finishing barrel.

Turns out none of that really matters. This is pretty amazing stuff regardless of its provenance.

The nose is immediately soft and quite approachable — a surprise given the whiskey’s age — with notes of vanilla, butterscotch, caramel, and a side of juicy orange. That’s the sherry talking, and as the whiskey gets some air, those sweet citrus notes really open up to the point where they start to take over. Leading into the palate, again the whiskey is very gentle and easygoing, taking a caramel core and revealing notes of chocolate, smoky bacon, some red fruits, hints of red wine, and — as the finish arises — oranges and tangerines, though here it tends more toward peel than fruit.

Very soothing and supple, it’s a young rye whiskey that drinks a lot like a much older bourbon — the sherry perhaps working to counteract some of that classic rye spice and the brashness that comes with youth — and which offers tons of versatility as well as simple enjoyment.

90 proof.

A- / $50 / limestonebranch.com

Should You Let Your Whisky Breathe?

So now everyone knows that the shape of a glass can radically change the taste of the spirit inside it, right? But are there any other ways to improve the taste of your favorite beverage even further? What about letting your whiskey aerate before drinking, like we do with tannic wines? Does whiskey “open up” the way wine does after exposure to air?

In order to determine if aeration has any noticeable effect on the taste of whiskey, we’ve done another taste test experiment: This time we’ve let the same whiskey sit for three different lengths of time, to compare and contrast how much effect time spent in glass before consumption had on what’s inside. The whisky chosen for this experiment was Balvenie 14 Caribbean Cask, and the glassware used was three Glencairn whisky glasses. We let one glass sit for ten minutes before tasting, one for five minutes, and one for no time at all. How did the whiskey fare in each glass? Read on to find out.

No Resting Time in Glass

Nose: Light, sweet, enticing aromas of honey, white sugar, and white flowers. Balvenie is always a favorite at Drinkhacker HQ for good reason; this is simple but wonderful stuff.

Palate: There’s a very brief rush of bitterness that fades almost instantly, leaving a sugary sweetness that lingers on the tongue. This is almost certainly because of the rum barrels that the whisky is aged in, making this an easy choice for those just getting in to trying whisky.

Five Minutes Resting in Glass

Nose: The honey is still there front and center, but it is now flanked with richer sugar tastes: butterscotch, a standard for whiskies, and the rum barrel comes through this time with a nuanced taste of coconut. Just nosing it, this is far more enticing and interesting than the initial pour.

Palate: Surprisingly, not much different from the initial pour. Though the nose had evolved, the palate remains loaded up with soft sweetness, though perhaps it comes across as a bit more subtle than the first pour. The taste buds at the tip of the tongue are fired up, and the whisky lingers on the tongue for some time.

Ten Minutes Resting in Glass

Nose: We can see a clear line drawn from the first pour to the last: Each pour deepens and enriches the aroma found in the glass. The honey here is rich and sumptuous, the butterscotch is decadent, and the coconut has been replaced by a general tropical fruit scent; subtle, sweet papaya and mango waft through the senses.

Palate: And yet again, on the palate it’s mostly the same story. It’s more subtle still — soft and lightly sweet, not overpowering. Easy to drink and tasty, Balvenie remains a whisky that both novices and aficionados can appreciate, but the core flavor has remained surprisingly consistent over the course of the tasting.

Conclusion

So what can we infer from all of this? Clearly it seems from this simple test that while aeration has an effect on whisky, it’s not as dramatic a change as if it were applied to, say, a heavy, tannic cabernet. The taste of the whisky remained surprisingly consistent from pour to pour; in fact if anything the whisky got lighter and more subtle with time. Where the changes occurred were in the nose, where the aromas got deeper and richer as time went on, and new scents floated up to the top of the glass.

All of this is likely because two contradictory things are happening in the glass as time passes: first, alcohol is evaporating from the glass, as we saw in the glassware taste test. This allows you to more readily access the aromas that are initially hidden by the ethanol fumes (though as we have seen, the right piece of glassware cuts these fumes pretty heavily just to start). Secondly, the water in the whisky is evaporating as well, which actually concentrates the remaining flavors left behind. In just ten minutes, neither of these phenomena are terribly significant in terms of the abv of what’s left in the glass, but clearly the shifting amounts of alcohol in the whisky and the free vapor in the glass open up subtle changes in taste — and more pronounced changes in aroma. These effects would likely be even more dramatic in a higher-proof alcohol, so if our article on bonded whiskey inspired you to pick up a bottle of Old Grand-Dad 100 Proof, trying this experiment with that whiskey will likely produce interesting, potentially exciting results.

To sum up the experiment, letting whisky breathe isn’t as essential as letting wine breathe, but you will find detectable changes on the nose and palate as you let your drink aerate. Hopefully these findings will help you enjoy your preferred whisky even more, and if you decide to do the experiment yourself, let us know in the comments!

Review: Whiskeys of Reservoir Distillery – Bourbon, Rye, Wheat Whiskey, and Gray Ghost

When deciding how to formulate their mashbills, Reservoir Distillery took one of the more unique approaches among craft whiskey-makers. They decided to not use a mashbill. Well, at least not a complicated one. Defying tradition, they concentrated on 100% grain expressions in their line up, all bottled at 100 proof. Their bourbon, for example, is 100% corn. Their rye is 100% rye. You get the idea.

Usually a flavoring grain is an important component, particularly in bourbon, but surprisingly Reservoir has managed to create a flavorful spirit out of just high quality, locally sourced grains and small, heavily charred barrels (no larger than 10 gallons and all with a #5 char). For those that would argue Reservoir’s approach to whiskey-making limits the potential complexity of their whiskey, distillery co-founder Dave Cuttino counters that their technique actually allows them to cater to the entire spectrum of whiskey drinkers by giving them the ingredients to make whatever “mashbill” they prefer (high rye, low rye, wheated, or even a wheated rye).

The potential for in-home blending aside, Reservoir Distillery’s whiskeys stand up just fine on their own. Thoughts follow. (Again, note all are 100 proof.)

Reservoir Bourbon Whiskey – Corn-sweet on the nose with notes of toasted cinnamon, pepper, and gingerbread. It’s bright on the palate and hot; caramel apple and candy corn notes evolve into sweet butter, maraschino cherry, and vanilla on the finish. Underneath the heat, there’s a lot to admire. A- / $45 (375ml)

Reservoir Rye Whiskey – Clearly 100% rye on the nose here with citrus fruit notes all over it. The palate is spicy but not overpowering with layers of bubblegum, cracked black pepper, and some licorice. The finish is warming but a little short. B+ / $45 (375ml)

Reservoir Wheat Whiskey – This may be the most “wheaty” of wheaters. There’s oak, fresh mint, and cinnamon red hots on the nose. The palate is soft despite the proof, with notes of honey, confectioners’ sugar, and vanilla. The finish is syrupy with some slightly grassy notes. B+ / $45 (375ml)

Gray Ghost Whiskey – The Gray Ghost line is a limited release showcasing Reservoir Distillery’s own experiments with different blends. My sample had an effective mashbill of 75% corn, 20% rye, and 5% wheat. It was aged in eight 3-gallon barrels for 3 to 3.5 years, which is exceptionally long for such a small barrel. There’s a slight, but not unpleasant, warehouse funk on the nose, followed by honey and orange marmalade notes. The palate is initially hot and full of cloves, but it develops into a generous finish with cinnamon and toffee notes reminiscent of a much older whiskey. Reviewed: Year 17, Batch 2. A- / $90 (375ml)

reservoirdistillery.com

Review: Virginia Distillery Port Finished Virginia Highland Malt Whisky

Virginia Distillery — which takes authentic single malt from Scotland and finishes it in unique barrels in Virginia — is back with another release, and like its inaugural release, this one finished in Port wine barrels. (Again, note that this expression differs from that first release and carries a different label.) The first Virginia release to carry a batch label (this one’s #3), the malt is finished in Port barrels from King Family Vineyards, Horton Vineyards, and Virginia Wineworks, for 12 to 26 months depending on the particular barrel.

The deep amber color is enticing, leading into a nose that is salty, a bit sweaty even, with hints of seaweed, roasted grains, and banana bread. The nose is a bit floral at times, much like Virginia’s Cider Barrel Matured release, though there’s no real hint of the raisiny Port notes from the finishing barrel.

There’s more evidence of the Port barrel on the palate, but even here it’s quite restrained, allowing more toasty cereal notes, vanilla-heavy barrel char, citrus peel, and hints of iodine to show themselves more fully. The Port influence becomes clearer as the finish approaches, though it takes on a chocolate character primarily, along with some hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. All told, it does bear significant resemblance to the original Virginia bottling, though here everything seems less well-realized, less mature, and generally a bit undercooked. While it’s still got plenty to recommend it, it simply lacks the magic of some of Virginia’s other releases.

92 proof.

B / $58 / vadistillery.com

Review: Michter’s Single Barrel Bourbon 10 Years Old 2017

A new release of Michter’s top-shelf 10 year old single barrel bourbon is here, approved for release by new Master Distiller Pamela Heilmann, who has taken over for Willie Pratt. Same story as always: This is sourced bourbon (from whom, Michter’s doesn’t say), but it is bottled at a full 10 years old, which isn’t something you see too much of these days.

Michter’s 10 year old single barrel is always a whiskey with a lot going on (and plenty to recommend it), and Heilmann has not missed any strides en route to this release. The nose is relatively restrained, offering modest notes of cinnamon red hots and ripe banana, atop a somewhat gentle vanilla/caramel core. The palate is spicier — is there more rye in the bill or is it just me? — with fresh ginger and mint, more of those red hots, and some smoldering, burnt sugar notes that linger for a while. The finish is a bit crunchy with barrel char and a hint of flamed orange peel, but also a touch gummy on the fade-out, sticking a bit uncomfortably to the cheeks.

While the 2015 release is marginally better, this 2017 expression is plenty enjoyable on its own terms.

94.4 proof. Reviewed: Barrel #17B302.

A- / $170 / michters.com

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