Old Elk Wheated Bourbon

Maker: Old Elk Distillery, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

Distiller: MGPI, Lawrenceburg, Indiana, USA

Style: High wheat straight bourbon (51% corn, 45% wheat, 4% malt)

Age: 5 y/o

Proof: 92 (46% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $67

Appearance: Medium copper

Nose: Cassia, star anise, powdered ginger, oak, alcohol.

Palate: Sweet and spicy. Cinnamon, allspice.

Finish: Cola, cinnamon rolls.

Parting words: Old Elk is an NDP/Micro-distillery located in Fort Collins, CO run by Master Distiller Greg Metze, who was chief distiller at MGPI for 38 years. Those years included the ones that saw it rise from an obscure industrial distillery to a famous (and somewhat infamous) bulk and custom whiskey producer that fueled the explosive growth in independent bottlers in the US, and the rye boom.

The big wheaters on the market, currently, those made by Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Maker’s Mark all trace their recipes back to the bourbons made at the legendary Stizel-Weller distillery in Louisville. While there are differences betweeen them, they have more in common than not.

This wheater is different. It’s the first high wheat bourbon I’ve ever purchased, and boy is it high. It’s 6 percentage points away from being a wheat whiskey. It has a bit of the “biscuity” quality of wheat whiskeys, but its primary characteristic is spice. Specifically what is often called baking or Christmas spice. It’s truly a unique product in the world of bourbon.

Old Elk has a few sharp points, but at 5 years old, that’s to be expected. $67 is too expensive for a 5 y/o, 92 proof bottling from a major distillery, but I’m willing to give it a pass, given how unique and well-crafted it is. I would really like to see the age go up and the price go down, but even as it is, Old Elk Wheated Bourbon is recommended.

A brief word on the bottle itself. The label and shape of the bottle is elegant, but I don’t like how heavy it is. We’re in the midst of a global climate crisis. Heavy bottles=more fuel needed to move them=higher carbon emissions. It’s (past) time to dump the heavy bottles.

Thomas S. Moore, Cabernet Sauvignon cask finish

Maker: Barton 1792, Bardstown, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)

Style: Rye-recipe bourbon finished in Cabernet Sauvignon casks.

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 95.3 (47.65% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $70

Appearance: Ruddy brown.

Nose: Overdone cherry pie, particle board, alcohol, anise.

Palate: Full bodied. Cherry juice, oak, then burn.

Finish: Cherry vanilla ice cream, alcohol.

Parting words: Sazerac has done a lot with the Barton distillery in Bardstown since they purchased the distillery from Constellation in 2009. The latest thing is the Thomas S. Moore line of wine barrel finished bourbons.

I’m not a purist when it comes to finished bourbon. I think a finish can be a nice addition to bourbon when applied judiciously and when the underlying bourbon is good quality. Fortified wine finishes are pretty common with whiskeys of all kinds, so I thought I’d try the Cab Sauv finish first. The finish adds some fun, fruity notes, but they’re quickly overcome by an underlying unrefined harshness. Water reduces the heat, but the harshness remains. It reminds me of going to my senior prom. I was wearing a tux and a sporting a fresh haircut, but underneath I was the same crude, rude teen.

If this were $20 cheaper, this harshness might be easier to overlook or I could write it off as an interesting mixer, but $70 is serious money for a bourbon from a major distiller. Sazerac can do better than this.

While I’m at it, I might as well mention the bottle and label, which are worse than what’s inside. The two tone horse picture, disjointed graphic design, and ugly, generic bottle, makes Thomas S. Moore look more like a prop from a mid-century movie set than a 21st century high-end bourbon.

Thomas S. Moore, Cabernet Sauvignon cask finish is not recommended.

1792 Bottled in Bond

Maker: Barton 1792, Bardstown, Kentucky, USA (Sazerac)

Style: High malt (?) bonded bourbon.

Age: At least four years old (all from one distilling season).

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $38

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Roasted corn, sweet malt, cayenne powder.

Palate: Cola, alcohol. With water. Caramel, cola, less burn.

Finish: Sweet and custardy. Sweet cola (yes again) with melted ice cubes.

Parting words: For many years, the Bottled-in-Bond category was a guarantee of quality among American whiskeys. Then, when I was getting into the hobby, it was most common as a sign of a good value. The pendulum has swung back a bit these days and premium bonds are making a comeback. The new, pricey Old Fitzgerald and Heaven Hill BiBs, Henry McKenna, and now 1792.

I like the standard expression well enough, and I have really enjoyed the single barrel and barrel strength editions I’ve had. Sadly, the Bottled-in-Bond doesn’t live up to those. It’s not bad, it’s just not enough of an improvement on the Small Batch to warrant $8 more dollars and the hard work of trying to locate a bottle. Ironically, it may be hampered by being bonded and restricted to one distilling season. There’s a lack of complexity that the addition of older bourbon might be able to fix.

1792 Bottled-in-Bond is only mildly recommended.

Wyoming Whiskey Private Stock, Red Wagon selection

Maker: Wyoming Whiskey, Kirby, Wyoming, USA.

Style: Wheat recipe bourbon.

Age: 5 y/o (according to paragraph on back label)

Proof: 107.72 (53.86% ABV)

Selected for Red Wagon stores, Troy & Rochester, Michigan, USA.

Barrel #4743

Michigan state minimum: $60

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Oak, alcohol, custard.

Palate: Medium bodied and sweet. Caramel, brown sugar, candy cake decorations, then burn. With water: Even sweeter with more oak, but with less burn, obviously.

Finish: Clean and hot. With water: blondies, oak.

Mixed: Outstanding in classic cocktails, Kentucky mule, and even with cola or ginger ale.

Parting words: During the first wave of micro-distillers there were a lot of distilleries making bourbon who were trying to find shortcuts to get product on the market as soon as possible. They resorted to gimmicks like weird grains, small barrels, magical cave water, historical fiction, overpowering finishes, ill-conceived technologies (eg TerrePure®) and flat-out lies to try to ride the bourbon wave to profitability. I grew very tired of these cheesy “craft” distilleries very quickly.

There were a few micro-distilleries that seemed to be committed to doing things the “right” way, though. They used full-sized barrels, planned on aging the whiskey properly, used unique but not gimmicky recipes, and, most importantly, they hired people who knew that they were doing. It was clear from the beginning that Wyoming Whiskey is in that second category, so I made a mental note to watch for their bourbon on shelves. A few months ago, I was perusing Red Wagon’s Rochester location and to my delight I saw a Wyoming Whiskey selection in an in-store display! I grabbed it and brought it home.

I have to admit that I was disappointed at first sip. There was a strong wood varnish note that was very off-putting neat, so I laid off the bottle for a while after that. The next time I poured from it I used it in a Manhattan and it was great. Next I tried an Old Fashioned and it was even better. By the time I tried it neat again, it had blossomed into a beautiful, classic, but still distinctive, wheater. Now I can’t wait to try some more selections and I’m fantasizing about possible future releases with ages in the double digits.

Anyway, I like this bourbon a lot, obviously. I’m less of a fan of the price, but factoring in the high proof, wheat recipe, age and the usual micro-mark-up, I think $60 is a fair, though more than that might be pushing it. Wyoming Whiskey Private Stock, Red Wagon selection is recommended.

Rare Breed

Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA

Style: Standard recipe straight bourbon.

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 116.8 (58.4% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: $45

Appearance: Dark copper.

Nose: Leather, black pepper, grape soda.

Palate: Full-bodied and sweet, then hot chile, caramel, grape jelly. Similar with water, but more corn syrup than caramel.

Finish: Hot with leather, chipotle powder. Sweeter with water.

Parting words: Oddly enough, it seems like I have never reviewed Rare Breed for this blog! I’m as shocked as you are.

For many years, Rare Breed was one of my favorite barrel proof bourbons. Then the quality at Wild Turkey began to slip and I nearly stopped buying Wild Turkey products altogether. Thankfully, the distillery has rebounded (getting a bigger, more productive distillery helped) and I’ve starting buying Wild Turkey again.

I’m glad I did, too. While this Rare Breed is not as good as the bottles from the mid and late 1990s, it’s well-balanced and powerful with the classic Wild Turkey profile. Prices on NAS barrel proof selections are absurdly high these days, often outweighing any value to be gained from buying less water, with spirit acquired from who knows where. With Rare Breed, you can rest assured that you’re not buying crap and you’re getting more than just a less watered down version of the flagship product.

Rare Breed is a classic bourbon that has returned to form. It is recommended.

Yellowstone Select: Holiday Market single barrel selection

Maker: Limestone Branch, Lebanon, Kentucky, USA (Luxco)

Distiller(s): Undisclosed

Style: Standard recipe, single barrel bourbon.

Selected: June 14, 2019

Barrel 7166842

Age: 4 y/o

Proof: 93 (46.5% ABV

Michigan State Minimum: $40

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: Roasted peanuts, Caribbean chilies, sawdust.

Palate: Full bodied. Dark chocolate peanut butter cups, burn.

Finish: Peanut brittle, alcohol.

Parting words: Yellowstone is an old brand with an interesting history. If you’re interested in that history, I would recommend entering Yellowstone Bourbon into a search engine it or buying a bourbon book that talks about it.

What matters for our purposes is that the Yellowstone brand is now owned by Luxco and made by their microdistillery, Limestone Branch. Limestone Branch was founded and is still run by Stephen Beam, a man with equally long and interesting roots in the distilling families of Kentucky.

Although the plan (I think) is for Yellowstone to eventually be made entirely at Limestone Branch and recreate the taste of old Yellowstone bourbon, it is currently selected from sourced Kentucky bourbon. And it’s selected well.

Holiday Market’s Yellowstone Select is much richer that most four year old bourbons. It is pretty peanutty, but I like peanuts so that’s a good thing to me. It coats the tongue and makes a bold sipper, and also serves as a good mixer for classic cocktails.

I really like this bourbon and I’m very excited for its future. Holiday Market’s Yellowstone Select is recommended.

Longbranch

Maker: Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, USA (Campari)

Style: Straight, standard recipe bourbon “refined” in oak and Texas (!) mesquite charcoal.

Celebrity: Matthew McConaughey

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o, but hang tag says 8 y/o)

Proof: 86 (43% ABV)

Michigan state minimum: $40

Parting words: Since the invention of what we now call bourbon, humanity has been asking one question: What if you took aged Wild Turkey and filtered it through oak and then Texas (as opposed to Mexican, I guess) mesquite charcoal? Thanks to Eddie Russell and movie star Matthew McConaughey, we now know the answer.

The process seems to be similar to the one behind Dickel Rye. Standard Dickel and Jack Daniels filter their whiskey before it goes into the barrel, which I don’t think they’re doing here, but the internet has not been particularly clear on this.

The target market seems to be the bougie casual bourbon drinker who isn’t a fan of assertive, high proof whiskeys (what Wild Turkey is known for) and values “smoothness” but still wants flavor and a fancy-looking bottle. In other words, Basil Hayden and Woodford Reserve drinkers. But why shouldn’t Wild Turkey have a share of that market?

At any rate, there’s nothing not to like about Longbranch. The price is even reasonable for Celeb Whiskey. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as fellow Texan Willie Nelson’s Old Whiskey River (a collaboration with Heaven Hill), but it’s still all right, all right, all right.

I apologize.

Longbranch is recommended.

Old Tub

Maker: Jim Beam, Claremont/Boston, Kentucky, USA (Beam Suntory)

Style: Standard recipe, bonded bourbon.

Age: NAS (at least 4 y/o)

Proof: 100 (50% ABV)

Michigan State Minimum: Not listed but available in the state. $30ish?

Appearance: Medium copper.

Nose: That mixed peanut butter and jelly stuff.

Palate: Alcohol, burnt peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Finish: burnt peanut brittle.

Mixed: Fine mixed, but plenty of better, cheaper, options for mixers.

Parting words: Beam was on a hot streak for a while but that streak seems to have ended here with Old Tub. The name was the original name of what’s now Jim Beam bourbon. It was first produced in 1880 by David Beam’s distillery, and became the flagship bourbon of the new Jim Beam distillery after prohibition. The name was changed to Jim Beam in 1943 to honor Jim, who passed away a few years later.

I think I get what they’re going for here, and I like the idea, but I don’t think it ends up being something worth buying, other than as an objet d’art. I like Bonded Beam, but I don’t like this. Old Tub is not recommended.