This far into the American microdistillery renaissance, we’re almost reached a point in time where one can expect your average small city to be home to at least one award-winning distiller. As it was for American craft beer, urban centers and even small towns have become hotbeds for distillation, and as the market begins to mature, more and more of those distilleries have well-aged whiskeys to show off. No longer is the microdistillery market so defined by young companies trying to hawk bottles of moonshine and white whiskey—many of them are now packing bottled-in-bond bourbons, or something equivalent.
In Michigan, one of the more prominent has become Traverse City Whiskey Co., a northwoods distillery in a small city on the Grand Traverse Bay, which empties out into Lake Michigan. Blessed with the same limestone waters that make Kentucky an ideal whiskey distilling region, Traverse City’s extreme temperature swings likewise make it a potentially ideal place for whiskey aging, which the company has taken advantage of for the last half decade. Now, with a growing lineup of releases that includes classic bourbons and barrel proof expressions, along with influence from the city’s reputation as the “Cherry Capital of the World,” they’re expanding their sights and sending their whiskey farther from home than ever before. That includes to Paste, where we received a tasting lineup of all five Traverse City Whiskey Co. releases, so a full-on tasting seemed to be in order.
So with no further ado, let’s get to it.
Traverse City Whiskey Co. Straight Bourbon XXX Whiskey
The “XXX” certainly conjures something of a frontier vibe for this bourbon, which labels itself as being aged “three years or more,” although I hear it’s now closer to four. It’s made with a high-rye mashbill (25% rye, pretty substantial), bottled at 86 proof (same as the base Old Forester) and carries an MSRP around $35, which is pretty fair, for a craft bourbon with at least three years of age on it.
On the nose, this is caramel rich and corny sweet, with a touch of vanilla. It evokes some light sweetness and smells fairly classic in terms of profile, with hints of char and roasted nuts—slightly Beam-esque, even.
On the palate, this could absolutely pass as a Kentucky bourbon, which is interesting. I get caramel corn and a little bit of peanut shells and roasted pecan nuttiness, complemented by hot cinnamon candies. There’s some green oak as well, but this one isn’t very oak-influenced. Notably, it strikes me as a bit hot on the palate for the mere 86 proof, with a lingering burn in the back of the throat, but a good classic bourbon palate. Overall not bad, although it seems a bit overly hot for that relatively modest proof.
Traverse City Whiskey Co. Port Barrel Finish
This is the same Traverse City Whiskey Co. flagship bourbon, given an extra four months of aging in port casks, presumably in the hopes of capturing some of that same character that has made port-finished bourbons like Angel’s Envy popular.
On the nose, I’m now picking up some plummy fruit notes. Caramel is also present, but the caramelized sugar/nuttiness of the base whiskey has been reduced a bit and it’s become more fruit forward, with jammy notes of dark fruit.
On the palate, this bourbon proves to be infused with those port flavors in a way that is perhaps more subtle than the average drinker might expect. I get notes of blackberry and plum, and a bit of cinnamon candy, but this isn’t too sweet, treacly or syrupy overall; only slightly moreso than in the original bourbon, with a honeycomb note that is quite pleasant. The nuttiness has receded, but there’s a graininess to this younger bourbon that the port barrels seem to accentuate a bit, giving it an overall impression of “biscuits with jam.” All in all, I do appreciate the way that the port barrel aging has tamed the heat of the original bourbon in particular.
Traverse City Whiskey Co. North Coast Rye Whiskey
It’s a little bit more difficult to suss out the provenance of this whiskey, as it reads that it is a blend of two ryes: One that is 100% rye, and one that is 95% rye, 5% malted barley. That makes me assume that Traverse City has distilled one of the two (presumably the 100%) and then blended it with another, sourced whiskey, with MGP of Indiana always being the most likely supplier for this sort of thing. Regardless, this one bears no age statement on the label but is apparently three years old, and is bottled at a slightly higher 90 proof (45% ABV). It’s a pretty familiar package, as there is a lot of similarly young rye on the market from microdistilleries, often at a roughly similar proof and price point (around $40 MSRP).
On the nose, this one is certainly brighter than the bourbons I was tasting before, and announces itself as a rye whiskey quite clearly. There’s a whole lot of rye spice, and it’s very rye bread on the nose, like a slice of Chicago rye, with notes of pepper and caramel apples.
On the palate this is a classic example of modern, high-rye whiskey, with vivacious notes of rye bread, grainy flavors and lots of peppery spice, giving way slowly to notes of apple fruit, mint and fennel seed in the finish. Those familiar with other high-rye whiskeys of similar age will find this very familiar and likely welcome—certainly, it’s up my alley, and would presumably work as a mixer in any classic cocktail that calls for rye. it’s not the most bombastic young rye on the market, but it certainly delivers on the pepper and rye grain-forward flavor profile.
Traverse City Whiskey Co. American Cherry Edition
Given that Traverse City styles itself as the “Cherry Capital of the World,” a cherry whiskey was an inevitability, and I can only imagine that it’s probably a point of local pride and very popular in the distillery’s hometown. As for myself, I came into this tasting fully expecting to find this one as a syrupy abomination, but in truth it’s actually sort of interesting.
On the nose, to be sure, American Cherry Edition smells like it’s going to taste like a medicine bottle. The Montmorency cherry notes are not the kind of thing you could miss, falling somewhere in character between artificial cherry candy flavoring the rich fruit syrup you find in a jar of Luxardo cocktail cherries. Underneath the cherry, however, I get an unexpectedly strong note of cocoa and caramel, which really makes the dram as a whole smell quite like a classic cherry Tootstie Pop. Given that those are actually one of my favorite Halloween treats, I ultimately found the idea oddly enticing.
On the palate, this one is syrupy in texture despite the lower ABV (35%, 70 proof), but actually isn’t all that overtly sweet or sugary. There’s a flash of sweetness on the front of the palate, with a combination of toasted bread, cocoa and juicy cherry, but the flavor profile then fades surprisingly quickly toward a dry-ish finish. The graininess of the base bourbon seems to be amplified here, but the cocoa note again evokes that cherry Tootsie Pop. All in all, this wasn’t the sticky sweet, cordial-like drink I was expecting, and it’s clearly better for it. With that said, it’s still more of a novelty than anything, but at least it’s a palatable one.
Traverse City Whiskey Co. Barrel Proof Bourbon
This one notes that it was aged for “more than four years” and bottled at full barrel proof, which on this particular sample bottle was 116.6 proof (58.3% ABV). That suggests the barrel proof specimens may be a touch older than the 86 proof flagship bourbon bottles, but they’re certainly much stronger.
This dram certainly feels like a barrel proof expression from the first, with a very caramel and molasses-forward nose, accented by spices that remind me slightly of root beer. It has a slightly “burnt” quality to the nose that suggests very dark caramel sauce, and a considerably oakier presence to the nose as well.
On the palate, this one is sort of all over the place, with competing notes each striving for your attention. It’s grain-forward, but at the same time also more oak-forward than the standard bourbon, with a tannic dryness imparted by the wood and a slightly bitter edge to the heat. After sitting out for a few minutes, things change—a buttery caramel corn note comes forward and the whiskey reads as considerably more rich, which balances the more astringent notes from the oak. That deep, dark caramel is a major player, and there’s some vanilla, along with some sweet baking spices—the high-rye recipe seems more pronounced here to me, but the oaky astringency feels more indicative of something aged considerably longer than four years. It seems likely that the Michigan climate definitely had a hand here in speeding up the whiskey’s maturation.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.