The dirty little secret of “secondary barrel finishes,” when it comes to the bourbon world, is that they’re often little more than a method to differentiate (and sweeten) a new limited release in the mind of a buyer. It’s one of the easier things a distillery can do to make a release seem novel—hey, we took some whiskey similar to what we usually release, but we stuck it in a port barrel for six months! Or a brandy barrel. Or a rum barrel. Take your pick, and there’s dozens of small distilleries out there trying that tactic at this very moment.
I’ve tasted a fair number of these types of whiskeys, and rarely do they tend to really excite me. Many seem like excuses to just produce syrupy sweet variations upon a distillery’s typical product, as finishing a bourbon on dessert wine or certain styles of spirit often imparts so much residual sugar that the original spirit ends up getting lost along the way. Certainly, there are a few prominently “secondary aged” releases on the market that I’ve always thought were saccharine messes, and for a while that sort of turned me off from the entire category.
There are some distilleries that do this sort of thing well, though, and Bardstown Bourbon Co. tends to be one of them. The eclectic Kentucky bourbon and rye producers have experimented with quite a few wine and spirit-based secondary finishes, and they’ve caught lighting in a bottle a few times, as on last year’s release of Bardstown Bourbon Co. Ferrand, which was finished in cognac casks. And now, I’m happy to report that they’ve done some good work on this front yet again, in the newest entry to the company’s Collaborative Series, Plantation Rum Finish. As the name would imply, this is 10-year-old bourbon (sourced from Tennessee, which almost certainly means Dickel) finished in rum barrels from Plantation. But that’s really only the beginning of the pertinent details.
As something of a rum geek myself, it was particularly interesting to me that this whiskey was finished in some of Plantation’s Jamaican rum barrels, and specifically in barrels that contribute to its Xaymaca Special Dry Jamaican Rum blend (drawn from Clarendon and Long Pond, for the rum geeks). That brand is notable in the Plantation portfolio for being one of its only products without “dosage,” the adding of additional post-distillation sugar, although it still sees the same cognac barrel finishing as other Plantation rum products. Regardless, it makes Xaymaca more of a varietal showcase than most of the Plantation brands, and it struck me as an interesting choice to age this bourbon in a drier, more funk-forward style of Jamaican rum barrel—not exactly what you see from most companies that are attempting this sort of experiment. And as it turns out, I believe these choices paid off.
So with that said, let’s get to tasting this expression, which weighs in at 52% ABV (104 proof).
On the nose, Bardstown’s Plantation Rum finish is sweet and toasty, with more than a little fruit-forward character. I’m reminded of Bit-O-Honey candies in the combination of toffee and almond, paired with brûléed banana (or banana split?) and cinnamon applesauce. At the same time, though, there are hints of complexity beyond the caramelized sugars and fruit, hinting at the grassiness and herbal complexity (a little tobacco) that was possibly imparted by the rum barrel. It’s a rich nose, but with some weight behind it.
On the palate, things take a turn for the distinctly rummy. I’m getting toffee and light molasses, along with lots of fruit—baked apple, pear and dessert banana, supported by a luscious texture and moderate residual sweetness. The rum, though, really begins coming forward with notes of grilled sugar cane, some grassiness and oak tannin, into a finish that comes alive with baking spice and oak. Hints of tropical fruit trail on the finish. The impression is slightly of decadence, but in a way that is still notably restrained. Ethanol heat is much the same story—substantial, but yet the whiskey still drinks very easily despite it. There’s a curious collection of contrasts here.
What I quite like about this release, though, is that the nature of this finishing barrel feels very clear and singular. I’ve tasted some rum barrel-finished bourbons that tend to evoke a general sweetness, or an overload of caramelized sugars, but that’s not this Bardstown release. Rather, this one speaks to an authentic “rumminess” that is often absent, possibly contributed by the relatively higher-ester rums that spent time in this barrel. Regardless, this release avoids the emerging cliches of a rum-finished bourbon, while doing a nice job of conveying novelty. It might even be enough to get a whiskey obsessive to try drinking something other than bourbon, but I’m not holding my breath.
Distillery: Bardstown Bourbon Co.
City: Bardstown, KY
Style: Tennessee bourbon
ABV: 52% (104 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $160 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.