One of the aspects of the independent distillery scene that I find consistently fascinating is the exceedingly different routes that various distillers ultimately take to the same goal. Everyone wants to eventually end up with their own, home-distilled product sitting in a place of honor on store shelves—or almost everyone, anyway—but the start-up time for a brand new distillery is of course prohibitive to accomplishing this quickly. As a result, many young distilleries source well-aged whiskey from elsewhere. Bardstown, KY’s Bardstown Bourbon Co., on the other hand, does that and so much more besides.
Beginning their distilling operation in 2016, Bardstown’s primary business to date has actually been contract distilling and selling their young stock to a wide variety of brands, for use in whiskey blends. Brands such as Jefferson’s, Calumet Farm, Bird Dog, High West Whiskey, Straight Edge, Chicken Cock, James E. Pepper 1776, Kentucky Owl and Belle Meade have all done business with Bardstown, despite the fact that the company’s oldest house-distilled product is only two years of age at the moment. But at the same time, Bardstown has also been acquiring older stock from other Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey distilleries, both to blend with their own stock and sell apart from anything they’ve produced in house. The results are intriguing, with three products to date that all illustrate an intense interest in the esoteric art of blending.
We were recently able to sample all three products released by Bardstown Bourbon Co. to date, so we’ll use this tasting to illustrate the ways that each is unique.
The recently released Discovery Series #1 is perhaps the most familiar type of offering to those who have seen plenty of sourced Kentucky bourbon releases, although things are complicated by the fact that this is a blend of four different Kentucky straight bourbons, ranging in age from 5 to 13 years old. More specifically, and because Bardstown gives exact details on their website (major brownie points for this, guys), we can tell you exactly what’s in it:
— 75% relatively high-rye (18%), 11 year old Kentucky bourbon.
— 10% each of what would appear to be the same bourbon (in terms of mash bill), aged 10 years and 5 years.
— 5% bourbon that is 13 years old, for a subtle hint of “extra age,” presumably.
The distilleries aren’t listed, in typical Kentucky fashion, but it’s certainly nice to see percentages and mashbills for the whiskey geeks in the audience, in which we certainly qualify. With this pedigree, we’d expect a nicely complex bourbon, well-aged bourbon, seeing as more than 80% of the whiskey is more than 10 years old. It sort of has to be, in order to justify an admittedly steep $129.99 MSRP—then again, it is 121.2 proof. So, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, Discovery #1 is heavily oaked, with a combination of dusty/charred tones that are lifted by notes of flamed orange peel, licorice and caradamom spice. It’s a classic Kentucky bourbon nose you wouldn’t mistake for anything else, but the preponderance of oak has me a little bit concerned.
On the palate, the 121.2 proof makes itself felt, with a rush of hot cinnamon candy and heavy oak throughout. This is quite potent, and actually fairly dry for the proof, with a leathery/old wood quality that lingers in an extremely long finish that is slightly astringent. I felt like there were multitudes here that I wasn’t quite able to get to, past the proof, so I added a little bit of water at this point and was quite impressed with the transformed spirit I tasted next. Suddenly, much more sweet caramel comes through, cutting through the old oak and revealing more stone fruit and spice notes at the same time. Round and still quite full-bodied on the palate, even after the water, it doesn’t lose its Kentucky hug sensation in the chest, while amplifying spice notes of cinnamon and rich, buttery toffee to become quite an enjoyable spirit indeed. One might hope for the spirit to present in a slightly more palatable way without the dilution, especially in an age when many whiskey geeks only seem interested in drinking neat, barrel-proof, non-chill-filtered drams, but this is one case where a bit of water helps to reveal a classic bourbon experience.
This is the first in the distillery’s “Collaborative Series,” which sees them taking sourced spirit from one distillery—this one is a 9-year-old Tennessee whiskey—and finishing it in a uniquely disparate style of barrel. In this case, the whiskey was put into Phifer Pavitt Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon barrels for 19 months, which is certainly clear to look at it—the result is a very striking shade of red you’d never achieve from oak alone. Like the Discovery #1, this is being marketed as a decidedly premium priced product, with an MSRP of $124.99.
On the nose, this is really quite interesting. Round, fruity-sweet and without any edges at all, it almost suggests an American single malt whiskey. Vanilla and toasted, more mild oakiness than was present in the Discovery #1 play nicely here with hints of dark fruit jam, although it’s not quite so assertively fruity as one might expect from the color.
On the palate, this is a very smooth, sweet and crowd-pleasing sort of dram. Light caramel meets with cinnamon sugar and gingersnap cookies, with hints of brown sugar and toasted bread. The fruit notes are there, but once again they’re actually more subtle than I was expecting—there are some notes of stewed plums and jam, but you couldn’t mistake this for any kind of “fruited” or fruit-flavored whiskey, unless the color threw you off. It’s sweet and slightly syrupy in texture, although not over the top, with a finish that suggests maple syrup. I have a feeling that if you reduced this, it would be rather awesome on ice cream.
All in all, it’s a neat little diversion, although I expect there would probably be some who would want the wine barrels to show up even more assertively.
Whereas the first entry in the Discovery Series was presumably meant to illustrate the skill of the people at Bardstown in blending the sourced bourbon of others, this one is meant to highlight their ability to combine their own distilled whiskey with sourced bourbon. This one breaks down to 60% Bardstown product and 40% sourced bourbon (at 98.9 proof), in the following fashion:
— 42% high-rye, 2-year-old Bardstown bourbon
— 18% wheated, 2-year-old Bardstown bourbon
— 40% sourced, 11-year-old Kentucky bourbon—probably the same whiskey that makes up 75% of the Discovery #1.
It’s an interesting tack, to combine high-rye bourbon and wheated bourbon within the same bottle, given that the two typically represent specific attempts to achieve profiles that are radically different from one another. It’s also interesting that you get a fairly high percentage of well-aged stock in the bottle, given that the MSRP of $59.99 is considerably more inviting than the $129.99 of the Discovery #1. After tasting, my initial thoughts are confirmed: This is certainly the best pure value of the three Bardstown offerings, which makes sense.
On the nose, this comes off like more classic Kentucky bourbon, with notes of caramel apple/apple pie spice and plenty of candied ginger. It’s fairly sweet on its initial entry on the palate, with a rush of cinnamon sugar spice that then moves into an interesting malt body with elements of “biscuity” and “doughy”—the wheated mashbill making its presence felt, despite being the smallest portion of the three whiskeys that went into Fusion Series #1. The wood character likewise suggests both the young barrels (sawdust, freshly cut lumber) and well-aged stock (old oak, leather), while the heat stays respectable throughout. All in all, this is a pretty nicely complex and slightly sweeter than average offering, with wheated bourbon influences that give it an impression of “shortbread cookie,” followed by a long, spicy finish—lots of ginger on this one as well. All around, pretty tasty, and certainly the best deal of the bunch in terms of price.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.