There’s no shortage of American whiskey on the market these days that can boast secondary barrel maturation, whether that’s being finished in wine or port barrels, or re-barreled into freshly charred oak. This trend has extended to the craze for “toasted” barrels, which can be deceptive, as some are simply toasted (never charred) and then used to finish a spirit, while others are toasted and then charred to various levels. Other distilleries have been using toasted-and-then-charred barrels all along, making this less a fad and more the way they’ve always done business. Regardless, most of the major Kentucky bourbon producers have no experimented with something “toasted” at one point or another.
One of the most interesting (and I think successful) experiments, though, has been carried out by the small bottler known as Buzzard’s Roost, now based out of the facility of Bardstown Bourbon Co., which is where their product undergoes its secondary maturation. Buzzard’s Roost is a non-distiller producer that has specialized in taking moderately aged rye whiskey (and now bourbon) from MGP of Indiana, before then finishing it in their own proprietary barrels. They’re doing something akin to what many other companies have done, but they’re arguably doing it better than even some of the biggest competitors in the field. In the process, I think Buzzard’s Roost may have illustrated one of the best ways to utilize both toasted and lightly charred barrels.
The first bourbon product from Buzzard’s Roost is titled simply Barrel Strength Straight Bourbon, and is as it sounds—a blend of 4 to 6-year-old, MGP bourbons from two different high-rye mashbills, presented at cask strength of 57.2% ABV (114.4 proof). The key, though, as with all Buzzard’s Roost whiskeys, is the secondary maturation, which is carried out in the company’s proprietary barrels. These barrels have received a custom toast profile, and are then charred very lightly, to the rarely used char level #1. Most bourbon, meanwhile, spends the majority of its maturation in barrels at char level #3 or #4. Barrels then undergo a secondary maturation for an unstated amount of time, typically less than 9 months. The stated MSRP is $85.
To be frank: The idea of “toasted” barrels and toasted whiskeys is one that I’ve often found more compelling in theory than in practice. Distilleries typically seem to market these whiskeys by saying that the toasted barrels draw out more spicy or confectionery nuance, but in many cases I’ve found that they seem to add more unpleasant tannin or bitterness than anything else. This has made me a bit wary of releases featuring toasted or lightly charred barrels from some of my favorite distilleries, but Buzzard’s Roost, on the other hand, has seemingly tapped into a way to get the best out of these barrels.
On the nose of this bourbon, I’m presented with a novel combination of both youthful and more aged influences. Fresh baked cornbread intertwines with light caramel and delicate spices (cinnamon, anise), along with whiffs of sawdust, cocoa powder and bramble fruit. There’s also a slightly more savory, dried herbaceousness, and the lack of potent ethanol sting allows all these to be sussed out in a nose that isn’t extremely potent in terms of its overall intensity. It’s a complex, subtle nose.
On the palate, the proof shows up in a bigger way, appropriate to the roughly 115 proof. This is really quite spicy, reflecting both the rye spice of the MGP bourbon recipes and a warm, spicy oak that very much suggests the baking spice box qualities one usually gets out of French oak in the wine world. There’s a lot of oak on the palate, but it takes on an unusually lighter, toastier dimension, though it does contribute moderate levels of tannin. This more drawing quality pairs nicely with notes of dark fruit, more than a little caramel and vanilla, tobacco and dried herbs—it reads as sweet up front, but then increasingly drying on the back end. Some might find this to be too spicy, or too tannic, but in my opinion this is a very successful experiment.
The proprietary process being employed by Buzzard’s Roost simply seems to draw some great impressions out of the quality whiskey they’re working with, be it MGP rye or bourbon. It also helps to justify higher MSRPs, as Buzzard’s Roost can accurately claim to be producing a product that is noticeably novel, in a market that is full of NDPs sourcing whiskey from the same providers. This is one of the few instances when toasted barrels and low char levels legitimately seem to be delivering the flavors they promise to deliver, and I very much appreciate the way this company is driving the segment forward.
Distillery: Buzzard’s Roost
City: Louisville, KY
Style: Straight bourbon (secondary cask matured)
ABV: 57.2% (114.4 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $85 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.