Spirits writers like myself tend to ignore the entirety of the flavored spirits market, strolling past aisle after aisle of cartoonishly flavored vodkas, rums and whiskeys each and every time we enter a package store. It’s not surprising that these products don’t really fall onto our radar; our arena is more about nuance, subtlety or exceedingly bold flavors that are achieved through a rather more artisanal process than a bottle of “natural flavor.” And yet, there’s no denying the massive market for flavored vodka or whiskey that has always existed–millions of people are buying these spirits, and they’re not all just college kids, despite what the stereotypes might say. If that were true, a product like banana-flavored whiskey Howler Head wouldn’t have a big-time sponsorship as “the official flavored whiskey of the UFC,” as absurd as that sounds. Folks are guzzling flamboyantly flavored booze on a daily basis, and Howler Head seemingly hopes to find itself in the same arena as the likes of Fireball. And who knows, maybe it will even get there.
This bottle, which recently arrived unbidden to my door, is a masterpiece of tastelessness on a visual front–a screaming monkey with sunglasses, looking like a bored ape NFT procreated with a bottle of Fireball. It is hilariously labeled as Howler Head “Monkey Spirit,” which makes it sound like it’s either liquor intended for monkeys, or something distilled from fermented apes. At the very least, it’s not totally nebulous in terms of its origin: This is legitimate, straight bourbon whiskey, combined with banana flavoring, so it’s not banana liqueur at the very least. Where does the spirit come from, you’re probably wondering? That would be Owensboro, Kentucky’s Green River Distilling, now owned by Bardstown Bourbon Co. We actually quite liked Green River’s recent release of a flagship, 5-year-old wheated bourbon, so that’s something working in Howler Head’s favor–it’s being made with real bourbon, albeit a spirit that is only two years old. That keeps the price point ($20 MSRP) low, as this subgenre of the spirits world demands. It’s bottled at the usual 40% ABV (80 proof).
So with that said, all that’s left is to give this a try and see just how objectionable “banana whiskey” might be.
On the nose, the first thing you’re going to notice is undeniable ripe banana. I will concede that although this note is strong, it’s not quite overpowering or outright unpleasant. Nor does it smack as exceedingly artificial, being more like a bunch of ripe bananas than a pile of banana-flavored candy, at least in my estimation. Underneath the waves of fruit, one can pickup some crisp graininess and corny sweetness, and perhaps some honey-glazed nuttiness. But banana is obviously the thing anyone would be pointing out first.
On the palate, Howler Head immediately threatens to veer into candyland, with sticky sweet, syrupy fruitiness that evokes both the obvious banana/plantain and something oddly more like artificial grape flavor. At the same time, I’m getting intense corny sweetness and fresher grain notes, and tons of demerara sugar. This all gives the resulting whiskey a profile something like banana bread pudding, but even sweeter than the dessert in question. Minutes later, I find myself still tasting sugary banana on my lips.
Looking at this objectively, it’s a bit better than I was expecting, at least in the sense that the banana flavor is indeed blended with a legitimate bourbon background, notes of which you can even taste occasionally. At the same time, though, blog reviews you will see of this stuff calling it “subtly” sweet are pure fiction–it’s as saccharine as any informed consumer would no doubt expect for it to be. The flavors, though, are thankfully not so artificial in their profile as I would have expected, meaning that this does often taste like some sort of real-world banana dessert, just an extremely sweet one.
That alone makes Howler Head stand above some of its other flavored whiskey peers, so that’s a win in my book. With that said, make no mistake: The sugar-addicted American spirits consumer is the intended audience here. Apparently that crosses over with UFC fandom? I guess I’ve seen odder product sponsorships in my day.
Distillery: Wooler Brands (Green River Distilling Co.)
City: Owensboro, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey (flavored)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $20 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.