Tasting: 2 Whiskeys From Never Say Die (Bourbon, Rye)

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Tasting: 2 Whiskeys From Never Say Die (Bourbon, Rye)

It’s an unfortunate reality of opening a spirits company in this day and age that you’d probably want to come up with a marketing hook before actually thinking about a product lineup. Quality liquid in the bottle is a must, certainly, but you’ll never get the average consumer to take the plunge and try your product if you don’t have some kind of story to sell them. I can only imagine that when the creators of Never Say Die whiskeys were mulling over this concept, they told themselves that they would simply find the right whiskey at the end of the day to fit their story. And I suppose they have, regardless of its provenance.

Never Say Die is a new brand of bourbon and rye whiskey, sourced like so many others from Kentucky, but this is where the commonalities end. Founders David Wild and Pat Madden, being inspired by the life story of an unlikely champion racehorse, decided to make an American whiskey product that would emulate that horse’s journey. And because Never Say Die traveled across the sea to win the high-stakes Epsom Derby in the summer of 1954, they figured that their whiskey should follow suit, crossing the ocean by ship to come to rest for additional aging in the U.K.

This of course begs the question of what kind of effect this sort of gimmick actually has on the liquid involved. There have been other American whiskeys on the market that have made ship transit part of their story/gimmick, such as Jefferson’s Ocean, with the occasional suggestion that the movement of a ship would help the spirit inside the barrels interact with the wood. American bourbon and rye, meanwhile, are rarely if ever aged in the cooler climate of the U.K., so that really is fairly unexplored territory. This setting tends to slow down the aging process, so one has to question how much it ultimately contributes to the product’s flavor profile. It’s more commonly seen in the world of rum, where some companies split maturation between tropical aging in hot environments and additional aging (or secondary cask finishes) in the U.K.

Never Say Die doesn’t advertise the specific source of their whiskey, but at the same time they seem to go out of their way to drop bread crumbs that would allow sharp-eyed whiskey geeks to figure it out for themselves. They say it’s made using proprietary mash bills and yeast strains, but that it’s a sweet mash, and even state that it hails from “a partner distillery 30 miles south of Lexington.” Considering that location and the fact that relatively few larger American distilleries employ a sweet mash process, my own educated guess would be that this spirit hails from Wilderness Trail Distillery. But that’s just a guess. What we know for sure is that it’s aged roughly five years in the U.S. before crossing the sea, to the White Peaks Distillery in Derbyshire, where it’s finished with another year of maturation. Currently, the company is selling small batch and cask strength bourbon, along with a pretty stout, 105 proof rye whiskey.

So with that said, let’s get to tasting these two core expressions.

Never Say Die Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey

ABV: 47.5% (95 proof)
MSRP: $70

Never Say Die Small Batch Bourbon is, as we stated above, a roughly mid-aged bourbon that spends 5-7 years in Kentucky before its additional year abroad in the U.K., before being proofed down to a moderately approachable 95 proof. The MSRP of $70 certainly feels like it has factored in at least some of the costs of its transit, for better or worse, considering the strength and age statement. It’s from a mash bill of 75% corn, 21% rye and 4% malted barley.

On the nose, first impressions here are of caramel and orange cream/creamsicle, with clove spice, butterscotch, pepper and drier cocoa powder. There’s a slightly grassy-like characteristic to it too, which I feel is likely a rye-forward characteristic. Pretty classic Kentucky bourbon notes.

On the palate, this actually does lean into the rye of the mash bill a fair amount, with sweet herbal notes, lots of rye spice, mint, pepper and some roasted oak. These notes are supported by sweeter, warm butterscotch and green caramel apple, but it continues to drift back in the direction of lingering rye spice. Sweetness overall is fairly mild, supplementing the rye-forward impressions. It’s an interesting, drier dimension of Kentucky bourbon.

Never Say Die Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey

ABV: 52.5% (105 proof)
MSRP: $85

The rye whiskey expression from Never Say Die comes from a unique mash bill of 56% rye, 33% corn and 11% malted barley, being notable for its pretty sturdy 105 proof. Combined with the moderate age statement, the elevated proof point arguably makes this feel like a slightly better value on paper than the bourbon, even though it’s somewhat more expensive.

On the nose, this one leads off with dark toasted rye bread and pepper, but the nose overall is a little more muted than you would expect for a higher-ABV dram. The ethanol is impressively integrated here, because nosing this blind I would never think that it was anywhere near 105 proof. Over time, it opens up more with some very dark, dried fruit notes and floral vanilla, but it’s still not the most assertive nose at the end of the day.

The palate, on the other hand, unveils itself in a less mysterious manner. Here I’m getting both expressive spice and fruit, with bold rye spice and herbal notes of mint, pine and anise melding with pear fruit and brighter citrus. There’s a long-lingering pepper that is slightly prickly in nature, almost Sichuan-esque, while subtle tannin dries out each sip a little bit, in a way that is ultimately pleasant. This ultimately makes for a pretty solid cocktail rye with a few layers of flavor, and I imagine that Never Say Die would mix up a pretty solidly flavorful Manhattan from this bottle. Of the two expressions, the rye ultimately captures more of my imagination here.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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