I’ve often written in previous whiskey reviews that the inherent downside of craft distilling on a small scale is that the costs, both in terms of time and materials, make it very difficult for a small, independent distiller to produce “classic” style whiskeys at a competitive price point. Against a behemoth like Beam, or Heaven Hill, of Buffalo Trace, you’re never going to be able to bring a better whiskey to market while sharing the same price. Your two-year whiskey will probably be twice as expensive as a large distiller’s. Same with your four year, or possibly even more so. I’m sure that to the indie distiller, this probably seems like an impossible hill to climb.
But when you get right down to it, as long as you’re still making a quality product, you can build a fan base—and customers. True whiskey geeks simply must come to understand that they’ll have to pay a little (or a lot) more to support independent distillers. That support tends to come with a measure of uncertainty in quality of the product, but this is one case where there seems to be more reason for optimism than trepidation.
When I say this, I’m talking about Newport, KY’s New Riff Distilling. Patiently, these guys have been biding their time while allowing their distillate to age. And kudos to them for just how long they waited—while making a name for themselves in distributing sourced whiskey, they managed to wait an eternity to debut their own product. I can’t think of many young distilleries that bring their first homemade bourbon to the market as something that can qualify as Bottled in Bond.
And yet, that is the case here. New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon is a four-year, 100 proof, BIB expression—the first of its name, but no spring chicken. It’s a high-rye bourbon with a mash bill of 65% corn, 30% rye and 5% malted barley, which is quite high indeed for anything that still retains the “bourbon” title. This is an honestly achieved product, which I can certainly respect. Full-size, 53-gallon barrels. No “honeycombing” or “oak staves” or smaller barrel sizes to force quicker maturation. No gimmicks or shortcuts necessary.
What’s the downside? Well, the bottle costs $40, because it has to. It’s more than twice what you would pay for other venerable, four-year BIB whiskeys such as Heaven Hill or Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, and roughly twice the $20-ish price tag of something like Old Grand Dad Bottled in Bond. The job of the liquid in this bottle, then, is to convince you to ignore the price gap.
So let’s get to it.
On the nose, I get plenty of caramel and butterscotch, along with corny sweetness, peanut brickle and no shortage of ethanol. Baking spices led by cinnamon and black pepper trail afterward. It smells fairly sweet, a bit brash and substantive, if not extremely complex.
On the palate, this bourbon opens up with substantial caramel before announcing the presence of all that rye in the grist with a big, rye-focused combination of flavors: Black pepper, mint, caramel apple and earthy white pepper. You get some vanilla on the back, and some pleasant floral notes, which segue into a long, slow burn. There’s certainly some expressive alcohol heat here—I wouldn’t recommend this bourbon to someone easily fazed by it, or sensitive to it. Even compared with other BIB bourbons, this is hotter than most, but it works with this particular (pretty classical) flavor profile.
Ultimately, New Riff’s BIB bourbon is by no means lacking in assertiveness, any more than the likes of Old Grand Dad BIB or Evan Williams BIB are lacking in flavor. Does it justify its price tag? For me, the answer would probably be “occasionally.” If you’re strapped for cash, you know that the old white handle of Evan Williams BIB will be there for you. If you’ve got a few more bucks to drop, though? This whiskey would certainly find the approval of most discerning palates. It’s still a little young, but there are seeds here that could blossom very nicely in the years to come.
As a first release, though? Damn, that’s a pretty solid way to launch your own distilled product.
Distillery: New Riff Distilling
City: Newport, KY
Style: Straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $39.99 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.