The boom era of the bourbon bro has seen specific bourbon subgenres surge in popularity over the last few years, the most notable of which have been wheated bourbons—that is, bourbon that replaces the traditional rye portion of the mash bill with wheat instead. In a general sense, this is often said to produce whiskeys with sweeter, fruitier flavors and more full textures in comparison with spicier rye, but I find these generalizations to be potential pitfalls for the consumer who quickly expects all bourbons with wheat or rye recipes to follow basic archetypes. Suffice to say, this is not the case—while Maker’s Mark and Heaven Hill (Larceny) may produce two of the most widely consumed wheated bourbons on the market, I don’t find those two products to taste particularly similar to one another. Nor can one really look at any distillery’s mash bill and truly know what a bottle will taste like until you investigate for yourself—there are simply too many variables that can impact flavor.
And that’s assuming the distilleries are working with relatively similar grains in the first place, which isn’t always the case. Kentucky’s New Riff Distilling in particular has had an interest in recent years in reviving and working with various heirloom grain species such as Balboa Rye or Yellow Leaming corn, most of which are less efficient in terms of yield, but produce unique flavors. The distillery has now turned that experimental eye toward the hype of wheated bourbon, with the inaugural limited release of Red Turkey Wheat, a bottled-in-bond bourbon using the heirloom wheat variety of the same name. As the company puts it:
“Just like heirloom tomatoes, heirloom grains offer flavors and aromas that are distinct from — and often simply better than — modern hybridized grain varieties,” said New Riff co-founder Jay Erisman. “We enjoy helping to preserve these old grains, but the real reason we do it is for the flavor in the glass. We wondered what wheated bourbon would’ve tasted like 100 years ago, before modern agriculture bred so much flavor out of wheat in exchange for ever-increasing yields and ease of transport and storage. To our knowledge, this is the only Kentucky sour mash wheated bourbon produced in modern times from Red Turkey Wheat. Wheated bourbon is very popular these days, but with few exceptions it all uses modern hybrid wheat varieties.”
So the obvious question, then, is what the heirloom wheat brings to the proceedings. It makes up 25% of the mashbill on Red Turkey Wheat, with the remaining 70% corn and 5% malted barley. The whiskey is aged “at least 5 years” and carries the bottled-in-bond designation and 100 proof. It’s technically “limited release,” but has a more-than-fair $50 MSRP. It seems like a concept set up to be a year-round release, but one wonders if New Riff simply doesn’t have the inventory to make that happen at the moment.
Regardless, let’s get to tasting and see how they did.
On the nose, this one is immediately and vociferously for the caramel lovers in the bourbon world, laced with lots of caramel candies and sweet vanilla paste. It smells quite inviting, and it’s been a while since I’ve gotten such a pure caramel impression on the nose, layered with a bit of apple, some cherry, and traces of a certain hayloft-like mustiness. All in all, it smells pretty nice, a little decadent, if not extremely deep on first pass.
On the palate, the heavy caramel candies come through again, following by toasty sweet notes of shortbread dipped in chocolate, or almost something like fried dough—funnel cakes? The sweetness is balanced a bit by fresher elements of grassiness or florals, along with candied apple and a little zesty citrus. All in all, this strikes me as uncomplicated, but in a good way. The Red Turkey wheat varietal doesn’t jump out at me with elements that are noticeably different from other wheated bourbons; it simply provides a very genuine and inviting caricature of what so many people like about this style already. The words that come to mind with this bourbon are “crowd pleaser”—this feels like something that practically anyone would like, which is only amplified by the very easygoing nature of the dram for the proof point. Tasty, easy to drink, and a treat for the caramel lovers among us—nothing wrong with that.
It will be interesting to see if New Riff brings this one back as a year-rounder at some point. It would seemingly fit in perfectly among the distillery’s lineup, and I can only imagine they’d probably sell as much of this as they can produce.
Distillery: New Riff Distilling Co.
City: Newport, KY
Style: Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $50 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.