I’ve seen a lot of different ways to market whiskey over the years. There’s the keyword method, as relied upon by industry stalwarts like Jim Beam, who lean on (often contradictory) phrases like “bold” and “smooth” to move product. There’s the craft approach of using unusual ingredients or finishing techniques to stand out from the field. There’s the understandable reliance upon higher proofs and greater volumes of flavor to catch the consumer’s eye. And there are pop-cultural and franchise tie-ins, both good and bad, from bad Fallout-inspired rum, to surprisingly decent Walking Dead whiskey.
One thing I’ve never used to sell a bourbon before, though, is the promise of a low proof and “light taste.” Seemingly running contrary to the very romantic notion of bourbon itself is new brand Penelope Bourbon, with a marketing tactic that is pretty much unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Penelope Bourbon is the brainchild of friends Mike Paladini and Danny Polise, both new fathers, who named the brand after Paladini’s young daughter Penelope. This is a sourced blend of three different straight bourbons from MGP of Indiana—an almost entirely corn bourbon aged three years, a high-rye bourbon aged three years, and a heavily wheated bourbon aged two years. As a result of this odd construction, they refer to it as “four grain bourbon,” but the selling point of this whiskey oddly has more to do with proof than composition.
That’s what really makes Penelope stand out in an odd way: The words Paladini and Polise use to describe it, seemingly in an effort to market to bourbon neophytes, women consumers and anyone they assume would prefer “lighter” bourbon. From the press release: “Penelope Bourbon set out to create a light, yet flavorful taste that is approachable and pleases the palate of bourbon connoisseurs and novices alike.” Even more tellingly: “Penelope is perfect for new bourbon drinkers and whiskey lovers looking for their ‘session IPA’ of bourbon (all day every bourbon).”
That pretty much says it all, right? It’s an interesting tactic, in the sense that it reclaims what most would say as a criticism against an 80 proof craft bourbon brand, and instead turns that potential criticism into the literal main selling point of the product. It certainly stands out sharply from what the bigger bourbon companies would ever think to do. You’d never see Beam calling Jim Beam White Label or Black Label “light” in terms of flavor—they want their target audience to still believe they’re drinking Manly Man bourbon, even if its strength is set by the legal minimum for the definition of “bourbon.” The closest Beam would ever come to using the word “light” would be that holy grail of all nonsense alcohol descriptors: “Smooth.”
Regardless, once we get past the interesting marketing, what we have here to evaluate is a young (2-3 year), 80-proof, non chill-filtered blend of quality bourbons from MGP, in an interesting ratio of grain influences. Let’s see how she drinks.
On the nose, Penelope Bourbon is indeed “light” but pleasant, uncomplicated, with hints of caramel, light oak and a bit of hard to place red fruit. It honestly smells pretty inviting, as the ethanol presence is very low, and there’s also a marked lack of spiciness.
On the palate, this bourbon is likewise primarily driven by caramelized sugar and fruit impressions. It’s a bit watery in texture, but is extremely easy drinking, delivering notes of caramel and biscuits/wafer cookies—a bit like one of those Dutch Stroopwafel treats you might get aboard an international flight. It’s a combination of slightly malty and buttery cornbread characteristics that is interesting, which segues into a bit of vanilla and some dark fruit preserves.
All in all: Perfectly pleasant and easy drinking, although lacking in complexity and a bit on the watery side in terms of texture. I have to admit that I would rather drink this than most other 80 proof bourbons I can think of—it has a more interesting profile than the likes of Jim Beam White Label, but at the same time, the $35 MSRP does make you demand more, especially when there are solid mid-shelf bourbons available at the same price.
With that said, I think the stated goal of being a bourbon to introduce neophytes to bourbon is ultimately right on: This would be a very inviting way for someone to taste bourbon for the first time. Easy neat drinking seems to be the best method of consuming it—you can use this for mixing if you want, but it’s easy for me to imagine it getting lost in any kind of stronger cocktail.
Ice, suffice to say, is patently unnecessary. But for casual neat bourbon, it fits the (very specific) bill.
Distillery: Penelope Bourbon Bottling Co.
Style: American straight bourbon whiskey
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $35 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.