I’ve written before, on a good number of occasions, about the burden of bringing a sourced whiskey to market for an independent distillery. I have to say that on a personal level, it chafes me to see young, independent distilleries shy away from the transparency of simply saying where their sourced whiskeys are being produced. So many treat it as anathema, and I genuinely don’t understand why. Do they really think that having some tiny font on a bottle that says “distilled in Indiana” is going to hurt sales? Would that not be preferable to raising the ire of the people who care the most about this sort of thing, which is the whiskey writers? It’s baffling.
Here’s another hypothetical: What if you distill and age part of the juice that goes into a blended whiskey, but source the rest? Does this absolve you of any responsibility to explicitly note that you still sourced the majority of the liquid in the bottle, because you produced a portion of it yourself? Am I crazy for thinking that a company shouldn’t go out of its way to hide that kind of information from the average consumer?
These questions are relevant to this review for Redwood Empire American Whiskey, a new product from Sonoma County, CA’s Graton Distilling Co. As suggested above, each bottle does contain some 2-year-old rye distilled and aged in California by Graton themselves. But each bottle also contains four other whiskeys that all hail from Indiana’s MGP, the U.S. superpower of sourced whiskey production, which include: 4, 5 and 11-year-old bourbon, and 3-year rye, a portion of which was aged in port and wine casks. And this is of course where transparency is missing. The word “Indiana” appears nowhere on the bottle, even in the fine print. It also appears nowhere on the website. The only way someone picking this up off the shelf in a liquor store might suspect it wasn’t entirely distilled in California was if they noticed it was labeled as being “bottled” by Graton, which suggests the possibility of being distilled elsewhere.
Let’s make something clear: This kind of aversion to transparency is patently unnecessary. The vast majority of drinkers don’t care one way or another, but they at least deserve accurate labeling. And for the drinkers who do care, they only want accurate labeling as what is essentially a courtesy—their actual assessment is going to be about what is in the bottle, as is mine. If the whiskey is good, it doesn’t really matter where it came from—unless you hide where it came from. Capisce?
Now, on to an actual whiskey review.
Redwood Empire American Whiskey is, as we stated above, a blend of five different whiskeys—a two-year rye made by Graton, and four separate whiskeys made by MGP. I appreciate the effort that they’ve gone to here in order to separate this product from the sourced MGP whiskeys being sold by so many other distilleries. In particular, they even found a way to make the standard 95% MGP rye more unique by including portions of it aged in port and wine barrels. It begs the question of where this port-rested MGP rye is usually going—are there other commercial products in the market with this stuff in them? After blending, the final product is 60% rye and 40% bourbon, and weighs in at 90 proof, 45% ABV.
On the nose, this stuff is very easygoing and inviting. A complex blend of fruity and spicy character comes forward, with deep caramelization, brown sugar, molasses and red fruit (cherry, strawberry) notes, followed by stone fruit and cinnamon/gingersnap spice. I’m pleasantly surprised by how little heat there is on the nose—you can breathe deep and inhale all that fruit and spice without any strong impression of alcohol.
On the palate, Redwood Empire is likewise well balanced, if not quite as distinctive as the complicated makeup might have you expecting. It’s on the sweeter/richer side than most rye (or bourbon, even) in this ABV range, but not so defined by the port/wine barrel-aging as I thought it might be. Certainly, it’s nowhere near as overtaken by the port character as last year’s Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye. Cherry and raisiny dried fruit notes mingle well with caramel and molasses cookie, followed by rye bread and baking spices. Booze is again very well hidden, which makes Redwood Empire American Whiskey extremely easy drinking. In fact, it comes off as a little bit thin on the palate for 90 proof. It’s not often that I find myself asking for a whiskey’s alcohol to present itself a bit more assertively, but this might be one case of doing exactly that.
As a result, Redwood Empire American Whiskey is likely best going to be enjoyed neat. Over the course of a few days we tried it in a few classic cocktails, but it didn’t quite have the punch/assertiveness to make its presence and profile felt. Consumed neat, however, it’s a very pleasant, easy to enjoy dram that still offers enough complexity to make it interesting. Thanks to its approachable nature, this might be a very good whiskey to use for introducing friends who have only sampled shots of Jim Beam or Jack Daniels over the years.
Just, you know, put the word “Indiana” on the bottle while you’re at it, okay? There’s no reason not to do so.
Distillery: Graton Distilling Co.
City: Graton, CA
Style: American rye and bourbon blend
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more whiskey writing.