Tasting: 5 Whiskeys From Union Horse Distilling (Bourbon, Rye, Malt Whiskey)

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Tasting: 5 Whiskeys From Union Horse Distilling (Bourbon, Rye, Malt Whiskey)

There’s an experience I frequently have found myself having, while covering the American spirits scene in recent years. It’s the discovery of a new distillery–not surprising, in and of itself–but also the subsequent realization that the new place I’ve come across has been in operation for more than a decade at this point. This seems to happen to me all the time these days, and it’s no doubt a testament to how the microdistilling revolution of the United States has more or less come of age in the last 10 years. There are a lot of small companies out there these days that have been making distilled spirits for 10, 15 or even 20 years, but most drinkers have still never encountered them. This is particularly relevant for distilleries based around barrel-aged spirits such as whiskey or rum, because making it to that kind of anniversary means these distilleries now likely have access to a well-aged backlog of barrels, and can offer at least moderately mature expressions. In many ways, it’s a point of maturity for the distillery itself. And this certainly seems to be the case with Kansas’ Union Horse Distilling Co.

Union Horse Distilling has been in operation since 2010, when they launched with the goal of bringing a local distillation culture back to Kansas City that hadn’t existed since the end of Prohibition. Since then, they’ve primarily focused on the full spectrum of American whiskey–not just bourbon and rye, but also forays into four grain whiskey and malt whiskey–they’re hardly alone there, with the American single malt category reaching its own maturity recently. Notably, they’ve been doing it long enough that they can now offer 5+ year age statements on their flagship bourbon and rye whiskeys, which is nothing to sneeze at in the craft whiskey world.

Union Horse also sets itself apart in a few other ways, however. It styles itself as a grain-to-glass distillery, focused exclusively on Midwest corn, barley, rye and wheat. They distill every one of their whiskeys on the same Vendome hybrid copper pot still, which might be standard enough for the likes of malt whiskey, but is still a novelty in this category when it comes to producing bourbon and rye. And they believe in a low barrel entry proof of just 55% ABV (110 proof), utilizing this more inefficient and costly technique because they believe it results in better flavor extraction from the barrels. All in all, their methodology suggests a distilling philosophy that has a particular, distinctive flavor goal in mind, and doesn’t cut corners in getting there even when it would be more profitable to do so.

So with that said, let’s get to tasting the full lineup of Union Horse Distilling whiskeys we have in front of us today.

1. Union Horse Reserve Straight Bourbon

ABV: 46% (92 proof)

One might think that the term “Reserve” would imply a special release, but this is the company’s year-round bourbon flagship, carrying a 5+ year age statement and weighing in at a moderate 92 proof. Interestingly, this is distilled from a mash of only corn and rye, without the usual small portion of malted barley. I’m interested to see how this one tastes, because “pot still bourbon” is still a fairly uncommon thing for the genre, and not always received particularly warmly.

On the nose, the Reserve displays some of the distinctly grain-forward impression that you can usually find in bourbons distilled in pot stills, but it’s considerably more subtle than in many other cases. What I’m getting a lot of here is fruit, with notes of plum, grape and dark stone fruit, almost sort of jammy. There’s a Grape Nuts-like sweetness, with traces of maple. That maple shows up again on the palate, with licorice, caramel, plum and cherry. To me, this doesn’t necessarily evoke the pot still very much, feeling more like a hybrid between styles. I’m liking the subtle baking spice and toasted oak that is present here, with maple and vanilla extract, along with flashes of anise. The sweetness in particular is dialed into a nice level, with heat that is approachable and appropriate for this level.

All in all, a nice Midwestern bourbon that doesn’t feel distractingly like “pot still bourbon” to me, never being overtaken by the graininess as some of them are.

2. Union Horse Reunion Straight Rye Whiskey

ABV: 46.5% (93 proof)

The distillery’s flagship rye whiskey comes from a 100% rye mash bill, falling squarely into the modern rye camp. Like the bourbon, it’s distilled on the copper pot still and aged in newly charred oak for 5+ years, which is a pretty impressive age statement for most small batch, craft rye whiskeys.

On the nose, this one has a certain malty sweetness to the rye, likely a result of the pot still, along with a melange of peppercorns and big impressions of rye grain and bread. At the same time, there are layers of jammy dark fruit on the nose as well, along with mint and butterscotch. On the palate, this one is bringing significant mint and more roasted oak than I was expecting, along with dark chocolate and tons of herbal rye. It’s a very flavorful combination of its elements, punching above the proof in terms of assertiveness, and closing with lingering sweet cinnamon and some roasty astringency. All together, a nice, bold rye with some sweeter elements.

3. Union Horse Rolling Standard Four Grain Whiskey

ABV: 46% (92 proof)

I suppose if you’re a distillery producing traditional bourbon, rye whiskey and malt whiskey, you’re already most of the way there to releasing a four grain whiskey–notably, the company does refer to this as “four grain whiskey” instead of “four grain bourbon,” suggesting that the amount of corn in the mash is perhaps less than 50%. Given that this is the only one of the flagship products I’m sampling that doesn’t have a concrete age statement, I wonder if perhaps Rolling Standard is the brand that Union Horse sees as its most approachable, “introductory” whiskey for newer drinkers.

On the nose, what stands out to me most in this one is sweet caramel, met by a little bit of toasty mocha, barrel char and malty sweetness … and maybe a little roasted dessert banana? On the palate, you do pick up some individual threads such as spicy rye, but there’s also quite a lot of vanilla, with kisses of charred oak and coffee, dark chocolate and maple. The overall effect is sweet and approachable, though it doesn’t have quite as clear an identity as the bourbon or rye, which is perhaps what one would expect.

4. Union Horse Barrel Strength Reunion Rye Whiskey

ABV: 60.7% (121.4 proof)

Given the company’s low barrel entry proof, this 121.4 proof rye whiskey expression is presumably drawn from barrels aged in hotter temperatures or higher in the rickhouse, two factors that tend to lead to barrels gaining in alcoholic strength during the course of aging. It then gets the same 5+ years of aging in newly charred oak that is seen in the flagship Reunion Rye Whiskey, but this is a pretty dramatic jump in proof.

On the nose, this one is bringing big spice–tons of pepper and anise, almost evoking absinthe or some alpine amaro. There’s strong roast here as well, along with toffee and mint. On the palate, this explodes with vivacious flavors of pepper, mint and dark chocolate–mint chocolate chip ice cream. At the same time, there are also floral impressions and underlying malty sweetness of the pot still, with flashes of darker fruit–blackberry or bramble fruit. A kiss of charred oak and tingling chile spice rounds things out. This is an impressive dram, very flavorful, and it wears the 121.4 proof well, as the ethanol is quite well integrated and nowhere near too hot or overpowering. This feels like the apex of Union Horse’s craft to date.

5. Union Horse Rivalist Single Malt Whiskey

ABV: 48% (96 proof)

Rivalist is the company’s American single malt whiskey offering, though notably this isn’t some kind of attempt to make a Scottish-style malt whisky on American shores–this is very much in the modern American style, including both newly charred oak barrels and multiple styles of malted barley. The latter is key–whereas traditional malt whiskeys would simply use all “base malt,” Rivalist includes both crystal/caramel malt and chocolate malt (heavily roasted malted barley) in its mash bill, which can make a big difference on the final flavor. This brand is aged for 4+ years before proofing and bottling.

On the nose, Rivalist is quite malty-sweet, with creamy caramel and dried fruit impressions, along with traces of licorice and significant cocoa powder. On the palate, the dried fruit shows up again with lots of raisin/cranberry, along with pine needles, roasted nuts, charred oak, grape and dark chocolate, finishing with just a little puff of smoke. Both the specialty grains involved and the newly charred oak have imparted a lot of dried dark fruit/roasty-sweet impressions in this bottle, and you can sense the presence of some of these flavors in the Rolling Standard Four Grain Whiskey as well, though they’re somewhat more assertive here. This remains a whiskey style that many bourbon drinkers would probably appreciate if they gave it more of a chance.

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

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