Boutique-y, for my money, are the least boring independent whisky bottlers. That isn’t really a commentary on the quality of their output – which, incidentally, is a good notch up from a few years ago, when it was patchy at best – rather it’s a commentary on their range.
Consider the last twelve months or so. Whilst other bottlers trudge a staid, dull and safe line along the ever-more-rickety path of decreasing-age scotch malt housed in exhausted oak, Boutique-y have released whiskies from Sweden, South Africa, New Zealand and Switzerland. They’ve covered malt, rye, bourbon, wheat and corn. They’re not afraid of a low age statement, and they’re not afraid of a less-well-known distillery. They are, by my reckoning, generally on the heftier end of the price scale, and their 50cl bottles do slightly singe my beard (who am I kidding – I’ll never achieve “beard”). But I’m always interested to see what they’re bottling, and at least I’m generally confident that my colour note won’t be “light hay” and my flavour notes won’t include “watery”.
Which is why, after some reflection, I think that their recent trio of ryes from James E. Pepper are actually a tad ordinary.
Ostensibly, the bottles wear their points of difference quite literally on their sleeves. Three James E. Pepper ryes, provided by Amir Peay (depicted on the labels), each one finished in a different sort of cask. You’ve an ale finish, an Oloroso finish and a PX finish. Which, given my suggestion in the Re:Find article that ryes should venture beyond virgin US oak, ought to be cheering my grumpy old soul.
So why isn’t it?
Well, firstly: distillery. These may be labelled “James E. Pepper”, and that may be where they were finished, but it isn’t where these whiskies were distilled. The James E. Pepper brand goes back centuries in American whiskey folklore, but the brand had died out before Amir Peay resurrected it in 2008. A stated obsessive of all things Peppery, Mr Reay has since spent considerable time researching the brand, building the distillery and, as of December 2017, recommencing distillation. Or, properly, commencing it.
Which is brilliant, exciting stuff, of course, but means that the name on the Boutique-y labels tells only part of the story… and the less important part at that. The whiskeys themselves, as with all the whiskey currently bottled under the James E. Pepper label, were originally distilled at the MGP distillery in Indiana. Nothing wrong with that of course; MGP is the source of plenty of excellent rye. Indeed we’ve covered some of it on Malt.
But young MGP rye is hardly thin on the retail ground, which means that really the intrigue and USP of this trio is coming from the finishes. And whilst it’s true that finished US rye is rarer than the Greater Spotted finished Scotch Malt, it’s still not exactly ground-breaking stuff. Especially, when scaled up to 70cl, for 65 pounds British.
But let’s see what they taste like, eh?
TBWC James E. Pepper 4-year-old Rye (Ale finish)
On the nose: There’s a hoppy bitterness straight off the bat, which twangles with rye grass sharpness and the crystalline sweetness of new oak sugar and caramel. A hint of vanilla. Toasty char and a thread of floral – almost saline – botanicals.
In the mouth: The bracing, rasping, high-noted rye-oak-hop medley continues on a slightly challenging palate. Mixed nuts, toffee. Light brown sugar. Lean in body and prickly in alcohol. Pepper and malt. Something of a dry, bitter scrapper, this one. All elbows and teeth. Unique, but hard to ‘enjoy’. A bit like whiskey’s answer to a young claret or Barolo.
[Edit. Wouldn’t normally add a caveat to a tasting note, but admittedly ale and I aren’t the best of friends to begin with. So possibly this is just a subjective thing. Though I’m also not much for sherry, and look at some of the scores I dish out to sherried whiskies. Caveat emptor blah blah.]
TBWC James E. Pepper 3-year-old Rye (Oloroso finish)
Colour: Faded walnut.
On the nose: Instant Oloroso, in both sweet and dry guise. Walnuts jostling with raisin and brown sugar. Muscovado, dark chocolate and orange peel. The rye hasn’t been wholly swamped; there’s a dusting of earthy, spicy rye toast at the back; but I wonder whether I’d peg it blind?
In the mouth: More voluptuous Oloroso on the palate. Chocolate torte, fruitcake and a struck match sulphurousness (which does, admittedly, linger rather.) Lots more rye spice character here though; dabs of clove, cinnamon and a younger, more raw rye grass pepper. Again, it’s unusual stuff, but I’m afraid the sulphur’s a bit much for me. (Mark might call me a wimp for that though…)
TBWC James E. Pepper 3-year-old Rye (PX finish)
Colour: Cola lollies.
On the nose: As with the Oloroso, a huge initial sherry hit, but here it is cleaner, fruitier, less sulphured. Raisins and spearmint. Pine and orange. Sawn wood and rye. It’s not obscenely complex, but there are nice contrasts of high and deep notes that compliment, rather than clash.
In the mouth: Viscous, but not as sucky-glutinous as PX is wont to be. Chocolate-coated raisins and mulled wine spice mix. Cherry jam on rye toast. All very pleasant, though a smear of sulphur arrives on the finish and unleashes some of the harsher and spikier alcohols. But I’m quibbling. Best of the bunch.
Boutique-y are my favourite independent bottler. And, as Mark said when he reviewed the Cotswolds Founder’s Choice, when you’re a Malt favourite, you get extra scrutiny. I just feel that they could have been a bit more original here. There are 1,800 distilleries across the US, and I think, if they were after a young rye, that they could have found one from a less ubiquitous source. As they did, for example, with their exceptional St George bottling a year or two back. As far as James E. Pepper goes, I’d have been more interested had they waited a couple of years and bottled some of the distillery’s own spirit.
I’d also like to see Boutique-y investigate ryes from outside of the USA. Canada remains the most glaring hole in their portfolio, and there are literally dozens of German, Austrian and Scandinavian distilleries making rye that is simply never seen on UK shores. If anyone’s going to bring those whiskies over I’d bet on it being the chaps with the funny cartoon labels. And the sooner the better.
This trio notwithstanding, I remain a Boutique-y fan. I happen to know that they have some very interesting US kit coming up, for which I will be first in line. Everyone’s allowed an off day, right?
Samples provided by Boutique-y. But they know what the score is on Malt.