With apologies to Hunter S. Thompson.
We were somewhere around New Buffalo on the edge of Lake Michigan when my kids began to scream. I remember saying something like “Quit crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!” And suddenly there was a terrible roar from the back seat, with Goldfish crackers and crayons flying around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour towards my mother-in-law’s house. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! Where is the nearest distillery?”
A billboard informed me that it was Journeyman Distillery which, like so many other distilleries in the Midwest (including FEW, recently reviewed by yours truly), sells gin and vodka to subsidize whiskey production. And how much whiskey Journeyman produces! Nine whiskies, on top of vodka, gin, rum, aged rum, and brandy. Surely, among this range, I would find something to suit my fancy?
The company itself seems committed to doing things the right way. The distillery is certified organic by the local MOSA authority, and the USDA- meaning its whiskies are made free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other nastiness. It’s also certified kosher by the religious folk at Kosher Organics. All the grain is organic, sourced locally in the Midwest, and the water comes untreated and unfiltered from a nearby underground Aquifer. Though Journeyman employs the oft-misused term “terroir,” they are at least emphasizing regional ingredients. Fermentation times are long, at approximately 5 days. So far, so good.
Though my personal Raft of the Medusa didn’t get to stop at Journeyman on the instance in question, my curiosity was piqued. How excited I was to find a 3x 200 ml sampler pack of Journeyman whiskies at my local bottle shop! With the type of warm, fuzzy, self-righteous feeling that comes from supporting a local enterprise, I purchased it without compunction and excitedly looked forward to taste-testing these three drams.
Unfortunately, the results didn’t live up to my hopes. The best of the three was still awkward A.F., to use a technical industry term. The weirdness of these whiskies cannot be understated – there’s something more than a bit strange about each of them. I even tried mixing these into the most aggressively off-dry Manhattan you can imagine (one part whisky to two parts Ramazzotti Amaro, with a heavy-handed dash of Angostura bitters). I ended up with a drink that was, indeed, a Manhattan – specifically Tompkins Square Park, circa 1979. I even tried giving the remainders away to a friend – an Australian, at that – and he turned me down flat.
It is, at this moment, that I feel the weighty burden of writing for MALT. The people at Journeyman, as far as I can tell, are decent, honest, earnest, hardworking folk. They’re trying their best, I’m sure. I’d love to say something noncommittally pleasant about the quality of elk cheeseburgers at their restaurant and leave it at that. Alas, I have sworn a blood-oath on the full 10-point scale to review candidly, objectively, and without honor or humanity. So, here you have it:
Journeyman Distillery Featherbone Bourbon Whiskey – review
Single-distillation from 70% organic corn, 25% organic wheat, 5% organic rye. Organic and Kosher. Batch 97 and Bottle 206 this is 45% strength.
Color: Rose-orange color.
On the nose: Sweet, classically Bourbon nose, with candied pear, breakfast cereal, chalk, black licorice, varnish, iodine, and burnt embers.
In the mouth: The palate starts very grainy, becoming fairly light through the middle of the mouth, with the lingering, almost chemical finish of black licorice. A bit odd throughout; not quite sure what to make of this one.
Journeyman Distillery Last Feather Rye Whiskey – review
Single-distillation from 60% organic rye, 40% organic wheat. It is also organic and Kosher. Batch 52 and Bottle 9 this was bottled at 45% strength.
Color: Brownish-amber color.
On the nose: Nose of English breakfast tea, duck egg, old paper, and freshly-sawed wood, with a yeasty note and the odd, flatulent scent of a paper mill.
In the mouth: This is a bit more piquantly woody on the palate than the Featherbone Bourbon, with some pepper and a bit of citrus. There’s an abrupt finish, with the rubbery aftertaste of garden hose. Another weird one.
Journeyman Distillery Silver Cross Whiskey – review
Single-distillation from equal parts organic rye, organic corn, organic wheat, and organic barley. Again, organic and kosher. This being batch 73, Bottle 452 and bottled at 45% strength.
Color: Medium-dark molasses color.
On the nose: More ample nose than its siblings, with nutty and cheesy scents (like cave-aged Gruyère), fresh latex, tangerine, and lots of grainy aromas swirling around. This also smells somewhat like a brackish fish tank in need of fresh water; I sort of liked this aspect, strangely. Stockholm syndrome?
In the mouth: The palate starts with a bitter graininess, becoming thin through the midpalate. There’s some more nutty cheesiness at the back of the mouth. This finishes with an almost tart heat, with chili peppers, green grapes, and a ferric note making appearances on the variegated finish.
Given the wide distribution these whiskies get, I was shocked that they were so off-kilter. Perhaps I had just stumbled into a bad batch or three? To get to the bottom of this, I recently stopped by the distillery to see firsthand what was going on. A re-tasting of the three drams listed above, plus several more (Buggy Whip Wheat Whiskey, Corsets Whips & Whiskey, and W.R. White Whiskey, as well as some of the Last Feather Rye new make) yielded similar results. They ran the spectrum from mildly inoffensive to, in the case of the W.R. White Whiskey (aged one day, per our cheerful tour guide) nearly nauseating.
As an amateur forensic whiskey detective trying to isolate the shortcomings in the production process that result in these flaws, I have found a few likely suspects. My first guess would be a heart cut that is too wide, with some of the tails making their way into the barrel. This is supported by my taste of the rye new make, which had a pungent rubbery aroma/flavor, similar to the finished product. Another area of potential improvement would be maturation times- our guide informed us that the majority of whiskies are matured for less than 18 months, which may be too little time for the process of subtractive maturation to come to completion, leaving a lot of the new make clumsiness floating around. Finally, the breadth of the distilled spirits offered by Journeyman gives time impression that, in trying to be a jack-of-all-trades, Journeyman has found itself master of none.
Journeyman’s success is likely due in no small part to the boom in mixology. Indeed, both the distillery restaurant’s menu and the company’s marketing materials emphasize cocktail recipes over the enjoyment of these as neat drams. Enough maple syrup, lemon juice, thyme, and other miscellany can mask the rough edges and make these more palatable.
Though it may seem at times like the bad reviews are more fun to write, I’m actually saddened to be reviewing these so poorly. In my heart I’m always rooting for the success of the plucky upstarts. We got a warm, friendly welcome and an enthusiastic tour of the operations at Journeyman. If this were some Scottish workhorse distillery owned by a big greedy foreign corporation, it would be a pleasure to trash their whiskies. But it’s not, and it isn’t. However, if you’ve got $40-60 in your pocket and are looking for a bottle to take home, I cannot recommend any of these in good faith.