“Don’t order lobster in Chinatown.”
This was an adage of my late grandfather. His point was that we’ve each got our core competencies, and that the house special is likely a better bet than something at the margins. By picking a wheat whiskey from the heart of corn country, I worry that I may have run afoul of this advice.
Still (no pun intended), I believe that distilleries should stand by every product they produce. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Putting a name on a bottle and sticking it on a shelf for retail purchase makes a whiskey fair game for critical appraisal here at MALT, particularly as we typically spend our own cash (as would our readers) to procure our drams. I’ll pull the stopper – but no punches – and the chips will fall as they may.
So, I began this article by considering a wheat whiskey from Cedar Ridge distillery of Swisher, Iowa, just south of Cedar Rapids. I reached out to the distillery team to assemble more background information, at which point they generously offered samples of their other whiskies.
Relieved at having rectified my initial misstep, I am glad to be able to paint a fuller picture of what’s being produced at Cedar Ridge. In line with MALT policy, I am hereby disclosing that four out of five of the whiskies reviewed here were provided free of charge by the distillery; this doesn’t affect my notes or scores.
First, though, a bit of background for those unfamiliar with the Cedar Ridge story:
In 2005, corn farmer Jeff Quint (who spared some time to chat with me) and his wife started distilling, with Cedar Ridge becoming the first licensed distillery in Iowa since Prohibition. They released their first whiskey in 2010; the current portfolio includes the bourbon, the reserve bourbon, the single malt, the malted rye, and the wheat whiskey reviewed below. Like other craft distillers, they also produce gin, rum, vodka and brandy.
Cedar Ridge is a true grain-to-glass distillery; Jeff grows his own #2 yellow hard dent corn, sourcing rye, wheat, and barley from elsewhere. A 3-4 day fermentation occurs before the worth hits the four CARL pot stills (33, 100, 200, and 800 gallon). A double distillation yields distillate at 148 proof (74% ABV).
The barrels are matured in a rickhouse without climate control, which is quickly seeming like best practice in the world of American whiskey production. Since 2010, Cedar Ridge has exclusively used 53 gallon barrels with a #3 char from Independent Stave. Most of the expressions are in the 3-4 year range, though an occasional 5-year-old whiskey (such as the Reserve bourbon) sees the daylight.
In keeping with our characteristic Midwestern humility, Jeff describes the house style as “accessible,” with the goal of being a reasonably priced go-to daily dram instead of a premium luxury option. With all of the above in mind, let’s begin tasting through the spectrum of whiskies from Cedar Ridge.
The first is the wheat whiskey I purchased. This is from a mash bill of 100% malted white wheat. It is bottle #1472 from batch #12, bottled at 40%. Retail price is $40, but I snapped up this bottle on sale for $30.
Cedar Ridge Wheat Whiskey – Review
Color: Pale straw
On the nose: Pronounced malty aromas at first, with a milky sweetness and a subtle hint of key lime. A sweetly rubbery scent of pink pencil eraser mixes with an earthy note of loam and some cloying oakiness.
In the mouth: Starts with a sharp bite of wood. This transitions to a wheaty softness at midpalate, with some notes of freshly-sharpened pencil and more earthy flavors. Lingers briefly with a cream-accented note of lemon. Texturally this is very thin, perhaps a consequence of the bare minimum bottling strength.
Innocuous, in the manner of young grain whiskey. No overt flaws to speak of, but it’s difficult to find too much to say about this one. Somewhat of an invisible man. It seems a bit like flavor and texture were sacrificed in favor of the “accessibility” Jeff mentioned. Perhaps a good whiskey for a hot summer day? The rest of my bottle is certainly earmarked for highballs.
Now for the samples from Cedar Ridge. The first is a malted rye whiskey, from a mash bill of 51% malted rye, 34% rye, 12% corn and 3% malted barley. It is bottle #1625 from batch #16, bottled at 43%. Retail price is $40.
Cedar Ridge Malted Rye Whiskey – Review
Color: Pale orange-gold
On the nose: Winey nose, with abundant fruity aromas of green grapes and orange curaçao. There’s the creamy sweetness of scented hand lotion and pavlova, as well as whiffs of aloe vera and underripe Bartlett pear.
In the mouth: A steely texture as this enters the mouth, giving way to a hot and spicy dollop of cinnamon stick. More or less mute at midpalate; a slightly peppery bite at the back of the tongue is all this has to show for the rye in the mash bill. There’s a recurrent spicy-fruity note of candied citrus peel to round this one off. Texturally, the extra few percentage points of ABV is noticeable in an overall hotter mouthfeel, though not in a bad way.
Some really interesting aromas, but there’s not much follow-through in the mouth. Again, nothing wrong with this in terms of flaws or off notes, but I could have used a bit more intensity of flavors here.
Next up, the Iowa bourbon whiskey, from a mash bill of 74% corn, 14% malted rye, and 12% 6-row malted barley. This is bottle #1191 from batch #380, bottled at 40%. Retail price is $40.
Cedar Ridge Iowa Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Medium-pale apricot
On the nose: Densely and enticingly fruity, with some spicy accents. Apple cider, apple strudel, acacia, ground nutmeg, eucalyptus, stone fruit, ginger beer, yeast, salted butter.
In the mouth: Starts with a juvenile green woodiness. At midpalate, this becomes similarly juicy to the nose, with the faint minerality of limestone. Some lingering notes of chili pepper and more young, tannic wood. More full-bodied than the others despite the 40% bottling strength, but also some harder edges.
Another one that would benefit from more follow-through between the nose and the palate. There’s a lot of intriguing smells, which I’d like to see translated to flavors on the palate. I wonder how this would taste at 46% or above?
Hot on its heels, another Iowa bourbon whiskey, this one the “Reserve” aged 5 years. This is also from a mash bill of 74% corn, 14% malted rye, and 12% 6-row malted barley. This is bottle #153 from batch #10, bottled at 43%. I have not seen this at retail.
Cedar Ridge Reserve Iowa Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Pale orange-gold color.
On the nose: Dense and serious nose. Orange essence, citrus-accented furniture polish, menthol, pine needles, cigarette ash, unripe green walnut.
In the mouth: The best of all of these on the palate. Starts with a tart burst of Meyer lemon. Woody and nutty notes emerge at midpalate, which is also marked by a creamy texture. This finishes with an off-bitter note, as well as more fragrantly woody flavors of incense, the faintly savory flavor of chicken broth, a brief soapiness, and a touch of oaky vanilla.
The five years in the barrel have yielded an improved mouthfeel, with the woody flavors maturing into more exotic notes compared with the standard bourbon. Again, I am wishing for a higher bottling strength, such that this might present itself with greater concentration in the mouth.
Finally, the single malt whiskey, from a mash bill of 100% 2-row pale malted barley. This is bottle #637 from batch #19, bottled at 40%. Retail price is $50.
Cedar Ridge Single Malt Whiskey – Review
Color: Pale hay
On the nose: Malty and winey nose, with candied fruits, watermelon juice, toasted strawberry Pop-Tarts, and the slightly oily bitterness of citrus peel.
In the mouth: A weird interaction between distillate and wood. Starts creamily and faintly woody. Falls over into a grainy heat, with a bit of wet newspaper to finish.
This is the only one of the group that has an conspicuous flaws, with the strange fruitiness coming up against a stale note at the back of the palate. I’d be unlikely to revisit this.
In all, I find myself positively disposed toward Cedar Ridge. With the exception of the Single Malt Whiskey, these were all well-executed expressions without any of the flaws that sneak into craft distilling from hasty fermentation, wide cuts, or short maturations in small-sized barrels. Several had some unique and intriguing aromas that augur good things. However, the low or minimal bottling strength consistently left the mouth unable to live up to the promise of the nose.
Therein, I guess, lies the trade-off of “accessibility.” In diluting these down to the 40% to 43% range, Cedar Ridge has left us with whiskey that is unlikely to offend, but which fails to impress. Still, I’d emphasize the high quality of the raw materials, and would counsel Jeff and his team to give us a few expressions at cask strength that might allow Cedar Ridge to really shine.