I’ll be tasting some whiskeys blind today. Insert Stevie Wonder joke here.
Malt’s dalliance with blind tasting has been mostly confined to a two-part series last summer. Jason forced samples of the Glenfiddich Fire & Cane on unsuspecting victims Justine and Phil. They scored it about as well as I did in a non-blind tasting, which is to say, “not very well.” Phil subsequently set this dumpster that we call the internet on fire when he tasted a Springbank 15 Year Old blind, with a less-than-stellar outcome.
Though that distillery’s fans couldn’t be engaged over the sound of their howling, I thought the combination of these two reviews illustrated several important points. First, poor whisky is poor whisky, as evinced by the Glenfiddich review. Second, even great distilleries (of which Springbank is definitely one) can produce whisky that is less-than-great, or at least not to everyone’s liking. This brings me to the third – and most important point – taste is relative, even (perhaps especially) when you’re dealing with what should be a more refined palate.
We’ve got varying degrees of formal education here on Malt; Adam has a Wine & Spirit Education Trust Diploma, Alexandra has participated in a Bourbon Steward course. I sense that the majority of us, however, are self-taught. I’d certainly never refer to myself as an “expert” on whiskey; at best I’m an enthusiastic amateur, as I have noted before. My tastes, predilections, and views are entirely my own. The type of whiskey that rings my bell might not do it for you, and that’s entirely OK.
Does a lack of rigorous, structured training make me more or less vulnerable to the pitfalls of the blind tasting format? At the least, I’ve not got much of an ego to deflate, nor any pedestal to fall off. There’s an entire genre of YouTube videos in which highly experienced wine professionals (Master Sommeliers and the like) are humiliated in laughably incorrect blind tastings. 1945 Château Pétrus is derided as cheap plonk; a bottle of supermarket Shiraz with a single-digit price tag is hailed as an example of the finest that the Southern Rhône has to offer. Not being the owner of a lapel pin meant to signify my bona fides means I can have a bit of fun with this tasting, without any worries about long-lasting damage to my professional reputation.
These samples came to me courtesy of Wilson Torres, brand ambassador for Union Horse Distilling Co. Wilson and his co-host Jake Hukee recently had me on their “Key in the Lake” podcast to blather about Malt, American Football, coffee, New York, daughters, dogs… no big whoop. I was handed a package of four two-ounce samples labeled only 1, 2, 3, and (you guessed it) 4.
What I know about these whiskeys is limited to the fact they’re from the Union Horse Distilling Co. of Lenexa, KS, near Kansas City. As we’ve not yet had the pleasure of considering anything from Union Horse before, usually I would provide a brief history here, before I get to embarrassing myself.
However, because it’s freaky Friday or opposite day or whatever, I’ll save the commentary for after the reviews. Prior to tasting these, I have had no contact with anyone from the distillery (other than Wilson) nor have I made any inquiries about grain sourcing, production processes, maturation, or the like. All the information I have about Union Horse at this point is what I have read on the company’s official website.
The distillery’s product lineup, in order of appearance, consists of the Barrel Strength Reunion Rye Whiskey (100% rye mash, 110 barrel-entry proof, 112.3 bottling proof, $60 retail price), the Reunion Straight Rye Whiskey (100% rye mash, 110 barrel-entry proof, 93 bottling proof, $50 retail price), the Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey (corn and rye sour mash, 110 barrel-entry proof, 92 bottling proof, $45 retail price), and the Rolling Standard Midwestern Four Grain Whiskey (barley, wheat, corn and rye mash bill; 92 bottling proof, “aged no less than 18 months,” $40 retail price). There’s also a white whiskey and a vodka but, as the coloration of each of these indicates that they were barrel matured, I can safely disqualify moonshine as a potential candidate.
I’m fairly confident about my chances going into this tasting. The nearly 10 percentage points of difference in ABV between the 100% rye expressions should give me a steer, while the different mash bills on the other two should hypothetically provide some clues about their identities. Let’s see how wrong I can get this, shall we?
Union Horse Blind Sample #1 – review
Color: Golden orange.
On the nose: Exotic and varied nose. Apricot marmalade, aloe vera, rust, mint leaves, cloves, black licorice candy. I’m intrigued.
In the mouth: Earthy and woody notes at the front of the mouth. This has a yeasty flavor as it transitions to the midpalate. At the top of the tongue, this has its most appealing flavor: a reprise of the black licorice candy from the nose. The finish has a woody note that tips over into an anise-accented chemical flavor.
Forced to guess, I am going to peg this one as the Reunion Straight Rye Whiskey. I’m getting some telling notes on the nose (aloe vera, which I find frequently in rye whiskey) while the mouthfeel indicates a lower bottling proof. I like the aromatic profile but there are some off notes across the palate, which I sometimes find in craft whiskey that has undergone a shorter maturation (two years or less).
Union Horse Blind Sample #2 – review
Color: Similar golden orange.
On the nose: A delicious whiff of chocolate fudge immediately. Some earthy aromas of damp soil, a bit of ground nutmeg, and freshly-planed pine wood.
In the mouth: Much more lively than its predecessor, this perks up at the front of the mouth with a zippy note of orange rind. There’s a stern and spicy graininess in the middle of the mouth. This evolves organically into an all-over mouth coating warmth, which has more accents of orange curaçao around the edges of the mouth.
I’d guess this is the Barrel Strength Reunion Rye. Unmistakably a rye-based on the flavor profile. I like the added body and texture from the noticeably higher bottling strength. It’s still got some young whiskey awkwardness, though it’s more coherent in total than the prior sample. At $60 this would be solid, if not especially spectacular value.
Union Horse Blind Sample #3
Color: Ruddy rust.
On the nose: More exotic aromas at first, like walking through a jungle full of flowers. Then, this suddenly transitions to grainy cereal scents. There’s some damp Lipton’s tea bags and more juvenile woody notes in here, as well as a very subtle whiff of mocha.
In the mouth: Dilute and thin at the front of the mouth. Some faint flavors of black licorice (I’m quickly recognizing this as a part of the house style) enliven the midpalate. This sloshes around awkwardly in the back of the mouth before fading very fast into the essentially nonexistent finish.
I’m going to peg this one as the Rolling Standard Midwestern Four Grain, based mostly on the cereal scents on the nose. It smells and tastes extremely young, and the low bottling proof is evident in the weak mouthfeel. I’d pass on this expression.
Union Horse Blind Sample #4 – review
Color: A lovely brownish-gold.
On the nose: Yet again, black licorice at the fore- this time, the very specific aroma of Good & Plenty candy. More subdued wood here, like polished mahogany rather than a freshly-cut 2×4. Some key lime rounds out the nose.
In the mouth: A bit of molasses to start. This turns into an oddly-flavored, off-bitter woodiness that coats the middle of the mouth. Through the finish there’s a brief flavor of freshly-baked wheat bread before this disappears, leaving only a vague aftertaste of sour cream.
By process of elimination, I am forced to conclude that this is the Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey. There are no aromatic or gustatory tells that point me in that direction, though. In fact, this is a really odd bird. It vacillates between innocuous and awkward. My least favorite of the bunch.
I sent my guesses to Wilson and, as bad luck would have it, his backpack (including his notes about these samples) had recently been stolen. If the thief happens to be reading this: shame on you, and also please send me the notes if you have a minute?
Seriously, though, I’m reasonably confident on my assessment, at least on the first two. The ryes had so much rye character, and the bottling proof was evidently higher on the second one. Between the latter two it’s a toss-up, though I don’t suspect my notes or scores will leave readers dashing out for one relative to the other. In total, the barrel strength rye was a high point, and even that had its ups and downs.
I asked Wilson my standard questions about grain sourcing, fermentation, distillation, and maturation. What he provided in response rang none of the usual alarm bells: “Our grains are sourced primarily from Kansas and throughout the Midwest. Fermentations are 5-6 days. We have a separate milling room where our roller mill directly feeds the mash-tub. From the mash-tub and once cooked, it’s transferred into one of our 10 open-air fermenters. After 5-6 days of fermentation we then pump it into our 500-gallon copper pot. We distill and barrel at a proof of 110 and age 5 years in new 53-gallon Missouri oak charred barrels. Our emphasis is the heart cut. Everything is barreled at 110 proof and aged 5 years in new 53 gallon Missouri oak charred barrels. The only exception to that is our Rolling Standard Midwestern Four Grain. We take the four grains and make 2 separate whiskies: a wheated bourbon that’s aged up to 5 years and a malt whiskey aged 18 months, which we then blend.”
Locally-sourced grains, decent length of fermentation; low barrel-entry proof; long maturation in full-sized barrels. This should be a recipe for successful craft distilling, yet I’m not really taken by any of the whiskeys on offer here. The wiggle room, based on what Wilson told me, is in the cuts: “heart cut” is a vague term, and these taste like the emphasis might have dipped down into the tails. Perhaps a more judicious, narrow cut would remedy some of the awkwardness that distracts from some otherwise unique and pleasant flavors? Whatever they do going forward, I hope Union Horse doesn’t lose that licorice nuance. In any case, I wish them luck with their apparently fundamentally sound approach.
Images kindly provided by Union Horse Distilling Co.
Massive convert to blind tasting. I find that I usually can’t help but “drink the label”. In a perverse twist on the king’s new clothes (though not its message, before you question perverse) I tend to mark down expected excellence when it’s only a bit very good and really big up stuff for not being as rubbish as I expected (not Fettercairn, obvs). Putting the ego aside (one whisky club organiser I know steadfastly refuses a blind tasting, to be fair he’d struggle to smell his own farts) and having a damp cloth handy for egg removal gives us scope for proper discovery. I’ve found that, generally, quality will always come out (regardless of one’s own pre-conception of preferred flavours) and, despite a few surprises, I’ve yet to find something so utterly stupendous, for £10 a bottle that, I’ve had to buy a few cases (the dream). This appreciation of the liquid carries over into non blind tasting, where I am now getting what I feel is a truer picture of my previously value-laden drams. To paraphrase the Buddha, blind tasting is the way to true enlightenment.
Smeds, agreed, the format has its strong points. I had a bit of fun with this tasting; as you note, lacking preconceptions meant I had to focus sharply on what I was actually experiencing rather than how it fit into what I already thought or expected about the whiskey. It’s not always practical to taste blind, however, especially for those of us trying to produce reviews on a regular basis. I’m open to this method nonetheless and will endeavor to work it in to future reviews. Cheers!
I recently hosted a whisky tasting with friends. Theme was Glenfiddich because we had some gifts to drink (a problem shared and all that). Good excuse to try the cask strength and other less common bottles.
When tasted blind people struggled to tell the difference between the 21 year old rum cask finish (over £100) and the 1990s special reserve (about £25 at auction).
I sat there smerking as I watched thinking it would be obvious. Then I tried and was very much humbled. I’ve lauded the special reserve through rose tinted glasses while deriding the rum cask as a waste of effort. When blind i almost can’t tell them apart. Blind tasting is bizarre and shows the effect of the bottle on our expectations and palate.
Craig, sounds like you had about as much fun as can be had with Glendfiddich. The point is a good one, though: once we’ve eliminated preconceptions, the results can be surprising and humbing. Cheers!
Glenfiddich was chosen for the exact reason of challenging our preconceptions about a brand.
Id be interested to see your tasting notes on a vertical/flight of scotch rather than ‘murican stuff.
Craig, maybe the editors could help out with this one, as I’m still owed Patreon drams in arrears.