Alex: I’ve been promising Malt readers coverage of the Wilderness Trail distillery in an “upcoming article” for nearly two years now. Offering assurances that a review was soon to come, first here and then here. Fellow American-lady-with-giant-metaphorical-balls, Dorothy Parker, best expressed my sentiments on writing when she said “I hate writing, I love having written.” Writing is an unpleasant process for me, just as I imagine it is an unpleasant process for you to read my writing! But as an apology for the much overdue coverage of this excellent distillery, let us begin part 2 of the Malt series over Wilderness Trail through Tony’s eyes and experience…
In 2017, I fell down the rabbit hole of bourbon and American whiskey. I had been a consumer for a couple of years at that point but didn’t know too much about it. I wanted to know more and stumbled upon some bourbon podcasts. One of the early podcasts that I listened to, featured Dr. Pat Heist of Wilderness Trail Distillery. With this strong country backwoods type accent, he began to talk about his background and I quickly questioned if he was a legit doctor. That was until he started talking about yeast and its role in bourbon. I was instantly hooked and he had my full attention.
At the time I didn’t even realize what yeast really was. I thought adding yeast to a fermentation was just a simple step in the process, like adding some basic salt as you cook, although some distillers do treat it this way. He explained how different strains of yeast can bring out various aromas and flavors. Also, he could match the DNA of any yeast sample that you brought to him with the vast Ferm Solutions library of yeast. This sparked the beginning of me becoming a whiskey nerd.
The distillery was only a couple years old at this point, so they did not have any whiskey on the market. They were waiting for everything to reach a minimum of 4 years old, which most would consider a standard for good bourbon or rye. The plan was for everything to be released as a single barrel bottled-in-bond, or cask strength release, and not subjecting the whiskey to any chill-filtration. With these products, they weren’t trying to change the traditional bourbon-making process with science, rather use science to improve their processes to achieve their goals in flavor profile and consistency. I couldn’t wait to see the results!
In 2018 I attended the Kentucky Bourbon Affair which is an annual event that touts itself as “The Ultimate Bourbon Fantasy Camp” and rightfully so. There I got to take a short class called “Using Microbiology and Biochemistry to Make the World’s Best Bourbon Whiskeys” led by Dr. Pat Heist. Turns out the co-contributor of this weekend’s Malt articles was a fan of Wilderness Trail as well because she happened to be in attendance. This was our first time meeting in public and I suspect the question that she asked Shane in her article about probiotics and flatulence was really for herself after this encounter. The class was very informative as well as entertaining. Pat is a great instructor and makes the science behind what they’re doing very easy to understand.
After the class, I met with a guy who graciously picked up a Wilderness Trail bottle for me. I didn’t realize it until later, but this was the bottle from that year’s exclusive barrel pick event that I missed due to tickets selling out quickly. He had it signed by both Pat and Shane and personalized to me. “To Tony, Drink this! – Shane Baker” read one side of the bottle. I love it when directions are as simple as this. I’m not the best at following directions, but I couldn’t mess this up. This happens to be the first bottle that up for review.
I was able to attend the Wilderness Trail event at the 2019 Kentucky Bourbon Affair and it was everything that I hoped for and more. On the bus ride there someone infamously referred to the duo of Pat and Shane as the ‘Yeastie Boys’ and I’ll forever refer to them as such. Our tour started in the Ferm Solutions lab (more on this in yesterday’s Malt article) where we got to see a bit more than the basics of making bourbon. We were shown how they developed their mash bills by breaking down the four grains that they use in all of their whiskeys. Examine Petri dishes with different strains of yeast and grains to see how they react with one another. How they use different equipment in the lab to breakdown the products they are making to see if it is consistent to their standards. It was whiskey geek heaven!
We then got an in-depth tour of the rest of their facilities with Shane. He explained that they challenged every step of the whiskey-making process and asked, “Can we do it different and can we make it better? Can we make it green and can we save money?” Again, not using science to try to change the traditional processes, rather making sure that they are doing every step of the way to the best of their abilities through science. They were very open to answering any questions you had about how they made whiskey from the grains they use, the temperature they cook, barrel entry proof, etc. There was nothing to hide and it was refreshing to see that level of transparency. It ended with a sampling straight from their first barreled bourbon, a nice lunch, and the second bottle that I’m reviewing.
Wilderness Trail Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – review
Barrel 14E06 has a mash bill of 64% corn, 24% wheat, and 12% malted barley. It entered the barrel at 110 proof (55% ABV) and is bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV), non-chill filtered, and at least 4 years old.
Color: Golden-brown honey
On the nose: Soft wheat grain, corn, slight oak, and a few minutes of air opens it up to a caramel sweetness and a slight butteriness
In the mouth: The nose translates directly with that soft wheat grain and sweet caramel on the palate and corn on the finish. It sits towards the front of my tongue and lightly coats the mouth. There’s a medium heat that doesn’t punch you in the face like a barrel proof would. It is much what you would expect from 100 proof and it’s a great sipper to pull out any night of the week.
Wilderness Trail Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – review
Barrel 15E02 has a mash bill of 64% corn, 24% rye, and 12% malted barley. It entered the barrel at 110 proof (55% ABV) bottled at 112 proof (56% ABV) and non-chill filtered, and at least 4 years old.
Color: Same golden-brown honey
On the nose: Sweet caramel corn, rye spice, grassy, a bit grain forward with the corn, a touch of oak
In the mouth: The rye spice shines and makes its presence felt. There’s a bit of sweet corn and caramel early on, but it quickly opens up to some herbal notes that most associate with rye and finishes with a bit of heat and licorice. There is a nice balance between the sweet and spice. Not overpowering for the proof and it hangs around a bit with a medium mouth-coating oiliness to it.
Both bourbons seemed to be defined by the secondary grain in the mash bill. The grains really show their character and stand on their own. When bourbons start to reach that 4-5 year mark, the barrel usually starts to take over and impart its influence over the grains.
I think their processes and use of local grains brings the art of craft to their whiskeys and highlights the quality of the grains used. Both were above average pours and are very enjoyable. If you haven’t tried their products yet be on the lookout as they just started rolling out to some more states. I would definitely recommend giving them a shot if you have the chance. If you don’t like it you can send the rest to me and I’ll dispose of it properly.