When was the last time you said “wow?”
Not “Wow, I can’t believe they’re charging that much” when you see a marked-up bottle on a greedy shopkeeper’s shelf. Not “Wow, I sure wasted a lot of money” when you pay up for a humdrum bottle that tastes just like anything else you can grab at the store. I’m talking about an expression of sheer amazement at aromas and flavors that you didn’t even know could be found in a glass of whiskey?
I had just such a “wow” moment recently with a store pick single barrel of New Riff bourbon. Jason previously gave us an introduction to New Riff with his review of the Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey. As he noted, this distillery is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Kentucky Peerless and Wilderness Trail due to their shared ethos around whiskey making. While those two also have in common the sweet mash fermentation, New Riff uses the traditional sour mash process.
Like the others, New Riff emphasizes ingredients and processes that result in a superior flavor. Water comes from a private well drilled into a natural aquifer below the distillery, with a mineral content reported to be four times that of the municipal water supply. Non-GMO corn comes from a grain supplier in Indiana; rye is sourced from Northern Europe. A four-day fermentation is followed by four years of maturation in full-sized, 53-gallon barrels.
All this is well and good, but on paper I wouldn’t necessarily expect the results to diverge meaningfully from what I’ve tasted from the other high-quality craft producers mentioned above. Enter the single barrel.
Real talk: there’s a lot of bourbon out there, and a lot of it tastes very similar. If you’re looking for generic flavors of vanilla, oak, and caramel, you can get these for less effort and money than it takes to chase down a single barrel. That’s why I’m flummoxed when I taste a single barrel pick that hews too closely to the established profile of the producer’s core expressions. Why bother?
Therefore, I’m always attuned to barrels that are said to deviate significantly from the norm. I was turned on to this particular barrel by our friend David Jennings, aka Rare Bird 101. Though our tastes diverge on occasion, we mostly speak the same language in terms of aromas and flavors. In particular, we share a love of these quirky single barrels that diverge noticeably from normal flavor profiles.
To get more information on the selection process and this pick in particular, I got in touch with Ryan Alves, Lexington store manager for Justins’ House of Bourbon (the strange placement of the possessive apostrophe is a reference to the two founders, both named Justin). Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity.
Malt: Tell me about yourself? How did you get your start?
Ryan: I’m from Lawrenceburg originally, home of Wild Turkey and Four Roses, nearby Buffalo Trace as well, and Woodford. Growing up in Lawrenceburg, bourbon’s just kind of what everybody does. You know somebody who works at a distillery, or whose grandparents used to work at a distillery, or somebody who is involved at some point. Just kind of the way of life. [Bourbon] never really stood out as anything different. When you’re growing up, you don’t think about it that way, that it’s going to be this huge thing like it is now.
One of my first memories of bourbon when I was a kid was of Four Roses. I’m a huge Wild Turkey fan, but I love Four Roses, too. My grandparents used to live out past the distillery. On Sundays we used to drive out there for family dinner, and we used to always drive by. I didn’t really understand but, that intoxicating smell; if you’ve ever driven down the Bluegrass Parkway into Bardstown you can smell it, just roll down your window. It’s like a slice of heaven. As a kid I was fascinated by what that smell was.
As you grow older you realize that bourbon is this huge thing and you get into it, start drinking it with your buddies. I’m really good friends with Bruce Russell. He was one of my best friends from high school. I’ve always had a connection to Wild Turkey; the Russell family is kind of like a second family to me. Our families have always been close, so I’ve always had an interest in Wild Turkey. In college, I started to get really into it, started collecting and drinking all the various expressions. A year later, that turns into a hobby, and then that turns into an obsession.
I started working here at Justins’ House of Bourbon almost a year ago now. I started working part time, just on the weekends. I was working a desk job; I got tired of staring at a computer for eight hours a day. I decided I would do what everybody probably wishes they could do in college: sling some whiskey.
Malt: Talk about that transition from casual drinking to collecting to obsession?
Ryan: It seems like maybe you’d be able to pinpoint what happens but I probably speak for a lot of people, you’ve just got your casual little bourbon cabinet at home and the next thing you know, after two or three steady weeks of going to a couple liquor stores, your five bottles turns into 25 overnight.
For me, getting into vintage stuff, which I really love, and especially Wild Turkey… around Christmas one year, we were hanging out at Bruce’s house in Lawrenceburg and they pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey American Spirit. The 15 year, Bottled in Bond, from I think 2007. It was unlike anything I had ever had. We were always drinking 101 or Rare Breed back in the day, sneaking in daddy’s liquor stash and pulling out Rare Breed from the early 2000’s. Which, if I could go back now, I wouldn’t be chasing it with Mountain Dew!
But I had that, and something just grabs hold of you. You taste something that you didn’t know existed, or you didn’t know could exist, and you’re always chasing that feeling. “Oh man, I’ve gotta find something like this!” Still, today, that’s one of my all-time favorite pours. It’s probably more nostalgia than anything; it’s good whiskey, but…
I still remember my first time coming in here [Justins’ House of Bourbon] and meeting the Justins. You go in and you’re like “I’m just going to go check it out” and the next thing you know you’ve got four bottles on the counter and the next week you’re back and you’re grabbing three or four more.
Malt: Tell me about the store pick program?
Ryan: The shop’s been open for longer than I’ve been working here, so I’ll speak to my experience. In 2019, we picked close to 80 barrels, which I would venture is more than most places. At any given time, we very commonly have five or six store picks, at a minimum, on the floor.
In terms of what we try to seek – not that we’re doing anything groundbreaking or different than anybody else – we approach it like, “Look, we want to get stuff that isn’t available on the shelf.” We don’t want to pick a Russell’s that we can just get the Russell’s Single Barrel and sell it. We want to give our customers something unique and something that they know, when they taste the barrel, “that was the one that was from Justins’ House of Bourbon.” It doesn’t taste like anything else they’ve had; for whatever reason it was unique or stands out.
Pretty simple M.O. for us: picking stuff that stands out, stuff that our customers are going to be pleased with and is going to stand out in their liquor cabinet, too. I get it; store picks or barrel picks are really crazy right now, and very popular, and everybody’s doing them. You’ve got to be able to find a way to stand out from the crowd, and that’s the way we approach it.
We’re open to doing them all. Right now, I think we have seven or eight on the floor, different ones. In the past we’ve been pretty Knob Creek heavy; I think we’re up to our eighth or ninth Knob Creek.
Our New Riff, at one point the only store that had done more barrel picks than us is the store they share a parking lot with. This one that just came out is our eighth New Riff. This year we were on slate to do six, I believe. We’ll see if that happens. We found them kind of early. We were one of the first ones to do a store pick. For whatever reason, we kind of homed in on this profile with them.
We’re down to do [picks] at any time, for anybody. We’ve done Old Forester, we’ve done a lot of Russell’s, Maker’s. There’s a music festival in Lexington called Railbird and we helped find the single barrel picks for that. There was a Buffalo Trace, a Blanton’s, a Weller Full Proof, a bunch of Four Roses. We’re open to anything. We’re hoping to do some cool stuff down the road; we’ll see how this year shakes out.
It’s something we take really seriously here. We don’t just do ‘em to do ‘em. We have a really knowledgeable team outside of myself. The owners have been in whiskey for 50 years, probably combined. We’ve got a whiskey historian on our staff. We’ve got a lot of talented people. We surround ourselves with a lot of people who really dig bourbon and really like to get in there and find stuff that is different and stuff that really stands out.
Malt: Is it hard to get off-profile barrels from distilleries that screen those out?
Ryan: The owners are well connected. The accounts that we pick for, generally we have pretty good standing. I think if we were to ask or something, they wouldn’t hesitate to try to help us.
One of the big things we like to do, too, is try to go in as blind as possible. Try not to worry about proof or warehouse or floor or anything like that, recipe, stuff like that. We try to go in as blind as possible and just try to find the best whiskey. Sometimes you run into really crazy off-profile ones. We’ve had a couple, even since I’ve been here, that I’ve been a part of, that are like, “Wow, that’s really different.”
Malt: Tell me about this New Riff barrel that you picked?
Ryan: We picked this, I think, February 29th. It was right before all this craziness went down. We didn’t really know what was going to happen. It was just three of us: me, one of the owners, Justin Sloan, and then a good friend of our store, Brian Powell. Just the three of us went up to Northern Kentucky. It was his first time; it was my second time at New Riff. Sloan had been there a bunch and Brian, it was his first trip. We skipped the tour, it was early. We did the morning pick. I think we rolled out of Lexington at like 8 A.M. and got up there and just said, “Hey, let’s go taste some whiskey.”
The people at New Riff are great. I really love picking up there because – while there’s something magical and breathtaking about when you get to go into the rickhouse and pull whiskey right out of the barrel with a thief – but there is sort of a chaos with those picks, and it can go downhill pretty quickly, especially when you’re drinking seven or eight barrels, and then you’ve got to blind taste at the end. Sometimes it can kind of get away from you.
The New Riff ones are really controlled. You still get to taste; I think that day we tasted six barrels and you still get to try a bunch of stuff, but they leave you alone. Everything is blind. There’s some snacks, there’s plenty of space, you can do what you want, you set out this table. You’re not rushed, you get plenty of time. You get to turn on the music; I remember us turning on Tyler Childers Radio that day. We’re big fans of his. We turned that on and just started going through the barrels we had selected.
New Riff, the way you do the picks is when you get there, there’s all these barrels that they’ve got laid out and then they hand you a clipboard that has two or three sheets of paper. There are all these tasting notes, all the info on the barrel, some of the stuff that you would get on the side sticker. They give you that upfront and they say, “Alright, cool, why don’t you go through there and see if anything stands out, and pick out five or six that you want to try, and we’ll go from there.”
We picked out four and then Brian was like, “Man, this one really stands out on the notes; it has the word ‘bubblegum’ in it. That’s crazy; I’ve never really heard of that or seen that note before. Why don’t we try that one?” So, we threw it in.
From that point it’s blind, too, so you try not to be swayed by the notes or whatever. I don’t know, man, we just fell in love with that one pretty early on. Then, there was a fire alarm. They were doing some testing for the fire alarm. In the middle of the pick, the fire alarm goes off and you’ve got to leave the building, which was good, because we’d been out in the parking lot for about 20 minutes. It gave us a nice little breather and kind of clear your head, a chance to drink some water and hang out, and then you go back in there and re-set the pick table.
We narrowed it down to three barrels, then went blind again. We walked out of the room, they shuffled them up and pour them blind again. Sure enough, the one that we liked best the first time through was the one we liked best the second time through as well. It just stood out as being really unique, man.
Malt: You mentioned that bubblegum note; I got, like, grape soda, maybe? Did they identify that as coming from anywhere in particular?
Ryan: They didn’t. Looking at the barrel, it’s not like it stood out. I remember going in that day and being like, “Hey, they’ve got some that are almost five years old. Let’s try these, too.”
New Riff, for those that don’t know, is a newer brand. A lot of their single barrels they’re releasing at four years old. I was like, “Hey, let’s try the ones that are barreled the earliest.” I think three of the six that we tried that day were all approaching five years. This one just happened to be the youngest. It’s like four years and a month; it’s not very long.
I don’t know why this one was different, man, it just stood out. The color is crazy to me; I’ve never seen four-year bourbon look like this. It’s super dark, especially compared to some of the eight- or nine- or ten- year barrels, you’re just like, “Wow, this color really stands out.”
Tasting it now, it’s easy for me to say, but I would never have thought it was four-year whiskey, but that’s kind of the way I feel about it. You would never be able to tell me it was if I had it completely blind and stripped off the label.
The grape notes really stood out. I still don’t know that I get the bubblegum note, but the grape soda I can definitely get on board with. I’m drinking it now and it’s right there on the nose. We used to call them “quarter pops” back in the day. That’s what we always bet, back in high school, be like “I’ll bet you a quarter pop.” Off-brand grape soda that you could go to the machine and get a can of for 25 cents. It’s got all that one the nose. I read a couple of reviews and people talked about how it was kind of like a white wine, like a Riesling, some type of drying finish. I really like that note, too. It’s a good one, man. I’m super proud of it.
Sincere thanks to Ryan for sharing his time and insights. If hearing all that hasn’t gotten you thirsty, you’re probably reading the wrong site. Without further ado, let’s jump into the barrel that Ryan and the Justins’ team selected.
This barrel (#16-8621) of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey was distilled on Leap Day, 2/29/2016, bottled on 3/19/2020 at the age of four years, at the strength of 113.6 proof (56.8% ABV) and I paid $50 for 750ml. It is non-chill filtered.
New Riff Bourbon Justin’s House of Bourbon Store Pick – Review
Color: Surprisingly dark for being just four years old, this has an auburn-amber hue
On the nose: Ahh, this is why you buy single barrel bourbon. The nose on this is full of oddities, in the best of all possible ways. Off-brand grape soda, loose shredded tobacco, underripe melon, taffy, sourdough bread. There are faintly smoke-spicy notes of Hungarian paprika, but mostly this is bursting with all manner of juicy fruit fragrances.
In the mouth: Enters similarly, with a surprisingly luscious burst of red grapes. This turns into a dance between tart citrus fruit and firm, slightly tannic wood as it migrates toward the middle of the mouth. This crescendos with the smoky heat of chipotle peppers. There’s a more gentle but no less flavorful finish here, as a tangy woodiness meets a drying astringency.
This successfully walks a tight rope. It’s got the distinct personality of a single barrel, with all the unique flavors that entails. However, these are well balanced, resulting in a whiskey that is quirky but not a complete freak show. The palate is more conventional but still has some echoes of the nose’s attractive attributes.
I should also point out that, like Ryan, I’m floored that this is but four years old. It’s got a degree of complexity and range of flavor that I typically associate with whiskeys having much more time to mature. Another rebuke to those who believe age and character are necessarily strongly positively correlated.
Overall, this left a highly favorable impression of both New Riff and Justins’ House of Bourbon, and I’ll make every effort to be a repeat customer of both businesses in the future.
*I had initially scored this 7/10, but serially revisiting this over another month left a yet stronger impression. This is a moody shapeshifter: some days woody and nutty, some days fruity and juicy. I’m willing to give it an extra point for its continued exertion in trying to amaze and surprise me.