Do you ever feel like the entire world’s gone crazy, and you’re the only sane one?
Some recent conversations about Peerless whiskey – the subject of today’s review – have left me questioning my own taste, if not my own sanity. We relish in presenting a contrarian viewpoint here at Malt; Mark and Jason have long been pointing out the lack of clothing on various emperors. However, when the static of dissent coalesces into a drumbeat of sentiment, I find it a healthy exercise to engage in a critical reexamination of my own position.
I’d say Peerless has garnered more than its fair share of coverage on this site, given that it’s a relatively new entrant to the craft distilling scene with a comparatively small number of expressions. Mark and Adam took us through the Small Batch Rye as we waited for the Small Batch Bourbon, which was accompanied by an epic conversation with master distiller Caleb Kilburn. We’ve also showcased barrel picks of Peerless rye from the British Bourbon Society as well as Nickolls & Perks.
Today I’ll be bringing you our first review of a single barrel bourbon from Peerless. This one, from Binny’s, was one of two Peerless bourbons that they had on the shelf alongside dozens of others from their prodigious store pick program. Like a sailor lured rockward by the song of a siren, I was drawn to the “Hand Picked” table on a recent trip to the chain’s Lincoln Park location. Passing up dozens of barrel selections from names as near and dear to me as Wilderness Trail, Knob Creek, and Huber’s Starlight Distillery, my eye was caught by the distinctively shaped bottle and unique label that have become the visual hallmarks of this brand.
So, why did I grab the Peerless? In part, it was to assuage the anxiety hinted at in the preamble to this review. This gnawing discontent was the consequence of comments I’ve received in response to discussions about (or even glancing mentions of) Peerless whiskey. I’ll recapitulate and attempt to rebut these arguments now:
The first argument against Peerless is typically price. You’ll note that the aforementioned reviews all touch on the cost of Peerless’ whiskeys, which are somewhat higher in comparison with other craft distillers boasting similar parameters (such as Wilderness Trail) and especially relative to the Kentucky bourbon heavyweights, who benefit from incredible economies of scale. This is in addition to the efficiency-driven measures that, while they may flatter the bottom line, strip away flavor from the whiskey and inadvertently create Peeerless’ raison d’être.
One of the strengths of Malt’s scoring bands, in my opinion, is that they include some degree of price sensitivity. There’s a commonsensical aspect of this which I believe keeps Malt relevant to the everyday consumer, who is indeed our target audience. We’re aware that not everyone is being sent free samples of whiskeys with a triple-digit price tag, and that such bottles represent an occasional indulgence for most of our readership. If I pay up (and the vast majority of my reviews are of whiskey I have personally paid for) and still award high marks to a whiskey, you can rest assured that I’ve assessed flavor for price and found the balance to justify the expense.
The other point to note on the cost front is that prices for Peerless whiskey have actually been coming down over time, as production ramps up and the aforementioned economies of scale kick in. While the current $90 price for the Peerless Small Batch Rye (at my local) is still 50% higher than the Wilderness Trail Rye ($60), it has fallen by nearly -25%. I defy our readers to identify another whiskey that is actually declining in price. Not having access to the financial statements of Peerless and Wilderness Trail, I am unable to parse the unit economics that drive the divergence between the two, but at least I can say that the gap is narrowing.
The other nit frequently picked by naysayers is the age. There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance here; I’ve heard from folks who will freely admit there’s no reason that a 15-year-old bourbon must necessarily be better than a 12-year-old, but who are quick to point out that Peerless bourbon is coming to us in the three-to-four year zone. I typically respond to this by asking if they’ve tried it, or New Riff, or Wilderness Trail, or any of the craft distillers who have proven that they’re able to coax a broad range of intense flavors out of whiskey much younger than that of other distillers.
You’ll recall from our conversations with Caleb Kilburn (as well as with Shane Baker from Wilderness Trail) that this is no accident. Both these distilleries utilize the sweet mash process, which allows them to reduce the proof off the stills. Barrel entry proof is also lower, allowing more of the sweet flavors and less of the abrasive tannins to be drawn out of the wood. The low age of these whiskeys, in comparison to others, can therefore be viewed as a virtue rather than an business necessity worthy of scorn.
I’ve heard other criticism of Peerless of a more… shall we say, “personal” nature. Besides being the type of tawdry mudslinging that we try to avoid here, it is also inconsequential to what matters to you and me, namely: the whiskey in the bottle. Ultimately, all my arguments above are an academic exercise if what ends up in our glasses isn’t satisfactory, again taking price into account. Pursuant to that, I’ll now be shutting my mouth about who said what to whom and sticking some whiskey in there instead.
Here we have a Binny’s pick of Peerless Single Barrel Bourbon. The serial number on the main bottle label is 160107104, which corresponds to the number of the single barrel on the affixed smaller label. I paid $70 for 750 ml, which is the same price currently being asked for the Small Batch expression. It is 113.1 proof (56.55% ABV).
Peerless Single Barrel Bourbon Binny’s Pick – Review
Color: Dark auburn.
On the nose: Meaty, smoky, and spicy immediately, in the manner of barbecue. There’s a mint-inflected minerality offsetting this, as well as a nutty and salty note of peanut butter. With some time, this takes on an herbal note of menthol, as well as some ashier nuances of spent campfire. This is very earthy, yet not dirty smelling. This is slightly less clean and linear in its presentation than the Peerless Small Batch, but in a way that I find intriguing.
In the mouth: Begins with a kiss of cinnamon-flavored hard candies upfront. This coats the inside of the lips and the gums with a spicy heat that gradually dissipates into a lingering burn of chili peppers. As this moves toward the middle of the mouth, there’s a gorgeous dance of intensely mineralic limestone and red fruit of a crystalline purity. With more time in the glass, some notes of stewed plum emerge toward the back of the mouth. This inflects toward more woody flavors as it finishes, tacking slightly bitter before leaving behind some lingering spicy heat of an almost anesthetic character. As a lone flaw, the earthy and smoky notes of the nose have a reprise on the finish, leaving a faintly acrid aftertaste.
Though earthier and more wood-forward in places (particularly the back of the mouth) compared with my prior bottle of the Small Batch bourbon, this still illustrates Peerless’ many charms. In particular, this brings ample character despite a relatively short maturation. While this tips over into mild imbalance at parts, the overall impression is a strongly positive one. To make a direct comparison: I enjoy it about as much as I have enjoyed any bottle of Booker’s, which are now regularly sold at retail for a price above that for Peerless. I’m happy to have a bottle of this on the shelf and would gladly recommend it, notwithstanding the price premium. In all: it is very good bourbon, and I am scoring it accordingly.
Photograph kindly provided by Binny’s.