We need to talk about… stickers.
I’m not referring to the half-torn-off likenesses of Princess Elsa and Pikachu with which my seven-and-five-year-olds have decorated random surfaces throughout our apartment. Rather, I’m talking about barrel pick stickers, the whimsical decals that are affixed by the whiskey’s selectors after bottling.
Initially intended as a bit of fun, sticker mania has resulted in some truly weird and unsavory behavior in the world of whiskey. It has also prompted debate about whether we’ve reached “peak sticker;” some of the more reasonable and august voices in our community have said to me privately that they’ll not be creating stickers going forward, for reasons that should hopefully become clear to you soon.
At their best, the stickers can be elegant additions to their bottles, appending information known to the pickers but which the distillery is unwilling to place on the formal label. As an example: I am in possession of a Bourbon Crusaders pick of Elijah Craig. The added sticker on the back includes specifics about the barreling, selection, and dumping dates that enhance our understanding of what is contained within. The sticker is understated and is sized to fit the bottle without overlapping or obscuring any of the official labels. In total, the bottle is better off for having the sticker attached. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the group but was not involved in either this barrel pick or the sticker design)
Going completely the other direction: the worst of all stickers, by common consent, is the infamous “Riff Pitino” sticker. This is the sticker that made a lot of folks call time on stickers, as it was clear that the envelope had been pushed entirely beyond the bounds of discretion and good taste. In addition: the images on the sticker had absolutely nothing to do with the whiskey inside, even by the exceedingly loose standards of barrel pick sticker design.
Another recent bit of sticker-related misbehavior relates to the resale (a.k.a “secondary”) market for whiskey. In these cases, the sticker itself becomes the reason for purchase, an inversion of priorities so stupid that it beggars comprehension. A friend related to me the tale of miscreants obtaining standard store pick bottles of Russell’s Reserve and then designing exuberant stickers for the bottles. For added embellishment, they dipped these bottles in wax. Having gussied them up thus, the bottles were being resold for $150 each, compared with around $65 for an unadorned Russell’s Reserve pick.
All of the above has prompted speculation that distilleries are on the verge of cracking down on stickers entirely, or at least on those deemed controversial enough to embarrass the folks who actually made the whiskey. This is particularly so in the case of smaller craft distillers like New Riff, whose first impression on a new customer might be in the context of an off-color or tasteless sticker. Under pain of being barred from future barrel picks, those seeking to add some appeal by applying a sticker may be forced to think again.
Since nobody asked me, and since this is the condition under which I provide most of my advice, I’d like to propose the following guidelines for those whiskey enthusiasts that continue to add stickers to their barrel picks:
1. Size the sticker appropriately, avoiding the sloppy appearance of overlapping other labels on the bottle.
2. Make sure the sticker adds something; additional details about the whiskey or who did the picking are always appreciated.
3. Inside jokes are, by their nature, not funny to those outside the group. If your pick is going be shared beyond a small circle of intimates (e.g. for retail sale), maybe consider a theme that has more general appeal.
4. If you enjoy stickers and would like to keep doing them, avoiding copyrighted content or photos of celebrities not associated with the brand is a good way to lessen the likelihood of headaches for the company letting you do the pick.
5. Use good judgment and exercise restraint. You might be trying to grab attention with an off-color or outrageous sticker, but (for the same reason as #4) it might a better long-term decision to tone it down a bit.
This is a preliminary and by-no-means-exhaustive set of suggestions. I’m happy to hear arguments against these rules or for the inclusion of others. Until we can all agree on a set of standards (read: when hell freezes over), we’ll be stuck (get it?) with discretionary addenda to otherwise straightforward bottles of whiskey.
Speaking of bottles of whiskey, let’s talk about the one that prompted this review. In a delightful bit of alliteration, this comes to us from the Woodinville Whiskey Co. of Washington state. As we have yet to review any Woodinville whiskey here on Malt, I’ll now wow whispering wonderers with wordsmithed warblings. I reached out to Woodinville and was able to chat with national brand ambassador Ariel Jahn to get more specifics:
Founders and high school friends Orlin Sorensen & Brett Carlile decided to quit their day jobs and set out to make whiskey following favorable regulatory changes in Washington State. Under the tutelage of the late Dave Pickerell, former master distiller of Maker’s Mark, the company started distilling in 2010. The town of Woodinville was chosen because of proximity to the local wine industry (assuring a steady flow of customers) and its hospitability to distilling.
After a few years of independence, the company was acquired by Moet Hennessey in 2017. Brett and Orlin remain mangers of the business. Coming with the acquisition was an expanded distribution footprint; Woodinville has been selling outside of Washington for the last two years.
All the grain is grown by third-generation farmers Arnie and Phyllis Omlin on the Omlin Family Farm in Quincy, Washington. The Omlins are the largest rye growers in the state of Washington, having acquired the strain from a local bakery. The corn is a non-GMO varietal of Yellow Dent #2. The malted barley comes from Eastern Washington near the Idaho border.
Fermentation times are around four days, typically at 88-90 degrees. Woodinville uses the sweet mash process, which you’ll be familiar with from other craft distillers like Peerless and Wilderness Trail.
The Woodinville website, refreshingly, provides ample detail about the distillation setup, which is comprised of a 1,320-gallon pot still and 25-foot, 16-plate bubble-cap rectification column with eight Superaromator trays and two dephlegmators attached. The total yield is seven barrels per day; barrel entry proof is 110 (55% ABV).
The barrels are aged in a warehouse in Quincy, WA; like other locations, a large degree of temperature fluctuation (average highs of 87° F in August and average lows of 21° F in December) hastens maturation. In addition, Ariel informs me that the dry climate of Eastern Washington means a higher-than-normal angel’s share.
Woodinville started out filling eight gallon barrels from Black Swan Cooperage in Minnesota. These were said to be heavily charred, resulting in a tannic and very oaky mouthfeel. All the whiskey matured in these barrels has been phased out; the last bottling was 2016. For the past four years, Woodinville has been using 53 gallon barrels from Independent Stave. This is 18-month seasoned wood with a #4 char and a heavy toast on the barrel heads.
This particular single barrel is another pick from “The Stockroom,” d.b.a. GNS Market. Their selections have been frequently reviewed here due to both the prodigious program (for a relatively small store) as well as the fact that it’s the closest shop to my house. Feel free to peruse my thoughts on their picks of Knob Creek, Knappogue Castle, FEW, and Elijah Craig.
The sticker is theirs, and I reached out to The Stockroom (via their Instagram account) about it, and the whiskey. They had this to say: “We picked it with their National Ambassador, 72% corn, 22% rye, 6% malted barley mashbill. Proof is a healthy 121.” When asked about the inclusion of Mr. Harrelson, they replied “The play on words mostly. But the caption ‘Nut up or shut up’ is in reference to the high proof.”
So, there you have it. I won’t grade the sticker against my proposed guidelines, but you’ll no doubt notice some areas of potential improvement. Now, back to the whiskey.
As far as the essentials: this is straight bourbon whiskey from barrel #3279. The whiskey was was barreled on 6/2/15 and bottled on 7/7/20, at the age of five years. It comes to us at 121.8 proof (60.75% ABV). I paid $60 for 750 ml, which compares to around $40 for the standard 90 proof straight bourbon whiskey available at retailers; it is lower than the $70 charged for the cask strength bottling at the distillery store. Here we go:
Woodinville Whiskey The Stockroom Private Select – Review
Color: Rusty brown.
On the nose: An immediately appealing mixture of sticky-sweet and salty-savory aromas. On the former side, I get maple syrup and brown sugar simple syrup. A transitional note of Kansas City-style BBQ sauce yields to all manner of smoked meaty notes. I’ll say “beef brisket” just to pin one down. This keeps on giving and giving, with a mineral note balanced against more heady spice nuances. With extended sniffing, I sense some cereal grains coming through, as well as a funky and earthy whiff of morel mushrooms.
In the mouth: Pert and perky throughout the palate, this immediately presents a lip-puckering and drying note of citrus fruit intertwined with chalky stone. Allowing this to creep back across the tongue, a spicily sweet note of brown sugar and some offsetting smoky flavors mingle on the roof of the mouth. There’s another burst of sour fruit and mineralic soil before this fades into the finish, where a residual note of stale wood is the lone flaw to note. This is quickly superseded by a resurgence of the drying minerality, which continues to grip the palate and radiate back towards the front of the mouth for nearly a minute after the final swallow.
This delivers immediately and overwhelmingly on both the nose and the palate. Aromas and flavors are diverse, intense, and well-balanced against one another. There’s some minor off-kilter notes, but they’re more than offset by the many charming aspects of this whiskey. It’s presented at full strength but never feels overly hot or alcoholic; again, these elements are held in check by others. For the price, it punches its weight and compares favorably to other barrel proof expressions from the better craft distillers.
As this is my first taste of Woodinville, I’m unable to say whether this is a freakishly good barrel or an indication of the quality of whiskey coming out of the distillery more generally. I’ll have to try more Woodinville whiskey to ascertain this, the prospect of which is certainly a welcome one based on the strength of this example.