The time has come.
The promise of every would-be craft distiller sourcing whiskey is that someday they’ll be distilling their own. The sourced whiskey is merely a bridge, meant to get a brand name out in the market and to provide some cash flow during the period when distillery construction, production startup, and maturation occurs.
An inattentive consumer might say, “Yes, sure, makes sense, why not?” But you, beloved Malt reader, are no fool. At the very least, you are willing to “source” attention and persnickety detail chasing from me and my insatiably curious band of Malt counterparts. Thus, a synopsis of the pitfalls of this strategy is once again necessary as a preamble to this review.
The biggest risk of sourcing whiskey, to me, is that what eventually comes off the stills may or may not bear any resemblance to what was being procured elsewhere. Why should it? Even starting from the same mash bill, there are myriad other factors that would cause Jane Doe’s Craft Bourbon to taste noticeably different from whiskey produced by MGP or Heaven Hill or Barton or Dickel.
Presumably, getting a brand name “out there” entails creating some associations with that brand related to the flavor of the whiskey. If the flavor changes in dramatic fashion as a consequence of a shift in the whiskey used, will the consumers’ loyalty to the established brand fade? As a cynical aside, I’d propose the acerbic hypothesis that the types of folks under the sway of sourced bourbon with an inscrutable label probably wouldn’t notice the difference.
So, what’s the proper approach to evaluating the reborn whiskeys, the ones finally being made by the same people selling them to us? My initial reaction was to procure a bottle of the old (sourced) whiskey and taste the in-house product against it. However, that would require me to go out and buy a $50+ bottle of sourced whiskey, a practice from which I have sworn to abstain during Lent, Diwali, Passover, Kwanzaa, and all remaining days ending in “Y.”
Setting aside my pecuniary concerns, I thought it might be refreshing to approach this review free of preconceptions. The Willetts (actually Kulsveens) have constructed a distillery and distilled their own whiskey and matured it for long enough that it can be called “Straight” without an age statement, implying at least four years in the barrel. Side note: the label on the Noah’s Mill bottle does not contain the word “straight,” but Willett’s own site for the brand does. I’m proceeding as if this is straight bourbon whiskey, which has been confirmed by a Willett representative. Regardless, I’m going to judge this in isolation, as though it were a whiskey without a sourced predecessor.
I will, however, indulge in the type of sleuthing which I hate to love and love to hate, or something. I’m not doing this for me, no sirree. Rather, I’m using this as an illustrative example of the type of eagle-eyed analysis required of those who would traffic knowledgably in the grey area between sourced and craft whiskeys.
Malt’s prior run-in with Noah’s Mill came in the form of a head-to-head comparison of the old (sourced) whiskey by John. In that piece, he noted the potential risk of inconsistency in blending acquired whiskeys over time. Indeed, the old-recipe Noah’s Mill was said to be a blend of rye mash bill bourbon with wheated mash bill bourbon (Willett has informed me that this is incorrect but has declined to provide additional information about where the old-style Noah’s Mill came from). This was in what I have previously referred to as the “Potemkin company” phase, when Willett was inventing enterprises to match its labels.
Whereas the labeling on the prior (sourced) whiskey read as follows:
Distilled in Kentucky, Bottled by
Noah’s Mill Distilling Company
Bardstown, Nelson Co. Kentucky
The new back label reads:
Distilled, Aged, and Bottled by
Bardstown, Nelson Co. Kentucky
In addition, there is a side tag with the batch number (20-08 in this case) and DSP-KY-78, the license number associated with Willett’s Bardstown distillery. There’s no information on mash bill, or whether this continues to be a blend of rye and wheated mash bill bourbons. I queried Willett about this and other matters, as I alluded to above. The most salient fact that came out of that interaction was that of the mash bill, said to be a “family recipe” of 72% corn, 13% rye, and 15% malted barley.
As mentioned above: this is batch number 20-08, and is bottled at 57.15%, consistent with prior bottlings of Noah’s Mill. My local charges $55 for a 750 ml bottle. I didn’t buy this; a sample was generously donated by Stuart, and he has my sincere thanks. You can purchase a bottle via SharedPour for $55.99.
Noah’s Mill Bourbon – Review
Color: Tarnished gold or rusty orange.
On the nose: Immediately, this has the sticky-sweet and exceedingly pleasant aroma of brown sugar simple syrup. A hint of cumin and some vanilla extract hide just beneath the surface, along with roasted chestnuts procured from street vendors in winter. Further sniffing yields scents of baking spice and crushed red peppercorn, as well as some characteristic rye aromas of aloe vera, key lime, and dill. Based on the nose alone, I would have wagered that Willett had eschewed the wheated mash bill for one including rye.
In the mouth: Pert, sharp, and angular, this enters the mouth like Tybalt enters the scene: with a brandished blade and a bad attitude. I am getting a heavy dill emphasis combined with some radiant heat at the front of the palate. Toward the middle of the mouth there’s a rich brown sugar flavor and a distinct note of water chestnuts, though this transitions immediately into the vegetal taste of celery stalks. There’s a momentary flavor of campfire before this shifts again into the finish, where a sense of polished wood fades abruptly, being replaced by a stale woody note, a residual hint of black tea, and a more intensely mouth-puckeringly acidic texture.
Do I like this flavor profile? Not especially. It feels effortful to drink, in the way that I prefer my whiskey not to be. If I’m going to struggle, I want to struggle to pick out one charming flavor from the next within a myriad kaleidoscope of delights. This, on the other hand, feels like whiskey to be tolerated. I endured but seldom enjoyed it, bar the few times that the more richly sweet flavors were able to poke their heads above all the harsh bitterness.
If you’re the type of person that relishes a vigorous kick in the nether regions, I can heartily commend the new-style Noah’s Mill to you. Those (myself included) who prefer to enjoy their entertainments and minimize their discomforts would do well to pass on this one. Reflecting that but allowing for the inevitable variance in tastes and preferences, it seems most fair to award this a score that sits below the average of our range.
Did I not have the details on the label available to me, I would have sworn up and down that this was Indiana’s finest traveling undercover; this whiskey is doing the world’s most convincing MGP impression. That could be a good or bad thing, again, as varies with one’s predilections. However polarizing his whiskey may be, it does not taste “good” to me, in the sense that the majority of our audience would understand that term to be applied. Though I hope (vainly) that this will be of some use to you, I am (realistically) sure this review pleases nobody, which is a territory I am accustomed to occupying.
Photograph kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange. And there is a commission link within this article if you wish to make a convenient purchase.