What’s the dumbest thing in whiskey?
Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of fully justified responses to this question. This hobby, passion – whatever you want to call it – it brings out breathtakingly idiotic behavior in otherwise reasonable people. Folks who are regularly entrusted with child supervision, the care of domestic animals, and/or the operation of heavy machinery are suddenly found acting like nitwits when bourbon enters the picture.
I’m not even referring to the lapses of good sense that come with overconsumption. No, the missteps I’m referring to here are presumably made when sober; they’re unforced errors of the most egregious variety. We’ve covered a few of them here: chasing down limited editions of dubious quality, shelling out a premium for repackaged whiskey from an anonymous source, or overpaying for low-spec whiskey because of a tenuous celebrity endorsement.
These are all moronic behaviors, but I could easily attribute them to non-malevolent causes like naivete or gullibility or curiosity left unchecked. There’s a worse category of misbehavior, though, in which the con becomes the mark and is left holding the bag. It’s a practical application of the “greater fool” theory: overpaying for a whiskey because the whiskey is superficially like another whiskey that other people are overpaying for, with the implied endgame of selling those benighted souls the substitute whiskey for a markup on the markup paid to acquire it.
Whether this mendacity is stupidity squared, stupidity on stilts, or deserves some other alliterative appellation, I’ll leave to your discerning judgment, dear reader. In the meantime, I’ll be reviewing two whiskeys that provoke reactions which, at first glance, seem to fit this description to a “T.”
We’ve talked before about the Buffalo Trace “halo effect,” whereby everyday whiskeys assume the status of collectibles because of real or imagined similarities to the unobtainable allocated whiskeys in that distillery’s portfolio. “Can’t get Pappy? Buy up all the Weller. Missed out on the Antique Collection? Clean your local store out of Eagle Rare.” (I am phrasing it this way as an indication of the mindset rather than as an exhortation to do these things. Do not do these things. That would be cretinous.)
The whiskeys we’ll be considering today are both distilled by Buffalo Trace from their higher rye mash bill (reputed to be between 12% and 15% rye). Those of you with superior memories will recall that this is the same mash bill from which Elmer T. Lee and Blanton’s bourbons originate. Yes, that Blanton’s: the one that is supposed to retail for $65 but for which sellers are asking (and taters are paying) $200. Like Blanton’s and “ETL,” these are both “single barrel” expressions.
You’ll be unsurprised to learn that these bourbons – which, based on their technical specifications alone, should not engender any irrational exuberance – have quickly followed their allocated brethren in becoming scarce and marked up, when they do appear “in the wild.” I started clicking through the Instagram channels that monitor egregious bourbon pricing and found some extraordinarily silly numbers slapped on these bottles, which I will reference later.
To clear up matters, I got in contact with Amy Preske, PR manager for Buffalo Trace. My many questions (and Amy’s answers) can be found peppered throughout these reviews. To start:
Malt: I noticed that neither of these brands are featured on the Buffalo Trace website. Any reason?
Amy: No particular reason. These are very small brands.
Let us, then, consider these “very small brands.” First we have Rock Hill Farms, which originated in 1985, following on from the successful launch of the Blanton’s brand the prior year. “Named for the rich farmland along the Kentucky River,” per the Great Bourbon site, This brand (as well as Hancock’s President’s Reserve) was sold to the Age International company, itself bought by Takara Shuzo of Japan, which retains ownership of the brands (confirmed by Amy) and has a contract-distilling-and-domestic-distribution arrangement with Buffalo Trace.
Malt: The label says this is a “single barrel;” are these barrels also picked from a single warehouse, in the manner of Blanton’s?
Amy: No, these barrels are aged in a variety of warehouses at Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Malt: What distinguishes Rock Hill Farms from other Buffalo Trace expressions with this mash bill?
Amy: Age, proof and taste.
Rock Hill Farms comes to us at 100 proof (50% ABV). SRP for this is $50; the first bottle of Rock Hill Farms I saw on Instagram had a $400 price tag, to give you some indication of the goofiness afoot here. Fortunately, I was spared the need to act the fool by Mike, who generously donated both these samples.
Rock Hill Farms – Review
On the nose: The dominant note is the intense smell of butterscotch. This has some woody accents, the sweetly rubbery scent of pink pencil eraser, and some sticky banana taffy at the margin, but no amount of attentive sniffing is able to get me past that overarching scent. I want to reach just past it to get to the fruit that I sense is underneath, but I can’t. It’s not bad, except in that it crowds out most everything else in the way of aromatic nuance.
In the mouth: That butterscotch note carries through at the fore, suddenly turning to a tart and sweet burst of lemon-flavored hard candy as the whiskey greets the tongue. This knits together nicely at the center of the mouth, with rich, sour, sweet, and stony notes intertwining. Just when I wish this would be more persistent, the whiskey slips quietly away, leaving a faint aftertaste (again, that irrepressible butterscotch) and a radiant warmth, indicative of the relatively higher bottling strength.
This was one-note throughout, bar an elusive moment of balance in the mouth. That instant was appealing but also frustrating, as it hinted at the potential that this bourbon fails to deliver. I’m scoring this below average, not based on any conspicuous flaws, but rather to reflect the relative simplicity of this compared with the many comparably priced options available.
Next comes Hancock’s President’s Reserve. The Great Bourbon page for this expression informs us that “In 1775, the Leestown settlement was established along the banks of the Kentucky River by Willis and Hancock Lee. Soon this became a well-known shipping port for tobacco, hemp and whiskey. The Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey pays tribute to the pioneering spirit of Hancock Lee.”
Setting aside that brief history lesson, there’s very little information about this brand, similar to Rock Hill Farms. Another peculiarity is the bottling strength of 88.9 proof (44.45%). Back to Amy:
Malt: The label says this is also a “single barrel;” are these barrels also picked from a single warehouse?
Amy: No, these barrels are aged in a variety of warehouses at Buffalo Trace Distillery.
Malt: I noticed the unique proof on this of 88.9. Is there a story behind this or some reason for this number particularly?
Hancock’s President’s Reserve – Review
Color: A more pale golden maize color.
On the nose: Altogether fresher, this presents ample floral and fruity notes: ripe honeydew melon, a spring bouquet, and confectioners sugar. I also sense a bit of lime and peppermint, albeit coming across faintly. There’s a slightly woodsy accent of pine trees, but overall this is all treble and no bass. There’s not much on the darker and richer end of the spectrum here, which would have been a welcome counterpoint to the overwhelmingly cheery disposition of this one.
In the mouth: Noticeably lower in strength than its predecessor, this starts with a gentle and subdued sweetness. There’s a bit of rounding out as this approaches the center of the mouth, where a woody richness (echoing the dominant note of the Rock Hill Farms) begins to bloom. The faintly sweet flavor of bubblegum emerges as this progresses toward the finish. There’s a faintly lingering heat here, but otherwise this fades relatively quickly.
Like the Rock Hill Farms, this doesn’t have any off-notes on which to fixate. Rather, it’s stuck in a relatively narrow range of the potential aroma and flavor spectrum. What’s there is nice, but (once again) this falls short of justifying its price tag, particularly considering the other bottles readily available on the store shelf for $50. Consistent with the prior whiskey, I am shaving a point off of average.
I’d think I’d rather have Elmer T. Lee (at the roughly $40 SRP) than either of these. Each has high points but is ultimately incomplete, reflected in scores a notch below average for both of these. They slightly underperform for SRP; paying a multiple (or many multiples) of that price? Well, that’s just… you know.