It’s been a long road…
My personal tally of craft whiskey reviews on this site numbers 49, or an even 50 once I have completed today’s piece. The scores awarded have ranged from 2/10 to 9/10, with an average of 5.2. This compares to my overall average of 5.6, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Those of you unfortunate enough to have read my recent rants will know that I am approaching craft whiskey with less bright-eyed enthusiasm than in my early days of exploring the category. Experience has triumphed over hope. There’s a whole lot of craft whiskey out there… you know what? Fine, I’ll say it: there’s too much craft whiskey out there.
Even those craft distilleries that tick most or every box on my mental checklist sometimes fall short when it comes to the finished product. Locally-sourced grains, long fermentations, narrow cuts (most everyone claims to have narrow cuts), and adequate maturation in full-sized barrels are necessary – but not sufficient – preconditions for producing good whiskey.
Let’s talk about “good” in the craft context: it’s no longer adequate for craft whiskey just to be palatable, inoffensive, or mild. Judging a whiskey on whether it can be used as a component of a Manhattan or Old Fashioned and not completely spoil the drink lowers the bar to a preposterously low level, one that all but the most rotten of examples can easily clear.
This is especially so in light of the high prices frequently asked for craft whiskeys, in comparison to what else is on the shelf. Look, I get it: there are economies of scale for large producers, and inversely there are diseconomies of scale for smaller producers. The cost of cooperage is an interesting example: a 15-gallon barrel holds less than a third of what a full-sized 53-gallon barrel does, but does not cost 66% less.
All that said, I am not willing to grant any special dispensation for craft producers because the dollars in your wallet and mine don’t go any farther if they’re being spent on Joe Blow’s Craft Whiskey rather than Jim Beam. I evaluate and score craft whiskey in terms of the flavor it delivers for the price. Therefore, if I give a good review to a craft whiskey, you can be sure it’s because it delivered solid bang for the buck, rather than because of any sentimental fondness I may have for the little guy.
With that ominous preamble out of the way, let’s take a look at just one of these little guys. Long Road Distillers is Grand Rapids, Michigan’s first distillery. They make a straight bourbon whiskey (the subject of today’s review), a straight rye whiskey, straight corn whiskey, and wheat whiskey. They also make Amaro, Aquavit, Brandy, Gin, Rum, Vodka, and an array of liqueurs and other potables. In total, their website lists 18 products.
At this point, I’d normally cut away to an interview with one of the distillery’s founders or the head distiller, giving more detail on the history of the business, the philosophy and process of producing whiskey, and the specifics of the expression I’m reviewing. However, Long Road has not responded to any of my attempts to contact them via their website or across several social media platforms. I’ll reserve this space in case they ever decide to get back in touch.
Absent any direct input from Long Road, we’ll have to make due with this quote from their website: “We put everything into getting this one just right, starting with the grain we source from a farmer we know by name, and by taking the time to let the spirit develop in 53-gallon casks for nearly 3 years.”
We know this is a four-grain straight bourbon, all coming from Western Michigan: corn, rye and red Winter Wheat from Heffron Farms in Belding, and malted barley from Pilot Malt House in Byron Center. The whiskey comes to us non-chill filtered and is said to be from a batch comprising three barrels, aged “2+ years,” per the label. It is bottled at 93 proof (46.5% ABV). Suggested retail price for this is $45. However, this was a Christmas gift from my mother-in-law (thanks, Rita!), hence the festive wrapping paper in the background of the photo.
Long Road Bourbon – review
Color: Medium-pale dusty orange.
On the nose: Initially, this had the most delightfully, richly fruity and creamy nose of any whiskey I have ever had. It burst out of the glass with scents of peaches, freshly cut mango, ripe nectarine, and clementines. Underpinning this fruit basket was a hint of spearmint, pine needles, egg yolk, lightly chlorinated swimming pool, and some freshly planed wood notes.
Leaving the bottle to rest for a few weeks, I revisited this whiskey. There’s still plenty of captivating aromas, among them a sweet cinnamon note of hot apple cider. However the egg yolk is now increasingly forceful and the wood notes sharper, leaving this smelling a lot more like other young, awkward craft whiskeys.
In the mouth: Starts unpromisingly, with an off note of stale wood. The fruity aromas reappear here in synthetic form, as a set of disjointedly acrid and sickly-sweet sensations that challenge the palate, and not in a good way. This finishes with a residual flavor of cherry cough syrup.
Again, returning after a few weeks: that stale wood note is still there at the front of the mouth. The fruit has died down, leaving only a vestigial sense of some of the more appealing aspects of the nose. That cinnamon nuance is the sole remaining flavor as this finishes with a mildly hot texture and disappears with a whisper.
I was captivated by my first whiff of this; maybe Long Road really had managed to deliver something different and better than the rest of the bourbon whiskey on the shelf? Unfortunately, that hope was dashed by an initial taste. Not one to rush to judgment, I revisited this periodically and found no improvement, but rather a degradation of the few appealing notes that were there.
Absent any information from the distillery, I can guess as well as you can about the causes of these unappealing flavors: short fermentation, wide cuts, and insufficiently long maturation are the usual suspects. About the only culprit we can rule out is small-sized barrels, based on the company’s aforementioned claims. It doesn’t matter, though. This is a textbook example of why craft whiskey has turned off so many would-be enthusiasts, and another unfortunate rebuke to those who would dare to venture off the beaten path.