How about a cold start? No intro, no exposition, just straight into a review!
I’ve long wondered how a review composed blindly would shape up. I’m tempted by William Blake’s promise that “[i]f the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is.” Stripping away bias and preconception is the holy grail of whiskey reviewing, though it’s nearly impossible in practice.
My only “blind” tasting to date has been the time that Union Horse samples got mixed up; even then, I knew the distillery and the whiskeys involved. I guess you could say I toyed with this format not too long ago when I reviewed the Wathen’s Barrel Proof. That review offered me the opportunity to divorce myself from bias (hypothetically) by being unaware of the origin of the whiskey, though that had more to do with the opaque arrangements that support the sourced bourbon industry.
Today I’m prepared to do one better by tasting a whiskey (or even a whisky!) whose origins are completely obscure to me. It’s worth spending a moment on the means by which I accomplished this, not least because others might like to give the method a go.
The Malt readership is incredibly generous, reflecting the character of the whiskey community more broadly. People who stand nothing to gain (and, in fact, lose a little bit by paying for whiskey and shipping out of their own pockets) routinely send me several sample bottles of whisky to try. These pile up at an embarrassing rate, occasionally necessitating a wholesale clearing of the decks.
I have these samples on a shelf in my basement, arranged loosely in order of type, but with less-than-military discipline in even that practice. I approached said shelf, closed my eyes, extended my hand, felt around a bit, and plucked a bottle from the hoard. I have opened it without looking at the label, and I’ll now be reviewing it truly blind.
I have no idea what this cost, the bottling strength, whether it’s a bourbon, rye, Scotch whisky, or something else entirely. Here goes nothing:
Blind Sample – Review
Color: Medium golden orange.
On the nose: At first, the whiskey presents a pronounced fruitiness that reminds me of a wine cask finish. This mutates into a brandied cherry note with a heavy accent of spice. There’s a distinct aroma of star anise. Concentrating more, I begin to sense a raw, woody awkwardness that reminds me of young craft whiskey from small barrels. There’s a yeasty note of raw bread dough and some vague sweetness of candy coating, but I continue to return to that off scent.
In the mouth: The first sip brings back that anise note, though in a more intense form reminiscent of black licorice. There’s the oily, citric bitterness of orange peel on the tip of the tongue. The woody elements are at their worst in the middle of the mouth, where the aforementioned awkwardness meets with a tannic astringency that is unpleasantly bitter. This abates somewhat into the finish, but what remains is slightly still bad-tasting. The whiskey lingers with a tingle, and the top of the tongue becomes a bit numb after just a few sips.
At the risk of embarrassing myself, I’ll have a guess at some of the particulars: this is bourbon, likely with a rye mash bill. It’s young whiskey; I’d guess four years or less. I’m willing to wager that it’s from a craft producer. It tastes like it has been matured in small barrels, 15 or 30 gallons perhaps. Based on the mouthfeel, I’d guess that the bottling strength is likely 100 to 110 proof (50-55% ABV).
As for the whiskey itself: there were some intriguing notes, particularly those anise and black licorice aromas and flavors. If that’s indicative of the house style (whatever the house may be), I’d like to see them presented more clearly. This needs more time in full-sized barrels, however; the awkward woodiness is as bad on this as on any craft whiskey I have tried, particularly on the palate.
Now comes the tricky part: our scoring bands on Malt are price-sensitive, and I have no idea what this bottle cost. If I’m right about the above, this is likely somewhere in the $40-50/bottle range. I didn’t like the whiskey, and at that price I’d be inclined to shave two points off of average, leaving us with…
Now for the big reveal…
Looking at the label on the sample bottle, I immediately recognize Ryan’s handwriting. As it turns out, the whiskey is one he has reviewed before in this space: “The Mattie Gladden” from Spirits of French Lick.
So, how did I do?
This is, indeed, bourbon with a rye mash bill. Looking back on Ryan’s interview with Alan Bishop, it’s interesting that the initial impression was a fruity one, given the brandy yeast mentioned by Alan. As the whiskey carries the bottled in bond designation, it is bottled at 100 proof. It’s also four years old (at least, though probably not much more).
Where did I err? I was surprised to learn that Spirits of French Lick uses only 53 gallon barrels, given the domineering wood influence that I typically associate with smaller vessels. I did notice that they have a #2 char, which is less than the standard #3. As the char layer is responsible for the filtering out of impurities, perhaps this is the source of some of the off notes I detected? As for the price: Seelbach’s has this for $56, which doesn’t change my opinion or score.
It’s always interesting when two reviewers diverge significantly in our judgment and scoring. I’ll reiterate: tastes and preferences are individual, and it’s totally acceptable that two contributors here would have a difference of opinion. Ryan’s not right and I’m not wrong, or vice-versa, we just liked and disliked various things about this in unequal proportions.
I’m grateful that Ryan shared this sample with me and relieved that I wasn’t too badly incorrect about its identity. Though I wish I liked it more, I’ll keep an open mind about this distillery specifically, as well as the broader craft distilling scene. Wonderful things can happen when we continue to mature, and this goes as much for whiskey as for the folks that make it.
Empty bottle photo courtesy of Amazon. Bottle photo courtesy of Spirits of French Lick.
Nicely done. I do enjoy the brutal honesty of this format. More blind tasting articles would be very welcome.
Thank you Richard. I don’t know about “brutality,” but blind tasting certainly forced me to set aside my preconceptions and focus on the elements in the glass which were – in this case – lacking. I’ll try to remember to periodically return to this style. Cheers!
That was some master sommelier exam-level blind testing calls on the details of what was in the glass. Well-done!
Jon, kind of you to say! Hopefully this exercise convinces some readers that my palate isn’t as bad as they might think? ;p