Do you believe in the blender’s art? The answer to this question may depend heavily on where you’re from.
Blended Scotch whisky predates modern single malt Scotch (as we know it); it has long existed as a recognized category of its own. What blended Scotch lacks in prestige – at least among a certain set of whisky enthusiasts – it makes up for in ubiquity; marquee blends from well-known houses routinely top the lists of the highest-selling whisky brands globally. With this establishment comes the respect due the craftspeople that blend the malt and grain whiskies. Master blenders like Dr. Jim Beveridge are regarded in the industry and beyond; Beveridge received an O.B.E. from Her Majesty The Queen for his services to Scotch whisky.
Blended whiskey is less popular in the U.S., and there’s less of an ingrained culture around blends as a consequence. “Master Blenders” seem to pop up daily at “distilleries” that do no distilling, making a mockery of the concept of “mastery.” The result is that astute whiskey consumers have come to view these products – whose sole point of differentiation is their supposedly inspired barrel selection and blending – with a healthy dose of skepticism.
At this point, some clarification of terminology is likely warranted. Bar single barrel bottlings, every bourbon whiskey released by a distillery has been created by a blender. This is a distillery employee, usually long tenured, who is selecting barrels from various locations across rickhouses and floors. The aim is to achieve a consistent flavor profile; every bottle of a mainstay expression should taste the same as every other bottle. “Blending” in this sense is indubitably a skill, as well as a key component of the quality control process.
The resultant whiskeys are a blend of barrels from the same distillery, more similar to a single malt Scotch whisky than to a blended Scotch. To avoid confusion, we’ll refer to these as “batched” bourbons, rather than blends. So, what is a blend?
TTB regulations define “blended whisky” as:
“[A] mixture which contains straight whisky or a blend of straight whiskies at not less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis, excluding alcohol derived from added harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials, and, separately, or in combination, whisky or neutral spirits.”
Based on the above, it’s clear that not all blends are created equal. For example, a marriage of 20% ABV straight whiskies and neutral spirits would be the type of bottom-shelf bastardization that serious bourbon drinkers would scorn. This low-end blend category is, I believe, the foundation on which a lot of the skepticism about blends broadly is based.
However, the TTB also has categories (including the appellation of the spirit I’ll be considering) that adhere to more strict criteria for the components. Under existing rules, a combination of more than one straight whiskey can be labeled as “a blend of straight whiskies.” Whiskeys labeled thus ameliorate the concerns about the inclusion of lesser spirit types in the previous example.
In the former case, the desire is likely to stretch whiskey as far as possible. In taking the more demanding approach to blending, the aspiration would be to achieve a unique flavor profile, with a complexity that is in excess of what would otherwise be available from a single distillery. One such blend of straight bourbon whiskeys is the subject of today’s review, courtesy of Pursuit Spirits.
Pursuit Spirits is the brainchild of Kenny Coleman and Ryan Cecil. Kenny and Ryan will be familiar to bourbon lovers as co-hosts of the Bourbon Pursuit podcast. There’s an episode of said podcast in which Fred Minnick turns the tables and interviews the duo about the process of making this whiskey; please give it a listen if you’re interested in the backstory.
The Pursuit pair aren’t alone in their foray into blending. There’s now a cottage category encompassing players like Bardstown Bourbon Company, Barrell, and High West, providing varying degrees of transparency about where these whiskeys came from. Occasionally, specific distilleries are named or can be figured out by process of elimination. Other times, we’ve got more sketchy information about the state or states in which the elemental whiskeys were distilled.
So, what have we got here, in this bottle of Pursuit United? It’s comprised of three bourbon whiskeys from three distilleries in three states: Bardstown Bourbon Company (KY), Finger Lakes Distilling (NY), and a Tennessee distillery called “Undisclosed, not in Tullahoma.” This latter footnote indicates that this is not Dickelwhisky, an important clarification given the glut of sourced whisky from the Cascade Hollow distillery hitting the market at the moment. I particularly like that this incorporates smaller craft distilleries into the blend, as opposed to relying on the same sources as the remainder of the crowd (e.g. Heaven Hill, Barton, and MGP).
Though a relatively high degree of transparency has been provided by the Pursuit team, I had a few questions that I put to Kenny Coleman via email. His reponses are below:
Malt: Understanding that you’re not disclosing the source of the TN whiskey, may I inquire whether this is from an incumbent producer or what we might call a startup or craft producer?
Kenny: This producer has a fairly large operation that is beyond craft scale. Part of the agreement of working with them is everything is under NDA.
Malt: Your materials mention both rye and wheated mash bills. Are you able to disclose which of each came from the respective states and distilleries? Is there anything specifically interesting about any of the component mash bills? High rye or wheat, heirloom grains, etc.?
Kenny: Finger Lakes is their standard wheated mash bill of 70% corn, 20% wheat, 10% barley. From Bardstown Bourbon Company, we use one of their flagships, which is 78% corn, 10% rye, 12% barley. The Tennessee bourbon is 80% corn, 10% rye, 10% barley.
Our value is in the blend amounts, proof, and finding all the right pieces of the puzzle. It was over a year in development of trying to find the right partners and dealing with the rollercoaster of the sourced market. That’s why we decided to build this based on partnerships and not sourcing, because anything built on a sourced product is a huge gamble. So now we are putting down our own new make at these partners to continue this blend and scale it up over the years.
Malt: I’ve been looking over the TTB regulations and haven’t been able to pin down the specific labeling requirements when blending whiskies from different states. What did you and Ryan learn about this in the process of getting approval? Any tidbits of interest?
Kenny: When we launched Pursuit Spirits, I read the TTB BAM probably 10 times. I knew, when we got to this point, we likely couldn’t just use “straight bourbon,” so I went researching. When you marry straight bourbons from different states, the legal class is “a blend of straight bourbon whiskeys”.
A bit of backstory: we originally submitted the line to say “Straight Bourbon Whiskey Blend,” but it was rejected and we had to go with a TTB approved class which ended up being “Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskeys.” The word “blended” seems like a bad word in bourbon, and we even had people tell us we had to remove the word “blend” or it won’t sell. Legally, we cannot do that, and it’s a consumer education process so they understand that there is no GNS [grain neutral spirit] in blended straight bourbon whiskeys.
Malt: Who do you consider your competitors in the blended bourbon market? Barrell, Bardstown Bourbon Company, and High West all come to mind. What do you think distinguishes Pursuit United from products from those other companies?
Kenny: It’s really difficult to call companies we admire our “competition.” Everyone has the ability to bring great quality products to market. We’re such a small player that I feel it will be a long time before we ever reach the average bourbon consumer.
The focus of our whiskeys has always been tailored to the enthusiasts, our audience, and those that share our same passion. I still love the opportunity to preach about our passion with the average consumer, and we’re excited to do more virtual education sessions and in-person soon. The whiskey community never gets tired of trying something new, so there is an opportunity for everyone to have a seat at the table.
I feel that Pursuit United creates a few “firsts.” First bourbon brand to be conceived, blended, and launched by bourbon podcasters. The first blended bourbon to incorporate craft distillery components like Finger Lakes Distilling (and soon Sagamore) into a large-scale blend that distributes to multiple markets with a consistent profile.
Our mission right now is not changing the recipe but to scale it larger. We’re really excited about the blend and want this to be a staple item on every bourbon shelf in the future.
Thanks to Kenny for sharing his thoughts.
On the aforementioned podcast, Kenny and Ryan noted that the price point (SRP of $65) was meant to keep this whiskey in contention as an everyday sipper. The first batch of 10 barrels (released in January 2021) was followed by this 40-barrel batch in July of this year, with 9,342 bottles in the release. The recipe remains the same, and the comments in the interview indicate that Pursuit United will maintain this recipe consistently in the future, supported by long-term supply contracts with the distilleries (the team is now filling 1,100 barrels per year).
A few more specifics, before I dive in: this is bottled at 108 proof (54% ABV), which will be consistent going forward. As noted above, SRP is $65. Currently it is available from Seelbach’s, as well as at select retailers in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas. This was a sample provided free of charge by Pursuit Spirits; per Malt policy, this does not affect my notes or scores.
Pursuit United – Review
Color: Medium-dark golden brown.
On the nose: Sumptuously fruity straightaway, this presents a delicious-smelling combination of extremely ripe apricot, peach, and tangerine aromas. While the aromatic profile remains firmly centered on this abundant, luscious fruit, what most captivates me is the more diverse elements playing at the margins. From the creamy sweetness of birthday cake frosting, to fragrant sandalwood incense, to a dry chalkiness, to a resinous whiff of pine, to a very gentle roast meatiness, to a spicy note of sarsaparilla, this has fascinating accents that prevent the aromatic profile from being one-note, no matter how delightful that note may be. I’m strongly enticed to take a sip.
In the mouth: Starting with subtle notes of walnut and wood, this takes an off-bitter citric note of orange peel married with roasty and fruity flavors of espresso beans as it moves into the middle of the mouth. At the center of the palate, this once again coalesces into a dominant flavor of fruit, but this time of a more sharp, citric variety. Gaining a sweet oaky note of vanilla as this moves toward the finish, I pick up a reprise of the dry stony elements from the nose. The finish shows some notes of cacao and orange that are bitter, but not unpleasantly so. The bottling strength feels about right, with some tingly heat that stops short of crowding out the flavors or numbing the tongue.
Overall, this delivers on the promise of improving on its source material through astute blending. “Unique” does not necessarily equate to “good,” but this blend is both. High points include that wonderfully fruity nose, balanced by varied accents from all over the aromatic spectrum. The palate tacks in a different direction entirely, but I still find elements to like at every stage through the flavor progression and finish.
This is good quality sipping whiskey that can be appreciated by serious bourbon aficionados, as well as those newer to the hobby. It’s also priced at a level that means it can be enjoyed more casually, as a small daily indulgence. I like this; I’d buy a bottle if I saw one at retail, and I’d encourage my friends to give it a try. With all that in mind, I am awarding this a point above average and commending Ryan and Kenny for releasing a highly satisfying maiden blend.