“I look forward to following this craft distillery’s progress in the future.” – me, repeatedly.
Do I really, though? I mean, I write those words at the end of lots of reviews, usually when I have tasted a basically-OK-but-obviously-young whiskey from a burgeoning distillery. I’m trying to be constructive and optimistic, rather than just lazily reverting to the knee-jerk rejection of anything that would not be considered “mature” by a more established whiskey making operation (typically 6+ years).
However often I profess to keeping an open mind and revisiting these upstarts, I seldom find myself putting these intentions into action. The reasons for my dereliction are manifold; first among them is the constant distraction of new whiskeys. Whether these are novel expressions from longstanding producers or entirely new brands (either distilled or sourced), I am as susceptible to anyone to the siren song of a fresh bottling, relative to something I have already experienced.
At least, that’s the charitable interpretation. Secretly, though, I also harbor a gnawing suspicion that things aren’t really going to get much better over time. After all, if a craft distiller can make the nut and satisfy their investors by churning out palatable-but-unspectacular young whiskey, why would they incur the additional costs to extend aging? Is the hope of something more flavorful worth the gamble, from a business perspective?
I’m tarring a great many distilleries with a very fat brush, here. One of the happy exceptions to these aforementioned rules is Iowa’s Cedar Ridge. Not only were they kind enough to send me small bottles of their core range when I initially reviewed their whiskey, but they have periodically followed up with samples of their newer releases. I really enjoyed their “QuintEssential” malt whiskey, and was glad to report then that the bottling strength across their basic bourbons and ryes had increased.
Viewed objectively, Cedar Ridge appears to be taking the requisite steps in terms of its maturation (no pun intended) as a craft distillery. This has had the desired effect on their reputation, as I increasingly notice Cedar Ridge being praised by the types of Serious Bourbon Professionals ™ whose opinions are far more influential than mine.
That’s no skin off my nose, though. On the contrary: rather than having to taste the same whiskeys repeatedly in the hopes of some magical improvement, I am able to point to discrete changes and specific new formats that augur a better drinking experience. This seems, to my inexperienced eye (having neither worked the still nor run the numbers of a craft whiskey business) to balance gustatory and economic concerns: develop and steadily improve a solid core range, while having some fun at the margins with limited releases in more premium formats. Other craft distilleries would do well to mind Cedar Ridge’s example.
Speaking of new formats: I have in front of me a pair of whiskeys from Cedar Ridge (again, provided by them, which does not affect my notes or scores) comprising their fall seasonal release. On paper, these appear to be different in a way that piques my interest by promising additional flavor.
Starting off with the Double Barrel bourbon: this is the distillery’s flagship bourbon, finished in a second new oak barrel. Per the press release, this was done “to capture the flavors of [the second barrel’s] freshly charred staves.” Bottled at 105 proof (52.5% ABV), a 750 ml of this carries a suggested retail price of $50.
Cedar Ridge Double Barrel Bourbon – Review
Color: Medium golden brown.
On the nose: An immediate aromatic marriage of creamy oak and ripe apricot jumps out of the glass. Within moments, spicy accents of sarsaparilla, nutmeg, and cloves start to creep in. Exotic notes of sandalwood incense, kola nut, and blood orange extract give the strong impression that we’re not in Iowa anymore, Toto.
In the mouth: The first kiss leaves a perky tingle of spice on the tongue. This evolves the dried floral flavor of potpourri as it moves toward the center of the mouth. I get an effervescent texture on this which, combined with some of the kola nut flavors echoed from the nose, might fool me into thinking that I’m drinking this bourbon mixed with one of those fancy gourmet soda pops. These spicy notes persist through the finish, which has a pert stoniness that plays well against the seasoned woodiness. This lingers long, with a tingly heat prickling the inner lips and gums.
One of the best whiskeys I have tried from Cedar Ridge, easily the equal of the very enjoyable QuintEssential malt whiskey. I was worried about the double barrel finish putting too much woody extraction into the bourbon, but this wasn’t a problem in the least. Rather, the abundance of exuberant spice notes was an unexpected and delightful surprise. Cedar Ridge has successfully delivered a unique flavor experience that justifies the very fair price, deserving a solidly positive score.
A difficult act to follow, but next up we have the Bottled-in-Bond straight rye whiskey. I love it when craft distillers embrace the Bottled-in-Bond format; I think it demonstrates seriousness and enhances credibility. At a minimum, we get a whiskey of a respectable age featuring a solid ABV. The press release makes note of “the complexity from the 4 years the unpredictable Iowa climate imparted.” This comes to us at the statutory 100 proof (50% ABV) and carries the same retail price ($50).
Cedar Ridge Bottled-in-Bond Rye – Review
Color: Medium-pale amber.
On the nose: Another marriage of fruit and cream to begin, this time with ripe citrus fruit notes and aloe-scented hand cream. There’s an intense floral aromatic aspect to this, in the manner of a very concentrated eau de parfum. I’m getting more spicy and woody accents on this than I did on the old 43% malted rye bottling. Some time in the glass results in the emergence of Dubble Bubble chewing gum. As with the last whiskey, there’s exotic incense notes as well as coriander and cardamom that are more suggestive of India than Iowa, in the best of ways.
In the mouth: More amorphous to begin with, this has a somewhat muddled taste of black tea as it meets the tongue. That bubblegum flavor reappears at the midpalate, meeting astringent notes of pine resin. As this approaches the finish, there’s a slight awkwardness that sits somewhere between yeast and wood. The whiskey sort of falls apart into the finish, where a vague aftertaste of cinnamon chewing gum and a faintly peppery flavor remain for a few moments before this disappears, leaving a grainy, tannic texture and a mild heat.
This lacks focus and poise in comparison to the bourbon. In the mouth, particularly, this has several awry and off-kilter flavors that detract from the overall presentation. Whether that’s a result of the age or has another source, I can’t say conclusively. However, I’m not a repeat customer at $50, so I’m scoring this a notch below average.
As will now be obvious to all, those intending to pick up a bottle from Cedar Ridge’s fall outturn have my strong urging to opt for the Double Barrel bourbon. What may not be quite as obvious is that Cedar Ridge should be a mandatory stop on any “tour” (in actual or liquid form) of American craft distilleries. The whiskeys that miss the mark slightly are more than compensated for by the ones that soar. I’d say this anyway, but I really mean it when I tell you that I look forward to following Cedar Ridge’s progress in the future!
Whiskey and photos courtesy of Cedar Ridge.