Is the strange more interesting than the familiar?
Spend enough time looking for whiskey, reading about it, talking about it, and thinking about it, and eventually you’ll start to feel like you’ve seen and heard it all. From my own personal experience, a seemingly “new” brand or expression is often just a fresh coat of paint on whiskey I’ve tried before.
While craft distilleries dot the landscape like stars in the night sky, there are a finite number of whiskey producers prolific enough that we’d be expected to encounter their wares with any type of regularity. The behemoth distillers of Kentucky and Tennessee – along with their counterpart in Lawrenceburg, Indiana – account for an overwhelming majority of the whiskey that a casual sipper will normally be drinking. Even a store shelf stocked with a diverse range of labels likely draws predominately from this troop of a dozen-or-so 800-pound gorillas.
It is thus with sourced whiskey as well. An eye-catching label or shapely bottle creates the appearance of something different, but the liquid is disappointingly familiar. Bar a few exceptions in which exotic cask finishes or inspired blending come into play, most of what’s out there will taste a lot like the rest of what’s out there.
The subject of today’s review comes from a company that gives us a lot of the same old same old, and a little bit of the novel. I’m happy that I’ll be able to focus on that latter part, bringing you a review of a whiskey that is, at least in terms of its specifications, unlike anything else I have ever tasted.
Proof and Wood is a Connecticut-based bottler with a portfolio of spirits comprising whiskey, rum, and genever. Its founder, Dave Schmier, was a partner at an “Experiential Marketing Agency” until 2002, when he shifted his attention to the booze business. Mr. Schmier was early to the sourced whiskey party and had his first hit with the Redemption label, comprised of bourbons and ryes acquired from MGP.
Following the sale of the Redemption brand to Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits in 2015, Schmier started his current company, Proof and Wood. Per the Proof and Wood site: “Our name comes from the two things we control as a blender and finisher of fine spirits, and the two things that are incredibly important to any spirit’s flavor: the proof it’s bottled at, and the wood of the barrel we age it in.”
I first became aware of Proof and Wood when I noticed their Washington DC-themed range of bourbon and ryes such as “The Senator” and “The Justice.” I thought this an interesting choice of branding, given Congress’ persistently low approval ratings. A cursory glance at their specifications left me unenthused; it appeared to be the same Dickel, MGP, and Kentucky (likely Barton, Beam, and/or Heaven Hill) stock, repackaged and repriced to pad the pockets of an intermediary.
If these Federalist era-inspired labels represent more of the usual, Proof and Wood’s Curated Collection is anything but. The quartet of bottlings in this category are a grab bag of blended rum, superannuated MGP light whiskey, and the subject of today’s review: a Polish rye whiskey.
My hometown of Chicago is said to boast a Polish population of 1.9 million people in the metropolitan area, making it the largest Polish city on Earth, slightly bigger than Warsaw. Despite our many members of the Polish diaspora, my experience with the distilled spirits of Poland has heretofore been limited to Vodka and Goldwasser. I’m excited to taste this as a part of my global whiskey education, whether or not it ends up being any good.
As for the specifics: this was distilled in Poland from a mash bill of 100% rye. Aged seven years in the U.S. in ex-bourbon and ex-rye barrels, this is a 10 barrel batch bottled at 105 proof. Going rate for a 750 ml bottle seems to be around $75, which is the price I will use to evaluate this for the purposes of our price-sensitive Scoring Bands. (This was a sample generously donated by Jacob, who has my sincere thanks and a hearty Na Zdrowie!).
The Stranger Polish Whiskey – Review
Color: Lustrous gold.
On the nose: Golden as well, if that makes any sense? Think of all the gold-toned foods you can: honey, apricot marmalade, and a savory scent of gooey melted cheese in the manner of queso fundido or saganaki. For balance, there is a piquant rye spicyness that strikes me as a very pure manifestation of this grain’s essential flavors. I get a whiff of dill (speaking of MGP) that then metamorphoses seamlessly into more robust “green” notes of pine sap. Tickling the upper parts of the nostrils is a scent of black pepper that has an almost sneeze-inducing veracity.
In the mouth: The first kiss is a grainy and peppery bite that startles the tongue. Hints of the richer notes from the nose make a momentary appearance as this approaches the middle of the mouth, however they quickly fade into a stale and sour woodiness as this whiskey hits the the top of the tongue. Texturally, this loses its poise and falls over a bit as it reaches the finish, as the concentration and delineation of the flavors dissipate in favor of a dilute and muddled woodiness with a vague chocolate nuance. The finish is a bitter aftertaste of dill, wood, and grain in an extracted and dried out form that creates a mildly unpleasant feeling throughout the mouth.
The nose held so much promise, but the palate was mostly a wreck. A tease of those luscious flavors at the very front of the mouth was about as good as it got; from there, this degenerated into unbalanced notes that were bitter to the point of tasting a bit foul. I’m not sure whether this is intrinsic to the distillate, or whether this was imparted by the maturation in the bourbon and rye casks. In all, I’m docking this a couple points and encouraging curious drinkers to steer clear.
I’m sorry to say that a bit of geographic exploration went badly wrong here, but I won’t let that dissuade me. So long as there are new distilleries in new regions bringing us legitimately new whiskeys, at least we won’t die of boredom. Expect to see more of this type of thing here on Malt, hopefully with better results!
Image courtesy of Top Shelf Wine & Spirits.