”I don’t need a friend who changes when I change, and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better” – Plutarch
The wisdom above arrives to us today from the period of Middle Platonism via a philosopher known to staunchly defend the freedom of the will, which is to say: the guy believed in doing things your own way. It seems to be a relevant passage when considering the contemporary state of so-called “wheaters” or wheated bourbon.
When the conversation arises, it tends to either begin or ultimately find its way to the topic of the Pappy Van Winkle and Weller lineup from Buffalo Trace. This is due to the fact that they are among the most well-known wheated bourbons as well as being, perhaps, the most highly regarded by aficionados. The lore of Pappy Van Winkle and the halo it casts on the Weller lineup has been the subject of countless articles, books, plus even a docuseries. Due to that inordinate attention from creative types, critics, and consumers, the attention has naturally spread to other whiskey-producing companies.
Whether it be those issuing age-stated wheated bourbons in the vein of Pappy Van Winkle (such as Old Fitzgerald’s decanter series in 2018) or turning to barrel proof wheaters similar to Weller Full Proof (a la Larceny’s Barrel Proof-pivot in 2020), it would seem these moves are made in an attempt to produce a desirable alternative to some of the hardest-to-find American made whiskeys. While these expressions certainly have their own merits despite being imitations of a sort, where brands truly excel is in embracing their differences from the clubhouse leader.
Take, for example, the horde of enthusiastic fans Maker’s Mark has found waiting with open arms to celebrate their unique stave finished single barrel program. Or, if you’d like to continue down the road less traveled, one might take time to consider the subject of today’s review: McKenzie Bottled in Bond Bourbon.
Hailing from upstate New York, a region more known for its wine production, Finger Lakes Distilling has every reason to make their own mark on the wheated bourbon category. While New York bourbon has made recent strides toward national recognition, the most well-known NY whiskeys are made 5 hours southeast in Brooklyn. Additionally, Finger Lakes Distilling uses local grains in their whiskey and puts their distillate in the barrel for aging at an atypically low 100 proof, encouraging signs that they aren’t content with aping the elephant in the room.
Being a New Jersey native, I struggle to call this a “local” brand, seeing as how the drive up to their distillery is the equivalent time of a flight to California. But, being that it’s made in a neighboring state, I was keen on buying and trying this bottle. All of Finger Lakes Distilling’s whiskey products have good distribution throughout the tri-state area from what I’ve seen in my travels. I purchased this bottle at my nearest large chain store where several others have been sitting on the shelf for weeks, as it seems – despite the digital chatter in support of this expression – most people, even locally, are still unaware of its existence.
To get more information, I had a chance to chat with Brian McKenzie, founder of Finger Lakes. Brian is from the Finger Lakes region and loves whiskey, which is why he got into the business. Finger Lakes has been distilling for 13 years, making them one of the oldest distilleries in New York State. The idea was that despite the Finger Lakes being a region with a lot of wineries, Brian “thought it would be an interesting little niche” to have a distillery instead.
Why wheat? “We saw the interest,” says Brian. As a fan of rye spice in bourbon Brian, was keen on making that their standard release (non-wheated), but – in trying to figure out what would please the community they decided to go with a wheater – for their Bottled in Bond.
The choice to do a low barrel entry proof comes from Brian’s preference for the bourbons of the 50’s and 60’s. “I liked that flavor profile and, in researching the whiskey from that era, I found out that a lower entry proof was part of that.” This Bottled in Bond bourbon enters the barrel at 102 proof due to the barrels typically losing a little bit of proof during aging, so it is as close to a barrel proof as they can make it given Bottled in Bond standards and the whims of the angels. Finger Lakes’ standard enters bourbon enters the barrel between 100-102 proof.
As for some other assorted particulars: Jared Baker is master distiller; his background is in analytical chemistry. Water comes from Seneca Lake, one of the deepest lakes in the country.
Finger Lakes’ whiskies are currently distributed in 14 states. As for the future? “Constantly experimenting,” says Brian. Finger Lakes wants to stay consistent with their standard bourbon and the wheated Bottled in Bond, but with the single barrels they’re able to offer different mash bills and aging techniques. Finger Lakes is able to sell about 50 different single barrels a year via digital distributors, brick and mortar locations, whiskey clubs, etc. The distillery also released an 11 year single malt whiskey, and I’m told we can expect more of their single malt coming soon.
The final pertinent details include that this is priced at $45, aged for 4 years, and bottled at 100 proof or 50% ABV (requisite per the Bottled in Bond regulations), with a mash bill of 70% corn, 20% hard red winter wheat, and 10% malted barley.
It should be briefly noted that all wheat varieties are not created equally. “Hard wheat” is so-called due to its texture, which should have little effect on flavor in a whiskey. However “red wheat” is known for having a bolder flavor profile than “white wheat,” as well as for being higher in protein. Lastly “winter” is simply a designation of the harvest season and, being that winter is the primary time wheat is harvested, that’s the reason why most bourbons are made of a winter wheat of some kind.
Lastly this bourbon is non-chill filtered, a detail that tends to produce a more viscous texture, and it bares mention here that because I am not immune to the aforementioned digital chatter, I have great expectations going in. This pour was nosed and tasted ten minutes after the bottle was first opened and poured into a Glencairn.
McKenzie Bottled in Bond Bourbon – Review
Color: Rich amber.
On the nose: Caramel over ripe melon opens the ceremony, and I can’t describe them separately because they smell delightfully melded together. Milk chocolate with marshmallow and a touch of fruit cake with lemon zest soon follow, with the latter notes becoming more prominent as this rests in the glass. It’s a delight to sit with and the touch of citrus, in particular, seems unique compared to other wheated bourbons that I’ve had. Rather than skewing light or dark, this one has a welcome balance of both.
In the mouth: Begins with brown sugar and milk chocolate before red fruit joins the party (think raspberry with black pepper or a dried cranberry where the tartness is dialed down). Oak and pecan find their way in the middle of the palate and serve as a sturdy base for the sweeter notes to pirouette at the periphery. A lovely lingering whipped cream with lemon zest note reveals itself on a finish that is also marked by the presence of red fruit and undergirded by the nutty layer from midpalate. Medium-bodied with a surprisingly lengthy finish, the palate substitutes the melon and marshmallow on the nose for a more concentrated dose of all the remaining notes, adding a creaminess that helps them all come together on repeat sips.
While the entire category of wheated bourbon exists in the shadow of Pappy Van Winkle (and to a certain extent the voluminous output and instant familiarity of Maker’s Mark) McKenzie Bottled in Bond Bourbon does an impressive job of standing up to the field by not following the leaders. From the balance of flavors it’s clear that Finger Lakes Distilling is on the right path, that road less traveled, towards establishing a new mark of quality among fans of wheated bourbon.
It’s here that I give pause to consider where a 4 year, $45 bottled in bond wheated bourbon fits in the current market. Among craft distilleries the price point is commendable, though among bottled in bond products it can be considered middle of the road. Despite that, I think it doesn’t lose anything in the way of value given that its quality outpaces several “higher shelf” bottled in bond expressions while also offering a point of difference in that it is a wheated bourbon.