”There is nothing new in art except talent” – Anton Chekhov
I‘ve recently gone on the record as saying that finished bourbons are here, and I’m not certain that their prevalence is an entirely positive development. We, the target audience, have been inundated with options for finished bourbons over the past year and, frankly, a great many of them offer novelty yet not much else.
So expansive are the options at ones avail, that a single distillery might offer nearly 10 different bourbon expressions that feature a secondary cask. This Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none act concerns me. Owing to the fact that so many finished bourbons are multiplying on the market, the consumer with more than a passing affinity for the currency in their pocket must confront a question: “Which of these expressions – intriguing though they may be – are actually worth my time and money?”
As a reviewer it is part of my job to help you, astute reader, draw conclusions in an attempt to answer that very question for yourself. However, in so doing, I’d like to suggest the following: while your curiosity might send you in a multitude of directions (and to several different distilleries) in an attempt to taste various finishes, you might be better off limiting your exploration to a single distillery. To paraphrase a man known as The Teacher, “If delicious finished bourbon is a must, you gots to go with a name you can quickly trust.”
So, who can we trust? While some would consider MGP-sourced bourbon an apt choice for such a foray into the unknown, even amidst that generally accessible stock there are a plethora of variables that might hinder our ability to draw a reasonable conclusion as to whether or not we enjoy a certain finishing style. Some brands additionally age their MGP-sourced barrels under local conditions, and those that do employ a consortium of different rickhouse styles to that end. Further complicating our quest for the purest result lies in the fact that the talent for crafting quality finished products is not equally distributed among those who source MGP’s whiskey.
It’s in quelling this quandary that I pose the aforementioned solution: going with a single brand you can trust, preferably one with a wide range of finished bourbons to try. Allow me to offer up southern Indiana’s Starlight Distillery as our experiment’s control.
Having begun as a family farm in 1843, Starlight Distillery has been producing grain-to-glass distilled spirits since 2004, so we can swiftly check three boxes in vetting their suitability for our experiment: all of their grains come from the same place, they have an extensive history in growing said grains, and all of their spirits are aged on the same farm and produced by the same hands.
Despite having a relatively short track record in the world of bourbon (especially when compared to their Indiana neighbors at MGP), Starlight has quickly distinguished itself among bourbon enthusiasts as a purveyor of quality whiskey. The bottle I’ll be reviewing today is not only a cask finish that’s new to the world of bourbon, but also one shaped by several talented hands.
Starlight’s President and master distiller, Ted Huber, works alongside a production team which includes his sons Christian (the Niagara College grad with a degree in Viticulture & Enology) and Blake (the Cornell University grad who degreed through their College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), along with Jason Heiligenberg (head of their brandy distillery) and Jesse Williams (head of their grain distillery).
Now for the bottle specs: this is a single barrel pick by Bourbon Finds that clocks in at 114.8 proof (57.4% ABV) and is aged 4.5 years per the front label (though the time spent in the secondary Amburana cask and the mash bill are not specified). As for that Amburana cask: it is occasionally referred to as “Brazilian teak wood,” and is a slightly larger and considerably more costly barrel to finish whiskey in than your standard American oak. Known best for use in aging cachaça, Brazil’s most popular distilled alcoholic beverage, Amburana has a much more limited history in the United States. Brewers of craft beer have been importing the casks since at least 2018, and in 2019 WhistlePig released a limited edition of their “Old World Rye” that was finished for 10 days in an Amburana cask, but the bourbon world has largely been left behind.
All that said, this bottle is priced at $89.99. We’ve now noted that this expression is both something new, and that it’s crafted by talented hands, but is it a work of art? Let’s find out.
Starlight Distillery Cigar Batch – Review
Color: Burnt orange.
On the nose: Immediately bells are ringing and my brain is telling me “this is a different sort of bourbon.” Dates, damp tobacco leaf, and faint menthol begin the medley and are joined by sweet sugar wafer cookies and a cinnamon cheesecake note. Further investigation unearths marigold – like a mix of bitter herbs and ripe apples – along with a petrichor-and-moss aroma that is slightly different from the aforementioned damp tobacco on first pass.
In the mouth: Those unique notes from the nose follow through on the palate as medjool dates open the floodgates before being joined by the milk leftover from a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. A faint dark chocolate and damp tobacco leaf presence seeps in next before giving way to a honey-and-rosewater-atop-phyllo-dough flavor that reminds me of well-made baklava. Finally, we’re met by more earthy tobacco notes on the back end which are reminiscent of inhaling an unlit Oscuro cigar – this is also where the spearmint on the nose visits the palate. The viscosity is not very robust and veers toward being called “thin,” which results in these flavors fading too quickly for my liking. However, the medium length finish resplendent with Cinnamon-Toast-Crunch-milk and rich earthiness leaves a satisfying impression.
Take that, Chekhov! Best known for a gun that’s revealed before it inevitably goes off, the nose on this Starlight release does precisely the same, as the initial alluring aromas explode on the palate. While some would be forgiven for commenting here that Starlight’s idea to create a bourbon that would pair fabulously with a cigar has been explored previously by Jos. A Magnus – with the exception that both are delicious distillates crafted by talented artisans – the two are nothing alike. It’s easy to imagine this bottle being polarizing as it strays noticeably far from the beaten path of traditional bourbon flavor, but it’s a trail well worth exploring. Starlight’s use of Amburana casks is an inspired addition to a crowded cast of finished bourbons, and – despite a slightly sparse mouthfeel – the cavalcade of atypical flavors and unique overall experience goes to show that talent will always bring something new to an art form.