“Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive.” –Philip Roth
Sourland Mountain Spirits, started by Ray Disch and his wife Erica, began its life when craft distilling was first made legal in 2015. The family-owned brand bills itself as “New Jersey’s first farm distillery since Prohibition” as they are located on the Double Brook Farm in in Hopewell, New Jersey. They share the space with a brewing company as well as a tavern, which makes it the only location in New Jersey with a craft distillery, a craft brewery, and a farm-to-fork restaurant on-premise.
This is all casts intrigue and gives the impression of true innovation, indicating an ideal destination for the curious local whiskey enthusiast. Let’s unfurl the yarn spun above, shall we? While Sourland Mountain Spirits was one of the first distilleries to begin operation in New Jersey, they’ve only been producing bourbon for about 3 years; no knock against them, but this goes to show just how nascent the New Jersey whiskey scene still is. One bit of information we should dispense with right away, however, is that they are a “farm distillery” because while they are located on a farm; they do not grow or use their own grains.
The grain for much of their whiskey comes from Rabbit Hill Farm, about an hour and a half south of the distillery. While it is a plus that their grain is sourced from relatively local farms, claiming that they have “farm-to-glass production,” as they do on their website, is misleading at best. Obfuscating the fact that they use sourced grains is more unsavory than the fact that they actually use sourced grains, as countless other distilleries do, and it’s a faux pas further compounded by the fact they exist on a farm they do not own or source grains from. These details on their own are not extraordinary, but I take exception to the fact that the language on their website and in other media seems to suggest that they are something that, frankly, they are not.
That said: these are points worth noting, but they will not be reflected in the score. Today’s aim is simply to judge the whiskey in the bottle on its own merits using only quality and price, as is customary here at Malt.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Sourland Mountain Spirits where I was given a tour and tasting by their production distiller, Jamey Nickelson. Jamey is an earnest guy whose initial inscrutability gives way to an endearing affability once he warms up and begins talking about his work. His appreciation for his position as the man shaping the spirits that go into Sourland Mountain Spirits’ bottles is evident, and though this is his first time being a head distiller (having taken the role about a year and a half ago), it’s clear that he has a curiosity for the job that will serve him well. Thanks to him I was able to learn of their upcoming releases which include a wheated bourbon and a rye whiskey, along with a 4 year age stated bourbon, all of which are expected to be ready for release later this year.
Of the bottles we’ll be reviewing today the first is a distillery exclusive, their 1 Year Old Farmer’s Whiskey – so named because it’s aged in 15 gallon previously used bourbon barrels. The grains for this expression all come from the aforementioned Rabbit Hill Farm.
Farmer’s Whiskey features the same mash bill as Sourland Mountain’s bourbon which is 71% corn, 17% rye, and 12% malted barley and is bottled at 96 proof (48% ABV).
Finally it should be noted that this bottle was provided to me by the distillery free of charge, but I will be reviewing it as though I paid the price of admission, which is $48.
Sourland Mountain Spirits Farmer’s Whiskey – Review
Color: Light wheatgrass or Riesling white wine.
On the nose: Cantaloupe and citrus Jet-Puffed marshmallows, which don’t exist in stores, but they do in this glass. A youthful woodiness and hints of glue emerge after the initial sweetness subsides before ending with honeyed white peach tea. All of this is faint and none of these notes are very rich, but it’s a sweet, fruity, and subdued medley of aromas with little-to-no off-putting distractions.
In the mouth: Prototypical vanilla opens the affair before developing into light melon and yellow apple flavors that are soon joined by your standard caramel. The texture is very thin but has an almost carbonated effervescence reminiscent of ginger ale on the verge of going flat. The finish is short but lingers just long enough that it leaves you with the honeyed white peach tea from the nose while eschewing the associated dryness. However, what begins as a simple but pleasant sip devolves the longer it sits in the glass, as a black licorice note comes to the fore and bitterness encroaches. On the bright side, because of how thin this is and how quickly it fades, there should be little reason to let it last in your glass for long.
While the flavors are subtle, as one should expect from such a young whiskey, they present themselves well and do a good job of providing a uniform experience from nose to palate. It is a credit to upstart brands to say their young whiskey “shows promise,” but it is perhaps a disservice to potential consumers. Simply put: this whiskey has room to improve, and I’m sure it will, but as of now I think it can be lauded for its approachability, bright summery flavor profile, and not much else. In accordance with the language in Malt’s Scoring Bands I would like to award this a higher score, but I’ve docked a point due to its price.
Next I’ll be trying the three year old bourbon, which has a mash bill of 71% PA corn, 17% NJ rye, and 12% DE malted barley. The proof for this one is 90 (45% ABV) and, again, it was provided by the distillery at no cost to myself though I will be taking cost at retail into consideration with my score. The shelf price is $75.
Sourland Mountain Spirits Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Cream soda.
On the nose: Potpourri and brown sugar rush to meet the nose before a youthful grassy note saunters out to center stage. Soon more grain-forward aromas emerge while the scent of cocoa powder tries and fails in an effort to curtail them. The darker, sweeter notes are nice, but they’re thrown out of balance by the more green aromas out of this glass.
In the mouth: A near absence of flavor at first gives way to a steeliness on the mid-palate before the cocoa powder from the nose breaks through; an odd initial experience. On the second go, an elusive raspberry note caught my attention before fading as suddenly as it arrived. Now, taking sips in earnest, more of the nose arrives on the palate as it reveals itself to be very grain-forward with slight earthiness, and young oak notes, with a thin texture. The finish is slightly longer than the Farmer’s Whiskey and is dominated by the semi-sweet cocoa powder note, which is prominent if not particularly rich. The palate is subdued, but that the nose aligns with the palate again should be applauded. With additional aging in comparison to its younger relative, this three year bourbon shows improvement over the former in displaying more pronounced flavor.
While initially more confounding, the three year bourbon proves to be a more straightforward affair than the Farmer’s Whiskey. On one hand the flavors are more developed, but those flavors are also more unbalanced and fewer in number. Similar to the Farmer’s Whiskey, when left to sit too long in the glass this expression devolves as it picks up a sort of sour pineapple note that curbs the monotony but also diminishes the pleasure in exploring this pour over an extended period of time. Again, like the Farmer’s Whiskey, I would score this higher if not for it being prohibitively priced.
For the short period of time they’ve been in existence, it seems the Disch family has made a positive impact on their community, having produced hand sanitizer early in the pandemic and endearing themselves to locals. They’ve won awards for their gin and have generally been well received, which is how they came to be on my radar of local distilleries worth watching. However, their whiskey expressions at this point are less full of life, a reference both to their age and flavor. Their whiskey production is trending in the right direction as head distiller Jamey Nickelson indicated to me that the goal is to use 100% New Jersey grains in the future. An exciting prospect but, for the time being, it seems Sourland Mountain Spirits is still experiencing growing pains.