“As a small businessperson you have no greater leverage than the truth” – John Greenleaf Whittier
It’s something of an open secret among bourbon enthusiasts these days that if you see a new brand on the shelf with an eye-catching label and an age statement greater than 2 or 3 years, you can almost invariably find “distilled in Lawrenceburg, Indiana” on the back. This, of course, makes reference to one of the largest distilling operations in the United States – MGP.
With that being so, many of the brands who bottle MGP whiskey struggle to offer a point of difference from the rest of the market. Whether it’s finishing, blending, or additional aging, identifying what you do best as a brand before bringing your version of MGP’s whiskey to market is crucial.
One of the things Penelope Bourbon does best is blend whiskey. Operating out of Roselle, New Jersey along with assistance from the Bardstown Bourbon Company, Penelope takes different mash bill recipes from MGP and stores them in separate tanks before crafting various four grain blends for their line of products.
They also excel at finishing, and offer a rosé cask finish along with their popular toasted barrel series. These two expressions will soon be joined by Tokaji finished bourbon and their upcoming Architect Series, which employs two types of French oak staves meant to build on their signature four grain profile. The final piece of what Penelope excels at is simple: they do a good job of being transparent, something many other sourced brands seem to struggle with.
Inveigling consumers into purchasing a whiskey with the hope they won’t discern where it’s actually from is an all-too-common practice among brands that source their products. Due to this, those that broadcast – let alone disclose – that they source whiskey (and, more importantly, who they source whiskey from) is worth commending.
Penelope Bourbon makes it known – both on their website as well as on their labels – that they are one of the aforementioned brands that sources their spirits from MGP. So, while they’ve only been in operation since 2018, this explains how they’re able to plop a big fat age statement on the bottle I’ll be reviewing today: their 13 year old American Light Whiskey.
Light whiskey distinguishes itself from bourbon in that it’s aged either in used or uncharred new oak barrels, and is distilled to between 160 and 190 proof. Further, it must have been distilled after 1968 (when the federal government created the category) to be designated light whiskey. If it contains less than 20% straight whiskey it must be considered a blended light whiskey. It’s at this point I’ll offer the common refrain that “light whiskey” is a designation aimed more at color than alcohol content, as they’re typically much stronger than other whiskeys due to their high distillation proof, but lighter due to there being less barrel char interaction.
Armed as we are now with an overview of Penelope’s practice of sourcing, and the definition of light whiskey, what else should be noted about this expression? For one, it is the first entry in Penelope’s “Founders Reserve” series. When I reached out to one of Penelope’s founders, Mike Paladini, he had this to say about how they envision these releases:
“Our Founders Reserve brand showcases the most rare and unique barrels that we have in our inventory. These are usually one-time limited releases that won’t be back. Products released under our Founders Reserve brand are not necessarily aligned with our core Four Grain line up, but they were too good to pass on when we found them. We do not anticipate any more releases under Founders Reserve this year, but we do have a release slated for next year that is not American Light Whiskey.”
As for the remaining information of import: this expression consists of a 25 barrel small batch, while an additional 6 barrels were earmarked for single barrel releases. Additionally, this whiskey was distilled back in 2008 at 189.5 proof from corn at Seagrams Indiana (the precursor to today’s MGP) and aged in 2nd fill oak barrels. It is non-chill filtered and bottled at barrel strength, which is 128.4 (64.2% ABV) for this small batch release. Finally, the mash bill is made up of 99% corn and 1% malted barley, and it carries a suggested retail price of $80.
Penelope American Light Whiskey Aged 13 Years- Review
Color: Golden wheat.
On the nose: Immediately you get a blast of buttercream cake frosting, which sets the table for all of the bakery aromas that follow. Scents of fresh Granny Smith apples, toasted pecan, and confectioners’ sugar stir the nose next, along with an unbuttered popcorn note. There is very little oak present, but despite its absence the sweetness is not overwhelming and is actually very inviting. This pour smells like a freshly made pound cake, and already has my sweet tooth swooning in anticipation.
In the mouth: On first sip the notes from the nose unpack themselves slowly, but satisfyingly. The taste of powdered sugar over pound cake is immediately evident. A light spice, faintly reminiscent of turmeric, wafts in the background. This reminds me of a petite fours at a quality patisserie, in that it is light and flavorful without veering into a cloying level of sweetness. The heat shows up on the roof of the mouth but doesn’t trail down the throat and chest, giving this pour a very minimal Kentucky hug despite its high ABV; a pleasant development, given the dessert-like tone these flavors set. As the finish subsides, you’re left most notably with the aforementioned pound cake as well as a hint of butterscotch and vanilla bean ice cream. My sweet tooth was right to swoon.
Well, this is a delight. Like having a one-bite dessert in a glass, Penelope’s 13 Year Old American Light Whiskey is just that: light and sweet. I can’t help but think of madeleines or almond poppy seed tea cakes, as the restrained dessert notes treat rather than cheat the palate on repeat sips. It makes for an almost refreshing pour, despite having such a high proof point. This is surely due to it being a light whiskey not a bourbon, and thus having fewer “dark” notes to draw from the second fill barrel.
While this is my first foray into the category, if Penelope’s inaugural Founders Reserve offering is what one can expect from a well-aged light whiskey, it’s easy to see why they’re gaining in popularity. I had difficulty scoring this in accordance with Malt’s new system, so for transparency’s sake I’ll say that though it comes close to earning an extra point due to value, it falls short of warranting that increase considering how light whiskeys on the whole are a good value, particularly those with a hefty age statement like this one.