Finished? We’re barely getting started!
Frequent visitors of late may have noticed a preponderance of finished whiskeys appearing in this space. From Ryan’s taste of a finished Deanston to Matt’s receipt of a finished WhistlePig rye as a gift, we’ve been inundated with examples of the style. Today will bring yet another entrant in the category, this time from a behemoth of global whiskey.
Though finishing is a longer-established tradition in Scotland, the practice is being embraced in America with gusto (“with gusto” being the only way we Americans know how to do anything). In some cases, this is motivated by practical concerns. As Frank noted the other day, a growing number of brands sourcing whiskey from MGP are struggling to differentiate themselves, particularly as consumers become better informed. For these non-distiller producers (“NDPs,” in industry lingo), a clever finish is a way of setting themselves apart from the crowd.
On the other hand, more established producers with their own distillate are increasingly turning to barrel finishes to add a bit of zhoosh to their tried-and-true mainstay products. Wild Turkey produced one of the better expressions in its Master’s Keep line when it finished bourbon in sherry casks, resulting in the delectable Revival.
I hadn’t understood how enthusiastically Jack Daniel’s had embraced finishing experiments until it came time to do my research for this piece. They’ve obviously got a lot of whiskey to play with, but I was astounded at the breadth and exoticism of the program once I became aware of the “Tennessee Tasters’ Selection” series.
Released in March 2019, Barrel Reunion #1 (the subject of today’s review) is part of this series of experimental whiskeys sold in smaller-sized bottles. The range also encompasses Barrel Reunion #2 (Oatmeal Stout barrels), a “Hickory Smoked” whiskey finished with charred hickory staves, and a “Jamaican Allspice” whiskey finished with Jamaican Allspice wood. More conventional members of the set include a barrel proof rye, the 14E19 “Twin” Blend of Tennessee whiskey and rye, and a batching of high Angel’s Share barrels.
Back to the first group: that’s quite a lot of finishing, and with some unconventional approaches to boot! My natural skepticism of finishing (as a process designed to gussy up unexceptional whiskey or mask off flavors in bad whiskey) is overwhelmed, at least conceptionally, by the promise of new and different types of elaborations on the distillery’s foundational spirit.
Regarding Barrel Reunion #1, Jack Daniel’s own site for this expression describes the dram thus:
“As a whiskey maker and a barrel maker, we see the barrel not simply as a container but as an ingredient. This unique whiskey began with a hand-crafted barrel that matured Jack Daniel’s. Once emptied, it aged fine Tennessee red wine. Then, finally it returned home to finish a small batch of our Tennessee Whiskey and delivers a 90-proof whiskey.”
I’m not aware of any Tennessee red wine, much less able to comment on its fineness. However, my several run-ins with red wine barrel finished whiskeys have left a generally unfavorable impression.
Further info provided by Jack Daniel’s indicates this is “Selected by former Master Distiller and Master Taster Jeff Arnett.” Per the company, it was available only in Tennessee, at around $40 for 350 ml. I’ll be using the equivalent of $86 for a 750 ml bottle as my benchmark for price-sensitive scoring. As mentioned above, this is 90 proof (45% ABV).
Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Tasters’ Selection Barrel Reunion #1 – Review
Color: Medium-dark amber with reddish-brown glints.
On the nose: Immediately, there’s an expressive note of Jack Daniel’s hallmark bananas, but in their ripest, most rich form. Some rich, sweet, and smoothly creamy notes of custard pie slide in as yet another enticement. There’s a bit of fruitiness in the form of underripe red berries, though I don’t know that I would have pegged this for a wine cask finish if I were tasting it blind. With some time in the glass, I get a yeasty note of raw bread dough that I sometimes also sense when I am in a winery cellar full of barrels maturing.
In the mouth: Starts sedately, but broadens out as it meets the tongue in a gentle wave of nutty flavors. These intensify until the whiskey reaches the middle of the mouth, where I get a richly sweet note of toffee. This transitions to a creamy milk chocolate note (in the manner of Cadbury’s bars) as the whiskey approaches the finish. There’s a fruitiness as this concludes, albeit mixed with some darker flavors. The closest association I can summon is an espresso bean with tart berry nuances. This actually lingers a while, with some tannic woody notes playing against a mild heat and more chocolate, albeit in a more dilute form reminiscent of hot cocoa.
Considering only the price: this has some stiff competition even within the Jack Daniel’s stable. After all, $65 gets you the Barrel Proof Single Barrel, consistently one of my favorite whiskeys from Tennessee or anywhere else. At $20 more than that, and coming in at a comparatively scrawny 90 proof, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by this on paper.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this. The nose kicks the rich, dessert-like sweetness into overdrive, but this comes back into balance with some more challenging flavors on the palate. It doesn’t feel watery or underpowered; from the tip of the tongue to the back of the throat, this maintains a good balance throughout.
I’m not certain that I’d be a repeat purchaser of this expression particularly. However, If I were visiting the Jack Daniel’s distillery gift shop, or if I were scouring liquor stores in Tennessee, I’d be strongly tempted to try another bottle in this range. My interest has been piqued by this example which, though priced demandingly, delivers a pleasant enough drinking experience in return. All that taken into account, an average score seems fair.
Lead image courtesy of Jack Daniel’s.