“My surface is myself. Under which to witness, youth is buried. Roots? Everybody has roots.” – William Carlos Williams
The above quote comes from a man who owes much of his fame to an affiliation with the city of Paterson, New Jersey, despite having never lived there himself. Poet William Carlos Williams drew inspiration from James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece “Ulysses,” where Ireland’s capital Dublin became a character unto itself. Thus, he sought a local city to serve as the protagonist for his own epic poem. Growing up in Rutherford, not too far from Paterson, Williams said of his decision to choose the neighboring town, “I wanted something near home, something knowable.”
In this same vein, let’s note right away that “Silk City” is the nickname of Williams’ beloved Paterson but, like him, the subject of today’s review doesn’t call the town home. Silk City Distillers is located in nearby Clifton, New Jersey. They, too, sought something near home and knowable when they first established their brand; a name that is instantly recognizable to locals and rolls off the tongue as smooth as, well… you know.
Silk City Distillers were one of the early brands to get their operation up and running when distilling was legalized in the state back in 2015. Determined from the start to forego the practice of sourcing, and keen to create whiskey forged by New Jersey’s unique conditions, Silk City began selling their spirits in fall 2016 using the first 12 inch glass still in the United States, a setup they had custom made by South Florida’s StillDragon.
Co-founder Jim Bednar –who also doubles as head distiller – shared with me that they fully embrace being a craft distillery, which is to say: they’re trying to be experimental and push boundaries while also attempting to solidify an identity. Part of the former means they have some wacky one-off expressions, and others that simply subvert expectations.
Take for example their most recent release: 100% quinoa whiskey, a costly endeavor that surprisingly resulted in a delicious expression (though, one that Jim says is too costly and headache-inducing for them to ever replicate). On the flip side, solidifying an identity means you have to establish in consumers’ minds what it is that you “do” and deliver that time and time again. For Silk City that has meant producing well-made finished products and, due to restricted production capacity, capturing their audience’s imagination with unique limited editions.
Those finishes include everything from your more usual PX sherry to cognac. However, for their most notable limited edition to-date, the brand sought to wake the dead by buying a rare strain of yeast leftover from the old Ballantine Brewery building in Newark which was shuttered in the 1960’s. That yeast went on to produce Silk City Newark Straight Bourbon, an expression that their fans still speak reverently about. It’s now long-gone and seemingly lost to the sands of time as, unfortunately, they don’t have any more of the yeast that created it.
All the same, in hearing about these fun finished whiskeys and feverishly sought-out limited editions, I knew that I had to give Silk City Distillers a try while canvassing some of the most popular brands in New Jersey. I decided to jump in with one of their regular releases, a Straight Bourbon, but I also couldn’t ignore one of their “limited” expressions, a Bottled in Bond Bourbon. I say “limited,” because there are plans to make it a regular expression, but for now they’ve only released the one batch I’ll be sampling today.
Let’s begin with their Straight Bourbon and examine some details about this bottle: consisting of a four grain mash bill, the makeup of this recipe is 70% corn, 15% wheat, 7.5% rye, and 7.5% malted barley. Aged for at least two years (and starting in 2022, at least 3 years) this expression, like the majority of their expressions, is bottled at 90 proof (45% ABV). It should also be noted that all of their whiskey goes in the barrel at 110 proof (55% ABV). The suggested retail price is $50 for a 750ml bottle, though I’ll note that the 375ml bottle used for this review was provided at no cost by the distillery. Finally, this bottle is from batch 14 of this expression, as indicated by the front label.
Silk City Distillers Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Golden with hints of orange.
On the nose: Apricots and brown sugar leap out at once and they’re fairly pronounced! It’s a wonderfully sweet nose that follows up the initial fruit rush with a streak of spearmint along with marshmallow, cigar box, and toasted orange peel as this sits in the glass awaiting the first sip.
In the mouth: A surprising bit of tobacco finds the palate initially, followed then by the marshmallow from the nose while apricot and brown sugar simmer on the back end of the sip. There’s also a fair bit of menthol that reveals itself after the initial burst of flavor. A thin mouthfeel indicates the age of this release and a medium, drying finish throws things a little further off track. However, the sweet notes better present themselves on the tail end of this sip, so while it dries the tongue out a bit it also whets the appetite for more – not a wholly unwelcome development.
Placed within the context of two-year-old craft whiskey, I find this one to be an excellent indication of things to come. As a standard release it shows that Silk City has something to sink their teeth into with a unique four grain recipe that eschews the trite flavor profile of a typical young bourbon. The balance of flavors is as commendable as the flavors themselves and so long as the interesting fruit notes continue to blossom over time, I will be a repeat buyer of this expression. That said, it is still most certainly young bourbon and, while it has an alluring nose that teases a robust experience, the palate leaves a little bit to be desired in comparison with more mature offerings.
Now let’s move on to their Bottled in Bond Bourbon. Per the bottled in bond regulations, this is aged for at least four years and clocks in at exactly 100 proof (50% ABV) while also being the product of a single distilling season by a single distiller (Silk City, of course). I originally purchased this bottle when it was released back in December of 2020 but, as mentioned prior, there are plans to release more batches in the near future. Using the same four grain recipe as their straight bourbon, the bottled in bond expression carries a suggested price of $65.
Silk City Distillers Bottled in Bond Bourbon – Review
Color: Light gold and auburn.
On the nose: Wet newspaper and cherry cordial notes greet me at first, and while the former is off-putting the latter is intriguing. As this sits in the glass the wet newspaper subsides ever-so-slightly and allows for fruit punch to take center stage as the pronounced “cherry” aroma becomes more amorphous. Dark chocolate, vanilla bean, and rose petal round out the nosing experience which is a bit imbalanced – dominated as it is by a damp unsavoriness and a nebulous fruit cocktail aroma, but time in the glass does improve the experience if you remain patient.
In the mouth: Right until the moment the liquid hits my lips yesterday’s Star Ledger, left to sit in the rain, lingers in my mind… but as I taste the whiskey in the glass I immediately get cinnamon and butterscotch down the center of my palate along with dark chocolate drizzled over dried cherries along the periphery of my tongue. Whatever distraction is causing the nosing experience to go awry is pleasantly absent on the palate where dark and sweet flavors have their say. The finish is short-to-medium and not particularly noteworthy save for the fact that this, like the Straight Bourbon, is a noticeably drying finish. While the dryness of their straight bourbon isn’t overwhelming, for this particular release it detracts from my enjoyment overall.
I love that this expression is noticeably bolder, darker, and sweeter than Silk City’s standard straight bourbon but it is marred by a finish that is dryer, plus an inescapable sour aroma on the nose that keeps this from being a complete win in my ledger. This one needs no placement within a niche context, as bourbon fans can appreciate the fact that the bottled in bond category is one where the playing field is evened as best as possible across the board for large and small brands alike. With an asking price in line with most craft distilleries (a bit steep), and a flavor profile that delivers despite a nose that distracts, I’m forced to consider this expression a step sideways for Silk City. It indicates that they can certainly capture great flavor, but for future releases they’ll need to hone in on the practices that improve their whiskey and weed out those that don’t.
On the surface, Silk City Distillers is a fun and unassuming brand. They don’t make bold claims, and they don’t chase hype. They chose a four grain mash bill because it tastes good. They’ve experimented with finishing because they believe in their craftsmanship, and they continue to experiment with unique expressions – not because it’s cost effective or trendy, but because they are self-assured in the fruit their labor will produce.
While their epic unfolds, I’ll say that the single barrel expressions I had the opportunity to try at their distillery are fantastic, along with their finished bourbons. Their straight bourbon continues to evolve with the brand itself as they grow into a new storage facility and increase capacity, along with the age of their products. To this point, their first batch of bottled in bond bourbon shows the improvement of further aging, but also indicates room for more improvement still. So, while following in the Joyceian footsteps of legacy brands is a tall task, I think Silk City Distillers is on their way to achieving great heights of their own if they continue tilling the soil while their roots grow.
Bourbon sample provided free of charge by Silk City as noted above though – per Malt policy – this doesn’t affect our notes or scores.