Can we skip to the good part?
Implicit in every bottle of whiskey from a startup distillery is the promise that there is better to come. From unaged “white dog” to fledgling bourbon (often matured for a perfunctory period in a smaller-sized barrel) through straight bourbon meeting the minimum legal stipulations for that designation, we’re always tempted with the prospect of improvement.
There’s a set of conditions attached: once the whiskey has had more time to mature, once the distillery can afford to mature exclusively in 53-gallon barrels, once the production has ramped up enough to start generating economies of scale, we’ll be able to make a fair comparison with the mainstay bourbons from the larger distilleries.
For many whiskey consumers that day never comes. Parting with $50 or more for a bottle raises expectations, and rightly so. I can count on one hand the number of smaller distilleries that are able to deliver; the rest are doing a wan impersonation of even the entry-level offerings from established bourbon producers. It sometimes feels like a new distillery’s ceiling is incumbent bourbon’s floor, creating a sense of hopelessness that not only taints individual distilleries, but the category more broadly. Once bitten and twice shy, folks can be forgiven for not shelling out a second time following these initial expensive let downs.
Green River is unique in that its first proper release (ignoring the widely panned O.Z. Tyler whiskey, which underwent an experimental accelerated aging process) is a straight bourbon whiskey matured for half a decade in full sized barrels. It is being offered at a price which, while not competing with the low-to-mid-teens cost of bourbon from the big Kentucky distilleries, is nonetheless more economical than most of the competing craft whiskeys available.1
Green River has not made us suffer through a series of overpriced baby steps. We haven’t had to cheerfully bear the aforementioned precursors while we await a product befitting our unalloyed consideration. Rather, most people’s first taste of Green River will be something that, at least on paper, corresponds to level of quality we’ve come to expect from the core products universally available to us from the best-known names of Kentucky bourbon.
I previously considered a sample of Green River and had a conversation with Master Disitiller Jacob Call; please read that interview if you’re interested in a history of the distillery and brand, as well as the particulars of the whiskey-making process. That sample was a preview of the type of whiskey making up this February’s release of the distillery’s flagship Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
During our conversation Jacob offhandedly mentioned that the launch had been delayed due to a glass shortage, which makes more sense to me now that I have the bottle in hand. The packaging was clearly meant to set this whiskey apart from its numerous craft competitors on the shelf; the horseshoe-shaped bottle and the bold label create an immediate visual impact. This could be interpreted in two ways: either as a cynical ploy to stand out in a crowded field, or as a continuation of the seriousness shown during the production process.
The only way to find out is to taste the whiskey. Before I do, a few more specifics: as with the sample I tasted, this is from the 70% corn, 21% winter rye, 9% malted 2- and 6-row barley mash bill. This carries no age statement but bears the “straight” designation; the press release stated that the whiskey “has been aged more than five years.”
This was a bottle provided free of charge to me by Green River, for which they have my thanks; per Malt policy, this will not impact my notes or score. SRP is $35; this is listed for sale on Green River’s site at the price of $38, which I will use as my benchmark for evaluation on Malt’s price-sensitive scoring bands.
Looking at other competing Kentucky bourbons in the $35 to $40 category, we’ve got (in alphabetical order) Elijah Craig Small Batch ($34, 47% ABV), Four Roses Small Batch ($35, 45% ABV), Knob Creek Small Batch ($37, 50% ABV), Russell’s Reserve 10 Years Old ($35, 45% ABV), Woodford Reserve ($35; 45.2% ABV), to name but a few well known and widely available expressions. Some of these are personal favorites; others I can take or leave. Nonetheless, this is the peer group to which I’ll be mentally comparing this Green River.
Green River Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review
Color: Medium-pale golden orange.
On the nose: Starts with a vernal scent of freshly cut spring flowers. There’s the airy sweetness of confectioners’ sugar and pert little accent of mint leaf. More intense sniffing reveals a mix of aromas that, taken together, suggest French toast: maple syrup, butter, brioche, and eggs all make appearances. This is gently herbaceous, with subtle whiffs of pine needles and cilantro at the periphery.
In the mouth: Starts with a mix of gently fruity citrus notes, a buttery smoothness, and a faint accent of wood as this meets the tip of the tongue. The mouthfeel turns a bit more zesty as the whiskey moves toward the middle of the mouth, with some pleasant baking spice flavors. The point of maximum mineral influence comes at the top of the tongue, where a limestone note spreads out in drying fashion. The woody accents turn spicy again as this transitions toward the finish, with piquant flavors of black peppercorn and cayenne. Unfortunately these are not sustained and the bourbon starts to feel a little flat at the back of the mouth. This has a mildly soapy aftertaste it as it lingers briefly; there’s not much in the way of a finish, otherwise.
This starts with an interesting nose, sharing in common some of the aromas I detected on the prior Green River whiskey, which nods toward a house style. On the palate this starts well enough, but runs out of steam toward the back of the mouth. It’s here that I’m left wanting for that extra oomph provided by a higher bottling strength; revisiting my notes from the Bottled in Bond single barrel I tried, I noticed my remarks on the length of the finish there, which stands in contrast to this example.
Still, it’s not bad whiskey at all. There are no flaws, nor does this taste like young bourbon rushed out prematurely to generate some cash. It’s a finished product that sits somewhere around the middle of the aforementioned pack in terms of quality and price. As such, I’m awarding it an average score.
It’s worth noting that Green River being able to punch its weight against the Kentucky giants is no small feat. I’m keeping this distillery on my positive watch list, and I’d be keen to try more bottled-in-bond, single barrel, or barrel proof expressions from Green River, should they ever see fit to release any. For the time being, though, this maiden offering gives the distillery very solid footing from which to expand.
1 Based on Jacob Call’s comment that the distillery will fill 92,000 barrels this year (equivalent to 4.9 million gallons, assuming a 53 gallon barrel), the distillery would not fit the American Craft Spirits Association’s definition of “craft,” which is less than 750,000 gallons annually. I have therefore avoided use of the term “craft” to describe Green River.