“We learn about life not from plusses alone, but from minuses as well” – Anton Chekhov
Widow Jane’s President and Head Blender/Distiller Lisa Roper Wicker has had one of the more intriguing journeys in the whiskey world. Getting her start in the wine industry, like so many whiskey folks do, she began as a farm hand with the Simmons Winery before getting the opportunity to cut her teeth distilling and work alongside Steve Beam at Limestone Branch.
From there, she transitioned to brandy while working with the Huber family at Starlight Distillery, before her work as a distilling consultant landed her a dinner with spirits conglomerate Samson & Surrey’s CEO Robert Furniss-Roe. After initially rebuffing his offer out of an abundance of admiration for what the Hubers were doing in Indiana, Lisa simply couldn’t turn down the opportunity to take Furniss-Roe’s place as President of Widow Jane along with the role of Head Blender and, eventually, Head Distiller.
One of Lisa’s first jobs was to take their flagship product, which I’ll be reviewing today, and transitioning it from a single barrel expression to a small batch expression. What was originally a seven-year-old single barrel product is now a 10-year-old small batch bourbon containing a blend of five barrels sourced from Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It was a decision that allowed Lisa to have more freedom with each release, blending just enough barrels to keep the expression interesting over time.
Once blended, she brings the whiskey to proof using limestone filtered water from Widow Jane’s mine in Rosendale New York. It’s from the Rosendale mines that the brand gets its name, as local lore suggests that the mine was left to a wealthy magnate’s widow, Jane, though the historical record is a bit murky.
What isn’t murky is the water derived from that mine, as it’s well-regarded for being high in both calcium and magnesium – two distinct features that, in Lisa’s words, causes some of the flavor in Widow Jane’s bourbon to “pop” more. Despite the pride that Kentuckians take in their own limestone filtered water, it’s hard to argue with the quality of New York’s, as that same water is used in the production of some of the world’s finest bagels and pizza.
While some enthusiasts remain obstinate in their insistence that the vast majority of bourbons should be sold at the highest proof possible, Widow Jane doesn’t make any of their expressions available at cask strength. The reason for that is made clear above; Lisa is equally adamant in the opposite belief, that by adding Widow Jane’s calcium and magnesium-rich water, the brand is able to not only create another point of differentiation from blended bourbons on the market, but also to bring forth an enhanced flavor profile.
To tally up the score thus far: we have a world class blender who subtracted a consulting client in order to add three of the most respected titles in the whiskey world to her resumé. Additionally, we have a whiskey that is said to be enhanced by lowering the proof and gaining the unique properties of local water (Lisa is a big believer in utilizing New York ingredients whenever possible).
One final variable to consider is that the spirits conglomerate which serves as Widow Jane’s parent company, Samson & Surrey, was recently acquired by industry giant, Heaven Hill. Speaking on the recent acquisition, Lisa said, “I couldn’t have been happier when I discovered that it was Heaven Hill that was kicking our tires…of all the brands that could’ve purchased us, it feels like it was meant to be.” She went on to tell me that she’s already had several Zoom calls with production to discuss what the future holds (and without divulging a single detail, she managed to get me excited about it as well).
It should be interesting to see where Widow Jane goes from here, as they were already having internal discussions about introducing their own four-and-a-half-year-old whiskey in some form or fashion. At any rate, the backing of Heaven Hill should immediately pay dividends by multiplying the barrel stock at Widow Jane’s disposal.
Now, let’s lay out the specifics of this equation and solve the remaining unknown below: this expression is a five-barrel blend of straight bourbons from Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, aged for at least 10 years, and bottled without chill filtration at 91 proof (45.5% ABV). This bottle is from batch 431, bottle #1241, from 2021. It typically carries a retail price of $70 to $75, though this bottle was provided to me by the distillery at no cost. Per Malt policy, this does not affect my notes or score.
Widow Jane Aged 10 Years – Review
Color: Auburn and apple juice.
On the nose: The first aroma to enter the equation is cherry taffy, which reminds me at once of being at Luna Park in Coney Island during the summer. That’s followed by a butter-and-white-sugar slurry with the airy sweetness of whipped cream, then Golden delicious apples, dilute cola, and a faint floral aspect. There’s also a mineral-like quality that I rather like, and doesn’t remind me of the more polarizing chalky-medicinal note associated with a certain whiskey from the Volunteer state. Overall it’s delicate and inviting.
In the mouth: Bazooka Joe bubble gum, a bit of the aforementioned cherry taffy, and rose petals lead the way. Then one has to factor in a faint tobacco leaf note that accompanies creamy caramel, almond, and mineral water at midpalate. This all leaves just enough room for the slightest bit of mint and white pepper at the end. The finish is short-to-medium and the texture is also on the light side, though with plenty of well-rounded flavor this remains interesting despite its low proof.
I have to admit that having had my fair share of New York water over the years, I knew going in that it has a unique quality that would factor into this pour. I was pleased to find that being the case, as well as that it shines as part of the blend. Rather than being a minus in all of the flavor, it contributes some of its own; having heard Lisa speak about how it particularly plays well with the cherry note found in Widow Jane’s bourbons, I’m inclined to agree as it substitutes a dark cloying aspect for a light freshness that sets it apart.
Those in need of a punch in the mouth from a proof-y pour will be disappointed at Widow Jane’s relative lack of bite, but will also surely find some fun flavors that display a delicate balance, and indicate just how talented Lisa Wicker is at her job. I’d be remiss if I didn’t stop to acknowledge that price is another factor worth considering. I do think it’s priced a hair too high, and as such I’m inclined to dock a mark despite enthusiastically enjoying what it brings to the table at a relatively low proof point. From Widow Jane’s 10 Year Old there is much to learn about bourbon, not from plusses alone, but minuses as well.