Oftentimes, when a style of a category becomes too mainstream, a lot will end up thinking that it should be and/or is the only style there is. This has happened to bourbon, which is now stereotyped as the most wood-forward spirit.
Surely, it’s this trend that has created the consensus (at the surface) that there is little difference between different bourbon brands due to its being limited to only using new and charred American White Oak casks. Yes, they can use other types of new and charred oak like French Oak, but aside from Maker’s Mark 46 having partially done this, I haven’t seen any other brands do this yet. While I don’t agree with most bourbon being the same, I can see where the people who say this are coming from.
For one, not everyone has a good sense of smell and taste. While some people are gifted with these, it takes time for most people to develop them… if they’re willing to, that is. Let’s not forget, even genetics can play a part in what a person tastes and smells.
Aside from having the proper senses, it takes time, money, experience, and patience to be able to discern the different mashbills, as well as minute nuances between brands that share the same mashbill.
Another thing is the way people drink their bourbon. Not everyone likes to drink it neat, which means their bourbon will be on the rocks or in cocktails. Drinking bourbon this way will surely alter the way bourbon tastes.
I’ll admit that I don’t agree with bourbon being mostly the same due to having tried a fair amount of dusty bourbon bottled during the 1960s. These gave me the perspective that bourbon can have a better balance between the mashbill and the oak influence. You could say that drinking bourbon from this era is an eye-opening experience. I think this is largely due to the barrel entry proof then being lower, which means the aging bourbon won’t be able to extract as much oak influence.
In my opinion, the most well-known brand that can make you agree not all bourbons are similar are Four Roses’ recipes. The combination of their different mashbills and yeast strains are the obvious choices to convince someone that not all bourbon are the same. You can really taste the difference and they stand out from other better known brands. (If you have the palate for it, that is.)
A lesser known bourbon that will surely make you think differently about what bourbon is and can be is Leopold Bros. Bottled-in-Bond Straight Bourbon Whiskey. I’ve been a fan of them ever since I got to try their American Small Batch gin. Their gin is different because they use fractional distillation, meaning they distill each botanical or spice separately, then blend them together.
They made some noise when they started talking about their Three Chamber Rye whiskey, I haven’t tried it yet but the story behind this is amazing. It’s a real chance to make whisk(e)y drinkers realize that it’s not all about the wood.
However, I was very impressed by how they make their BiB Straight Bourbon. It has a mash bill of 64% corn, 21% malted barley, and 15% Abruzzi Heritage Rye. These are fermented in open wooden tanks with both house-cultured and indigenous (wild) yeast strains. They are then pot distilled and bottled at 50% ABV, non-chill filtered. Aging lasts for five years on earthen floors in the distillery’s dunnage-style bonded warehouse.
If you’re a geek, looking at the specs will make you realize this isn’t your usual bourbon. The amount of malted barley in the mash is not only higher than rye, but the mash is higher than the usual recipes used by the likes of Heaven Hill and Sazerac. (Heaven Hill’s rye mashbill has 14% malted barley; Woodford Reserve rye is the highest at 20%).
Leopold Bros are also specific with the strain of rye they use. I heard from a podcast featuring their distiller, Todd Leopold, say that he preferred to use this rye because of the impurities this had that give off more flavors. If you’re feeling extra geeky, I recommend you read this article of mine that discusses the importance of raw materials and fermentation.
Aside from the mashbill, the fermentation is also different. Wooden fermentation tanks are known to be used in whisk(e)y. But how often do you hear of American distilleries that leave them open? Even more unusual, an American whiskey producer that uses wild yeast. There’s also no mention of this being a sour mash, so I’ll assume this is a sweet mash.
Leopold’s being different is not done yet. It’s also pot distilled which is not too common in bourbon. In case you don’t know, most bourbons are distilled from column stills. Pot stills are less efficient than column stills but they create more flavor. To add to that, they specify its non-chill filtered. Hopefully this makes the bourbon more appealing to those who scream for the magic trifecta of at least 46% abv, no added coloring and NCF.
Using a dunnage-style warehouse also means the temperature of aging will be more consistent. Dunnage-style is something the Scotch industry uses. It’s a more horizontal style of warehouse compared to the vertical style most of the bourbon industry uses.
As I said, this isn’t your usual bourbon. I’m also not your typical reviewer. Unlike most bloggers and YouTubers who tend to stick to one category, I review brandy, rum, agave spirits, whisky and less popular alcoholic drinks. So, in case you disagree with my views and think to lambast me like you did David, keep in mind that my perspective comes from drinking way more variety of alcohol than most.
Leopold Bros Bottled-in-Bond Straight Bourbon Whiskey – Review
50% ABV. 5 years old. Barreled in Summer 2015. USD $55 in K&L Wines.
On the nose: A lot of citrus and fruit aromas. I get enveloping medium aromas of dried mangoes, dried apricots, grapes, persimmon, apples, orange peel and lemon peel. These fruit notes coming together make me think of that Flinstones vitamin C candy. After and within the fruits are subtle aromas of winter melon soup, barley husk, honey, nuts, toffee, brown sugar, and vanilla.
In the mouth: Fruity like on the nose. But the ethanol bite is stronger here. I get enveloping medium tastes of dried apricot, apples, grapes, honeydew melon, persimmon and lanzones. In-between are cinnamon, vanilla, honey, brown sugar, toffee and roasted peanuts. At the end is something lemon-y which reminds me of dehydrated lime peels and lemon shrubs. Somewhere in there’s also a flash of refreshing leafy green taste which makes me think of pandan leaves.
What an interesting, complex and entertaining bourbon. This has no dull moments. It’s so full of flavor. Even better, it doesn’t have the typical bourbon flavors I’ve become sick of. I’ll go as far to say that this is the best contemporary bourbon I’ve had lately.
With all the fruits aromas, I say it’s more like a Scotch on the nose, but it’s more like a bourbon in the mouth. It’s not as fruity as the nose, and there’s also more typical bourbon flavors but not as pronounced. With that said, this isn’t a bourbon to give to a beginner.
Todd Leopold mentioned in a podcast that they aim to make their bourbon different from the big brands because they won’t be able to compete with them in terms of price. I say they succeeded. At $55, it’s also very affordable.