“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 51
I suspect that the current fashion for finished bourbon is a response to a profound supply and demand imbalance. There’s a lot of four year old, five year old, six year old bourbon out there, especially from the craft distillers who got their starts in the last decade or so. It’s comparatively expensive, relative to similarly aged bourbon from the big Kentucky distilleries, who benefit from their significant economies of scale. Furthermore – just between friends – a lot of it isn’t very good.
That’s not to say it’s awful. Oh, sure: some of it is terrible. On the other hand, some of it is magnificent. Those barrels require no augmentation; they stand on their own merits as exemplars of the “craft” in “craft whiskey.” Much of what sits in the middle is middling; neither good enough (especially considering value for money) to warrant commendation, nor offensive enough to deserve condemnation.
What happens to all this whisky? We are – collectively – in the process of finding out. One strategy that has emerged involves transferring the whiskey from its legally stipulated charred, new oak container into a different vessel, previously used to mature something else. This process, known as finishing, adds another layer of flavor that is meant to improve on the underlying whiskey.
Using this site as a barometer gives us a sense for the momentum of this style. While Malt is by no means encyclopedic (as much because of practical considerations as by intent), I believe that “stepping back” and viewing the reviews as dots comprising a pointillist picture can illuminate things about the whiskey zeitgeist.
Undertaking that experiment myself, I found that finished American whiskeys (bourbons, but also rye and malt whiskey) have been popping up with increased frequency. We’ve had appearances from whiskey finished in red wine, tequila, ex-Scotch, VDN, amburana, apricot brandy, even maple syrup… and that’s just this year! These examples have come from both craft distillers as well as more established distilleries.
That said, I’ve sensed a shift in the tone of the finished whiskey conversation of late. As quickly as finished bourbon came into vogue, it seems to have fallen out of style, at least amongst some members of the whiskey cognoscenti.
Herein lies the contradiction, at least for me. As skeptical as I am about finishes (and I’m in increasingly good company here), the allure of a properly applied finish continues to intrigue and tempt me. Of the finished bourbon whiskies I have had: I’ve liked some of them (Bowman), and I’ve loved others (Revival). Even as I mock finished whiskey, I am still chasing that high which comes from the explosion of flavors imparted by a quality finish.
I’ll be taking another spin of this roulette wheel today with a finished whiskey from one of the better American craft bourbon distilleries. Since my initial dalliance with a barrel pick from Woodinville, their reputation in bourbon circles has only improved. Frank praised their core bourbon offering in this space recently. So, what have we here? According to Woodinville’s own site:
“We take our fully matured 5-year straight bourbon and transfer it into Ruby Port barrels for 6 additional months.”
Bottled at 90 proof (45% ABV), this retails near me for about $50. This was a sample, courtesy of the ever-generous Ryan, who continues to have my thanks.
Woodinville Straight Bourbon Whiskey Port Finished – Review
Color: Tawny-accented brownish orange.
On the nose: This does, indeed, have a wine-y quality straightaway. The immediate impression is of the lush, soft, velvety fruitiness of Ruby Port. Just beyond that, though, swirls an intriguing mélange of other aromas. I get a creamy note of vanilla custard as well as some whiffs of old leather. There’s a subtle hint of freshly cut tobacco as well as a strawberry-accented stone, if that makes any sense? This all marries quite neatly together; it takes some concentrated sniffing to pick the elements apart, so nicely intertwined are they.
In the mouth: That initial fruitiness is once again evident in the mouth, with a cheerful, sweet kiss of ripe cherries and strawberries as this meets the tip of the tongue. The middle of the mouth tacks more woody, though the red fruit notes reemerge with accents of cacao and espresso beans to add intrigue. The only suboptimal note is a tannic, astringent woodiness that emerges momentarily toward the back of the mouth, right before the finish. This doesn’t linger, thankfully, and is instead replaced by bittersweet dark chocolate and one final taste of tart cherry.
For those attempting to recreate the delights of Wild Turkey Revival on a budget, I’d strongly urge checking out this Woodinville release. The Port cask finish builds on the solid foundation of Woodinville’s high-quality bourbon, adding some really delicious red fruit notes that play nicely with the underlying whiskey. This isn’t one-note, however, and there is enough diversity both on the nose and in the mouth that it can be enjoyed by a serious whiskey person™. Though I’m usually a bit of a proof hound, it’s also worth noting that the 45% ABV feels exactly right here. $50 for five year old craft bourbon with a finish, executed well, seems very fair. To reflect all this I’m adding a point on top of the average, indicating that this is a good whiskey that I’d purchase again.
Maybe the bigger lesson here isn’t about contradiction, but rather about trust. There’s a bunch of folks churning out trashy tasting or boring bourbon, but there are a few doing it well. They’ve earned our respect through their core range and their barrel picks, and we should give them the benefit of the doubt when a finish comes into play. Per Ronald Reagan’s maxim, I’m happy to have both trusted and verified in the case of this Woodinville bourbon, and have been rewarded with a very tasty whiskey as a consequence… and now I’m finished.
Lead image courtesy of Binny’s.