“Age is an issue of mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” – Mark Twain
Did you know that New England borders New York? As a native New Jerseyan with extensive New York ties, I’m ashamed to say I never realized that, such is the regional exceptionality fostered in the greater Metropolitan area. New England officially consists of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
The New England Barrel Company (NebCo for short) was founded by a Boston, MA native and has its home in New Hampshire. The general area is ripe with American history as it is the site of this country’s second established English settlement (Plymouth Colony), the breeding ground for the Revolutionary War, and the region with one of the United States’ worst accents.
Kidding aside, New England is also home to a fair bit of distilling history. Massachusetts, in particular, was renowned for being the leading exporter of America’s best-selling spirit of yesteryear: rum. Today there are relatively few whiskey distilleries staking their claim in the region but NebCo founder James Saunders is seeking to change that narrative and reclaim some of the local pioneer spirit.
Founded in October 2020, New England Barrel Company followed a playbook laid out by several other nascent brands. James was an avid member of the local bourbon community and went from being a hobbyist who selected exceptional barrels for whiskey groups and liquor stores to beginning his own brand where he could fully showcase his renowned palate. In fact, James credits his children for being the impetus behind him starting the brand.
The first barrels he ever bought for himself were ones he sought out from the birth year of each of his children, a project he began with the hope of maturing and eventually gifting those barrels to them as they reached drinking age. However, once he had several barrels in his inventory, that project soon grew into the foundation for New England Barrel Company. It’s a neat personal anecdote that’s indicative of the spirit behind this new wave of NDP companies that have been cropping up since the beginning of the bourbon boom. More and more, we’re seeing passionate hobbyists turn their zeal for whiskey and locally renowned palates into national brands worthy of discerning consumers’ attention.
To that last point: despite being only two years old, NebCo has won numerous awards from some of the nation’s most prestigious panels for their bourbon and rye, plus some of their rum and Armagnac as well. It was that very string of awards that put them on my radar and led to me reaching out to James Saunders for a sample of his small batch bourbon, the subject of today’s review. I first tried it while talking to James early one morning in an effort to learn more about his motivation behind the brand, but I interrupted him mid-sentence the second I took my first sip.
A three-year-old product is not typically something that leaves me impressed. There have been exceptions at about the four-year mark; recently, Corey noted how taken he was with Jim Beam’s two-year-old offering. But, generally speaking, young whiskey simply tastes like young whiskey. That’s to say: it is almost uniformly harsh on the palate, unpleasantly grain-forward, and underdeveloped. What I experienced when I first tasted NebCo’s 99 proof three-year expression, however, was not only surprising in how developed the flavors are, but also in how much balance it displays.
Let’s pull the reins here to acknowledge that much ink has been spilled about NDPs (some of it here on this very site) and their modus operandi. The cynical tack says “why should it be any better than the whiskey being produced by the company they bought it from?” A fair point.
Many companies that source whiskey stake their quality on the palate of their founder or their head blender or their liquid advisor or whatever moniker they can come up with that instills confidence in the consumer base. It’s an increasingly popular – albeit ultimately risky – proposition that boils down to “you should trust our selection and blending process.” For all the inroads James Saunders has made locally, nationally he’s unproven and that very anonymity could’ve led to calamity or, worse, continued obscurity.
Of course, as I noted above, it can also serve as an advantage. When a relatively unknown company wins a string of awards, no matter how you feel about whiskey award panels, it certainly raises awareness. Well, today – with my awareness raised – I’m ready to revisit New England Barrel Company’s small batch bourbon with the hope of doing the same for you. Despite speaking to James Saunders personally and being sent this bottle free of charge, I only owed him then what I owe you now, and that’s my unfettered honesty. You can fully expect it to follow.
But first, the salient specs on this bottle: New England Barrel Company Small Batch Bourbon clocks in at 99 proof (49.5% ABV) is aged for “at least three years” and priced at $35. Additionally, this expression is non-chill filtered which is something their founder is adamant about. He told me “When you chill filter you pull out a lot of flavor from that whiskey, right? And you do that because you’re worried about how stable that product is going to be on the shelf. You don’t want someone to pick up a bottle and have things be cloudy or have things floating in it. If your product is moving pretty rapidly off the shelf then you don’t have to worry about that, because the bottle is getting cracked and enjoyed. A lot of the best whiskey out there in my opinion is NCF because you want [to come] as close to that straight from the barrel experience as possible.”
Let’s see how James’ barrel selection experience, blending technique, and production philosophies translate in the glass, shall we?
New England Barrel Company Small Batch Bourbon – Review
Color: Thin honey.
On the nose: Cinnamon dusted cantaloupe jumps out at me first, followed by some juicy citrus notes plus brown sugar, tobacco leaf, and faint maple syrup. As it sits in the glass there are peppercorn and baking spice notes that emerge along with an almost Nutella-like creamy, chocolate-inflected aroma.
In the mouth: It immediately warms the mouth as the flavors radiate out over the tongue. The cinnamon-dusted cantaloupe, true to the nose, is the first flavor out the gate before tobacco leaf, hazelnut, and milk chocolate find their way. As the flavor settles, there’s a nice sizzling heat that clings to the roof of the mouth that makes its way to and through the finish. This drinks slightly above its proof, which is a compliment here as it seems to make the flavor notes pop a bit more prominently. There’s some green and black pepper hiding at the end of the finish that undergirds some of the sweeter flavors and balances out each sip allowing for the earthiness to serve as a reset button before repeated enjoyment.
After having this bottle open for a few weeks and trying it over several nights I remain as impressed now as I was when I first sampled it. The mouthfeel is creamy, none of the flavors are harsh, and they carry both a light sweetness and a restrained spice to keep them balanced. Additionally, the proof point makes it perfect for sipping neat during these warm summer months and serves to enhance the flavor without being distractingly hot or noticeably lean.
That said, there are still telltale signs of youth in this pour and, though none of them are offensive, they might not be in your wheelhouse if you prefer the darker and richer flavors imparted by longer aging. Some might be inclined here to say “this tastes good for a three-year-old bourbon,” and they would be right to say so. However, I think it performs a notch above that low bar and can easily stand toe to toe with some whiskeys twice its age. Because of this, and the pocket friendly pricing, I feel comfortable scoring NebCo’s small batch bourbon a notch above average in accordance with Malt’s Scoring Bands and calling it “Good.”