“Ah, but have you tried the first batch?”
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard some variation on this refrain. On tasting some not-very-distinguished whiskey from a Johnny-come-lately independent bottler or blender, I’ve expressed astonishment (not in a good way) at the hype surrounding these brands. When I make note of this publicly, I am admonished to seek out the (now scarce and more overpriced) early releases on which these reputations were built.
That comment about prior batches points towards a strategy that has been successfully employed at least once by upstart NDPs looking to make a name for themselves: source some exceptional stock (bonus points if they can credibly suggest that it’s from a legendary distillery, preferably one that no longer exists) and bottle it as an inaugural release. Earn outlandish plaudits. Follow that up with subsequent batches lacking the same pedigree but coasting on the reputation (and price point) of the predecessor. Profit.
I’ll once again be dealing in batches today but will be hoping for an entirely different type of outcome: I’m expecting the second batches to be better than the first. In a few moments, I’ll tell you why I harbor that anticipation. Before that, though, a reintroduction to the Pursuit United brand…
I was first introduced to Pursuit United’s blended bourbon when I was kindly gifted a sample by Kenny Coleman, one half of the “C+C” in parent company C+C Spirits’ name. I found the approach novel, but what really impressed me was the value (in the sense of quality-for-price) of what ended up in the bottle. Lest I be accused of providing a positive review for the purposes of schmoozing the two most consequential bourbon podcasters, I’d like to note that I later purchased a bottle of the bourbon, using my own cash, for my home bar. It has since disappeared, fulfilling the brand’s ambition to be a reliable daily sipper.
That was followed up by a taste of the Pursuit United blended rye which, if anything, improved on the experience offered by the bourbon. With that release, blender Ryan Cecil proved that he had not just caught lightning in a bottle once by accident. I was not alone in this assessment; sentiment among those who had tried both the bourbon and the rye seemed universally positive, again noting the very high quality delivered for the price, with additional appreciation of the brand’s relative transparency.
Here’s where my aforementioned hopes for continual improvement come into play. To start with the component ingredients: Kenny previously mentioned that Pursuit had secured aged stock, which will become backfilled with newly filled barrels being put down now. There’s the possibility that the age and (perhaps) the quality of the ingredients will increase over time; indeed, the press release for these second batches notes “the back of Pursuit United Rye labels will no longer display an age statement because all components are older than four years.”
That said, there’s the potential for other changes as well. I noted with interest the following paragraph from the press release:
“Pursuit United Bourbon features a new mashbill in the blend. ‘The types of barrels we used for the first two releases of Pursuit United were not available so we worked with Bardstown Bourbon Company to find a similar product of theirs,’ Ryan Cecil said. ‘After multiple small-scale blends, I moved forward on a mashbill that has a little bit more rye. This delivers a bit more spice and a deeper stone fruit taste.’”
To get more info, I peppered Kenny with the following questions, which he kindly answered via email:
Malt: The age on the rye has increased, per the press release; any change in the bourbon age?
Kenny: No change in the bourbon, for now. All of the bourbon components are four and five years old.
Malt: Is the intention for the age to march upwards over time, or will you be trying to stick closely to the flavor profiles of the initial batches?
Kenny: All of the above. The blend will continue to be four to five years old while our whiskey stocks grow. The current plan is to hold back barrels so all components will be six years old. However, we will make that judgement later on. We tried one of the components at six years old and it didn’t taste any better than when it was four. Either way, we have a lot of time on our hands until we need to worry about it. We are spending $1.2M every year on new fill barrels with the same mash bill and char levels so we can maintain a consistent flavor profile.
Malt: Speaking of flavor profiles: the press release mentions “deeper stone fruit” in the bourbon. You also mention a different bourbon mash bill from Bardstown. Any details or comments about this?
Kenny: We’ve used every dime that was made over the years of selling Pursuit Series single barrels to purchase four, three, two, and one year old barrels of all components. When we made our bulk purchase of barrels from Bardstown Bourbon Company, a small detail was overlooked. Even though the barrels we purchased were from 2018, the fill date was in December. That would have delayed the United bourbon release until December, but in reality it would have meant no 2022 release.
We talked to Bardstown Bourbon Co and there were no more barrels available of the particular mash bill we wanted. However, there were barrels available that had a similar mashbill with a slightly higher rye content. We got a sample and Ryan did his thing to test the blend. Although the end result is slightly different from our previous batch, we’re very happy with the result. Putting batch numbers on the label turned out to be a good decision after all.
Malt: Any other changes to the components of the bourbon or the rye that we should be aware of?
Kenny: The initial United Rye release that won double gold at San Francisco had one component of three year rye and it was depicted on the label to follow TTB rules. One year later, all components are now four years old and we could drop the age statement.
Malt: You’d previously mentioned some major growth ambitions, up to 50,000 bottles in a release. I noticed that the rye release of 10,000+ bottles is well above the 6,000 you had laid out when we spoke about it. Can you provide an update on your expectations for the reach of the brand?
Kenny: The original plan for the rye was only 6,000 bottles in 2022 but, once we saw the reception in the market, we felt like it’s a good opportunity to strike while the iron is hot. We had already purchased quite a few rye barrels from Bardstown, so we had those ready to go. We approached Sagamore and asked to purchase more than our contracted amount, which they thankfully made happen. With our current investment in new fill barrels, the plan is to have a 50,000 six pack case portfolio by 2030. United Rye will be about 20% to 25% of that. It’s a strong and ambitious roadmap!
Malt: Any expansions beyond the bourbon and rye in the works? Perhaps a “bourye?”
Kenny: We are called Pursuit Spirits for that very reason. During PursuitPalooza this year, attendees got an opportunity to try our rum being aged in United bourbon barrels. There is also a new extension called Pursuit United Oak Collection that will have its first release this year. This will combine our United products with different oak finishes. The door is always open to new products as we grow and want to meet the needs of customers. Whiskey will always be our bread and butter.
Malt: As Ryan continues to hone his blending prowess, have you thought about experimenting with more exotic blend components (e.g. aged light whiskey)?
Kenny: Our current focus is making Pursuit United bourbon and rye a success. There are a few collaboration projects in the works as well, but everything is bourbon and rye. Maybe we’ll experiment with light whiskey when bourbon and rye become boring 🙂
Thanks to Kenny for providing this information.
Returning to my initial premise: the other source of optimism, for me, is the ongoing evolution of Ryan as a blender. As noted above, he’s got a pair of solid successes under his belt. If blending is about individual mastery of the art of flavor creation, then it stands to reason that someone (Ryan included) might get better at it with time and practice.
Call me greedy, but I’m hoping that these second batches deliver everything that their forerunners did, plus a bit extra. We’ll shortly see if my dreams come true. As always, I’ll be evaluating these within the context of Malt’s price-sensitive scoring framework. SRP remains $65 for both the bourbon and rye; please be aware that these were samples provided free of charge by C+C/Pursuit, which will not affect my notes or scores.
One final point of order for the geekiest among us, or for those trying to discern whether the bottle they see on the shelf is the first or second batch: Pursuit Spirits has implemented a batch coding system, which they describe thus:
The new coding system starts with the number of the month. The following two letters are based on the last two digits of the year with A being 0 (zero), B is 1 (one), etc. This release of Pursuit United Bourbon and Pursuit United Rye is 7CC which represents July 22.
So, starting out, we have the bourbon batch 7CC. As before, this is 108 proof (54% ABV).
Pursuit United Bourbon (Batch 7CC) – Review
Color: Golden brown.
On the nose: This leaps out of the glass with a very pretty, rounded floral note with sweet accents of powdered sugar. That initial impression yields to a delectable note suggestive of rich sugar with an almost burnt aspect, in the manner of crème brûlée. This then transforms into a butterscotch aroma by way of a crawlspace or a used bookstore, by which I mean that there is a salutary touch of musty, dusty funk here, in the best of ways. Nosed blind, I might have guessed that this was dusty Wild Turkey, National Distillers OGD, or Stitzel-Weller (really!). There’s a slightly vegetal whiff of celery that creeps in, as well as some herbal notes of lemongrass.
In the mouth: Beginning with a woody kiss to greet the tip of the tongue, this quickly evolves a citric bouquet encompassing elements both tart (oranges) and sweet (ripe cherry). This picks up texture as it moves toward the middle of the mouth, taking on a mineralic aspect and additional flavor dimensions, this time of a nuttier variety. All these elements knit together cohesively for a moment in the middle of the mouth, before this moves toward the finish. There, some of the burnt sugar aspects from the nose come back into play, eventually yielding to a long, fading flavor of coffee beans, butterscotch, and a slightly prickly tingle as a reminder of the very solid ABV.
Better than the first batch? I should say so. Looking back on my notes for that whiskey, I am struck by how much more grown up and serious this second batch is. The nose, especially, presents some fascinating notes that harken back to whiskeys of yore. The highlight though, for me, is the consistency of that burnt sugar element both on the nose and in the mouth. This would almost qualify as dessert bourbon, were it not for the diverse spicy and stony elements that provide balance from start to finish.
As before, it’s a whiskey that can be sipped for pleasure and also considered seriously. I can’t wait to put this in front of some Serious Bourbon People™ and make them embarrass themselves guessing which dusty bottle this came out of. All in, this offers a lot of fun for $65, so I’m bumping up the score I gave to the prior batch and awarding this a hearty…
That was quite an opening act… can rye batch 7CC follow suit? As with the bourbon, and consistent with the prior release, this is also 108 proof (54% ABV).
Pursuit United Rye (Batch 7CC) – Review
Color: Nearly identical golden brown.
On the nose: Like the bourbon, this is full of personality straightaway. This time, it’s the creamy and citric sweetness of key lime pie, a personal favorite. There’s an identifiably rye aspect to this, with that grain being expressed in a yeasty, doughy sort of way, somewhat like rye bread. There’s also the metallic, steely sensation I associate with rye, as well as a green note reminiscent of freshly mowed lawn on an early summer day. Underneath all this is a soft, rich, and sweet note of vanilla buttercream. Call it the subconscious influence of the bourbon, but after leaving this in the glass for a while I start to pick up some of that burnt sugar, as well as an eye-opening whiff of freshly brewed black coffee.
In the mouth:
This presents a stern rye profile at first, with vegetal green notes and steely grain flavors upfront as the whiskey meets the lips and tongue. Then, the creamy notes from the nose take over, carrying this up the tongue in a smooth wave of oaky vanilla flavor. There’s a perfectly round note of green apple in the middle of the mouth reminiscent of hard candies; this is far and away my favorite note in this (or any other) rye whiskey. A little dried firewood flavor punctuates the commencement of the finish, wherein I once again get a pure rye grain note mingled with – you guessed it – a fading flavor of burnt sugar.
An excellent whiskey, an excellent rye, and therefore an excellent rye whiskey. Like the previous batch, this contains so many notes imparted by the grain and expressed with a purity and a concentration rarely experienced. Beyond that, however, are a few notes (especially that green apple hard candy) that are captivating and delicious. This doesn’t stray as far from the first batch as the bourbon did, but it didn’t have to. It’s slightly different from – but every bit as good as – the rye that came before it, and it’s comparable in quality to the bourbon. To reflect all that, and considering the same price, I’m scoring it identically.
If you fancy yourself a bourbon or rye aficionado and have not yet tried either of the Pursuit United blends, consider this a strong urging, from me, to rectify your omission. Ryan and Kenny have hit the mark again with a pair of extremely good whiskeys that are different from almost anything else you’ll be able to buy off the shelf. I’m certain to be a repeat customer, confident that whichever batch I pluck off the shelf will clear the high bar that Pursuit set from the beginning.
Photos and whiskey courtesy of Pursuit Spirits.