“The details are not the details. They make the design.” – Charles Eames
Wilderness Trail owes their emergence as one of the best young distilleries in America to three simple words: trial and error. Founders Dr. Pat Heist and Shane Baker began distilling after six years of operating their first business together, Ferm Solutions. If that name is less familiar to you than ones like Vendome Copper & Brass Works or Independent Stave Company, then that lets me know that you’re probably not on the production side of whiskey, so let’s discuss it.
Ferm Solutions is a research and product development company for the ethanol and distilled spirits industries which specializes in providing enzymes and yeast to beverage alcohol companies and, of course, providing solutions in the fermentation process. They also provide lab services and offer troubleshooting and consulting services for distilleries. On its face this should indicate to you that they have extensive know-how for operating a distillery of their own, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t go the extra step of mentioning that they’ve provided these services to over 600 beverage alcohol companies to date.
Distilleries all over the world have reached out to Dr. Pat Heist and Shane Baker for their expertise because as Dr. Pat explained to me, “One thing about being a yeast supplier is that yeast gets the blame for every problem that a distillery or a brewery has. If the fermenter’s not bubbling right, it’s time to call the yeast provider and start complaining. So, if you’re going to be successful as a yeast provider you’ve got to be ready to get that phone call… and 99% of the time it’s not the yeast.” As a result of fielding innumerous phone calls of that variety, Ferm Solutions became well known among producers as the perfect troubleshooters, capable of sniffing out any irregularity or oversight in a distillery’s operating processes.
From there it made perfect sense that the pair should start a distillery as it provided them with their own personal space to offer distillery process training and also, you know, distill their own whiskey. Dr. Pat further explained that their work with Ferm Solutions granted them invaluable knowledge, “Working around damn near every distillery that you can name when they were having problems, we figured it out. We know all the bad ideas that there are in this industry so when we built Wilderness Trail we excluded all the bad ideas and kept all the good ideas.” Thus, the two have been able to capitalize on the errors of others to perfect their own craft.
It’s precisely that level of expertise and attention to detail that gave Wilderness Trail a leg up when they began producing their own whiskey, which began in 2013. They’ve quickly set themselves apart in a number of ways (many of which Shane Baker covered here with Malt Editor in Chief Taylor Cope) but the quick hits include their utilization of sweet mash and an infusion mashing technique, operating a super-sterile chemical-free facility, a relatively lower barrel entry proof of 110 for their bourbon and 100 for their rye, plus a slightly lower cook temperature which optimizes their energy use and creates a better product.
So, now that we’re primed to fully appreciate some of the science behind what sets Wilderness Trail apart, allow us to turn our attention toward the subject of today’s review: their 8 Year High Rye Bourbon. Comprised of two 18 barrel small batch blends (one for the distillery release and another for their wider Kentucky release), this is the oldest bourbon ever released by Wilderness Trail. This is made more impressive by the fact Dr. Pat informed me that this bourbon was produced in a year when the company only laid down 300 barrels.
It should be noted here that they now lay down a whopping 35,000 barrels a year. This is a bottled in bond whiskey meaning it is 100 proof (50% ABV) and it carries a suggested retail price of $86, though the sample used for this review was generously provided to me by the distillery. Additionally, Wilderness Trail uses Kentucky-grown corn, wheat, and rye in their whiskey which is notable for the fact that most other distilleries use rye from out of state.
Lastly, I was told this will eventually be more widely distributed as Wilderness Trail continues to elevate the age of their inventory. Sure, that takes time, but considering Wilderness Trail is already the 14th largest bourbon producer in the world I’m sure we can expect more well-aged whiskey from them sooner than later. Now at last, let’s get into the review!
Wilderness Trail Bourbon Aged 8 Years – Review
Color: Dark honey
On the nose: Fruit flavors burst out of the glass as the piquant aromas of raspberry and strawberry swirl about with fresh almonds, rich oak, and leather like the kind you might find on a well-crafted Chesterfield couch. Given some time a bit of cigar ash, pastry dough, and vanilla ice cream develops which adds some impressive depth to the nosing experience.
In the mouth: Again, the fruit makes the initial impression as the taste of juicy strawberries lead the way before vanilla ice cream fans out over the tongue. That vanilla note is particularly prominent and serves as the backbone for the oak, waffle cone, and almond notes that emerge at midpalate before receding which allows a slight cigar smokiness to join crème brûlée and a touch of white pepper on the finish.
I think this is a release that delivers on all of its promise. As someone who has long enjoyed Wilderness Trail whiskey in the four-to-five-and-a-half year range, I’ve always been curious to see how it would evolve given some more time in the barrel and the result is a more pronounced and richer experience. The fruitiness is on full display and pairs perfectly with some rich vanilla and other prototypical bourbon flavors along with some unexpected subtle smokiness. Wilderness Trail’s use of staves that undergo a 24-month air seasoning coupled with a lower barrel entry proof truly optimizes the flavor they’re able to pull from the oak and makes for a wonderfully well-rounded experience. I would perhaps like to see a bit more of a spice note from this “high rye” bourbon to add to the complexity of the pour, but that’s simply me splitting hairs as this is a release worthy of any bourbon fan’s attention.
Lead photo and sample courtesy of Wilderness Trail, which does not affect our notes or scores.