Can you take a hint?

I can’t, as it turns out. Consider the bourbon I’ll be reviewing today: it is sourced whiskey with little transparency regarding its origin, repackaged by a company I disdain, and sold in the fraught single barrel format through a sprawling liquor chain. As if those specs weren’t enough to warn me off, I’ve personally been burned by one of its siblings in this range.

So, what’s the matter with me? Call me a cheapskate but, when I saw this bottle with the price cut by -30%, well… I’m a sucker for a bargain. How bad could it be, right? We’re going to find out shortly. First, though, some background on this brand and bottle…

Brought to us by Lux Row Distillers, “producers” (should that be “pushers?”) of the laughably overpriced Blood Oath series, the Ezra Brooks brand has a winding history reflective of the tumult and horse trading of the bourbon industry more generally. Thanks to Michael Veach and Brian Haara, among others, for the original research supporting the following summary:

Who was Ezra Brooks? Nobody, as it turns out. The name and brand were conjured out of thin air in 1957 by Frank Silverman of New York City’s 21 Brands distribution company. The whiskey was sourced from the Hoffman Distilling Company – then owned by the Ripy family of Wild Turkey fame – in Lawrenceburg, KY. For what it’s worth, Chuck Cowdery claims in his book “Bourbon, Straight” that the name is derived from Ezra Ripy, who was then (alongside his brother Robert) running the Hoffman distillery.

Attempting to capitalize on the popularity of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, the bottles and labels were initially designed to resemble Jack in their shape and color. The copycat nature was evident from the start and was actually played up in the brand’s advertising at the time. Brown-Forman unsuccessfully sued Hoffman Distilling shortly thereafter, with the judge ruling that the name and different state of production were sufficient to distinguish the product.

In 1979, 21 Brands (and the Ezra Brooks brand along with it) were acquired by the Medley Distilling Company, which moved production of the bourbon to their own distillery in Owensboro. Medley was acquired by Glenmore in 1988, itself acquired by United Distillers in 1991. United Distillers tossed Ezra Brooks to Heaven Hill like a hot potato the next year; just a year after that, Heaven Hill sold the brand to Luxco, then known as the David Sherman Company.

Heaven Hill continued to produce Ezra Brooks for Luxco from its 78% corn, 10% rye, 12% barley mash bill, shared by the distillery’s own Evan Williams and Elijah Craig brands. Heaven Hill also produced Rebel Yell from a separate, wheated mash bill identical to that of Heaven Hill’s in-house wheater, Old Fitzgerald. But does the Ezra Brooks juice still come from Bernheim?

A glance at the front label shows “DSP-KY-20044,” indicating Lux Row Distillers’ own distillery in Bardstown. However, the back says “DISTILLED & AGED IN KENTUCKY. BOTTLED FOR LUX ROW DISTILLERS, BARDSTOWN, KY” which makes me think it’s still Heaven Hill.

I quizzed Brian Haara about the permissibility (or lack thereof) of the practice of labeling with a DSP that wasn’t the source of the distillate. He helpfully replied thus:

“If they would have bothered to ask me, I would have told Lux Row (MGP) that if they’re going to use their own DSP, they had better put “bottled at” before it, instead of stand-alone. The back label that you quote, just as you indicate, has to mean that it’s not their own distilled bourbon yet. Some labels will disclose two DSPs, like Henry McKenna BiB (Bardstown and Louisville) and sometimes EH Taylor when they bottle in Frankfort instead of Bardstown.”

Setting those concerns aside, what has become of Ezra Brooks? In the past, the brand carried a seven year age statement, with single barrel bottlings (called “Ezra B”) coming in 15 and 12 year iterations. These have fallen by the wayside, however, and the current Ezra Brooks lineup is significantly more modest in its ambitions.

At the low end, the Ezra Brooks range encompasses a trio of value expressions: a 90 proof rye ($15), a 90 proof bourbon ($18), and a “Bourbon Cream” liqueur ($15). Moving up a little gives us the 99 proof bourbon ($24), and eventually Old Ezra 7 Year ($60 to $80), which I loathed, and which was also given a drubbing by Sam.

However, I was pleasantly surprised the Rebel Cask Strength, another Binny’s pick from Lux Row. With that memory freshly revived, I decided to discard my previously mentioned preconceptions and take a flier on this bottle.

This is barrel #7544625. It comes to us at 120 proof (60% ABV). The barrel was filled on 11/15/2016, making this probably about five years old, presuming it was bottled last year shortly before I picked up the aforementioned Rebel Cask Strength. Originally priced at $50, this was marked down to $35 as part of the chain’s periodic end of bin clearance sales. I’ll be using the higher retail price as my benchmark for our price-sensitive scoring bands.

Ezra Brooks Cask Strength Barrel #7544625 – Review

Color: Medium gold.

On the nose: First impression is “hot buttered chestnuts.” Is that even a thing? It is here, though this pivots (through a cloud of alcoholic esters) to a lighter aromatic profile comprised of floral notes, the sweetness of confectioners’ sugar, and a chalky minerality. Some more time in the glass releases a thick, gooey, fruity note of brandied cherries as well as some hot fudge sundae topping. After a while, I start to pick up the classic Heaven Hill hallmark note, a marriage of metallic and citric elements, accented in this case by some spicy scents of ground cinnamon.

In the mouth: Again, a nuttiness and a buttery oakiness are presented upfront, in an uncharacteristically forward presentation in the front of the mouth. That Heaven Hill note is on full display as this moves toward the midpalate, though it is also intertwined with more of that mineral note from the nose, experienced here in drying form. The finish retains a pleasantly prickly aftertaste of cinnamon chewing gum, reminiscent of a pack of Big Red. The high ABV is most evident, too, on the back of the tongue and in the throat, returning to the front of the mouth with a persistent heat that continues to tingle the tongue and lips long after the last swallow.

Conclusions:

If this isn’t Heaven Hill distillate, then Lux Row has figured out how to do a very convincing Heaven Hill impression. This tastes like a baby Elijah Craig Barrel Proof; at less than half the age it doesn’t have the fullness of the flavor development evident in the better batches of that expression. However, the core elements are all there and – more importantly – exist in a nicely proportional balance that is often hard to find in expressions of this age, especially when they are presented at full strength. It’s a lot of whiskey for the price, which results in a solidly positive score from me.

Score: 7/10

Color me pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this one. Maybe it’s worth disregarding my own “wisdom” (often just accumulated preconceptions, biases, and heuristics) more often? I’ll continue to be a hawkeyed bargain shopper, in the hopes that I will once again be led into unexpected delights at compelling prices.

Lead image courtesy of Binny’s. Vintage ad image courtesy of Brian Haara.

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