When is a single barrel not a single barrel? When there are six of them!
Alright, fine: they remain – individually – single barrels. However, this set has been selected from among barrels that have migrated to such extremes of aromatic and gustatory development as to warrant special consideration, according to the man who distilled them. My hope is that tasting them together will paint a pointillist portrait of this distillery, with the medium being aromas and flavors, and the canvas being my nose and mouth.
This summer, my wife returned home and informed me that the guy doing our tile – himself no slouch of a bourbon enthusiast – had given her some whiskey for me. She said I had to go retrieve it from the trunk of our car. I thought her a tad melodramatic for not being able to carry a handful of samples herself, but quickly understood when I saw milk crates full of bourbon bottles. They were identical but for the additional labels appended to their sides, and their style and shape left no doubt as to their origin: the Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company.
When I first wrote about Peerless, I started by recounting my agonizing wait for the highly anticipated inaugural bourbon release. I still remember the thrill I felt when I glimpsed my first barrel pick of Peerless bourbon. That ended up being fairly on-profile (having aromas and flavors consistent with the mainstay Small Batch), but my subsequent taste of the “Burnt Ends” bourbon and “Apple Pie” rye reinvigorated my hopes for more zany off-profile barrels from this distillery.
Today I will presumably get my wish, as all these bottles carry evocative names hinting at the distinctive flavors of the whiskey they contain. They are also, per their labels, “Hand Selected by Master Distiller Caleb Kilburn. To get more info on this hoard of Peerless single barrels so generously shared with me (thanks, Troy), I got in touch with Caleb, who once again graciously took time out of his busy schedule to share some insights with me. Our conversation is below, condensed and edited for clarity:
Malt: How have things at Peerless evolved since you released the first Small Batch Bourbon?
Caleb: It’s an amazing ride right now. The community has really rallied around us and really built us up very quickly. When we first started out, the first launch day was a microcosm of how our whole business has been. Did I tell you the story about that?
Malt: You told me you had people lined up in the rain at 4 o’clock in the morning!
Caleb: Yeah, pretty much! We had bottled up 2,000-some odd bottles and were expecting, just through our gift shop, that it would be enough to last a couple weeks. We were sold out by mid-day on that Saturday. We’ve been inundated; we have so many requests for single barrels, for small batch and it’s just… it’s just amazing how a small craft distillery in Louisville has gotten so much attention and so much support from the industry. We’ve been incredibly blessed.
Malt: It’s been great to watch. We’ve started to see single barrel picks come along. How did that program evolve?
Caleb: A little back info, a little baseline for our single barrel program: here at Peerless, by far the most unique we do, that craft distilleries have a leg up on, is we get to go through and taste every one of our barrels. It’s not something where we grab one barrel and say that it speaks for a lot or a sample size or a rick. Every barrel gets tested, graded, evaluated by myself and a team of sensory specialists here at Peerless. So, as we’re going through, the very first thing that we establish is “Is this mature? Has this reached its potential? Is it a Peerless-caliber product?” And, if it is, we go ahead and figure out where it’s going to go within our portfolio. But if it isn’t, we put it back in the ricks; we never accelerate, we never rush, we never take something that’s on the fence and go ahead and upgrade it, or put it into something it has no business being a part of.
The ones that we do say, “OK, this belongs in Peerless,” the big question is, “Where?” The bulk of these barrels are great in certain aspects of the flavor wheel, but really need a little bit of help in another. So, these are barrels that maybe they have a great nose, or a caramel note, or some cinnamon, or there’s something special in it… but maybe they have a short finish, or maybe the midpalate’s not terribly evolved, or maybe it’s not great with its mouthfeel. A lot of these barrels, again, have an excellent taste to contribute, but are not as strong as they should be in other parts of the flavor wheel.
What we’ll do with these barrels is we’ll pair ones with offset strengths, so the resulting spirit is better than any independent barrel that goes into it. So, we’ll find a barrel with a great nose, or great finish, great vanilla, great citrus, we’ll find all these different barrels and we’re going to pair those to the other to make our small batch product. Again, the resulting product is built on the strengths of each individual one, that makes it better than any barrel that goes into it. So, that’s your small batch program.
Separate from that is the single barrel program, which is where we are going to find these really special barrels in that tasting process that don’t have any weaknesses, but rather showcase some really fantastic localized portions on the flavor wheel. They’re going to have very different notes, very different aromas. I’d be willing to bet that if you went through and tasted five Kentucky Peerless single barrels – even if they were all of bourbon or all of rye – they’re going to have some very, very different notes and very different characteristics. That’s not something we shy away from.
Some brands like to have a very consistent brand identity where, single barrel to single barrel, they’re going to taste very similar. I throw that out the window. I want it consistent in quality, I want it to be a consistently interesting experience, and that’s about the end of the consistency. If you have a barrel that’s mainly sugar and another one that is sharp cinnamon or herbs, another one that’s sweet cream, another one that’s leather and tobacco… I want these barrels in the single barrel program to be as diverse and “out there” as possible, because that’s what a single barrel embodies, in my opinion.
If people want to see balance I would direct them to our small batch. When someone tastes one of our single barrels, it is an experience. By and far our favorite way to share single barrels with people is through the different liquor stores, liquor chains, bottle share groups, and enthusiast groups who have believed in us, in Kentucky Peerless, actually come in an select a single barrel.
The way the single barrel program works, is when we evaluate an account, they want a Kentucky Peerless single barrel, they’ve helped us out… because we do have a limited quantity of single barrels, and we want to make sure we take care of the people who have taken good care of us. What we’ll do is: myself, John Wadell, who is our single barrel curator, and several other people here, we’ll start with the bulk samples, tasting barrels that have been in a rick after we think, age-wise, they should be becoming mature.
We’re going to taste that, we’re going to evaluate, we’re going to see which ones we think belong in John’s program. From those, we’re going to find three very different barrels that are very unique, that showcase different elements. So, it’s a curated selection, but not in a way that’s only on-profile. Rather, we don’t want to waste someone’s time by putting two barrels in front of them that taste the same. We want to show them different, and a wide breadth of our flavor profile.
So, we’ll set them down with three very different samples. They taste them, and probably the most rewarding experience is that we get to sit through this. When you have a group come in and you’ve got several very well-developed palates, that are all bickering with one another, “No, two’s the one!” “Well, no, three, did you get this note on three?” “Well, what about one?” It’s just really fun that you could have three people who all have good opinions – they’re all making very educated decisions and weighing in properly – but, it’s just, each person has their own preference. We offer enough diversity to allow people to find that.
Malt: Now that you’ve been doing this a while, do those variations and unique notes follow a pattern related to position in the rickhouse, or certain rickhouses?
Caleb: Generally, we have the same ebb and flow as far as batch-to-batch. Usually, as a lot of barrels, they’re more similar than ones that are from different parts of the year, different batches. Even within one fill set, most of the batches we’re pulling from right now were around 10 barrels to fill.
Within that, you may have four or five that need more time on the rick; three that are good; two that could make the single barrel cut. That’s just a ballpark estimate. Some of those that are single barrels end up falling into the batch as well, because more often than not we need a little extra bump in a certain part of the flavor wheel. What better way to do that than with a single barrel?
Malt: The barrels I have now are picked by you and sold in the distillery shop. How does that work?
Caleb: I mentioned how we handle everything outside here. Typically what we’ll do upfront is find some ones that are a little less balanced. That is one thing that we do take a look at; we want to make sure barrels that are offered outside of Peerless typically are going to be ones that a shop owner wants to be a little bit more balanced. I mean, we’ll let them pick whatever they want, but typically their desire is to find something that’s a little more balanced, because it’s their only showing of a Peerless single barrel.
Here at Peerless, we may let someone taste through four different single barrels. As far as our gift shop experience, we can afford to go out on the fringes because here we may have one that is lavender and herbaceous and dry grapefruit. I actually just did a rye named “Grapefruit Spritz.” So it’s herbaceous, it’s grassy, it’s grainy, it’s earthy, it has all these accolades. To a lot of people, that may not fit their profile. So if you’re looking for a store pick, where they are looking to appeal to a broad audience, that’s probably not going to be one that they select, but it’s still a good barrel, and we use the opportunity here at Peerless to showcase those.
Malt: These all have pretty evocative names; do you come up with these?
Caleb: So what we’ll do is, again, we pick from the same population as everyone else. We find ones that we think are really good fits for our single shop up front. It’s usually me and our morning distiller and John Wadell, who is our single barrel curator. We’ll go through and we’ll narrow down to a few barrels that we think fit the bill, that can be released up front. Then I’ll set down with Peyton Beall and usually a guest judge or two, and we’ll taste them and find the ones we like. I’ll write tasting notes and then based on tasting notes from myself and other people on the panel, we’ll collaborate and come up with notes. Usually it’s a low key environment, we’re settin’ in the lab, we’ve tasted through this whiskey, and it’s like “OK, what do you think of these three notes really being the hallmark of this whiskey?” “OK, well, if it’s got those three notes, what is something that kind of sums up the experience?” So that’s our goal with our labels, anyway.
Different liquor stores, they may want to do “Liquor Store Barrel 1” and “Liquor Store Barrel 2,” or they may want to go out there with wild names. There’s only been a few that we’ve had to shoot down for either copyright infringement or they get a little too cheeky, I’ll put it that way. It is the alcohol industry, people love seeing what they can get away with, I’ll put it that way. [laughs].
Malt: So to take one for example, how about this “Clover and Cask” barrel I have?
Caleb: Let me pull up my tasting notes on “Clover and Cask.” So, I go through and I write a full tasting note for each one. For me, this barrel was, “Oak and mocha that lead off the intriguing nose. Tobacco and allspice soon join. First sip is fruit bitters, honey, cinnamon, and sweet oak. Orange bitters burst and revitalize the palate. Delivers on the dry mocha but the orange and sweet oak is still enlarged. The finish is thick oak caramel that still celebrates the citrus.”
So, this one was citrus-barrel-citrus-barrel-citrus-barrel, and like this honey blossom character to it. So we named it “Clover and Cask.” It’s this clover honey drizzled across that embery oak. Each name is meant to prime the mouth, prime the sensations, so they really get an understanding of, well, at least what we get from the barrel.
Malt: Do you keep a library of these?
Caleb: Well, we inherently have a little bit of a library because we do a retainer bottle for each batch. With that being said, we haven’t purposely set aside a full set a full set of whiskey. I don’t even know how we would go about that, to be honest. When someone comes in and they purchase a full barrel, we feel that obviously, if we were to hold back a portion of it, I don’t know if that would be quite honest to what they are purchasing, because these are very finite resources. When you have something that is special, to give it a name, to make the commitment, I don’t know if it is something that I would even want to hold back a case of away from a consumer, away from the person who can get it. We’ve got our little 200 ml that I can always go back and reference if I need to, but: no, I don’t have a library.
Malt: Well, now you’ve just created the greatest collectors’ item in bourbon history: a full set of Peerless single barrels! [laughs]
Caleb: Our single barrel curator, John, he always says like “You are the Master Distiller. You could just take it, nobody is going to say anything,” and I’m like… I was the goody two-shoes in school. All the way through my whole life it’s, “Yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am, please, thank you,” and I fundamentally don’t believe I am taking anything off the table… nothing that isn’t above board. Just helping myself to a bottle here and there is not something I would do.
Malt: I really appreciated the design of the additional labels. Who gets credit for that?
Caleb: The next step of the process, I’ll set down with Cordell Lawrence, who is our global marketing and strategy director. He wears a lot of different hats here at the distillery, as do I. Me and him, we’ll talk it over, we’ll come up with what we think the visual inspirations will be. We’ll of course go to the internet, find some pictures that we feel are consistent with our brand, with our theme, with the name of the barrel. We’ll come up with some color cues and we’ll actually send an email to our in-house graphic designer, who does amazing work. Inspired by our cues, she’ll put together the artwork. Like you said, she does amazing work.
Malt: In your whole history of picking barrels, do you have an all-time favorite?
Caleb: Yes, I have one like that. It was actually a three year old rye, so it was back before we had four year old product. It was this amazing barrel that had like this Caribbean, like salted molasses characteristic to it. It was just amazing. When I say this, it’s not that the barrel itself… if I were setting down and actually grading point-for-point on nose, on taste, on finish, on mouthfeel, on balance, it’s probably not going to win out. It’s not going to be the best as far as fundamentals, but it’s not about that. When you talk about a single barrel it’s about the experience, what it can share with you as far as where that barrel came from, and what it’s capable of. So, for me, Rye Tai is always going to evoke this really different sensation that is so far outside of the norm for rye, but it’s good!
I actually went ahead an pulled up the notes from that Rye Tai. “The nose begins with a toasted mixture of brown sugar and allspice. Dark molasses, soil, and spicy grasses soon dominate the aroma. A multitude of subtle accents ranging from fried plantains to cocoa powder to cocoa entice and confuse the senses. The first sip leads with sweet toffee, before a smoky savory character takes over. Sweet oak, cinnamon, and toasted breakfast cereal soon follow and complement. The barrel finishes similar to a barrel-aged rum as vanillas and burnt tropical fruit come to dominate the sensations. One of the most complex Peerless barrels ever.” It jumped all around, it was so weird!
I think that our small batch products are what technically would be graded best-for-best among our products, but our single barrels are just really exciting in that they showcase these different notes around the flavor wheel.
Thanks again to Caleb for generously sharing his time and insights with me. With that prelude, I’m very excited to get tasting these single barrels. A programming note: these retail for $124 each in the distillery shop, which is a meaningful premium to the $80 for which the Small Batch Bourbon now retails, and the $90 for which my local store is selling the Small Batch Rye. Price has always been a sticking point with Peerless from the beginning; I’ve defended it before in terms of the company’s craft scale and truly differentiated approach to production and maturation. With that in mind, I’ll still be looking for some unique flavors expressed with conviction in order to justify this premium.
Peerless Bourbon “Low and Slow” – Review
Barrel #160817103. 108.1 proof (54.05% ABV).
Color: Medium golden brown.
On the nose: A marriage of faintly fruity notes with some creamy oak. There’s a bit of grape-y funk here reminiscent of a wine cellar, as well as some airily sweet notes of confectioners’ sugar. A mildly meaty nuttiness of cashews rounds out the nose.
In the mouth: Upfront this is far more exuberant, with a tartly fruity note of slightly underripe cherries. This develops some zesty, spicy notes as it moves toward the midpalate, as well as a minerality with a drying texture that takes over as this reaches the peak of the palate. This is the point of maximum flavor, and there’s not much body or heft to the bourbon through the finish, which leaves behind a slightly woody astringency.
I am not getting any of the promised burnt ends, though I do fine that funky wine note on the nose very appealing. That said, this is not the best example of Peerless bourbon that I have ever tried. It’s far too delicate and soft spoken. To reflect that, and in consideration of the high price, I am knocking a point off of average.
Peerless Bourbon “Smoldering Oak” – Review
Barrel #160831107. 108.1 proof (54.05% ABV).
Color: Medium golden brown, consistent with the prior bottle.
On the nose: Another one that tacks toward the lighter end of the spectrum, this presents a vernal nose of freshly cut flowers to start. There’s another candied element here, but this time it’s the fruity variation on candy canes. A bit of additional sniffing reveals a sappy note of pine needles, but again presented with extreme subtlety.
In the mouth: I begin to understand the Smoldering Oak appellation, as there’s a nice mélange of woody notes from front to back here. Upfront there is a toasted sugar in the manner of crème brûlée, with an added accent of orange zest. That minerality is again evident in the middle of the mouth, though there’s also a gentle dried wood and slightly smoky flavor of campfire. This finishes hotter than its predecessor despite the similar ABV, with a tingly sensation radiating thorugh the mouth.
This is an improvement from the prior bottle, particularly in the mouth, where the weight and texture feel more close to the best of what I’ve experienced from this distillery. The variety of the wood notes is intriguing. It’s good – but not great – bourbon. In total, I’m inclined to score this at the midpoint of the range.
Peerless Bourbon “Clover & Cask” – Review
Barrel #160822105. 108.2 proof (54.10% ABV).
Color: Medium golden brown, identical to the others.
On the nose: More sumptuously sweet, I immediately feel my nose coated with the sticky clover honey aroma. The differently sweet, creamy oaky vanillin notes are, indeed, accented by a subtle hint of orange. That honey note, though, reasserts itself; it is a thing of beauty. With more time, I get a freshly green and dewy note of a recently mowed lawn on a springtime morning.
In the mouth: Sweet in an altogether different way from the nose, this starts again with a fruity note, but this time it’s a softened clementine on the verge of over-ripeness. This gains body as it moves into the middle of the mouth, where there’s a pitch-perfect marriage of polished wood and mocha. This yields to a slightly astringent, tannic woodiness through the finish. Again, one that tingles the tongue long after the last swallow.
Another step in the right direction, they nailed the description on this one. The nose is all clover honey, while the mouth shows the cask influence, in addition to some other notes that help this feel fuller and better realized than the two that came before it. I’d be satisfied if I brought this home from the gift shop, thus am adding a point to average.
Peerless Bourbon “Sangria Sunset” – Review
Barrel #150527102. 110.2 proof (55.10% ABV).
Color: Noticeable a shade darker than the others, with (appropriately, given the name) more of a blood red hue.
On the nose: Call me impressionable, but the wine and cut fruit of sangria are evident here from the moment this reaches the nose. That’s not all, though; there are densely herbal accents of tarragon and spicy notes of cinnamon here. The overall effect is reminiscent of mulled wine for a moment, but then a meaty note of slow cooked beef brisket joins the party. This is joined, after a while, by fresh strawberries. Of the examples thus far, I am most excited to get to tasting this one, based on the nose.
In the mouth: This presents a tart and sweet fruitiness with a heaping dollop of spice, again reminiscent of mulled wine. In the middle of the mouth this achieves a great balance, with the fruity notes joining in with a tannic woodiness reminiscent of actual red wine, while the herbs and spices mix with a dash of limestone for a moment. There’s a slightly bitter woodiness that sings out for a second on the finish, before this resolves itself and settles down into a gently pulsating heat.
The most off-profile single barrel of the group so far, this has those fruit and wine notes pushed to an extreme. However, they don’t totally dominate the presentation. The spicy accents are equally intriguing, while the mouthfeel is pleasantly plump while still retaining some sharpness around the edges. The best of the bunch so far; I’d be a willing buyer of this, as it most convincingly fulfils the promise of the single barrel format, and all the quirky charms we expect therefrom.
Peerless Bourbon “Wild Berry Marmalade”
Barrel #160826107. 114.3 proof (57.15% ABV).
Color: Similarly dark and reddish hued to the Sangria Sunset.
On the nose: Stone and spice meet with exotic wood in a difficult-to-describe mélange. It’s hard to pick apart the individual nuances, but just then a burst of brambleberries cuts through the middle of it all and dominates the nose. Once I pick up that note, it’s impossible to go back. Perhaps some cardamom or lemongrass if I really try hard enough, but it always goes right back to the berries.
In the mouth: Surprisingly mute to start, this only begins to pick up fruity flavors as it moves toward the center of the mouth. This tastes somewhat muddled (not in the berry sense) and dilute. All the flavors are presented vaguely, as though behind a veil, or photographed through a gauzy lens. There’s a tartness that hints at underripe berries through the finish, but again coming to me indistinctly. With additional consideration, that turns into a stalky, tannic greenness that makes me grimace; this tastes immature.
I see what they saw with that berry note on the nose; it is unique and amusing. However, the palate on this one is a mess, with flavors either lacking resolution or – in the case of the woody notes – overpowering in a bad way. I’d be pretty let down if I shelled out a buck and a quarter for this, and am scoring it accordingly.
Peerless Rye “Prickly Pear Manhattan” – Review
Barrel #150822101. 113.5 proof (56.75% ABV).
Color: Back to medium golden brown.
On the nose: I don’t know from prickly, but there’s definitely a pear note here. I might have said “grilled pears,” as there’s a charred, smoky aspect to this. This does, indeed, smell like a cocktail; not sure if it would be a Manhattan, but fans of mixology will delight in sniffing this one nonetheless. There’s a subtle note of rye in here, but mostly it’s that dense, syrupy fruitiness that speaks loudest. Let’s see what it’s got in the mouth.
In the mouth: Ah, that’s more like it. A potent and dense, thick flavor of rye whiskey is immediately apparent, and carries this all the way into the mouth and through the finish. Oh, sure, there’s some fruity notes dancing around the periphery; I get an almost grape soda-like note at one point. However, what I mostly taste is serious, concentrated rye whiskey.
The nose is a curiosity, perhaps one that would turn off the folks that don’t care for mixed drinks. That would be a pity, though, as the mouth tacks in a completely different direction. It’s rye through and through, with some points of intrigue, but mostly rye. It’s very good rye, which reminds me that I drink too little of the stuff from Peerless. That will change forthwith.
Well, that was a rollercoaster. In total, I’m glad I sampled these side-by-side, as it gave me some appreciation for the full extent of deviations from the (above average) mean that is represented by Peerless’ small batch expression. That said, they weren’t all winners. Some degree of hit-or-miss risk taking is expected when tasting single barrels, but the elevated price of these raised the bar to a height that some of the barrels had trouble clearing. Nonetheless, I’d be willing to take a flier on a barrel in the distillery shop, more so if there were a bottle open to taste prior to purchase. As a consequence, I’d advise you all to approach this expression with cautious hopefulness.
Author’s note: Caleb gracefully spared his time to speak in March of 2021. It took 18 months to get around to completing this review, for which Caleb – and the whole Peerless team – have my heartfelt apologies.