“If you add a little to a little, and then do it again, soon that little shall be much.” – Hesiod
Castle & Key is already a name of intrigue in the American whiskey industry. Founded by Will Arvin and partner Wes Murry, the distillery was born from the ashes of the shuttered Old Taylor Distillery. Yes, we’re speaking here of that old Taylor – Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. to be exact – one of the driving forces behind the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897 and the man whose name adorns bottles Buffalo Trace’s beloved and highly allocated E.H. Taylor lineup.
Prior to both of these accomplishments, however, Taylor built the Old Taylor Distillery in 1887 – complete with a castle, a classical springhouse, and sunken gardens – hoping to make it a major draw for bourbon tourism. After three decades of success the site was forced to cease operation during Prohibition, and shortly thereafter it was acquired by National Distillers. Decades later the site would eventually become a dilapidated ruin before being rescued from the sands of time and the overgrown bush of Millville, Kentucky by its current owners in 2014.
What’s followed since 2014 has both excited and confounded outside observers. One of the positives was that the founding group chose to restore the distillery’s original site, keeping intact many of the flourishes that made the initial Old Taylor Distillery a unique destination for bourbon tourists. That excitement was soon bolstered by the fact they named Marianne Eaves as their Master Distiller, making her Kentucky’s first female Master Distiller since Prohibition.
What followed was four years of anticipation that was briefly interrupted by the news that Eaves – who by that point had become the face of the brand – would be stepping away before Castle & Key had released a single whiskey product. The Forbes 30-Under-30 honoree told American Whiskey’s Maggie Kimberl after the announcement, “My role started to evolve… When you have this really capable team to run the distillery day-to-day and you aren’t needed in the operations they want to use you more in the marketing side of things. It felt like it was transitioning away from what my passions really are.”
Despite what was initially billed as an amicable split, the brand has since distanced itself from her involvement, primarily crediting their early whiskey releases to the talents of Jon Brown, their Quality Manager, along with Head Blender Brett Connors. This, of course, isn’t a knock against any of those mentioned, but it is a curious detail worth noting when one considers the fact that Castle & Key has not named another Master Distiller since Eaves’ departure three years ago.
That said, Castle & Key has been contract distilling for other brands for some time now and they’ve had talented consultants come through their doors since day one. In short: despite the loss of their first and only Master Distiller, there’s no reason to believe the whiskey they’ve been producing under their own name isn’t the result of capable hands.
That all brings us to the subject of today’s review, Castle & Key’s first foray into the wheated bourbon category. According to Jon Brown:
“Our Small Batch Wheated Bourbon offers a reimagined mashbill of our flagship Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey, which was released earlier this year. The focus? A sweeter and smoother finish, making this spirit the perfect complement to your favorite cocktail or easy to sip neat.”
For this release, two batches were released simultaneously to 11 different states, including my home state of New Jersey, though I’ve yet to see it on shelves. Today’s expression was provided to me at no cost by the distillery. With a bottle count topping 11,000 for both batches the quantities are a bit limited, but in time those numbers should be increased and more people should have an opportunity to give it a try. That begs the question, though, is it worth a try? Ever the cynic, I can’t be sure… at least, until I try it myself.
It should be noted here that I will be reviewing Batch 1 which consists of 49 barrels, is bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV), has a 5 year age statement, and carries a suggested retail price of $59.99.
Castle & Key Small Batch Wheated Bourbon – Review
Color: Golden honey.
On the nose: Oddly the first whiff reminds me of pink Starbursts, perhaps even bubblegum? That’s soon joined by white pepper, dried strawberries and plum skin, then a big dose of vanilla extract. Soon an undercurrent of caramel, clove, and popcorn find their way flowing into the mix as well. Finally, when given some time, a bit more spice emerges in the form of cardamom and faint nutmeg. It’s a pleasant albeit rather restrained nose.
In the mouth: The taste of vanilla wafers are immediately evident on the tip of the tongue and it continues to blossom through the back of the palate along with pencil shavings and the pink Starburst note I picked up on the nose. It’s a bit flat, though not exactly one dimensional, as these restrained flavors find themselves floating on a sparse mouthfeel that only gains prominence on the finish where there’s a a sudden rising heat. It has a bit of dryness that runs a ring around the periphery of the tongue and darts up the roof of the mouth which would seem to indicate its relative youth.
After giving this pour some more time I found that the finish is really where the action is, both from a sensory standpoint and in regard to the flavor. That’s where the otherwise listless experience exhibits a burst of raisin and baking spice (primarily cardamom with a touch of nutmeg) paired with an orange peel expression that does its best to provide some pop.
Echoing the sudden departure of Marianne Eaves, I have to say I went into this expression excited but ended up a bit confounded. Having had some of Castle & Key’s distillate that ended up with other brands, I’ve never considered their whiskey one dimensional or flat, though it should be said those other expressions were not wheated bourbons.
As you surely already know, dear reader, high rye bourbons tend to be more expressive than their wheated counterparts and so a more mellow experience was to be expected when trying this whiskey. However, I was disappointed by just how inexpressive it was, reserving all of its sizzle for an all-too-brief finish. Could it use more time in the barrel? Sure. But I feel inclined to believe that there might either be something amiss in their production process or something to be gained in fine tuning their blending process.
I’d be happy to give Batch 2 of this expression a try to further discern which of the two caused this bottle to be a miss for me, but it is a miss. At five years of age, I’d expected the flavors in this whiskey to be better developed and I am a bit concerned that they’ve failed to shine in this batch. Before I had an opportunity to open the bottle, the back of the neck latch broke off, revealing a structural issue that isn’t readily apparent when looking at the package from the front. After opening the bottle, that mishap felt prognostic.