“Our founder fell in love with Bourbon and the dream to be part of a tradition… He risked it all, going down a rabbit hole to create true, original, one-of-a-kind spirits for the discerning and build a legacy to last lifetimes.” – Rabbit Hole Distillery.
Like with many other spirits, bourbon has its share of issues that occupy the conversations of enthusiasts. From what I’ve been seeing and hearing, however, most of those discussions tend to involve matters of price, supply, sales, cask sustainability, or the secondary market. Today, I’d like to talk about quality.
According to recently updated data, there are 2,230 craft distilleries across the United States. The same source indicates that this number has increased over the years, even if it is no longer as drastic of a change from 2017-2018. Given that bourbon is the native distilled spirit of the United States, one can easily picture how many of those craft distilleries, like those that will emerge after them, produce bourbon.
What happens when a hopeful entrepreneur enters a saturated bourbon market? They try to find a specific niche or angle that helps them distinguish their products. If a product is unique, it gets the attention and support of consumers. Cask finishing is one of the ways that such a distinction can be made.
One of the first, if not the first, cask-finished “bourbons” sold by a major American producer is Jim Beam Distiller’s Masterpiece, an 18-year-old bourbon finished in ex-Cognac casks, released by late Master Distiller Booker Noe in 1999. Though a whiskey can no longer be legally labelled bourbon after this finishing process, this technique has slowly grown in popularity, too, especially with the help of influential brands like Angel’s Envy.
More and more finished “bourbons” are entering the marketplace. Tom Wilmes explains that while this process may be found by some to be blasphemous, Master Taster Peggy Noe Stevens admires the level of creativity that producers exercise as they decide how to finish their Bourbons. After all, she says, the process is not simple and requires delicate decision-making so that the whiskey is not overpowered by the cask used for finishing.
Quality is a specific variable in this process that I find interesting. The pessimist in me can’t help but wonder if the finishing process is used as a shortcut, at least by some producers, who shift their focus away from ensuring the quality in aspects of the production process like raw materials, fermentation, and distillation. In this case, the focus would be on fulfilling the need to sell unique products, not on the need to create a solid foundation for that uniqueness.
I found out recently that this same concern was shared by a friend of mine who is more attuned to developments in the bourbon world, at least from his perspective as a consumer in the Philippines. He’s observed that there has been a growing trend in experimentation, especially with cask fishing. He noticed, too, that more wine-finished “bourbons” feature in the content of online reviewers, perhaps an indication of increased demand that has led to a growing supply of similar whiskeys in our local market. Is it possible that cask finishing is employed to compensate for low-quality grains and distillate?
Rabbit Hole is the latest American distillery whose spirit I’ve had the pleasure of encountering, due to a sample provided by a generous friend. It’s a Louisville-based distillery founded by Kaveh Zamanian in 2012. After being introduced to Bourbon by his wife, Louisville native Heather Bass, Kaveh decided to pursue a business in the whiskey world, naming his brand as such because of Heather’s constant reminder that he was taking his family down into a rabbit hole.
The brand’s manifesto is centered on the concept of love, which the brand indicates was experienced by Kaveh through his family’s support and his passion for bourbon. In fairness to Rabbit Hole, this is the first time I’m hearing this pathos-centric marketing angle being used by a brand. Like most other distillers, Kaveh wanted to “offer unique and distinct expressions of Bourbon and American whiskey.”
The sample I received is of the Rabbit Hole Dareringer. It is one of Rabbit Hole’s four core expressions, a batched blend of 15 barrels (at most) of straight bourbon whiskey aged for five years in new toasted and alligator-char American oak barrels. The blend is subsequently finished in casks made by Casknolia Cooperage and seasoned for two years with Pedro Ximénez Sherry made by Bodegas Malaga Virgen.
The mash bill for this expression contains 68% corn, 18% wheat, and 14% malted barley, and it is bottled at 46.5% strength. Since this is a sample, I cannot fully evaluate the whiskey’s value for money. As of writing, Total Wine sells a bottle for $80.
Rabbit Hole Dareringer – Review
Color: Reddish amber.
On the nose: Top notes of cinnamon rolls, chocolate almonds, oak, and unbaked dough. Under those comes a layer of butter croissants, Betadine, and a touch of maraschino cherries on top of an Estrel’s caramel cake (Estrel’s is, arguably, the brand most renowned in the Philippines for their caramel cakes). The Betadine and caramel mingle a little longer than the rest, leading to wood oil and toasted candied apples.
In the mouth: At first, the candied apples and maraschino cherries jump out, almost explosively – sweet and desert-y. Those two flavors are assertive yet lead to a sense of narrowness that doesn’t lead to much development afterward: brown sugar simple syrup and a very subtle saba banana. Its texture is oily. The finish is short and with only wood spice and almonds.
I felt eager after the nose, but the rest of the experience fell flat. Typically, when I taste spirits, I end up visualizing movement: how the aromas or flavors change or shift, where they lead to, or how they might interact with other aromas or flavors. To me, this whiskey doesn’t have that much movement, save for a top-down transition that comprises the nose and the initial energetic burst of specific flavors in the palate.
While this whisky is far from deplorable, I don’t see myself owning a bottle unless it was gifted to me, and even then I’d probably treat it as a daily drinker and, perhaps, as part of a cocktail. For someone who doesn’t go through bottles at a fast pace and prefers enjoying spirits neat, I find it quite anticlimactic. Aside from the texture, which I liked, everything else seems wanting.
While the angle on love and personal passion, anchored in Kaveh’s story, that Rabbit Hole uses seems unique enough, I can see Dareringer easily blending into the category of bourbon, or the subcategory of bourbon finished in wine casks. If this is the sort of tradition that Kaveh intended to join, then this bottling certainly fulfills that goal.
The photos of the bottle are courtesy of rabbitholedistillery.com, and the photo of Rabbit Hole Distillery was taken by Aaron Conway for the Wall Street Journal.
$80 for a finished bourbon seems ridiculous. I’m not a big bourbon fan, but an overpriced Macallan 12 year old sherry cask runs for the same price. I guess with Pernod Ricard in charge of Rabbit Hole these days, prices will go where ever they choose.
Thanks for your comment. As someone who isn’t a big bourbon fan, why do you feel that $80 isn’t a good price for a finished bourbon?