Tabitha Dickinson: “Don’t you ever worry I’ll give you a bad review?”
Mike Shiner: “I’m sure you will, if I ever give you a bad performance.”
– Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Is there a whiskey producer or brand that can do no wrong? I’ve yet to find one. Even among my personal favorite distilleries, there are inevitably expressions that fail to land. This is true of both industrial-scale concerns as well as smaller craft distilleries; every once in a while a bottle just doesn’t hit the mark for me.
Even though nobody bats 1.000, there’s a lot of room between Ty Cobb and Mario Mendoza. The distilleries and brands I repeatedly return to are the ones with more successes than failures. Though it’s early days, I’d put Pursuit Spirits in that category.
The brand broke ground with their inaugural blend of bourbons; read that review for an introduction to Kenny and Ryan, the duo behind the label (though I suspect they’re already familiar to most bourbon fans in their capacity as hosts of the popular Bourbon Pursuit podcast).
I was even more enthralled by the first release of their blend of rye whiskies. With the follow-up batches of their bourbon and rye blends, it became evident that blender Ryan Cecil had honed his craft well enough to deliver some measure of consistency in his chosen formats. While that “c” word may bore the folks who look forward to a never ending stream of novel releases, it is a hallmark of true mastery, as defined by the types of people who would know.
With these four prior releases having garnered positive marks in my book, I was an enthusiastic recipient of two more full bottles from Pursuit Spirits (provided free of charge, noted here in the spirit of full disclosure). However, it wasn’t just a fresh batch of the bourbon or rye that arrived on my doorstep. Rather, this pair are expansions to the Pursuit United line.
Dubbed “The Oak Collection,” Pursuit Spirits’ site describes this concept as “An ongoing series of curated whiskey blends and barrel finishes that provide an exploration of taste and constant innovation.” Starting with the bourbon, the press release announcing these expressions’ arrival had the following to say:
“Pursuit United Bourbon Finished with Toasted American and French Oak uses a proprietary combination of three different straight bourbon whiskeys. After the barrels were blended together, it was split into two different containers where one was finished with Toasted American oak while the other was finished with French oak. After each achieved a desired flavor, the two containers were blended together again for the final product.”
The keen-eyed among you who have perused the spec sheet for this release will note that the Bardstown Bourbon Company has been subbed out in favor of a high rye (60% corn, 36% rye, 4% malted barley) mash bill from MGP. All this begged a few questions in my mind; I got in touch with Kenny Coleman who kindly answered the list of queries I emailed to him.
Malt: The component proportions of the pre-finishing whiskies in The Oak Collection bourbon were not same as those in the Pursuit United Bourbon. What motivated the decision to alter the distilleries and proportions; for example, to include MGP bourbon instead of Bardstown in the bourbon blend?
Kenny: Our flagship black label of Pursuit United Bourbon and Pursuit United Rye will try to maintain a consistency, so people can always expect the same award-winning taste every time they pick up a bottle. Yet, we wanted to take the concept of United further. This allows us to be more creative and have more flexibility in blending to achieve a desired taste profile. The Oak Collection was developed to be more of an experimental line with a possibility of making them permanent expressions.
Before Pursuit United was ever conceived, we picked barrels that were destined to be Pursuit Series single barrels. It was one of those “let’s pick it now and figure it out later” scenarios. That is why we had a few MGP barrels and a Finger Lakes barrel with cherry-smoked barley in inventory. Ryan is constantly thinking of new ideas, so we looked at our available barrels to see what blend we could create. At this point in the year, we had already used our aged BBC inventory, but we had some five yeark 10 month MGP barrels that needed a home. So, the blending began to build another United experiment.
Malt: Any additional commentary about what aspects you looked to emphasize in the blend that was destined for finishing?
Kenny: This particular bourbon blend has a much higher rye content than our standard Pursuit United blend. The 36% MGP, in addition to the 10% Tennessee and 20% Finger Lakes, made a bourbon with bite. I’m sure many of us know that specific MGP 36% rye note flavor that leaves a lot of black pepper. We had to tame it down, but not drown it out. The added oak influence certainly plays a critical role in changing it to a much softer whiskey. Once you try it, you’ll see that our finishing process isn’t like others. There isn’t an overwhelming toast or French oak influence. It’s subtle enough that the blend still carries through.
Malt: Where did the toasted French and American oak come from? What drove the selection of each of these wood types individually, then the choice to combine them?
Kenny: We partnered with InnerStave for this project. The selection of each was driven by three to four months of R&D. We tested about 10 different varieties of toast levels on both the American and French oaks. We also tested out the scenario of adding the toasted American and French oak together during the finishing process. For some reason, it never worked out when the two were placed together in the same vessel. The French oak would take over and it would be bitter and tannic. However, it proved to be successful when doing a secondary blend of the two after finishing.
Malt: The press release describes “two different containers where one was finished with Toasted American oak while the other was finished with French oak.” I take this to mean that you used staves inserted into the containers for finishing? Any comment on the decision to go this route rather than finishing in barrels?
Kenny: InnerStave has multiple types of products. They are an oak alternative company that takes repurposed barrels and transforms them into 1” x 1” cubes. The cubes create a larger surface area for finishing the whiskey at a faster rate. This is analogous to Maker’s 46 and many other brands that do secondary finishes. In fact, most barrel manufacturers have business units that focus on oak alternatives, but they don’t advertise it much. We feel we can create better products than traditional re-barreling for three reasons:
The first is creativity and, selfishly, financially. We can have 50 experiments going at once using different oaks that can have varying flavor profiles, toast levels, stave seasoning times, etc. and it only costs us a few bottles of whiskey. Buying a used barrel can cost $750 to $3,000 depending on the type (toasted up to Mizunara). Then you dump $3,000 worth of good bourbon into the used barrel and pray it works out. A few bad experiments can really hurt a startup such as ourselves. This gives us the flexibility to be more creative with different oak types and put our working capital back into more whiskey and not used barrels.
The second is predictability. We can perform small-scale tests at a 100ml size to see how the blend fares. This allows us to either tweak the blend or tweak the oak profile. Once we have a successful 100ml test, we can scale that to 750ml and see if the results are consistent. This process gives us a predictable outcome.
The third is brand trust. Many brands are purchasing ex-port, ex-cognac, ex-brandy, ex-rum, and many types of barrels. How do you know they didn’t “recharge” their barrel by dumping a gallon of the previous spirit back into it? What are the odds that one of them is a dud and their whiskey isn’t extracting much flavor? Maybe some people don’t care, but I didn’t order my bourbon to also be a blend of 10% port. With our process, we are strictly using oak to get its character. Nothing else. I hope that resonates with consumers who don’t know about the inside world of “whiskey specialities” and how we want to establish trust that we aren’t blending in spirits and calling it “finished.”
Thanks to Kenny for this illuminating color commentary. Now on to the tasting! As with their predecessors, each of these is bottled at 108 proof (54% ABV). SRP for each of these is $75, a $10 premium to the last (non-finished) blended bourbon and blended rye releases. As noted above: these were full bottles provided to me free of charge, which will not impact my notes or scores, per Malt editorial policy.
Pursuit United The Oak Collection Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskies – Review
Color: Sunny orange.
On the nose: The influence of the finishing staves is immediately evident in a thick, sweet dollop of oaky vanilla that takes on the gooey aroma of melted marshmallows. On first opening this bottle, that note seemed to take on a chemical character, making it seem more like a synthetic overlay than anything intrinsic to – or even integrated with – the underlying blend of bourbons. However, leaving this open for a few weeks (and using a pour or two for an occasional Manhattan) allowed this to better resolve itself. It’s still there, but it’s not as overbearing as it seemed at first. There are some zesty notes of citrus peel in here, as well as some notes that come off as surprisingly malty, reminiscent of Scotch whisky matured in a bourbon barrel. More time reveals a wine-y fruit note of red berries that, in all honesty, doesn’t really track for me.
In the mouth: Bitter and astringently woody at first, this puckers lips and tip of the tongue with a sourness that turns slightly acrid. Mercifully, those flavors dissipate and yield to that sticky sweet note from the nose, now coming back in more sedate form as this moves toward midpalate. The whisky coats the tongue and the roof of the mouth with the wood-inflected flavor of marshmallow. This somewhat disintegrates into the finish, with the whiskey splaying out into a broad muddle of flavors and a textural flatness that is in contrast to the very sharp entrance. A mildly woody nuance is all that this leaves by way of an aftertaste.
To quote the old Chili’s commercial, “I want my baby back, baby back, baby back…” The last batch of the Pursuit Spirits bourbon blend was a revelation, and I was very much looking forward to the same (or more) from this expression. Instead of the blender’s art on display there, this whiskey forces concentration on the finishing process, and not in a good way.
Look, they’re called “experiments” because success is not guaranteed. Had I been served a sample of this in the Pursuit Spirits lab, I would have probably made some vague noises of appreciation for the innovative approach, while suggesting that maybe some tweaks were in order. On a store shelf for $10 more than the superior blended bourbon batch 7CC, I’m afraid I have to award this a score that makes unambiguous my recommendation to steer clear.
Moving along to the rye, Pursuit Spirits provided the following introduction in their press release:
Pursuit United Rye Finished with Sherry French Revere Oak uses the same award-winning and proprietary blend as the flagship using three distillates from two different distilleries. The barrels were blended together at final proof before finishing with Sherry French Revere Oak.
I was interested to learn more about the divergent approaches between these two. Let’s hand it back to Kenny:
Malt: In contrast, the rye contains the same components as the Pursuit United rye. What made you decide not to vary the blend components (or, indeed, proportions), in contrast to the bourbon?
Kenny: We had a winning recipe with the rye and more barrels in inventory to play with. I wish there were more words to say, but it’s as simple as that.
Malt: Similar question about the Sherry French Revere Oak. I am not as familiar with this Oak type; can you describe how you found it, and what drew you to use it to finish the rye?
Kenny: There is a very extensive catalog of oak options and we performed about 10 different experiments until we landed on this. We tried things like rum, toast, French, and another sherry, but this one was a clear winner. These were French oak barrels that once held Sherry. The name might be confusing because we had to learn what “Revere” meant as well. “Revere” means 36-month air dried staves.
Malt: Was this also finished in a container with staves added?
Kenny: Yep! Same process.
Malt: What additional expansions does the future hold for Pursuit United? Any wood types or other techniques (finishing or otherwise) that you guys are keen to experiment with?
Kenny: We have another 10 or so experiments currently going. Nothing is out of the question just yet. We will have more announcements to come in 2023.
Again, my kind thanks to Kenny for providing all this detail. Regardless of what you think about the taste of their products, bourbon fans should acknowledge that the level of transparency (both in the published materials and in conversation) from Pursuit Spirits is a level above what we get from most distilleries, nevermind the vast majority of NDPs.
Final details: this release was limited to 300 6-bottle cases. Once again, SRP is $75. Now on to the tasting!
Pursuit United The Oak Collection Blended Straight Rye Whiskies – Review
Color: A darker orange-brown.
On the nose: Ah, this is more like it. All that self-assured rye-ness from the prior batches of the Pursuit United rye blend is here, with a little augmentation that seems – at least on first sniff- to be better executed than in the preceding bourbon. I get fruity, gummy candy notes as well as an exotic woody-ness; think sandalwood incense and maybe even a nod towards the spicier aromatics of mizunara. Cracked black peppercorn, soy sauce, and anise provide some additional nuance.
In the mouth: Upfront, there is a candied sweetness to this that is an absolute pleasure. It’s married to spicy notes of nutmeg and cinnamon, as well as sweeter baked flavors of sugar cookies. Call it the influence of the season, but upfront this tastes like the perfect Christmas whiskey. Toward the middle of the mouth, this takes on a rounded nuttiness. At about the point that this flavor fades and I am afraid the whiskey is on the verge of losing its way, there is a resurgence of full-bore rye in both flavor and texture at the middle of the palate. This propels the whisky toward the finish, where it turns into a more tightly knit affair, focused on some sharp floral flavors. This finishes a bit longer than its counterpart, with a radiant heat and some more of those umami and spicy notes fading gradually.
A delight in all the ways the finished bourbon blend was a disappointment, this manages to layer some flavor on top of the source material in a way that augments – rather than distracts or detracts from – the base whiskey. I love that this is identifiably a rye, giving the sweeter and softer notes some harder and sharper edges to play against.
As a digression, this is very amusing. It doesn’t supplant the precursor rye whiskey blend in my estimation, which it would have to have done to justify the same score (in light of the higher price). Still, I enjoyed this and will be scoring it positively on our price-sensitive scoring framework to reflect that.
As I noted initially, nobody in whiskey knocks the ball out of the park every single time. Updating my assessment for these two new examples, I can report that Pursuit United’s slugging percentage remains well above average. For as little as I cared for the finished bourbon, I’m still happy that the Pursuit pair are broadening their horizons and, by extension, ours. I’ll look forward to whatever they have to offer next, keeping my generally positive predisposition toward the range.