“What’s interesting about collaborations is the possibility for one plus one to equal three.” – Rei Kawakubo
In my journey through life I’ve never failed to appreciate the beauty of what friendship can add to your spirit. Thanks to the congeniality of the whiskey community, I’ve had the pleasure of making far more friends than what can be considered a fair amount. I’ve made friends who share their stories, their innermost thoughts, and least important of all: their bottles.
During a recent trip to D.C. for a Willett tasting at Jack Rose Dining Saloon I was fortunate to have one such friend reach out and invite me over to his home. The stated reason was simple: to enjoy a few drinks before the tasting. Why not? We had previously met at another Jack Rose event and, despite only spending a scant amount of time together, we had developed a relationship where we both felt comfortable sharing our precious time and our precious whiskey with one another… no small feat for this introverted soul.
At one point in the evening the conversation touched on just how much all parties present appreciated the spirit of camaraderie that’s so pervasive in the whiskey community. “Whiskey is meant to be shared” isn’t just a rallying cry for desirous drunkards, but rather an ethos we’ve all seen put into practice. Sitting with these new friends and offering them some of my favorite recently opened bottles – and having them do the same in turn – was something that goes beyond whiskey, though.
Sure, we here at Malt are reviewers and so our appreciation of spirits as a thing-unto-itself is baked into what we do. It is our raison d’être. However I’ve found that whiskey is often as much of a conduit as anything else. It is a reason to connect. It is a reason to unburden oneself. It is a reason to exercise generosity, and gratitude. Allow me to underline those last two points and segue into the subject of today’s review. Courtesy of my friend’s generosity, I will be considering a pair of rye whiskeys from Kiamichi Whiskey, which is a collaboration between rock band Kings of Leon (don’t roll your eyes) and Willett Distillery (see, I told you not to roll your eyes).
Okay, so this isn’t the first time Willett has collaborated with a rock act. And yes, celebrity whiskeys are generally panned as substandard cash grabs. But let’s not let that derail our appreciation that folks from disparate walks of life can come together over whiskey. That was the whole point of the preamble after all!
We are told that this whiskey was forged through the friendship between the Followill family (that’s Kings of Leon, which is made up of three brothers and their cousin) and the Kulsveens, who were first introduced over 10 years ago. They’ve even dubbed this “A Family Reunion Whiskey” and underscore that point by calling this, “a Willett & Followill collaboration.”
I could inject a fair bit of cynicism of the sort aforementioned at this juncture. I could also swat down those that might justify the cost of these bottles ($150 for the 5 year rye, $250 for the 8 year rye) by saying “well if you look at the cost of Willett Family Estate bottles…” but, you know what? I just can’t right now. That’s what the conclusion will be for. For now I’ll simply note that a healthy bit of skepticism over these bottles warranting such a cost is wise, and in accordance with Malt’s price sensitive scoring system it will be addressed below.
As it stands, I’m glad to be able to try these bottles at no cost to myself, and to offer up my unvarnished opinion of the liquid inside with doubt in mind (but gratitude in my heart). I want to send a thank you to Steven for sharing these with me, and to Nate for enjoying them with us.
Now, let’s leave sentiment aside and remark on the specifics of these bottles before getting into the review. The 5 year old rye is a 12 barrel blend which uses both of Willett’s rye mash bills. The whiskey is then aged in 24-month cured oak barrels from Hoffmeister Cooperage with a #5 char level. It should be noted here that Hoffmeister barrels of Willett whiskey have a following of their own due to the fact that the small cooperage had a limited output and has ceased operation (a detail that Drew Kulsveen was kind enough to confirm for me). The Kiamichi 5 year rye is bottled at cask strength which is 108 proof (54% ABV) and carries an SRP of $150, with 2,780 bottles produced.
Kiamichi 5 Year Rye – Review
Color: Honeyed amber.
On the nose: It begins with an expressive sweet mint note combined with crisp green apple, a touch of honey, and woodchips. After a few swirls I found that the green apple and oak aromas have become more prominent. Some subdued pink eraser notes emerge in concert with a bit of dark chocolate, plum skin, clove, and lemongrass as well. Overall this has the nose of a really well put together rye, and I’m anxious to see if it delivers on the palate.
In the mouth: The palate immediately impresses, though the notes from the nose don’t directly transfer over. I’m at first struck by a bit of nutmeg before the sweet mint and plum skin present themselves on the front end of the palate. At midpalate it takes a slightly earthier turn as cinnamon, dark chocolate, and some black tea flavors begin to form before leading into the finish which has a moderate dose of baking spice and sweet vanilla cone. The texture is wholly pleasing and fairly robust for a 5 year whiskey, but the length of the finish takes things up a notch as it sits with you through extended savoring.
As someone who is generally a fan of Willett Family Estate ryes, I have to say that this one sits comfortably in the top half of expressions that I’ve tried, though I should note that the lion’s share of my experience lies with their 4 year bottlings. That said, the Kiamichi 5 year rye is an incredibly well-rounded offering that delivers in every category and leaves me wanting for nothing, save a few extra dollars in my pocket. This is certainly impressive, and to be clear I would recommend a purchase if it were still available, but I would have liked to see it priced a bit more affordably. However, despite my quibble about the cost, I will not be deducting a point due to that. It can be said unequivocally that the Kiamichi 5 year rye is great whiskey.
The 8 year old rye is a six barrel blend using only Willett’s low-rye mashbill. The whiskey is then aged in nine month cured oak barrels from ISC with a #4 char level. The Kiamichi 8 year rye is bottled at 110 (55% ABV) proof and carries an SRP of $250 with 1,171 bottles produced.
Kiamichi 8 Year Rye – Review
Color: A nearly identical honeyed amber
On the nose: Initially the aroma of honey, clove, and leather come tumbling out of the glass along with a slight tropical fruit note that sends a grin across my chin. These notes are complemented by a bit of vanilla wafer, the influence of oak, and the faintest hint of green peppers. In time a touch of the plum skin found in the 5 year rye also presents itself here. If one really goes exploring then floral notes of potpourri and even a creamy nutty note like cashews can be unearthed. The nose of this expression has a bit more of the unexpected than the 5 year rye, though they are equally enjoyable in different ways.
In the mouth: In a surprising turn I’m first met by strawberry saltwater taffy along with black tea, honey, and leather. My initial sip begins expressive before quickly turning insipid as the flavors dissipate from the palate all too quickly, taking an earthy tack at mid palate and then receding feebly through the finish. There is a nice dose of black pepper on the back end along with some dark cherry and a resurgence of rich leather, but the mouthfeel is noticeably less robust than its younger contemporary. Furthermore, while the finish could be generously described as “delicate,” I think it’s more appropriate to call it insubstantial.
While this assortment of aromas and flavors is one that is firmly up my alley, sadly those are the only aspects of this experience with any solidity. If this expression had the staying power or the buttery texture of its predecessor, despite being generally less lively, I might have preferred it. Instead, where the Kiamichi 5 year rye checks every box, I found that the Kiamichi 8 year rye fails to do the same. For those who covet a silky mouthfeel or a lengthy finish this will surely be a disappointment, and that’s before considering the fact you’ve relieved your wallet of $250. In accordance with Malt’s scoring bands I would have awarded this a higher mark because I do think it is “good” whiskey but, when adjusted to account for the cost, I feel obliged to deduct a point.