“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” – Lao Tzu
Wilderness Trail has previously received favorable coverage in this space, but somehow their stellar ryes have eluded either scrutiny or praise, with our attention having been solely directed at five expressions from their bourbon lineup. Today we take a half measure toward rectifying that oversight with perhaps the most unique offering in their entire portfolio. We will look at the brand’s Walker Woodfill Distillers Select, though it’s colloquially known as Wilderness Trail Maple Barrel Finished Rye.
I was first alerted to the existence of this expression when it was still being formulated courtesy of Macaulay Minton, Wilderness Trail’s Private Barrel Program and Quality Control Manager. Let’s hear it in the brand’s own words:
“Wilderness Trail Distillery announced the release of a special holiday whiskey: Walker Woodfill Distillers Select, a rye finished in maple syrup barrels. It is the distillery’s first barrel-finished release.
To make the special release, Wilderness Trail sent two rye whiskey barrels to a Vermont facility and aged maple syrup in them. After removing the syrup, the barrels were returned to the distillery and filled with Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey for six months.
The result combines Vermont’s maple syrup’s natural complexity with Kentucky rye whiskey’s fruit and spice profile. Originally, Walker Woodfill Distillers Select was barreled at 108 proof and dropped to 98 proof during the cold crashing process of winter.
Walker Woodfill, the world’s only whiskey-powered spirit safe, is depicted on the label of this exclusive release. Walker Woodfill is the name of the copper man pushing the copper barrel inside our spirit safe. Walker first began his journey 6 years ago and now the fruits of his labor have found their way into this bottle of Rye Whiskey, a mashbill of 56% rye, 33% corn and 11% malted barley.
This project was the brainchild of Julios Liquor MA & Macaulay Minton (The Bourbon Swami). Created for the love of whiskey, and could possibly be the only finished product ever made by Wilderness Trail.”
It is crucial to note that this is the distillery’s first barrel-finished release as well as the last line: that this could possibly be the only finished whiskey ever made by Wilderness Trail. Of course, plans change and the distillery’s recent acquisition by Campari Group is likely to alter that calculus at some point. However, as it stands this one-off is perhaps the most unique bottle to come out of the Danville distillery for the foreseeable future.
I was immediately curious to see how the maple syrup cask – a finicky finishing barrel – would meld with Wilderness Trail’s award winning rye. Generally speaking I’ve found that ryes lend themselves more readily to integration with sweet secondary casks than their bourbon counterparts, but striking the right balance is critical. Maple syrup itself is both sweet and slightly astringent, and there are most certainly examples on the market of other brands trying and failing to incorporate it with their whiskey products.
Will Wilderness Trail, known for being the most ardent upholders of scientific rigor in American whiskey, find the right formula for making this union a success? I’m ready to find out, so let’s dispense with the final details of note: this bottle, exclusively sold on-site in the Wilderness Trail gift shop and Julio’s Liquors in Westborough MA, carried a suggested retail price of $75. It’s also worth noting that the remnants of that initial three barrel blend, the whiskey that didn’t fit into the two maple syrup casks, was bottled in limited quantities and sold so that consumers could have a before-and-after experience and all of the rye and cask finished rye bottles sold out within a few weeks.
With regard to the fact that this expression is no longer available you may be asking yourself: should I even continue reading on? If indeed Wilderness Trail never releases another finished product then consider this a time capsule. Whether you’re reading this review on the day of publication or in the distant future, it should prove worthwhile to learn more about this expression. If, on the other hand, Wilderness Trail does decide to release more finished products then this will still go down in history as their first foray into the category. That is to say, despite the limited nature of this release, I do believe it is worth considering as a consumer and covering for posterity’s sake. Onward we go!
Wilderness Trail Walker Woodfill Distillers Select – Review
Color: Dark amber with ruby brown glints.
On the nose: When I first opened this bottle I have to admit it was a little muted, but after coming back to it I was pretty much floored with how ebullient the nosing experience was. Surprise, surprise… the aroma of maple syrup greets the senses first, but is joined by an abundance of sweet notes ranging from pie crust and brown sugar to the scent of freshly washed blackberries. In time there’s a nice expression of clove and cedar wood along with the flitting indication of coconut flakes along with the faint aroma of tobacco leaf and black coffee. I have to say this isn’t immediately identifiable as a rye on the nose, but it is inviting as a pour I’d like to explore.
In the mouth: This whiskey is simultaneously deft and robust as it opens with notes of pecan, sugar-coated Captain Crunch, and maple syrup that soon gives way to plum, which replaces the blackberries from the nose as the predominant fruit flavor. There’s a stout bit of oakiness at midpalate and I’m impressed that this doesn’t veer too heavily into a dry mouthfeel, because maple syrup can tend to have that effect, and the tannic qualities from secondary cask finishing can suck up a lot of sweetness. The finish finds a building spice quality that lets you know without a doubt that this is a rye and those baking spices are joined by brown sugar before the unmistakable taste of maple syrup resurfaces to cap things off.
With a lengthy finish and a slightly grainy but ultimately polished texture, this whiskey succeeds in not only being a delight to smell but also a deft display of balance between the sweetness and astringency of the maple syrup cask and the earthy, spicy, influence of the rye whiskey it’s composed of. While I would echo that this bottle began rather closed off, after giving it some time to breathe I was left with an overwhelmingly positive impression of the blending team’s ability to bring forth flavor and showcase the maple syrup without it serving to obfuscate its rye backbone.
In the name of science I tried this expression next to Widow Jane’s Decadence and found them to be two rather different experiences. I would attribute that namely to the fact that their underlying whiskeys are of a different variety; Widow Jane uses bourbon for their maple syrup finished product. That said, they both achieve a great deal of harmony between the maple syrup influence and the whiskey in the blend. In attempting to determine my preference between the two, I faced some difficulty but in scoring this I feel inclined to consider Wilderness Trail’s offering a notch above. The reason for that boils down to two things: cost and proof. Where Walker Woodfill Distillers Select shines is in being a bit more expressive and complex; despite its limited availability, I thus feel it deserves a favorable comparative score.