What celebrity springs to mind when you think of whiskey?
I will narrow it down for you: it’s an American writer. Faulkner? Good guess, but no. Um, Hemingway? He’s sort of associated with booze in a general sense, and maybe daiquiris in particular. Fitzgerald? More of a gin guy, I reckon. Raymond Chandler struggled with alcoholism, but he’s not the name I’m thinking of. Kerouac died of drinking, and you’re getting warmer there, but still: no cigar.
How many of you said “Ken Kesey?” Not many, I’d assume. Now, if the question had the word “whiskey” replaced with the word “LSD,” I suspect that Kesey would have been at the tip of most folks’ tongues.
For those of you unfamiliar with Kesey: in the early 1960’s, he was invited by a neighbor to participate in an experimental CIA study on the effect of psychedelic drugs. Inspired by the resultant hallucinations and drawing on conversations he had with the patients in the veteran’s hospital where he worked, he wrote the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The book was a literary sensation and was later adapted into a film that swept the Oscars.
Following the publication of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Kesey and a band of similarly-inclined counterculturalists called the “Merry Pranksters” began promoting the use of LSD. They traveled across the country in a school bus called “Furthur;” their voyages were chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his reputation-making book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
You’ll notice that nowhere in this mini biography did I mention bourbon or whiskey. Yet, I find myself here with a bottle of Furthur bourbon, with the label featuring a psychedelic painting of the eponymous school bus by artist Michael DuBois. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the whiskey will be donated to the Furthur Down the Road Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Kesey’s daughter-in-law to restore and preserve the bus, which has reportedly been rotting in a swamp on Kesey’s farm for five decades.
While my mind is not quite spinning as though from the effects of an acid trip (I’m told; I’ve never touched the stuff, personally), I am a little bit confused. As far as fundraising for charity goes: whiskey has a long history, with bottlings for the cause of the moment continuing to find their way onto shelves. However, to say this bourbon has “tenuous” connection to Kesey’s life (and bus) would be an overstatement. I guess they can’t fundraise by selling LSD, so they move on to the next best legally sanctioned mind-altering substance.
Setting all that aside for a moment: what do we know about the bourbon itself?
Per the back label, this is “straight bourbon whiskey aged 5 years” and “distilled in Indiana,” by which we are to understand that this comes from MGP’s Lawrenceburg, Indiana distillery. BC Merchants’ own factsheet for the bourbon indicates a 75% corn, 21% rye, 4% barley mash bill, which is indeed one of MGP’s five standard bourbon mash bills. Barrels were filled on 3/17/2016 and bottled in April of 2021. You can see that the Furthur brand has also adorned a blend of 3 year and 5 year bourbon, as well as other 5 year bourbons and several ryes. In total, ten expressions have been produced, all with distinctive label artwork. Yet a different page indicates that these releases are classified according to season, with the bottle in my hand being the “Spring Bourbon.”
The whiskey is labeled “small batch,” for whatever that means, though no specific batch information is provided on the bottle. This is bottle #1413. This comes to us at a very respectable strength of 101 proof (50.5% ABV). As for price: this retails for $70 near me, which is a premium over the $40 asked for the 3 and 5 year bourbon blend, as well as the two year rye (also $40). This was a generous birthday present (thanks Cat!) but I’ll be reviewing it as though I paid full price for it myself.
Before I dive into the review, let’s put all this in context: it’s a 5 year MGP bourbon from a standard mash bill. It’s 101 proof. It’s 70 bucks. Now, I’m often accused of hating MGP, which I don’t. I’ve had some very good bourbons from them, and others that were just OK, but the flavor profile doesn’t disagree with me in the way that other distilleries’ profiles do [cough] Woodford Reserve [cough].
What I object to is that MGP often comes to us sourced, re-labeled (often opaquely), and marked up to the point of being priced uncompetitively compared to similar offerings from other distilleries. To name but two that spring to mind: Heaven Hill will sell you at least four year old, 100 proof bourbon for less than $20. Wild Turkey 101 is probably no younger than six years old, and I can snag a handle of it for $45.
I hope that Ken Kesey’s bus gets restored, but I don’t necessarily feel as though I need to fund that endeavor through my bourbon purchases. Nevertheless, I’m going to strive for maximum objectivity and taste this in consideration of its own merits. Time to embark on my own voyage…
Furthur Four Seasons Spring Bourbon – Review
Color: Medium-light new penny.
On the nose: There’s a youthful sweetness to this straightaway, with airy, sugary suggestions of pavlova as well as a note of pink bubblegum. A wood influence is evident in a slightly spicy accent of cinnamon candy, though this is wispy and hard to pin down. There’s a malty or yeastiness to this as well, with a citric fruit aspect reminiscent of Highland single malt Scotch whisky matured in an ex-bourbon barrel. In total, this comes across as lightweight to the point of being evanescent.
In the mouth: Starts where the nose left off, with a feathery mouthfeel and vague suggestions of malt. The comparatively low age is felt most acutely as this progresses toward the middle of the palate, where the woodiness and the juvenile spirit combine as a shrill, sour, and tannic flavor reminiscent of young craft whiskey matured in small-sized barrels. There’s a cinnamon-inflected heat in the middle of the mouth; this then fades abruptly into the finish, with a momentary return to the initial airy and sugary note before it disappears entirely.
Before I consider the price or the pitch, I want to state unambiguously that this is not very good whiskey, considered in isolation. MGP is capable of producing tasty bourbon, but this ain’t it. Age isn’t everything, but it’s also not nothing; in this case, all the drawbacks of young whiskey are on display from the first whiff. At any price I would be forced to score this below the middle of the range, again thinking only of its merits as something to sip and savor. I’ll be appreciating the rest of this bottle solely for its medicinal qualities, as it is earmarked for dumping into Manhattans and Hot Toddies.
So, starting from a hypothetical score of 4/10, how to account for price? Even in the elevated bourbon price environment of 2023, this is on the more expensive end of the spectrum. There are abundant better options for $70, for $60, for $50, for $40, for $30, and for $20. The price on this would be hard to swallow even if the whiskey weren’t; as it stands, I am docking another point due to the cost, leaving us with…
This bourbon doesn’t do honor to Mr. Kesey’s legacy, nor does it draw positive attention to the refurbishment of his bus. To those considering sourcing whiskey for charity, as a tribute to a celebrity or – as is the case here – both, I’d encourage you to be more selective than the Furthur folks appear to have been.