I’m starting from a position of maximum cynicism, but I hope to redeem myself, so just bear with me.
In this year of our Lord, 2023, is there any corner of the whiskey-verse that is untouched by hype and hyperbole? Is there terra incognita on the map, an undiscovered blank space awaiting an intrepid explorer? Is there an obscure rabbit hole down which Alice could tumble, revealing a fantastical dreamworld?
Hell no! What are you, stupid? Everything there is to be said about bourbon and rye has been said, re-said (sometimes by the same person), paraphrased, plagiarized, meme-ified, and otherwise beaten savagely like the proverbial dead horse. We’re not only at peak whiskey, but we’re at peak whiskey commentary. Everybody has an opinion, most of them are informed poorly and expressed inelegantly, and you can trust only the wise and kind and handsome Malt writers to give it to you straight, no chaser.
Again, I’m putting on my arch-cynic (and also egomaniac) hat here, so treat this as a bit of amusing soliloquy before you @ me, brah.
Continuing this line of reasoning: some of us keep our finger on the pulse of the whiskey culture. We read reviews by critics of repute, we talk to folks in the industry, we take recommendations from those in the know. If there is a readily-available whiskey we haven’t tried yet, there’s probably a reason for that. Occam’s Razor would indicate that the cause of our ignorance is that the whiskey in question isn’t very good.
This brings me to Rabbit Hole. Any of you who have had the pleasure of flying into Louisville will have noticed the several enormous Rabbit Hole advertisements covering the support columns in the terminal. If you’ve stayed in the trendy NuLu neighborhood (as the East Market District has been rechristened), you might have even strolled by the very design-y Rabbit Hole distillery, as I did the last time I was in town.
So, a distillery that markets itself aggressively, that seems to have broad distribution, and yet nobody whose opinion matters to me has ever commented (favorably, or even unfavorably… oh, except Jigs) on their whiskey? I’m forced to conclude (again, the hats) that Rabbit Hole whiskey is extraordinarily dull. It’s probably not good, but also not bad enough to be used as a stock punchline. It’s a rare whiskey that can be overpriced and yet innocuous enough to not warrant any kind of attention in an environment where everyone is starved for content, yet Rabbit Hole has pulled it off.
Again, maximal cynicism, friends. I’m going to put this attitude to the test by trying two samples of Rabbit Hole’s mainstay bottlings, kindly furnished by Ryan A (mille grazie, pal). Before I get into them, a bit of background research on Rabbit Hole:
Rabbit Hole’s website is brimming with turgid language about creation, destiny, exploration, and other lofty concepts. Get a load of this gem:
“Rabbit Hole is a state of mind and a sincere calling that deserves to be answered. A calling that speaks to our instinct to want to seek and do more – that taunts our curiosity to explore what’s on the other side. Your Rabbit Hole is the gateway to your destiny awaiting your arrival. You just have to decide to make the leap or stand idle, because destiny is not a matter of chance.”
Macallan is the undisputed heavyweight bullshit champion of whisk(e)y, but Rabbit Hole seems like they could be a contender. Setting aside the more highfalutin prose, there are a few nuggets of pertinent information hidden among the soaring rhetoric. A selection:
“Kaveh Zamanian’s true calling was set into motion when he met and fell in love with his wife Heather, a native of Louisville. It was then that Kaveh’s passion for America’s native spirit took hold, leading him to ultimately step away from a successful career as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst to start his own spirits company. He could have taken the easy route by buying existing whiskey and branding it, but instead, he produced his own recipes, marrying heritage techniques with innovative, exclusive mash bills…”
OK, so, I’m actually interested now. There’s a guy – Mr. Zamanian – who decided to take a differentiated approach to whiskey by fooling around with mash bills. This clears the very low bar set by the NDPs and the less competent craft concerns of the world, in that it indicates a deliberate approach that might even produce something different and better than what can be affordably procured elsewhere. This is the sine qua non of craft whiskey, and I’m approaching these with an open mind as a result.
Starting with the Cavehill bourbon: this is Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, from a four grain mash bill of 70% corn, 10% wheat, 10% malted barley, and 10% honey malted barley. A “small batch of no more than 15 barrels” is bottled at 95 proof (47.5% ABV). $750 ml retails for $62 near me.
Rabbit Hole Cavehill Bourbon – Review
Color: Medium-pale gold.
On the nose: Light and sweet, this has freshly cut spring flowers, very ripe orchard fruit notes of pears, and a spicy little nip of celery. There’s also an appealing funkiness to this, harkening back to bourbons of yore, with the musty scent of a used bookstore. The combination of this note and the fruit reminds me of very mature (20+ year old) white Burgundy wine. A promising start; let’s see if it follows through on the palate?
In the mouth: An initial reprise of the nose’s fruity richness is a good start. This transforms into a nutty note that, combined with a slightly bitter edge, gives the impression of almonds as this moves toward the middle of the mouth. There, the fruity notes return in a less ripe, more acidic form, paired with a surprising note of cigarette ash. This momentarily evolves the round and unctuous mouthfeel of Sauternes, before taking mineralic turn into and through the finish, where the bourbon’s flavors recede in favor of a drying stoniness married to a tannic astringency.
I’m pleasantly surprised with how much I liked this one. Maybe it’s the oenophile in me, but Rabbit Hole has been able to coax out so many aromas and flavors that are similar to those found in some of my favorite types of wine. Both on the nose and in the mouth, the elements are balanced harmoniously and presented in a way that makes this very enjoyable to sip.
But… is it worth roughly $60? I don’t believe so. At that price, this would have to punch its weight against the likes of Rare Breed and Old Forester 1920. This is nice enough, but it’s not at that level. As a consequence, I am docking a point from the middle of the range.
Moving on to the Boxergrail rye: we don’t have as much information on the mash bill here, only that it is solely comprised of rye and malted barley, with rye representing “a majority.” Once again bottled at 95 proof (47.5% ABV). A 750 ml bottle will run you $52 at my local.
Rabbit Hole Boxergrail Rye – Review
Color: Similar medium-pale gold.
On the nose: Much more conventional than the bourbon, this has a classic rye profile of menthol and aloe vera, along with a thick dollop of oaky vanilla. I’m surprised that this doesn’t have any corn in it, as I’m picking up the milky and corny sweetness of grits. With some time in the glass, a sticky sweet aroma of lemon flavored salt water taffy begins to emerge.
In the mouth: Again very rye-driven to start, this puckers the lips with a tart kiss of grain that takes on a steely flavor and texture in the middle of the mouth. That vanilla and oak sweetness comes back on the midpalate, before this turns toward more austere notes of mint and stone. As with the bourbon there’s that tannic extraction on the finish, this time less well-integrated. It’s that woody, tart bitterness that is the lasting impression in the mouth.
Unlike the bourbon, this is more true-to-type. There are a few nits here and there, but basically this is competently-made – if somewhat young tasting – rye whiskey. At half this price, I can get a bottle of Sazerac, which is a level up from this. Even sticking to craft distilleries: for $50 I think I’d prefer a bottle of Wilderness Trail rye.
How to score this? It’s less differentiated – though slightly less expensive – than the bourbon. I could be really crabby and shave two points off the middle of the range, but this feels excessively punitive. Bestowing a below-average score should be enough to communicate that I wouldn’t recommend buying this at SRP.
I neglected to mention earlier that Pernod Ricard bought a majority stake in Rabbit Hole back in the middle of 2019. Other brands in their portfolio include Jameson, Ballantine’s, Chivas Regal, Jefferson’s, and The Glenlivet… not a list of names that usually gets the blood of serious whiskey people pumping. That said, they also own fan favorites like Redbreast and Aberlour. So where does Rabbit Hole sit on this continuum?
The bourbon has me more interested than the rye, and they’re both a hair (hare?) too expensive, compared with other options out there. However, there were some really intriguing flavors in the bourbon, that I think might be appealing to other bourbon aficionados. On net, I’ll recant my initial cynicism and concede that there are green shoots of promise growing near this Rabbit Hole.
What could Rabbit Hole do to generate more enthusiasm among the whiskey commentariat? The bottles in the distillery’s Founder’s Collection point in the right direction, though the hefty price tags ($800+) are unlikely to be appreciated. However, there’s a lot of room between the current NAS, 95 proof mainstay range and a 16 year cask strength bourbon costing the better part of a grand. Bottled-in-bond, barrel proof, and age stated single barrels are all possible formats worthy of exploration. I’ll keep my eyes and mind open for future Rabbit Hole releases, to the extent that they support any hope for a better value/cost tradeoff.
Images courtesy of Rabbit Hole.