Whiskey Del Bac Ode to Islay

Whiskey Del Bac, a mesquite smoked American single malt? I’ll be the judge of that!

There are only a handful of smoky bourbons/ American whiskeys on the market, and I’m way too familiar with all of them. Here is the thing: I don’t love bourbon. Read my Scotch reviews compared to my bourbon reviews. Most American whiskey bores me to tears. I have tried really, really, hard to love ryes, but it’s not happening. Like a marriage of convenience, the respect is there but the love is not.

I do, however, love smoke. I crave smoke. My Spirit Love List is, in strict order: every Campbeltown, Islay, and Island distillery tied, then every other Scotch, a few Japanese brands, Mackmyra Rök, Kavalan… and it’s pretty much all downhill from there. I love bourbon for you, but not for me.

However, smoke and the sweetness of bourbon can do beautiful things together. Any time I see a smoky American whiskey, I am intrigued. Whiskey Del Bac was making American Single Malt not just before it was cool, but before it was an established category. Whiskey Del Bac is not sourced; it is homemade. Their ingredients are truly Tucson, Arizona Sonoran Desert terroir, no marketing embellishments, omissions, or downright lies. Refreshing.

Whiskey Del Bac is a genuine mom and pop operation, which is endearing. Whiskey Del Bac is actually a mom, pop, and daughter shop. The founders of Whiskey Del Bac are a close knit, intellectual, multi-talented, very educated family. They have a very cool background. The Paul family interviews I listened to on various podcasts made me want to be a Paul!

Whiskey Del Bac comes to us from Tucson, Arizona. Stephen Paul and his wife Elaine originally owned a furniture design company, specializing in mesquite wood furniture. Paul called himself a “Desert guy, spending long days traipsing around the desert, a long relationship with mesquite trees, chewing on sweet mesquite beans.” Stephen wanted to use the local mesquite tree wood in his furniture designs because it was visually spectacular.

The Pauls were avid Islay Scotch fans and avid fans of barbecue. (Romantic bachelors take note: BBQ and smoky Scotch is a perfect first date idea. The sweet and smoke combo always wins.) Stephen would often take his wood scraps home to burn for their family BBQs, joking with his wife, “There go our profits, up in smoke!”

Stephen humbly credits his wife Elaine with the idea behind the whole business. “Why don’t you smoke a whiskey with mesquite, like the way the Scottish use peat?” The process started with a hearteningly janky 5 gallon still, which soon became a 40 gallon still, and then a 500 gallon still. Ol “Good Idea Elaine” also came up with the name, after the Arizona mission church, founded in 1692, by Jesuit missionary Xavier Del Bac. Del Bac means “from the place where the river reappears in the sand.” The brand must always be said as Whiskey Del Bac, never Del Bac Whiskey, to properly translate as “Whiskey from the place where the river reappears in the sand.”

The Pauls studied Scotch whiskymaking. I wonder if they realized their brand name is in alignment with almost every Scotch name, most of which are some Gaelic variation of river, land, body of water?

The Whiskey Del Bac label is simple and tasteful. I’m an eagle-eyed motherfucker for a clean, non-busy design. Again, think Mackmyra, the new Benriach, and now the new Bruichladdich rye; so minimal and easy one the eyes. The authentic southwestern region is represented by a faint, elegant cactus landscape in front of a full moon; also an idea of Mrs. Paul. Their new CEO, as of 2020, is Kent Cheeseman from High West. Their new Master Distiller/Blender, Mark Vierthaler, came highly recommended from the wild.

Mark is my convenient shortcut to Ode To Islay. The Del Bac team sent me four expressions last year. I was sent their inaugurals, Dorado and Classic, I have not opened them yet. They sent me Normandie; I tried it, it was pretty good. It reminded me of a Weller 12, which is kind of a zaddy to others, but it doesn’t get me out of my seat. I ripped into the Ode to Islay. This was the one that trips the light fantastic.

After that dram, I emailed Mark to let him know that I was calling it, “a masterpiece.” Of this expression, Mr. Vierthaler said, “The Ode To Islay was actually born out of what’s been known in the past as our Winter Release. Over the years, the smoke of our Dorado (our main mesquite-not-peated single malt) has been pulled back. This was based on the market’s demands, but we never forgot where we came from and what was the impetus of Whiskey Del Bac: as single malt that is of the Sonoran Desert. The Ode to Islay is multifaceted. It’s our throwback to the original smokiness of Dorado, it’s a way to push up the edge of unpleasant and unbalanced smokiness, but to not tip over. It really is an ode to the heavily peated scotches of Islay, but again, with a profound sense of place.”

Also, you guys, I can’t… Whiskey Del Bac has a distillery CAT! Two-Row is her name, her Instagram handle is @gatodelbac, and her bio lists her as “Chief Mouser at Whiskey Del Bac.” This is so cute I shall be promptly passing away. Call me a crazy cat lady, but I believe distilleries with cats bring good fortune.

Whiskey Del Bac Ode to Islay – Review

110 proof (55% ABV). $90 on release from Whiskey Del Bac.

Color: Ruddy copper.

On the nose: I would have guessed it was an old sherried Islay! Leather, cherries, wet forest, rich, rich chocolate paprika, the wafts are strong and oozy, there is no need to beseech your nose to search, there is an almost dizzyingly pleasurable homemade fudge with cayenne, pine sap, strong coniferous oils blend well with cinnamon and brown sugar sweetness, but not too sweet! Balanced. A drop or two of water releases more fruit, naturally. An overripe peach.

In the mouth: Boiled apples in cinnamon, or an apple pie, but as if the crust had been deliberately burned in the oven. Salty boiled cherries. A briny cherry syrup that doesn’t exist until now. Yes, vanilla, obviously, and caramel, but it’s so sumptuously blended that I get more of a refined cherry cheesecake pastry, than the individual ingredients.


Although this would be a good holiday dram because of its richness, I wouldn’t put it in the Christmas category. It has a full body and long legs, but the 55% ABV keep it from being in the gloopy, Panetone lot. I’m docking a point because I want it to last longer. The finish gives some very faint nutmeg spiced custard saltine cracker, but it’s gone as fast as a cheetah.

Score 9/10

  1. Stretch says:

    You’re a crazy cat lady. More earnestly, I enjoyed your review particularly “salty boiled cherries” which I hope to never encounter. I would like to meet up with an Ode to Islay but they don’t seem to distribute to my part of flyover country, sadly.

    1. Kathryn Aagesen says:

      Thank you!! And rats, we have to get you a bottle– if you really sincerely cannot get your hands on one, I can send you a sample. Email me.

      1. Stretch says:

        I appreciate the offer! However, this is my chance to exercise the modicum of patience and restraint I possess. At least until I visit Chicago this summer, where there are seemingly thousands of Binny’s I can scour for OTI. Until then, I can bide my time with a bottle Laphroaig CS I haven’t opened yet…

  2. PBMichiganWolverine says:

    Have you tried their regular mesquite smoked one? Wondering if this takes it up a few notches, or if it’s a different beast altogether

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