“Have you tried…?”
This is a question I get asked frequently, both online and in person. So frequently, in fact, that I recently made a joking meme about it. With the number of novel bourbon and rye whiskey labels popping up regularly, you can fill in the blank with the name of the newest kid on an increasingly crowded block.
My usual answer is “No, I haven’t.” I would love to tell you that I am responding without prejudice, and that my oversights and omissions are solely attributable to the birth of new brands outpacing my limited time and attention. However, that would be a lie.
More often, I have avoided seeking out or purchasing these new bottles because of a jaundiced cynicism that I have built up over my years as a whiskey consumer. There is more whiskey on the shelf than good whiskey on the shelf. Every man, woman, and dog seems to think they’re entitled to their own vanity label.
If these were plucky upstart craft distillers hanging out their own shingles, I might be more intrigued. So often, though, what we’re getting is a shiny new label slapped on the same old same old. In most cases this will be MGP distillate, occasionally tarted up with the type of cask finish that has become oh-so-fashionable.
As I’ve noted before, I have nothing against MGP. That said, I understand why suspicions to the contrary are prevalent, insofar as most of the time that I am mentioning that distillery it occurs in the context of an unfavorable review. It’s worth bearing in mind that I am not objecting to the whiskey on its face (most of it is good at worst, some of it very good or even excellent) so much as what happens between the barrel and the bottle.
MGP’s margin, plus the layers of additional overhead costs borne by the NDPs, are all paid by the consumer in the end. It’s not as though MGP whiskey is hard to find or outlandishly expensive; my local offers George Remus bourbon for $40, though you’re also free to choose from among their 14(!) Remus single barrel picks, priced to move at $55. Thus, paying a premium to someone whose value add is mostly in the graphic design department seems like folly.
For as much intellectual superiority as I feel each time I pass by a bottle of sourced whiskey on the shelf, I’d once again be a liar if I told you that I didn’t also feel a little curious about whether or not some of this whiskey wasn’t actually worth the price. In the way that a Chevy isn’t a Cadillac (or, to make it a more apposite comparison, Wild Turkey 101 isn’t Russell’s Reserve 13 Year Old), I accept that there are better and worse whiskeys available from every distillery. Might somebody with excellent connections or (less likely) preternatural skill at blending be able to cherry pick some better-than-average barrels on which to build their brand?
We’ll find out the hard way today, as I’ll be tasting a Penelope pick from the pair at Bourbon Lens. The first introduction to Penelope on Malt was made by Matt Kusek back in 2021. Frank followed up the next year with a review of their light whiskey. Both of my friends were favorably inclined toward their respective bottles. Thus, I am today considering another Penelope whiskey with a feeling I could best describe as skepticism tempered by hopeful expectation.
Per Penelope’s own site for this expression, “[e]very Private Select is an exclusive blend of the three bourbon mash bills we traditionally use.” Jake of Bourbon Lens was able to provide some additional background for this particular selection:
“The guys at Penelope sent us the raw ingredients to build our own blend. With Bardstown Bourbon Company World’s Top Whiskey Taster coming up, I sat down via Instagram Live and said I’m going to practice blending in preparation for the competition. I didn’t know how it would turn out, and my reaction on the live was one of surprise of how good it actually tasted. I called Scott after and said, ‘Taste this right now and tell me what you think.’ He signed off and two months later we were off to market.”
Final details, before I dig in: this is from Batch 22, bottled at 116 proof (58% ABV). It is a blend of three different MGP mash bils: 60% rye bourbon (21% rye), 24% wheat bourbon, and 16% corn bourbon. Retail price for a 750 ml bottle was $59.99; this was another sample generously shared by Ryan, who has my continued gratitude.
Penelope Bourbon Barrel Strength Private Select Batch 22 – Review
Color: Golden orange.
On the nose: Richly sweet and fruity in equal measure, this has some gorgeous aromatics of stewed stone fruit and caramelized sugar. There’s also a lighter, more airy note of confectioners sugar, as well as a gentle touch of mint. Some milky notes of hot chocolate and nutmeg add to the deliciousness. There’s maybe a touch of woody spice in here, but overall this leans very heavily toward the sweet end of the spectrum. With some time in the glass, an intense floral perfume emerges.
In the mouth: Upfront this picks up where the nose left off, with a round and ripe flavor of orchard fruit. This takes on a zesty, almost effervescent texture as it moves toward the middle of the mouth, where the flavors broaden out to encompass hazelnuts, ginger, and a polished, rounded woodiness. As this moves toward the finish, there’s a thinning out of the bourbon flavor-wise, though that tingly texture remains as a reminder of the solidly above average ABV on this. Fading noticeably into the final act, I am left with only vague aftertastes of the flavors that have come before.
Despite a few imperfections, this is very appealing bourbon on its face. I can see this finding favor with those used to the more fruity and floral malts of the Highlands, or perhaps devotees of some of the better known Irish whiskeys. The initial fruity sweetness of the nose reminded me of Michter’s Celebration, a legendary whiskey with scant competition. While the palate didn’t offer the same all-encompassing experience of that epic bottling, it still had enough to offer that I enjoyed the entirety of the two ounce sample shared with me. It’s nice, relaxing, charming whiskey.
In consideration of all this, and taking into account the price, a score one mark above the middle of the range feels warranted.
So, would I consider myself a convert? Not fully; there’s still enough subpar product floating around out there at inflated prices that caution remains warranted. That said, I’m also not prepared to write the category off fully. I’m happy to dabble in samples, and even more happy to take the recommendation of a trusted friend with palate copacetic to my own. As for the “Have you tried…” question: I won’t be answering “no,” but rather “not yet.”