“Success is more dangerous than failure, the ripples break over a wider coastline.” – Graham Greene
Mary Dowling is technically a new whiskey brand, but it’s one that both honors an illustrious history and sprouted from the soil of another successful company. Let’s begin with the history: Mary Dowling, “the mother of bourbon,” was a pioneering distillery owner at the turn of the 20th century. In addition to being one of the only women to own a distillery, Mary Dowling became a well-known figure for moving her distillery to Mexico when Prohibition swept across the US.
While she continued to successfully operate her business south of the border, there was a large stock of barrels from her formerly US-based distillery that was still in the market domestically. That’s because – in the lead-up to Prohibition – Mary Dowling wisely liquidated her cache of well-regarded whiskey to distillery owners who were able to secure a medicinal license during Prohibition. She was so successful south of the border, in fact, that Julian Van Winkle – who at the time held one of those licenses and bought barrels from Mary’s shuttered Waterfill & Frazier distillery – wrote to her saying that he had trouble selling the whiskey. His problem? The competition was too stiff in markets that managed to illegally acquire Mary’s new Mexican-made alternative.
Mary Dowling passed away just four years shy of repeal and, though the Waterfill & Frazier name continued for a few years afterwards, her story became obscured by the sands of time for several decades. Now, to pay homage to her pioneering ways, we have this new brand thanks to a partnership between Rabbit Hole’s founder Kaveh Zamanian and spirits conglomerate Pernod Ricard.
Zamanian, himself an immigrant from Iran, knows a thing or two about moving to a new country and starting a successful whiskey brand. His work with Rabbit Hole is pioneering in its own right, and earned him the honor of being named a Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame member in 2022. In speaking with Kaveh, he told me that he’s long had the idea of using Rabbit Hole as a springboard for innovation and even for launching new brands, with Mary Dowling Whisky Co. being the first fruit of that labor.
With Zamanian’s vision and Pernod Ricard’s purse – in addition to the strong legacy of Mary Dowling herself – the new brand is armed with a boatload of goodwill, general interest, and industry insight… which is evident in the sleek bottle design, and the fact it has distribution in 11 states right out of the gate. What I’ll set out to do today is see whether or not all of these pluses add up to a whiskey worthy of your consideration. To that end, let’s explore the specs of the two bottles we’ll be reviewing today.
First up we’ll be considering Mary Dowling Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Toasted Double Oak Barrel, which is a NAS wheated bourbon distilled at Rabbit Hole. Bottled at barrel strength – which is 107 proof (53.5% ABV) – it is aged in two different barrels from Kelvin Cooperage. The first is a heavy toasted char #3 new oak barrel, and the second is a lightly toasted char #1 new oak barrel. The mash bill is 65% corn, 25% wheat, and 10% malted barley. The more expensive of the two expressions, this bottle has a fairly steep MSRP of $130. Finally, it should be noted that while the price will factor into my final review, this bottle was provided free of charge by the brand with no strings attached. As such, that will not affect my score, but I’m noting it here for the sake of transparency.
Mary Dowling Double Oak Barrel – Review
Color: Dark amber with ruby glints.
On the nose: The toasted oak comes through in spades immediately in the form of roasted coconut flakes. That aroma is joined by maraschino cherries, corn pudding, and white chocolate. The double oak process likely contributes to the formidable oak presence and, though there is some underlying youthful graininess, it’s an afterthought and not prominently featured. Lastly, there’s some underlying nondescript meatiness and pound cake rounding out a really well-layered nosing experience.
In the mouth: Dark and full of cherry juice and milk chocolate, the first sip will make you sit up and take notice. Again, several aspects typically associated with double oak show up. Think barrel char and leather, but it also has some light nutmeg and vanilla extract. Despite my trepidation that the double oak process would totally engulf the experience, it actually serves to elevate the base bourbon skillfully. The texture is robust and the finish is mellow but fairly long-lasting, fading out gracefully with more cherry syrup, subtle baking spice, and barrel char.
On flavor alone, it would be easy to call this whiskey a cut above “good,” as it is full of layers and does a great job of both fulfilling and subverting expectations. However, here at Malt we aim to help you make informed decisions not just based on the flavor profile of spirits but also concerning the price. On that latter point, Mary Dowling Toasted Double Oak Bourbon is a bit of a hard sell. While it executes at a high level across both the nosing and tasting experience, and undergoes a relatively unique double oak process, there are simply too many high-quality wheated bourbon options at a lower price point.
Though neither of them is double oaked, Larceny Barrel Proof and Maker’s Mark Cask Strength spring to mind as more widely available and more affordable options. There are also several similarly delicious options across the craft whiskey landscape. It bears repeating that Mary Dowling Double Oak Bourbon is an exceptional whiskey, so I feel comfortable considering it “great,” though that score would surely tick upwards if it were more pocket-friendly.
Next up is the more interesting bottle in Mary Dowling’s lineup, Mary Dowling Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Tequila Barrels. Mary Dowling’s tequila finished bourbon is a high rye double malt with a mash bill of 70% corn, 25% rye, and 5% malted barley, which Zamanian says is nearly identical to the original Mary Dowling whiskey recipe. The liquid was initially aged for a minimum of four years in new toasted and charred Kelvin Cooperage American Oak barrels. The whiskey is then finished in Appalachian American Oak tequila barrels to honor Mary Dowling’s daring decision to move her distillery down to Mexico during Prohibition. Bottled at 93 proof (45.5% ABV) this bottle has an MSRP of $75. Again, this bottle was provided at no cost by the brand but will be scored as though I paid $75 for it under Malt’s typical price-sensitive scoring rubric.
Mary Dowling Tequila Finished Bourbon – Review
Color: Ruddy amber with honey accents.
On the nose: Roasted marshmallows, corn nuts with butter and salt, plus some light lavender open the nosing experience. It’s immediately very expressive and though it, too, has a slightly youthful aspect that permeates, that’s not a knock against it. Here, in conjunction with the tequila barrel finish, the grain-forward youthful aroma melds well. Over time there are notes of golden raisins and candied ginger that also waft out of the glass.
In the mouth: Star anise splashes across the tongue along with more corn nuts and some black tea before black pepper cracks over the roof of the mouth. It is notably more drying than the wheated bourbon and also has a significantly more austere mouthfeel. The finish, however, is impressive and full of baking spice and golden apple skin. Overall, this is a surprisingly complex whiskey that brings a ton of fun flavors to the fore.
Though this is not my preferred flavor profile, I think it has a lot of merits. While the main point against it would be the drying quality that thins out the texture and slightly mars the finish, this is still a rather well-done whiskey. I’ve struggled in the past with whiskeys finished in tequila barrels, as the strong flavors in tequila tend to overwhelm young whiskey. Here, Mary Dowling manages to elegantly marry both styles. It still skews heavily towards the tequila flavors, and if you’re averse to that idea then I would steer clear, but as a tequila drinker I found this to be an impressive experiment and a commendable homage to Mary Dowling herself.