“Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” – Mark Twain
Ben Holladay Distillery has had a fair share of ink spilled in its favor on this site. Taylor has previously endeavored to try their stellar bottled-in-bond products, two whiskeys I greatly enjoyed as well. Today we turn our attention to one of their newer expressions, Ben Holladay Soft Red Wheat Rickhouse Proof. Aged for six years and released in a snazzy red alternative uniform, it’s an immediately eye-catching bottle that I was grateful to receive from Noelle Hale, Holladay’s Communications Director.
Then, something curious occurred. Despite being enamored with their initial offering and – at a much later date – becoming smitten by the bottled-in-bond version of this particular expression, a good amount of time elapsed before I saw fit to try the Rickhouse Proof. Seeking to remedy that error in judgment, today I broke the seal, twisted the top (boy, am I a fan of screw tops), and unleashed a healthy tipple for this review.
If you’re unfamiliar with the surprisingly complex history of Ben Holladay Distillery then I’d advise you to read Taylor’s first foray into their distillate as he sat down with Noelle and Holladay’s Master Distiller Kyle Merklein to ask them all of the hard questions. For the TL;DR of it all: the distillery was founded by brothers Ben and David Holladay in 1856. In the intervening years, Ben became known as the “Stagecoach King” thanks to his transportation empire, while David focused on the day-to-day distillery operation. From there it was passed down through the family for a few generations before eventually changing hands several times and ultimately ending up with the current ownership group, McCormick Distilling Company. Full-time distilling resumed in 2015, and that’s how they now have a series of six-year-old whiskies to their name.
Speaking of the parent McCormick Distilling Company: they deserve a great deal of credit in the handling of this brand. Not every “fledgling” brand has the patience or deep pockets to wait a full six years to release their “first” product, but it’s a decision that has paid dividends for the current era of Ben Holladay. Not only have they earned raucous praise from the cognoscenti with multiple products that stand among the best in the “American craft whiskey” category, but they already have barrels hitting 7 years of age that will soon see liquor store shelves.
There’s no need for slick marketing-speak here, and they’ve yet to go the increasingly popular route of finishing their whiskey, which is a trend that some see as reminiscent of the rectifying craze in the early 20th century. Suffice it to say that Ben Holladay is doing things the right way, and people are beginning to notice.
For their new Rickhouse Proof expression, Ben Holladay takes their 73% corn, 15% wheat, and 12% malted barley recipe and bottles it at full cask strength after six years of aging. Despite having built a brand new still, Ben Holladay whiskey is produced in the original stillhouse that Ben and Dave operated way back in 1856. This expression also meets the requirement to be called “Real Missouri Bourbon,” meaning it must be “mashed, fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled in the state; aged in oak barrels manufactured in the state; and—beginning January 1, 2020—made with corn exclusively grown in the state.” For anyone looking to support region-specific distilling, that fact should be a point of comfort.
To dispense with the final specs: Ben Holladay Soft Red Wheat Rickhouse Proof is bottled at 119.9 proof (59.95 % ABV) which is a shade over their 118 barrel entry proof, and carries a suggested retail price of $75. It’s also worth noting that the whiskey was distilled in the spring of 2017, stored in Rickhouse C, and bottled in May 2023. When it comes to the barrels in this blend, 57% of them come from floor 4, 16% from floor 5, 14% from floor 3, 5% from floors 1 and 2, and 3% from floor 6 of their 7-floor rickhouse.
Ben Holladay Soft Red Wheat Rickhouse Proof – Review
Color: Ruddy amber.
On the nose: Orchard fruits and oak explode at first, offering a delightful bouquet of red apples in a wooden basket. It already feels like autumn. Those notes are punctuated by a crème brûlée aroma and the citrus influence of lime, which cuts through the sweet and oaky notes to provide a welcome balance. After a few swirls, this pour reveals itself as discernibly floral with a hint of leather and berbere spice adding to the affair.
In the mouth: The first sip is an overt introduction to the flavor of oak before red apples, black pepper, basil, and cinnamon spread over the tongue. It comes in a bit hot, and that curtails the sweet notes, though it does give rise to the fantastic medley of spices. Though, I’ll admit the heat takes some getting used to, perhaps hampered by the lean texture of the whiskey, caramel and clove find their way on the finish, providing a gentle landing spot for this riveting rollercoaster ride.
It’s certainly understandable when upstart distilleries release products under the strain of a financial burden, but there’s something truly gratifying about a brand being disciplined and well-heeled enough to only do so when they feel the whiskey is ready. For this Rickhouse Proof offering, Ben Holladay certainly has a whiskey ready for market, though there are a few rough edges that show room for improvement.
Having previously been stunned by the level of quality in their bottled-in-bond offerings, I admit my expectations were impossibly high for this expression. That said, this is still outstanding bourbon, and – despite having an austere mouthfeel coupled with an exceptional amount of heat – once acclimated, there’s also a lot of rich flavor in every sip.
I recommend a few drops of water, as I found that it beautifully altered the whiskey, introducing more butterscotch and bringing floral notes to the fore. Taken neat, it will satiate the proof hounds due to it drinking above its weight class. Furthermore, it offers a stark point of difference from their exceedingly approachable bottled-in-bond offerings.
While Ben Holladay Soft Red Wheat Rickhouse Proof didn’t quite meet my expectations, I’m still comfortable considering this “Great” on the Malt scale. Heck, the fact that my expectations were so high in the first place says a lot about the level of quality Kyle Merklein and crew are already capable of achieving. Sometimes, it only takes 166 years to become an overnight success.