“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” – Socrates
If you’re one of those folks who frequent digital whiskey spaces then you might agree when I say that Rare Character is the bourbon brand du jour. Owing in part to the characters behind the brand, the enchanting array of custom artwork adorning each bottle, and (of course) the quality of the liquid contained within, Rare Character whiskey has become a highly sought-after commodity in just the last two years.
With an invite-only Facebook fan page numbering nearly 2,000 members in the previous 8 months alone (and devotees in far more significant quantities to be found over on Instagram) it’s clear that there’s genuine interest in the brand despite the fact it currently only has a single “every day” offering. Fortuna, Rare Character’s flagship expression, enjoys a fair bit of praise in the aforementioned digital spaces, but their namesake single barrel series has garnered most of the attention.
Is that due to the inherent nature of the single barrel whiskey experience, wherein members of those selection groups become acolytes both of the brand and their individual barrel picks? Indeed, plenty of brands have been built on that premise, and they’ve enjoyed outsized success for that very reason. However, as you may know, dear reader, there are also a fair number of brands comprised primarily of single barrels that are derided or, worse, altogether overlooked on the market.
I asked Rare Character co-founder, Pablo Moix what he attributes their success to and he said, “I don’t know! I think that people enjoy Rare Character because of the variety we offer. Sprinkling in things like Obliteration and Pride of Anderson County has helped, but it’s tough for me to nail it down, and I honestly can’t wrap my head around it. I think people outside of the brand will have a better perspective.”
There are a number of companies in today’s overcrowded sourced whiskey marketplace that stake their reputation on simply selecting better barrels than the next guy. They can’t all be right, but surely at least one of them is. As an outside observer, I believe that is one of the secrets of Rare Character’s success. While there are brands able to capture lightning in a bottle for a release or two, there are a plethora of Rare Character single barrel releases I’ve had that are truly exceptional… and that’s not including their Exceptional Series, so-named because it’s comprised specifically of barrels that the company deems to be so. Simply put, Pablo and co-founder Pete Nevenglosky have done a fine job of utilizing their relationships, buying high-quality barrels, and following Socrates’ advice above.
That brings us to the subject of today’s review, an intriguing bourbon from Rare Character’s Single Barrel Series. The man who selected it – Harsha Bethi – named it “The Demon Bottle” because in his words, “It was scary when we realized how good it tasted, and even more so when found out how short the barrel was,” with only 60 bottles surviving the angels’ thirst. Harsha, who has owned Beverage King in Norwalk, CT for the past 7 years, has developed a healthy national following for his picks, due to the superlative quality of his single barrel selections.
For this pick, Harsha traveled with a small group that included Michael Hertzberg – founder of the Rare Character Facebook fan page – to Las Vegas in February this year. They tasted over 30 samples before landing on a trio of selections, including the Demon Bottle. The pick soon began garnering attention online after members of the selection group – along with a few well-regarded voices in the digital whiskey space – began singing its praises as perhaps the best bottle of Rare Character to date.
One of those prominent acolytes was Emerson Shotwell. Emerson is known in the digital whiskey world for being one of the most outspoken and knowledgeable Willett enthusiasts around, and he seldom regales other brands with his approval. He’s also one of the few people to try this particular barrel, both before it was selected and after it was bottled. Catching wind of his unique insight into the liquid, I reached out to Emerson for his thoughts, and he offered the following, “That bottle is something absolutely magical. It actually tastes like a slightly younger King of Kentucky to me. People are rightfully raving about those HR7 bottles, but I think that the Demon Bottle is the one absolute honey barrel from that run.”
HR7 refers to a group of barrels from Rare Character, but what makes them so unique? In a series of events that’s unlikely to be replicated, the entire lot of barrels was aided by a happy accident that resulted in them spending time outside, where they were directly exposed to the elements. Though they weren’t intended to be Rare Character’s answer to the famous Tornado Surviving expression from Buffalo Trace, the prevailing theory is that Mother Nature’s touch positively impacted the flavor of those HR7 barrels in a similar way. Furthermore, in the opinion of everyone I spoke to, none of those barrels was as favorably impacted as the one that became the Demon Bottle.
Let’s outline the specs of the bottle before we commence with the review, shall we? The Demon Bottle came from MGP, HR7 barrel 340, and was aged for 7 years and 4 months before being bottled at 120.24 proof (60.12% ABV). It should be noted that there is speculation it’s actually closer to 8 years old, but we’ll go with what the label says for the purpose of this review.
The bottle is priced at $300, with $200 from every sale going to charity. That’s because it will only be made available at the upcoming Blankets for Bourbon annual charity event in November, presented by Beverage King. I’ve previously highlighted this charitable effort as it’s one I personally support, and with The Demon Bottle being offered this year, I have no doubt that even more money will be raised to help those in need. For more information about the charity event simply visit BevKingCT.com.
We’ve discussed the background, we know the specs and heard the lore. Now, the only thing left is to taste and review Rare Character The Demon Bottle.
Rare Character Single Barrel Series “The Demon Bottle” – Review
Color: Dark copper.
On the nose: Blueberry pie and ripe plums tumble out of the glass at first. Following those fruit-forward aromas you get the aroma of rich leather, barrel char, orange rind, and gooey caramel. Dashes of clove and confectioners’ sugar punctuate the fruit notes and, after time in the glass, I begin to pick up a fair bit of cola along with a note reminiscent of pistachio baklava. It favors the darker end of the typical bourbon aroma spectrum, which is right up my alley, but let’s see how it tastes.
In the mouth: The blueberry and plum jam flavors sashay atop the palate as this pour immediately comes across as rich and dense. Nutmeg, clove, and cardamom streak up the roof of the mouth like a running back hitting the gap, while dark sweet notes pool on the palate, coating the tongue and taking root as they continue to blossom through the finish. There’s a flash of cigar ash that appears midpalate before cola, brown sugar, and leather satisfyingly wash it away in waves. Furthermore, there’s an elusive cinnamon-dusted butter pecan ice cream note that never fully develops, but teases the periphery of the tongue along with the imagination. Complexity is its most striking feature, along with the fact it comes across as significantly older than its stated age; my guess would be in the 12 to 14 year range.
Simply put, this is sublime. While many whiskeys are great because they simply succeed on multiple levels, The Demon Bottle is a whiskey that excels on multiple levels. It checks the boxes on being balanced and full-flavored while featuring a viscous texture that leads the way for the lengthy and lingering finish. Where the Demon Bottle falls short is that, despite being full of bold flavor commensurate with being well-aged and well-made, it lacks the mellowed refinement of superlative whiskeys that spend twice as much time in a barrel. It’s this observation that makes me recall Emerson’s note about it tasting like a younger King of Kentucky, which is appropriately high praise.
That brings us to the rating. Compared to the scores of other sourced bourbon in this age range, The Demon Bottle is an absolute moonshot. It greatly outpaces practically every limited-edition craft whiskey I’ve had in terms of quality. When considering that the majority of legacy distilleries have elevated their limited offerings to the $200+ price range, we come a bit closer to appropriately placing The Demon Bottle into the context of the contemporary bourbon market.
To be clear, $300 for 7-to-8-year-old bourbon is a tough sell. Does the fact that $200 of that sum is going to charity ease the burden? I certainly think so, though you’re more than welcome to disagree with me. I’d stop just short of calling it a good value, but – given the sizable charitable donation per bottle – I’m willing to call it an even value.
In summation, The Demon Bottle is a sadly limited and exorbitantly priced bottle that readily exhibits the rare character that its namesake brand was built on. Judged simply on its superlative quality and sparing a deduction due to price, I’m comfortable grading this as “Exceptional” on the Malt scale. This is surely a bottle that I’ll grieve when it’s finished.