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Pursuit United Bourbon Batch 11CD

So, how is the Pursuit going?

Since my first run-in with Pursuit Spirits’ blend of bourbons, I have been positively inclined toward the company’s output. Their blend of rye whiskies took it up a notch for me, and the first pair of numbered batches delivered fully on the promise of superior blends, crafted with care, from components transparently disclosed. I saluted the entrepreneurial gusto which motivated the bourbon and rye blends in The Oak Collection, even if the former was wide of the mark for my palate.

After that last pair of releases, I sheepishly confess that I have not revisited any Pursuit United bottlings. Though I’m happy to see them as mainstays on the whiskey shelves of the big regional chain in my area, I haven’t yet grabbed one for my own enjoyment. Why might that be?

Well, no reason in particular. I’ve cut back my retail purchases of whiskey to the expressions that I keep on the bar as daily sippers. The growing collection of bottles in my basement serves as a constant (sometimes ignored) reminder that I don’t need any more whiskey. I don’t hunt much anymore, so my chance of finding the most coveted, allocated releases is about nil (I still have yet to see a bottle of Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged, at any price). Any new expressions that are more available, I can typically sample courtesy of friends.

I suspect that last part is also true for those with an interest in bourbon and any semblance of a personality. It’s a generous community, and someone always has a bottle (or several dozen) open. There are also other “macro” factors at play: a more challenging economy, with high inflation and punitive interest rates, might be putting the squeeze on some folks’ consumption. Or, the post-pandemic freedom to travel and enjoy public entertainment might mean that bourbon budgets are being allocated toward other “pursuits” (get it?).

Or… maybe folks are addicted to novelty? Maybe they’ll buy one bottle of anything, but not more than one? Maybe they’ve burned their fingers enough times on the (constantly growing) shelves full of bottles from NDPs and other upstart brands, and have sworn off the category altogether?

Whatever the cause, it’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some NDPs are slapping a vanity label and a triple digit price tag on MGP. Some are doing something different; I’d put Pursuit Spirits into that bucket. As we become more judicious about our whiskey purchases, my experience with the brand would pull me more toward a Pursuit United bottling, rather than taking a flier on something I suspect will disappoint.

Fortunately, I was able to make good on my mental promise to myself to revisit Pursuit United courtesy of… well… Pursuit Spirits. They sent me a bottle of their most recent batch of blend of bourbons, which I will review for you forthwith.

First, though, I decided to check in with Kenny and Ryan to get more info about this batch, as well as Pursuit Spirits’ evolution more generally. Their answers are below, condensed and edited for clarity:

Malt: Is there anything different about this batch (blend components, age, mash bill, etc.) that you think bears noting, in comparison to prior batches?

Ryan: So, this particular batch has these components: Our 80/10/10 Tennesse rye bourbon, 75/21/4 Kentucky rye bourbon, and 70/20/10 New York wheated bourbon. The ratios of each component change from batch to batch. I decide on how the barrels are speaking to me to determine that. But, what’s most different about this batch, is the age of whiskey in the blend. Our barrels are getting older, and we have more 5-and-6-year barrels in this batch compared to the previous [batch], which were mostly 4-to-5-year. Also, the New York barrels were very fruity, oaky, and funky (in a good way), and make this batch unique from any of the previous [batches].

Malt: You have been at it a few years now; as you reflect on the experience, does anything surprise you relative to your initial expectations, positive or negative?

Ryan: What has surprised me (but shouldn’t have) is how important marketing and storytelling is in this business. We put every ounce of effort and money into creating an exceptional and unique whiskey for consumers to enjoy. From the start we wanted to be a whiskey company and not a marketing company.

Looking back, maybe we should have spent a lot more time and money on marketing. We thought if you have a good product, then everything else would take care of itself. Where – in reality – consumers want something that looks good, is priced good, and is something everyone else wants.

Our products have performed very well in blind taste competitions, winning John Barleycorn’s bourbon of the year, platinum in the ASCOT Awards, and double golds at San Francisco. However our products – which are blends of different mashbills, from different states, and different distilleries – is a unique and foreign concept to most whiskey consumers. It would have been a lot easier to source from MGP or Kentucky only, but we felt we had to create something different from everyone else on the market. That’s why we chose to partner with amazing distilleries across the country to build a library of whiskey that will allow us to create unique and amazing products.

We have spent the last year trying to understand consumers and how to connect with them and figuring out what they want in a whiskey. There have been a lot of trends – especially in the finishing category – that we could not wrap our heads around. This makes it difficult from a product development standpoint, because you don’t know what’s going to connect with consumers. It’s literally changing every six months. We combat this by staying true to ourselves and only putting out products we believe in, not chasing trends.

On a positive note, I continue to be amazed by the support of our fans. We now have 70 brand ambassadors in the nine markets that believe in us and our mission. They help us with in store tastings, maintaining relationships with stores, distributors, and on-premise accounts. I don’t think any other startup brand could have the kind of support we have with our fans. We are forever grateful for them. 2023 has been a challenging year for most spirits brands, but we have been able to continue to grow with their support.

Malt: What have you changed in response to this? Have you done anything differently in terms of the way you engage with the trade, or consumers? Any plans to change packaging, branding, marketing, the cadence of releases, or anything else? How do you think about balancing the need to have a consistent core expression with whiskey consumers’ desire for novelty, new finishes, and the like?

Ryan: Yes, we have really focused on building demand at the consumer level by doing a ton of whiskey festivals, in-person events, and liquor store tastings. They call this “liquid to lips.” We built a podcast successfully through digital platforms, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to the spirits industry. Most products you can legally purchase via online and have it shipped to your door. Most major markets in alcohol do not allow these types of transactions, and you have to meet consumers where they make purchases which are at the retail level.

However, it’s hard for us as a self-funded startup to compete on the retail level. You are competing with major corporations who are bannering the stores with displays, case stacks, and promotional material. The corporations also have an advantage at the distributor level because they can offer distributors incentives, case volume discounts, trips, swag, you name it, to get the distributors to push their products at the retail level.

We have spent the last year trying to build relationships with our distributors and retailers to let them know we are here to help grow the brand. We support stores that carry our products with in-store tastings through our ambassador program. This gets consumers trying the product, seeing the packaging, and hearing our story. Otherwise, you are just another bottle on the shelf that no one cares about.

We have also spent the last year trying to understand why customers buy certain things; unfortunately, it’s not always about the quality of the product. It comes down to packaging and price. So, we have decided to go through a major packaging redesign that we are currently working on to help elevate the brand in consumers’ eyes.

But this only gets you so far. This is why we have decided to invest in our own distillery and also open a visitor experience on whiskey row in downtown Louisville. Fortunately, bourbon tourism has exploded over the last few years and we don’t see that slowing down. We are lucky to be located in Kentucky where a lot of whiskey consumers are already visiting other brands.

We know we can’t compete in the crowded three tier system so we are going to build our brand by having people come to us so they can try our products, understand our processes, and connect with our brand. Then, the hope is customers will become fans and will take this experience and spread the word in their home markets.

We’ve witnessed the success of Bardstown Bourbon Company and Willett have had by providing unique and interesting experiences and creating fans of their products. We have thought long and hard about what we as a brand want to offer customers, and we feel we can create some amazing experiences that you cannot get with any other brand.

Because we do not distill (we have partner distilleries that make our six mash bills for us to our specs) we will not be giving another 51% corn tour. We will give consumers a behind the scenes experience that will focus on tasting the whiskies, the art of blending, maturation, and barrel selection. Allowing consumers to taste individual components of our blends at cask strength to see why the sum is better than the individual parts, and also allowing them to have their own barrel pick experience where they can taste through multiple barrels and bottle their favorite.

From a product standpoint, we have changed the size of our small batch bourbon and rye batches to 10 to 20 barrels four times per year, whereas the previous batches were 40 to 50 barrels, and only released once per year. This will allow us to create different blends throughout the year, offering unique and interesting batches each time. We will always strive for some consistency in our products but at those smaller batch sizes, we can create something unique every single time.

After a few years in the market, we’ve learned that the majority of the consumers want something that consistently tastes good, is available, looks good, and is priced right. However, Kenny and I come from the 10% of the market that wants variety, innovation, and scarcity. So last year we released our first two Oak Collection offerings: our French Oak and American Oak toasted bourbon, and the sherry finish rye. We spent a year experimenting with different finishes and landed on these two, as we thought they still showcased the art of blending and how finishing can complement the product and not be the main flavor profile.

We’ve spent the last year working on a Double Oak bourbon and rye, and also our Pursuit United Private Selection Barrel program where we create micro blends of 2 to 5 barrels and rebarrel them into the barrels they came out of.

We are in this unique position where we have six different mashbills, coming from four different distilleries, and three different cooperages that make our barrels. This gives us a lot of differing inputs to create a truly different single barrel offering. We will be releasing these in 2024.

Also, over the last 6 years, we have been acquiring some unique barrels from some Kentucky distilleries and our partner distilleries, which will give us some higher age stated single barrel offerings that we can release at our downtown location. I am constantly experimenting with blending, proofing techniques, and different finishes to see if there is something that we feel aligns with our brand and can offer whiskey fans something interesting and unique and is not just another maple, honey, cigar blend or amburan finish.

Most things have already been done in this industry and there is a lot of copycatting; we don’t want to fall into that trap. As always, we will be honest and overly transparent with what we are doing, as we feel like we are building a whiskey brand and not a marketing brand.

Malt: We’ve talked before about innovation around new products (e.g. The Oak Collection). Is there anything you’re working on that you’re especially excited about?

Kenny: Pursuit United Double Oaked Bourbon will be coming out in about two months!

As mentioned above, I was grateful to receive a bottle of bourbon from batch 11CD (provided free of charge; per Malt editorial policy, this will not affect my notes or scores, but is being mentioned here in the spirit of total transparency). A recap of the coding system, for those who might have forgotten (I will confess to having to refer to these notes myself:

The new coding system starts with the number of the month. The following two letters are based on the last two digits of the year with A being 0 (zero), B is 1 (one), etc. This release of Pursuit United Bourbon and Pursuit United Rye is 7CC which represents July 22.

[nerd voice] “If my calculations are correct…” this was released in November 2023. As with the prior batches, this comes to us at 107 proof (58.5% ABV). My local has this on sale for $55 (down from $60), which is the price I will be using to evaluate this on our price-sensitive scoring framework.

Pursuit United Bourbon Batch 11CD – Review

Color: Medium-dark golden orange.

On the nose: This does smell noticeably more mature than prior Pursuit United bourbon releases, in a good way. A topnote of acetone gives way to macerated cherries, butterscotch, and abundant herbal notes of eucalyptus and tarragon. There’s the bitter, citric bite of orange peel in here, leavened by a short nip of crushed mint leaf, and a gooey note of chocolate fudge. This has that “dusty” character of funk that I favorably compared to bourbons from days of yore, also found in batch 7CC; if anything, it’s amped up here, again to the benefit of the bourbon.

In the mouth: This has a momentary richness in the front of the mouth – butterscotch candies, again – before a stony flavor and drying texture take over, dominating the front of the tongue. That richness returns toward the middle and back of the mouth, with accents of baking spice and menthol. The finish on this is really something; imagine a cup of black tea, with all the herbal and spicy notes that image conjures. Then, imagine squeezing an orange into that tea, which is then stirred with a cinnamon stick? This is a moment of flavor perfection that gives way to a drying ashiness and a brief burst of citrus fruit, before the entire whiskey resolves itself into a unified whole, finishing with a long, lingering aftertaste.

Conclusions:

Why would I – or anyone else – buy a bottle of this? Because it’s delicious, complex, and competitively priced for the experience it delivers. I’d be equally thrilled to put this in front of a bourbon newbie (no disrespect intended), in order to broaden their horizons about what weird and wild flavors this simple beverage can produce, without having to go to the effort and expense of tracking down a dusty bottle. Equally, I’d be happy to serve this blind to the most jaded palate, with the resulting amusement of listening to them guess which shuttered distillery or prized rickhouse this came from. It’s my favorite release yet from Pursuit Spirits, and I am happy to award it a score commensurate with a rating of “Exceptional,” reflecting both the sensation of tasting this, as well as the value for money.

Score: 8/10

I stand in regret of my error in passing by so many bottles of Pursuit United. You can be sure that, going forward, I’ll be crouched in front of the store shelf, scrutinizing the labels for Batch 11CD. In fact, I’m even more excited to try future batches; if the brand’s current trajectory continues on its upward slope, Pursuit United will soon find itself at the top of many a bourbon buyer’s shopping list.

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