“Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity, it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.” – John Keats
There are a myriad of ways for American producers to create finished whiskey. With little-to-no regulation of the process, some opt for flash finishes over very brief periods, while others like to luxuriate their distillate in secondary casks for months or even years at a time. Why shouldn’t they have any number of levers to pull? If ones pursuit is the pinnacle of flavor, then it matters not how one arrives at that goal, only that one arrives.
That said, while the goal is often the same (I do wonder whether achieving the optimal flavor is always the aim when there are also financial obligations to consider) the results are manifold. Anyone familiar with various Highland or Speyside Scotches will note that not all sherry-finished whiskeys are created equal. While consumers here in the States are quickly growing in our savvy for appreciating the impact of finishing casks, I think that whiskey fans the world over are done a disservice when we aren’t informed just how long a particular whiskey has spent in a secondary barrel.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Today I will be reviewing a whiskey that one award committee named “Best of Class,” 15 Stars (stylized 15 STARS) Sherry Cask Finished Bourbon. I make mention of that fact because I was one of the judges in that tasting panel, and I’d like to peel back the onion a bit for anyone curious about it. Seated next to a few veteran industry professionals, we were all equally impressed and incredulous to see 15 Stars Sherry Cask Finished Bourbon advance through our tasting rounds time and time again.
Having recently placed this bourbon in a series of blind flights at home as I attempted to ascertain my favorite American whiskeys of 2023, the process was repeated. Each time this whiskey advanced a round I found my disbelief shrinking away and my positive impression of it grew. A blend of straight bourbon whiskeys that 15 Stars sourced from Kentucky and Indiana, this expression carries an age statement of 10 years with whiskey aged for 18, 13, and 10 years comprising the blend. While here would be a good time to remark that the percentages of each well-aged whiskey in the blend isn’t indicated (more transparency, please, everyone) it isn’t a faux pas worth much of a thought. At any rate, 10 years of aging is a significant amount of time for an American whiskey to develop maturity. Instead, my mind went to my interrupted bemoaning above: that I wish it were an industrywide practice to disclose how long whiskeys are rested in their finishing casks.
You see that level of detailed information occasionally, but I bring it up because the potency – or lack thereof – of those finishing casks frequently adds intrigue and appreciation for the end product. To put a fine point on it: this quibble isn’t directed at 15 Stars, really. I just think that, in this case, it could have been instructive for both consumers and a score of other producers to have that information at hand, and so its omission strikes me as a missed opportunity more so than a cause for concern.
To wit, 15 Stars is a brand best known for being an awards darling, sourcing quality whiskey, and being overpriced, perhaps not all in that order. My previous experiences with the brand have proven to be favorable, and that perhaps has something to do with the fact that I’ve yet to pay for any of their bottles. The bottle I’ll be reviewing today was graciously provided at no cost by the brand. It also, however, has to do with the fact that they are blending their impressive stock of whiskey with a fair bit of prowess. That might surprise you if you were to peruse their website, where I couldn’t find a single mention of their Head Blender, Rick Johnson, who created the brand with his son Ricky and his daughter Annie. Rick has consistently done a fine job of mingling 15 Stars’ well aged, sourced whiskey, and certainly deserves the growing recognition that his brand has been enjoying.
To lodge one final complaint before engaging in effusive praise, let me say that I’d much prefer the story of the contemporary Johnson family over puffery about ceramics, punch ladles, and 18th century commemorative buttons all found on their website. Considering their sizable success and prohibitive price tag, I’m eager to learn more about the people behind the brand and their production practices, though that will have to wait for another day.
For now, let’s conclude with a few remaining details, shall we? 15 Stars Sherry Cask Finished Bourbon clocks in at 115 proof (57.5% ABV) and carries a suggested retail price of $180. As aforementioned this bottle was provided free of cost, but I will be casting that aside in my judgment and scoring it as though I paid the considerable cost to acquire it per Malt’s price-sensitive scoring guidelines.
15 Stars Sherry Cask Finished Bourbon Review
Color: This evokes the old term “red whiskey” in that it’s amber with ruby glints.
On the nose: Jammy, with some dusted cinnamon coating ripe plums. This is supplemented by a slight bit of leather, rich oak, and a faint undercurrent of Sherry-inflected nuttiness. I have to say that this smells full-bodied and magnificent.
In the mouth: It enters the mouth with a supple texture, seeming to simply find every corner of the palate before settling everywhere all at once. Chocolate finds the midpalate with nuttiness informing the roof of the mouth, while the flavor of sherry entices the edges of the tongue leaving cracked black pepper to settle in at the back of the palate as leather and oak extend through the finish and down into the chest. Not only are the flavors really rich, but they’re also all easy to pick apart and appreciate in varying turns, making each sip a sumptuous adventure. To pick but one nit: the finish does dry the back of the mouth out a tad, but overall this is a profoundly balanced and well-integrated finished bourbon.
15 Stars Sherry Cask Finished Bourbon is a remarkable show of balance and beauty. With enough heft to satisfy aficionados attuned to the boldness of cask-strength bourbon, but enough finesse to remain approachable, this well-blended expression elevates both its base liquids and the complementing flavor it picked up in its finishing casks. This is truly a sumptuous pour that borders on decadence and guilt… yes, guilt. I found myself wracked with it as it handily outperformed several well-regarded Kentucky straight bourbons in the series of aforementioned blind flights in which I tasted it.
With the time to enjoy it on its own, my guilt washed away, and I was simply left impressed with the fact that this bottle checks every box for well-made whiskey. The price, however, is the elephant in the room. There are a number of sherry finished American whiskeys on the market whose suggested retail price is less than half of what 15 Stars is marked at. By now, dear reader, you may be aware that it’s typical for younger brands to charge more for their products because sourcing well-aged whiskey ain’t cheap. That said, though I can appreciate that the brand has what I imagine to be significant operating costs, the high ticket price still has a serious impact on my likelihood of buying their products.
For as well made as it is, I would love for this whiskey to be priced more affordably, even if it were to remain comfortably at a premium price point. Because of that, I feel inclined to dock it a point under Malt’s price-sensitive scoring rubric, but make no mistake: 15 Stars Sherry Finished Bourbon is a fantastic expression that deserves your attention, even if I can’t give a full-throated recommendation for it at its current price.