At the End of the Trail: Wilderness Trail

It was to be the 2nd Annual Bourbon Fellowship Bottled in Bond Blind Tasting Bracket (BFBIBBTB).  It was to be the first Thursday of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  It was…not to be.

The basketball tournament was cancelled.  Bourbon Fellowship was cancelled.  The whole stinkin’ world was cancelled. Everyone had a blast with this blind tasting event the first time we did it last year.  So when the world became less of a “cancelled” place we rescheduled BFBIBBTB a few months later.  Just like last year, there were some surprises along the way.

First Round Pairings & Results

The eight Bourbons selected for the blind tasting had to: (a) be a Bourbon, (b) be Bottled-in-Bond, and (c) not have been in last year’s bracket, with the exception of the champ, New Riff. (For last year’s bracket and results, click here).

There were no other criteria for inclusion other than what I thought would be interesting.  Here were the first round match-ups.  You can judge how interesting they are:

  • Match-up 1: (A) Heaven Hill 7 year vs. (B) Heaven Hill 6 year
  • Match-up 2: (C ) A.D. Laws vs. (D) Old Grand Dad
  • Match-up 3: (E) Wilderness Trail Wheated vs. (F) Wilderness Trail High Rye
  • Match-up 4: (G) New Riff vs. (H) Evan Williams

When we got started, we had eight participants.   What are the odds of anything ending in a tie?  Pretty good, as it turned out.

Heaven Hill vs. Heaven Hill

After the group completed their tasting of these two products – one new (expensive and difficult to find) and the other old (a discontinued bargain) – it was a tie.  Four preferred 7 year and four cast their lot for 6 year.  So, I re-poured the samples and let the participants re-taste and re-vote.  In the second go-around, the 7 year walloped the 6-year by a count of 7-1.  Everyone commented that it was a coin flip decision for them; it just happened that more of the coins landed on 7 than 6.  To me, this says that there is a marginal difference between the quality and taste of the two products. 

A.D. Laws vs Old Grand Dad

I like to throw something into blind tastings that the participants haven’t had before.  The A.D. Laws certainly fit that bill, but faced a wily veteran in Old Grand Dad.  We ended up with a 4-4 tie on this one, too.  I was beginning to think the guys were planning it that way just to get more Bourbon!

In the re-taste / re-vote one person changed their choice and A.D. Laws would advance.  A.D. Laws was easily the most divisive Bourbon of the night and maybe the most divisive Bourbon our group has ever shared.  This is a four-grain, bottled-in-bond (60% corn / 20% heirloom wheat / 10% heirloom rye / 10% malted barley) and it has very distinct chocolate notes on the palate.  It was definitely a love-it-or-hate-it whiskey.  It got just enough love to move on in the bracket.

Wilderness Trail Wheated vs. Wilderness Trail High Rye

I couldn’t decide which Wilderness Trail product to include in the bracket, so I went with both.  There was a clear consensus of opinion on this one.  The High Rye was the top choice by a 6-2 count.  Comments from the group certainly gave a lot of love to its wheated brother, but the high rye was the decisive winner and would advance.

New Riff vs. Evan Williams

They say repeating a championship is more difficult than winning the championship in the first place.  It’s true in sports.  It’s true in Bourbon. Last year’s champ, New Riff, went down to one of the most underrated Bourbons on the planet: Evan Williams bottled-in-bond. EW won by a 5-3 margin.  Take heart, New Riff.  No one can take last year’s title away from you.

Final Four

Heaven Hill 7 year vs. A.D. Laws

By the time we started the Final Four, a late-comer joined the group (so…no more ties).  The five tasters who stood by A.D. Laws in the first round, stayed by A.D. Laws in the Final Four.  Heaven Hill’s 7 year fell 5-4 to A.D. Laws.

Wilderness Trail High Rye vs. Evan Williams

The experienced bottom-shelfer could not get past the young stud.  Evan Williams could only muster two votes as Wilderness Trail garnered seven and moved on to the Finals.

Finals

A.D. Laws vs. Wilderness Trail High Rye

All good runs come to an end.  Cinderella turned into a pumpkin…or something like that.  The unlikely journey to the BFBIBBTB Finals is over.  The loyal following gathered by A.D. Laws couldn’t survive the momentum of Wilderness Trail.  By a score of 7-2, Wilderness Trail High Rye claimed the crown of 2020 Bottled in Bond champ. 

Both Wilderness Trail bottled-in-bond products are very good and their cask strength rye may be my favorite of anything they produce.  In a very short time, it seems Wilderness Trail has become synonymous with quality whiskey.  There are a small handful of distilleries that are on a considerable roll right now (despite COVID-19) and Wilderness Trail is certainly one of those.  In a very short time, Shane Baker and Pat Heist have made their brand into one that truly moves the needle.  Congratulations to Wilderness Trail High Rye Bourbon, deserving of the title: Best Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon for 2020.

Opinions Are Like Bung Holes

If you’ve been following the posts in The Bourbon Fellowship blog lately…thank you…you’ve read about our Bottled in Bond Bracket Challenge.  If you need to catch up, you can do so here.

In the previous posts, I’ve shared the results as selected by our group.  (Spoiler alert: If you haven’t already read the previous posts, New Riff defeated Henry McKenna in the finals).  Today, I’ll review the outcome of my own personal bracket, which is just one man’s opinion.  Or is it?

For full disclosure, my first round tastings were not done blind.  I’m still interviewing for an intern, so I had to set up the first tastings myself.  The Final Four and the Finals were done blind with assistance from The Wife.

In the first round, there was only one that was close for me and that was McKenna over Old Bardstown.  I confess to have a thing for that signature Willett profile, but McKenna was, overall, a better, more balanced bourbon.  In the other three, E.H. Taylor trumped 1792.  McKenzie mashed Jim Beam.  New Riff rolled Early Times.

The bracket match-ups for the Bottled in Bond Challenge

This Final Four was an interesting collection.  On one side were two classic, universally-beloved bourbons: E.H. Taylor vs. Henry McKenna.  On the other side of the bracket were two relative unknown newcomers: McKenzie vs. New Riff.  (If you aren’t familiar with New Riff, you can find a review of it here.  If you haven’t heard about McKenzie, I have my full review of it at the bottom of this post).  Both matchups were very difficult decisions for me.  Ultimately, McKenna measured a bit better than EHT and McKenzie made it past New Riff. 

So we come to my Finals: McKenna vs. McKenzie.  How did the Scots get invited to a bourbon contest anyway?  A full review of Henry McKenna was posted in a previous blog post here.  I’ll share my own review of McKenzie Bottled in Bond Bourbon now:

McKenzie Bottled in Bond Bourbon

McKenzie Bottled in Bond was released in late 2018 by Finger Lakes Distillery in New York.  The bourbon is named after the family of Finger Lakes owner and founder, Brian McKenzie.  McKenzie had the distinction of being the only non-Kentucky bourbon in The Bourbon Fellowship bracket challenge.  It is also unique as it is the only wheated bourbon in this contest and the only wheated bottled in bond that I could find other than Old Fitgerald, which is now only available in limited releases.

The mash bill for McKenzie is 70% corn, 20% red wheat and 10% malted barley.  The 20% wheat matches the highest wheat component of any bourbon on the market (Heaven Hill’s wheated mash bill is also 20%). 

Color: This McKenzie is a beautiful, light copper color in the glass with a slightly darker appearance in the bottle.

Nose: There is an expected sweetness to this bourbon given the mash bill.  To me the sweetness presents itself in fresh apple and caramel.  I also note some oak on the nose.

Palate: The apple and the oak are still there.  Some honey comes through with the caramel.  Perhaps a little like a Bit o-Honey candy. 

Finish: The finish on McKenzie Bottled in Bond is pretty unique to me.  I get a bit of spice on the tip of the tongue and then a second wave of sweetness and spice throughout the mouth that stays around for awhile.

Overall, I really enjoy this McKenzie.  I am admittedly a Kentucky bourbon snob, but I’ll look forward to what Finger Lakes has to offer in the future. 

One Man’s Opinion

Ultimately, I picked Henry McKenna over McKenzie although I’ll make room for both on my shelf and in my glass.  However, opinions are like bung holes.  Every barrel has one and some of them leak.  (I may not be getting that expression quite right).

What are opinions like?

I may have botched that expression, but it is true: everybody does have an opinion.  Mine happens to line up with the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and Fred Minnick as they selected Henry McKenna as Best Whiskey for 2019.  Or you could say their opinions line up with mine, but that’s not important.  Their opinions may be read by tens of thousands.  Mine may be read by tens.  However, if we distill this down to what is most important, there is one opinion on bourbon that should really matter to you: yours.

If you don’t like Henry McKenna, that’s alright.  The Heaven Hill Distillery will probably survive and you won’t hurt my feelings or Fred’s (as long as you don’t tell him you like vodka).  It is a great help to find people you trust to give you suggestions, but some of the people I highly respect in this industry don’t like some bourbon that I love.  And that is just fine. Find what YOU like.

So, if you are new to bourbon be adventurous and be willing to try different things.  Find some buddies and do blind tastings together.  You may be surprised by what you really like.  This holds true for those who have been around bourbon for awhile.  You may be missing out on something good simply because of biases that you have developed over time. Also, if you are a whiskey veteran be an encouragement to the new guys and stop mocking people who don’t like what you think they should. Because, ultimately, no matter how important you think your opinion is, it may be as empty as a bung hole to everybody but you.

Thanks for reading this post. If you have an opinion on it, please share it in the comments. I promise it will mean more to me than a bung hole. If you do like what you’re reading in this blog, please share it with your friends. It is appreciated.

Kevin Rose

The Riff Stuff

It only seems fitting to honor the anniversary of the passage of the Bottled in Bond Act (March 3, 1897) and the NCAA Basketball Tournament (occurring every March since I can remember…too lazy to look up the exact year it started). So, last week The Bourbon Fellowship held its First Annual Bottled in Bond Blind Tasting Bracket or FABIBBTB for short (or not so short, as it turned out). If you are unfamiliar with “Bottled in Bond” you can follow this link for more information.

The bracket was composed of 8 randomly selected bottled in bond (BiB) brands.  I put the names of 14 different BiBs in a box (a Booker’s box to be exact) and drew out 8 names.  Those 8 went back in the box and as I drew them out, I wrote their name on the bracket for pairings.  Each was assigned a letter (A through H) to identify them individually during the blind tastings.  The participants and the 1st Round pairings were:

These made the Big Dance!

A – 1792 Bottled in Bond (Barton)

B – E.H. Taylor Small Batch (Buffalo Trace)

C – Henry McKenna (Heaven Hill)

D – Old Bardstown (Willett)

E – Jim Beam Bonded (Jim Beam)

F – McKenzie Bottled in Bond (Finger Lakes)

G – Early Times (Brown-Forman)

H – New Riff Bottled in Bond (New Riff)

I poured the samples and counted votes as seven of our Fellowship made some tough decisions…and drank some outstanding bourbon.  As a group, they sampled one pairing at a time and voted on which bourbon moved on to the next round.  (For example, sample A and B then vote on which one they liked better.) We would proceed through each remaining pairing to complete the first round.  The semi-finals and finals followed the same pattern.

Quarter Finals

By a slim 4-3 margin, E.H. Taylor advanced over 1792.  It would be a shame if Colonel Taylor got bounced in the first round given that the Bottled in Bond Act wouldn’t have been passed without him.

In a somewhat surprising close match-up, Henry McKenna narrowly moved on over Old Bardstown by a 4-3 count.  An even greater surprise to me as I moderated the tasting was that a couple of long-devoted McKenna fans voted for Old Bardstown.  That is the beauty of a blind tasting!

Jim Beam Bonded also gained a 4-3 victory over McKenzie Bottled in Bond, but it wouldn’t be March and it wouldn’t be Madness without a buzzer beater and some hullabaloo.  After a first count of 4-3 in favor of McKenzie, Tom (known lovable trouble-maker of the group) abruptly changed his vote from F (McKenzie) to E (Beam).  Beam would move on, but in controversial fashion.

The last pairing of the Quarter Finals saw New Riff dominate 6-1 over Early Times.  Most of the guys said it was a close decision for them personally, but an overwhelming majority chose the newcomer.

Final Four

In a battle of the bottled in bond bourbon behemoths (say that five times fast), E.H. Taylor took on Henry McKenna for a right to punch a ticket to the finals.  Again, the vote was 4-3.  Again, known McKenna lovers voted against it. Again, McKenna still claimed a win and a chance at the title.

Maybe the youngster just doesn’t know it isn’t supposed to be this easy, but New Riff claims another 6-1 victory.  This time the freshman bests Beam and carries a lot of momentum into the finals.

The Bottled in Bond Finals

From one side of the bracket is Henry McKenna.  A 10-year single barrel bottled in bond that has been a daily drinker for many a bourbon enthusiast and has also been hailed as 2018 Whiskey of the Year.  McKenna is a true PTP-er (“prime time player” for those not fluent in speaking “Vitale”). Emerging from the other side is the upstart freshman, New Riff.  A four-year bottled in bond that is the very first bourbon distilled by New Riff Distillery.  This bourbon just hit the market in the fall of 2018.  It’s a diaper dandy and it’s awesome, baby!

Congratulations to New Riff.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa-oh…The Riff Stuff!

One would think that based on résumé alone Henry McKenna would be the heavy favorite.  But…the last time I checked: we don’t drink a résumé! New Riff (the New Kid on the Block) had the “right stuff” and took down the traditional favorite, Henry McKenna, by a 5-2 vote. 

Congratulations to New Riff on claiming the title of The Bourbon Fellowship 2019 Bottled in Bond Champion.  While it may not fall in the category of “coveted title” just yet, it will always be the first one ever.  And they can never take that away from you, New Riff (look for your certificate in the mail, soon)!

The results…

The blind tasting aspect of this was fascinating to watch unfold. In a day or two, I’ll blog about that and what my personal bracket looked like. I’ll also post reviews from our Bourbon Fellowship of the two finalists.

Kevin