Iconoclast in the Limelight

The year 2020 will be chiseled in our memories for many things; few of them good.  It was a year marked by a worldwide pandemic, economic upheaval, riots in American cities and extraordinary political divisiveness.  But on that good side…2020 was the Year of Spirits of French Lick.

The Year of Spirits of French Lick

It seems that everyone had plans, hopes and dreams that were delayed, down-sized or otherwise destroyed last year.  While head distiller / head alchemist Alan Bishop and the team at Spirits of French Lick didn’t get to do everything they had in the works when 2020 started, they still had a remarkably successful year.

Single Barrel Program

Despite not being able to have groups in to the distillery to do barrel picks, the single barrel program thrived at Spirits of French Lick during 2020.  “We expected single barrel sales to dry up when the pandemic hit”, said SoFL marketing director, Jolee Kasprzak.  “Instead, they tripled!”.  Single barrel offerings have primarily consisted of Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon and The Mattie Gladden high-rye Bourbon.  Bottles from single barrels have been released through various liquor stores scattered across the country and through on-line retailer, Seelbach’s

Label Re-Design

The heart of Spirits of French Lick is the energetic, copper-haired Jolee.  The native Californian says, “My grandparents were immigrants and they always made art a focus in our family growing up”.  She studied English, Art History and Communications in college and took a job working for Wolf Creek Brewing, a Southern California restaurant and microbrewery.  It was at Wolf Creek that she “learned how to taste”. 

Jolee and her handiwork.

After getting married, Jolee journeyed from the left coast to the Hoosier state.  Her time in Indiana saw her gaining design expertise as the director of operations for a sign company and experience in the hospitality industry through restaurant management.  From the microbrewery to the sign company to the restaurant, all of this experience shaped Jolee into the perfect fit for her role as Director of Marketing Operations at Spirits of French Lick, which she started in 2018.

Jolee’s design experience was especially useful as she led one of the biggest undertakings of 2020 for SoFL which was the complete re-design of their labels.  With several new product offerings in the pipeline, it became a priority to freshen up the appearance and feel of the brand.   “There are unique details to each label depending on the spirit in the bottle”, Jolee explained, “but the feel, the scrollwork and the font are very similar.  This gives the Spirits of French Lick lineup a distinctive look on the shelf”. 

The new labels will be submitted to design competitions this year.  Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do very well in competition as they are some of the most attractive labels on the market today.

Unpretenious

“This is, in fact, the most ‘dickish’ thing I’ve done in the industry and I couldn’t be prouder of it”. This is how Alan Bishop unveiled Unpretentious; a two-year, high-rye bourbon finished in port casks. Alan hates the marketing behind barrel finished Bourbon, especially port finishes. So, with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, Alan made the most pretentious whiskey he could and called it “Unpretentious”. He also made it taste pretty darn good. It was released in the gift shop in mid-June and sold out by early August, so the public was extremely receptive to it. Social media buzz and Bourbon award season also showed there is a place in the market for Alan’s sense of humor, especially when it is accompanied by a great whiskey.

Bottled-in-Bond

July saw Spirits of French Lick reach a major milestone when their first bottled-in-bond Bourbons were released.  Younger versions of Lee W. Sinclair 4-Grain Bourbon had been out for a few seasons, but in mid-July it hit the shelves as a four-year, bottled-in-bond offering.  This spirit’s name-sake, Lee Sinclair, was a successful southern Indiana businessman who bought (and rebuilt after a fire) the West Baden Springs Hotel.  Most of the whiskeys created at Spirits of French Lick are named after characters or places of historical significance to the region.  

Cast in this unlikely role of being named after a high-rye Bourbon is Mattie Gladden.  Mattie Gladden, the woman, was the local madam who is infamous for many reasons including having once been mistress to P.T. Barnum.  The Mattie Gladden, the whiskey, was released at the end of July as the second bottled-in-bond Bourbon in the SoFL line-up.  It is a high-rye Bourbon that Alan jokingly remarks “has a whore-forward profile”.  I’m not sure what that means and I’m not sure that I want to know.  What I do know is…it is fantastic and was one of my favorite Bourbons from 2020. 

Alan Bishop Day

A shocker of an event occurred on October 20.  That is the day when on the ABV Network’s The Bourbon Daily podcast, Steve Akley randomly declared that day to be Alan Bishop Day.  In a classic “If You Know, You Know” fashion, this took on a chaotic life of its own inspiring a flurry of social media posts some of which might actually be suitable for sharing.

Fascination Street

“Oh, it’s opening time down on Fascination Street” is the first line to the Cure song that this barrel-aged absinthe was named after.  An absinthe comprised of 13 different botanicals aged for two years in a number 2 char new American oak barrel produces a unique and flavorful spirit.  Fascination Street was released in October and is available in short supply at the distillery.

Awards

As 2020 was coming to a merciful close for all of society, it was also a celebratory close for Spirits of French Lick.  Indiana Bourbon started things off by naming The Mattie Gladden as the Bourbon of the Year for 2020.  Whiskey media guy, Fred Minnick, selected Unpretentious as the second best barrel-finished whiskey for 2020 and Lee W. Sinclair as the best non-Kentucky Bourbon of 2020. 

When Steve Akley and the ABV Network announced winners of their 2020 awards, much of the hardware (if there was actual hardware) was taken by Spirits of French Lick with Alan Bishop being crowned Craft Distiller of the Year and The Mattie Gladden being anointed Best New Whiskey and Best Bourbon. 

In their year-end awards show, My Whiskey Den (Patrick Belongia, Mike Lisac and Benjamin Eaves) unanimously named their Distiller/ Distillery of the Year as Alan Bishop and Spirits of French Lick. 

Finally, Lee W. Sinclair bottled-in-bond was included in Minnick’s year-end blind tasting for his 2020 Whiskey of the Year.  LWS made a deep run and ended up remaining until the final six and beat out some of “Big Bourbon’s” biggest boys along the way. 

Iconoclast

“Several years ago a friend told me that I approached distillation like an iconoclast”, Alan recalled.  “I liked the word and it has stuck in the back of my head all this time and it seemed like a good name for this special series of whiskey”.  To save you a few clicks, an iconoclast is one who opposes settled beliefs, institutions and traditions.  If you spend much time with Alan you’ll see very quickly that he is against the run of the mill and swimming against the stream.  The moniker “iconoclast” fits him and it fits the whiskey he makes.

Spirits of French Lick christened 2021 with the maiden voyage of the Iconoclast Series (yes, there will be others).  This first release is a three-barrel batch of Lee W. Sinclair at barrel proof.  Alan explains, “These three barrels simply did not fit the Lee profile at all.  I decided to try them in a stand-alone batch and it could not have worked better.  I’ve not never put anything in a barrel I like more than this first Iconoclast release”. 

Iconoclast is a distillery-only release and when they’re gone…they’re gone.  This four-year Bourbon carries a proof of 107.9 with prominent flavors of cherry, French toast, vanilla and cream.  It is truly delicious and should not be missed. 

2021 and Beyond: Anything Can Happen

The release of Iconoclast is a strong indication that Spirits of French Lick intends to extend their “Year of…” past 2020 and into 2021.  Alan and Jolee have shared with me some of their plans for the rest of the year.  Each of these deserves being termed as “the highly-anticipated release”.

  • Valentine’s weekend: The Right Way is a rye aged in absinthe barrels.  It is available in the distillery gift shop starting Saturday, February 13.  What better way to say I love you?
  • May: April showers bring May flowers, but this May brings The Morning Glory.  This is a kasha (buckwheat) Bourbon. Respect the grain, indeed.
Rational responses / Force a change of plans / Anything can happen

  • May: This month also is the scheduled release of William Dalton.  This is a bottled-in-bond wheated Bourbon and will replace The Wheater in Spirits of French Lick’s catalog.  Dalton was the longest-serving master distiller in Indiana history, holding this role for 55 years at the Spring Mill distillery.  The Wheater was a blend of SoFL wheated Bourbon and sourced wheated Bourbon.  It was my least favorite of their whiskies, so I am looking forward to this change.  The William Dalton will be 100% Spirits of French Lick bourbon. I have tried a sample and it is quite excellent and is a much better fit in their lineup.
  • Summer: It’s hard to say “now this sounds really different” when I’ve already listed a rye aged in absinthe barrels and a kasha bourbon, but…this does sound really different.  Further evidence that anything can happen: an apple brandy aged in tequila barrels. 
  • Fall: A perfect fit for the fall months will be the release of a bottled-in-bond apple brandy.
  • Fall: A bottled-in-bond rye will hit store shelves.  It will be called Solomon Scott. Scott was a regarded distiller, bootlegger and moonshiner in pre-prohibition southern Indiana.

An overnight success thirty some-odd years in the making, the accolades of 2020 have Alan Bishop living in the limelight, so to speak.  With that attention from the Bourbon public come expectations.  The things Spirits of French Lick have in store for 2021 is quite an encore to 2020 as Alan and his team makes a tradition of defying traditions.

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

Any Given Thursday

Last week I shared the results of The Bourbon Fellowship Bottled in Bond Blind Tasting Bracket Challenge (or TBFBiBBTBC).  The beauty of a blind tasting is that label bias and our deeply rooted opinions about what we like (or think we like) take a back seat to what we actually taste at that time.  As the saying goes: any given Sunday any NFL team can be upset.  In this case, any given Thursday any bourbon can come out on top. 

As a reminder, the results found New Riff defeating Henry McKenna in the finals.  To add a little more depth to the results, a couple of our guys have offered up reviews of the runner-up and the champion.  Drew Crawley will cover Henry McKenna for us and Mark Krebs will share about New Riff.

Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled in Bond

Henry McKenna bottled in bond was once a somewhat hidden gem of the bourbon geek community. Long touted for its accessible price and availability, it was historically a consistent recommendation for those looking to make the transition towards the finer side of the bourbon spectrum. The 2018 Edition of “The Minnick Effect,” made McKenna one of the most sought after expressions today and has lead to widespread shortages even here in Louisville.  2019 will likely see more of the same as Henry McKenna was named Whiskey of the Year at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Nose:
Notes of dried cherry, Bartlett pear, and candied apples. Somewhat one-dimensional even after 20 minutes in the glass.
 
Palate:
Enters with standard notes of vanilla and dark caramel, slowly dissolved into more complexity with notes of dark chocolate and black pepper.
 
Finish:
The fruit makes a return appearance with the pear notes, some cedar and dry spice reminiscent of clove.
 
All in all, as with all single barrels, there will be some variance from barrel to barrel. While this particular barrel was not my personal favorite, I have had barrels in the past that were absolutely outstanding. Additionally, the fact that Heaven Hill is able to consistently put out 10yr single barrels, within the restrictions of the bottled in bond act I might add, encourages me to keep buying McKenna in the years to come. If you can find this product for less than $40, I highly recommend you pick one up for yourself.

Bio: Drew lives and works in Louisville Ky with his wife Kaylee. During the day, he works for Old Forester focusing on VIP experiences and single barrel selections. Nights and weekends are dedicated to leading worship at his church. When not working, he enjoys bourbon as a hobby, reading, playing music with friends, and the occasional cigar! 

New Riff Bottled in Bond

New Riff bottled in bond, unlike Henry McKenna, is a relative new kid on the block in the bourbon community. The New Riff Distillery, founded by Ken Lewis in 2014, released its first distilled bourbon, New Riff bottled in bond, in the fall of 2018 with a commitment to bottled in bond and non-chill filtration. At 4 years old, it’s based on a mash bill of non-GMO grains of 65% corn, 30% rye, 5% malted barley, and with an MSRP of around $40, it has quickly found a place as a daily drinker for many bourbon enthusiasts.

Nose: Butterscotch, baking spices, dark fruit, and undertones of spearmint.

Palate: Cinnamon, caramel, vanilla, young oak, and rye spice.

Finish: Medium finish, slightly tannic (likely due to the young age), with caramel, vanilla, and pepper.

Although the New Riff was personally my third favorite bourbon of the bracket behind Old Bardstown bottled in bond and 1792 bottled in bond respectively, it managed some impressive wins over Early Times bottled in bond (6-1), Jim Beam Bonded (6-1), and Henry McKenna bottled in bond (5-2) en route to becoming the bracket’s overall winner. With an MSRP of around $40 it’s definitely worth picking up a bottle of the bottled in bond or even a single barrel. This ‘New Riff on an old tradition’ will be sure to impress bourbon drinkers of various experience levels.

Bio: Mark Krebs is an IT professional, husband to one wife, father to three children, drummer, Louisville Cardinal fan, and all around slightly above average guy. He’s not much for long walks on the beach, but does enjoy a hike every now and then. Mostly he just prefers drinking bourbon and smoking cigars with good friends.

Thanks to Drew and Mark for sharing their thoughts on the finalists in our challenge. Next week the NCAA tournament will wrap up and I’ll wrap up this blog series when I discuss my own personal bracket results and provide a review of one of the other bourbons we tasted. As always, thanks for reading and please share with your friends and leave feedback if you have something to say.

Kevin Rose